Do the Pics You ‘Like’ on Instagram Reinforce Body Elitism and Toxic Masculinity?
Living in Los Angeles provides the experience of a hyper-reality that magnifies cultural ills in a profoundly loud and vibrant way.
I lift weights at the gym standing next to the underwear model whose nearly naked image is plastered on a billboard across the street. I later have the stressful privilege of doing cardio sandwiched between a Men’s Fitness cover boy and a top male porn performer. Afterwards, I sit in the sauna with a room full of Instagram underwear photo-posting “celebs” and other men held hostage by current body norms.
These experiences help bring forward the struggle with masculinity and manhood, and how those social creations are strengthened and played out with our bodies.
Whether or not a guy lives up to the standard body — via overtraining, disordered eating or genetics — we are all held hostage and responsible for how we participate in or reproduce desirability politics and body norms. This is not to say that the body struggles of a homonormative body is the same for a fat, POC, disabled, trans or queer body, but it is to say that the responsibility falls on us all to dismantle the system of body elitism and toxic masculinity that most of us participate in, often without knowing it.
I want those without body privilege — the body minorities, the body-shamed, the fat, the disabled, the non-normatives, the POC — to know that eroticism does exist for you, that your bodies are desirable and that we must dismantle the platforms that tell you otherwise.
Each time you hit ‘like’ or follow the accounts of those who post daily underwear pics of ripped, white gym bodies, you are actively participating in body politics by strengthening those specific body norms. Instead, follow and ‘like’ accounts that support sustainable body norms.
Each time you jerk-off to porn’s standard steroid and big-cock-only videos, you again actively support and reproduce the standards that oppress you; and if not you, others. Instead, watch porn that eroticizes diverse bodies and mirrors the one you have.
Your orgasm is not neutral, and neither are the social media posts you ‘like.’
Every post is a political vote, cast in favor for or against the perpetuation of body shame or body health. You are part of the problem of body fascism and shame if you support those daily abs posters (it’s nothing transformative, just toxic thinspiration and gymspiration) versus the true revolutionaries posting their fat, un-gymed, non muscled, queer bodies in motion. (See Dancehall King Chrissy on Instagram for some true healing and liberation).
Looking at the posted pics on Instagram of all ripped, white bodies at a pool party, one can wonder if participants were expected to submit a shirtless pic for inspection to gain an invite. Or is it that social circles perpetuate toxic body norms and are effective in policing the margins?
I’m hoping it’s the latter, but as a therapist I worry about the psychic damage done internally (and externally) in order to maintain the body privilege: the constant body surveillance, the mood dependence upon the flatness of one’s abs, the anxiety put into the maintenance of desirability and acceptability.
I’m also aware of the oppression these images cause to masculinity and maleness.
Conformity used for confidence is exhausting and quite superficial. These pics overtly exclude and legitimize the desirability of one body only. These pics covertly communicate that in order to “sit with us,” you must look like us. Diversity will not be tolerated. It’s an example of how social media posts become weaponized and used against ourselves when we view them and internalize their messaging. Please do not think all this is neutral on your self-esteem.
Part of battling this is to unfollow and stop supporting anything that makes you feel bad about your body and supports oppressive and limited body representation. Don’t feed it culturally or psychologically. Why? Its called compassion and social responsibility.
This is not about demonizing those bodies; I support all bodies, and the beauty of diversity and various sizes. This is about de-centering specific ideals and no longer allowing their elitism and power.
Here is why this matters: Months ago I was at the gym — again, where all of this is most visible and insidious, and often begins — and three guys next to me were discussing the new boyfriend of their friend. The topic was whether or not this guy could be called “athletic” because of how lean he was. (Yes, this really happened.) This poor absent human was having his worth and desirability decided based on his body.
Somehow, culturally, our bodies, which are mere vehicles, have become a determinant of our worth and are seen as achievements. This is body policing and body fascism, disguised as a discussion about “fitness.”
Somehow along the way “fitness” has gotten confused with aesthetics, which it isn’t. One’s health is not determined by your abs or biceps; that’s aesthetics, not health. Somehow disordered eating and food phobia has also gotten confused with “fitness,” which, again, it isn’t.
Health exists at all sizes, with fat bodies absolutely able to be healthy. If you ingest Red Bull, chemical supplements and steroids but call fatness unhealthy, you are not in favor of health, you just hate fat nontraditional bodies. That’s bigotry, and that is what needs to stop.
To the body-privileged and genetic lottery winners, you can be part of the needed change, but to do so you must get comfortable with being challenged and called out.
Critique and activism can often feel like an attack for those with all the body privilege and power, as this is new for them, and the idea of a shift in power feels good to few. But this work falls on all of you — on all of us — as we are all impacted, and it’s a true social justice issue.
This work intersects with the sexual racism and body-shaming on dating and sex apps and mass cultural fat hatred. The social media accounts that are diaries of abs and pecs are tools of body shame and policing. Using images of privileged bodies oppresses others and reproduces problematic social values. Don’t be a missionary for normative body ideals. I want you to know the damage your posts do. They strengthen toxic masculinity. They shun anything reading as feminine. They tell diverse bodies they aren’t good enough and aren’t erotic or desirable.
Most of us are participating in this systemic oppression, but are not fully aware of when and how. The most powerful and beautiful things about social media, porn and even some gyms are the vast body representations and values available.
There is no right body to have, and health comes at every size, but still the white, cis, masculine gym body reigns supreme, with all its afforded cultural and sexual privileges. It’s time to dismantle it and force space for other bodies.
Those living on the margins will always be the healthiest, forced to live confidently with self-acceptance and authenticity, versus lazy confidence from conformity. Our self-esteem, body-esteem and sexual confidence are all built by the conversations, friends and social media we surround ourselves with.
Show me your social media, and you show me your health and integrity.
Dr. Chris Donaghue is a lecturer, therapist and host of the LoveLine podcast, a weekly expert on The Amber Rose Show, and a frequent co-host on TV series The Doctors. He previously hosted WE tv’s Sex Box and Logo’s Bad Sex. He authored the book Sex Outside the Lines: Authentic Sexuality in a Sexually Dysfunctional Culture and has been published in various professional journals and top magazines, from The New York Times and Newsweek to Cosmo and National Geographic. Follow him on Twitter (@chrisdonaghue) and Instagram (@drdonaghue).
Featured photo by Lordn via iStock