It is not often that I despair for young men. From the other side of the gender war, things look pretty rosy for them. They don’t have to suffer the indignities of the menstrual cycle or give much thought as to how marriage will fit into their career paths or exist solely on lettuce, air and eyeliner. But recently, something has happened. I am beginning to feel sorry for them.
Young men are turning into something like young women. Blame Instagram, blame Cristiano Ronaldo, blame Calvin Klein adverts. Whatever, it’s happened. Gone is the nonchalant confidence of the gender judged on personal qualities and in its place is an army of preening, smoothie-drinking, hairless men, who eschew late night beers for early morning runs and won’t smoke weed because it makes them hungry. Thanks to the explosion of social media, everyone has fans and followers and friends, a ready public to consume images of them. It’s not enough to accept there are sports stars and celebrities and then us, the normal people, the gutter folk, who sometimes have pot bellies and receding hairlines. We are all public personalities now.
It is hideously unattractive. At a party recently I spoke to two skinny young men conspicuously holding tumblers of water. When I enquired as to why they weren’t availing themselves of the free bar, I received an aggressive rebuttal explaining that not a drop of alcohol had touched their lips in over six months and they had to get up at six the next day (Saturday) for the gym. They each ran four miles a day and lifted weights. One finished the tirade by saying that if I wanted to pollute my body with toxins, that was my business. It reminded me of girls I knew who suffered from eating disorders and viewed foods like chocolate as poisonous, not letting a morsel pass the prison of their teeth in case they lost control. It made me very sad. Not least because this punishing regime hadn’t turned these boys into muscle-bound gods. They were ordinary, but boring. Just like the young women who regale you with kale and fasting diets but succeed in doing nothing but making themselves miserable. There is a lot to be said for a healthy diet and light exercise, of course. But somewhere down the line, we forgot about “everything in moderation”.
Journalist Mark Simpson calls this new breed of young man the “spornosexual”, a jacked-up metrosexual on steroids. Fed on a diet of football and porn, he argues, young men attempt to emulate what the media offers them with endless squats and mind-numbing gym routines. Whenever I see a young guy bursting out of his vest, hulking muscles straining under his vanity, I feel the same wave of sadness I do when I see super skinny girls, each visible rib another testament to insecurity. Some women might take pleasure in the fact that young men are now also held to impossible body standards, that they can understand the hollow, guilt-filled days that follow eating a take-away pizza. But I think it is nothing to celebrate. Where have the bad boys of my youth gone, the guys who stayed out too late and drank too much and trod the thin line of illegality in their recreational activities? They are probably doing Pilates or taking photographs of themselves in the bathroom mirror.
Now young men face the same dilemma women have for decades – do they mould themselves to the media stereotype or do they believe their girlfriends and mothers when they tell them that personality is what counts?
Just like girls with their competitive calorie-counting, I see young men practice one-upmanship with marathon times and bench presses. They feed off each other in a growing spiral of insecurity and arrogance and the result is bland, uninteresting young men who could be writing books or singing songs or traveling Mongolia but instead self-flagellate with diet and exercise. Too many women’s lives have been left empty by the unnecessary punishment of a restrictive lifestyle, as they listen with deaf ears to assurances that beauty is skin deep. Now this madness has gone inter-gender, perhaps we can all just take a step back and have a beer. And not a light one either. I’d just like to see the day a guy and a girl go on a date and no one’s eating a salad.