On most roads, you will come across a flashy billboard with a guy flaunting his abs for an underwear ad. Somehow, nobody questions the ab-normality of the ad where the marketing of the underwear is dependent on the chiselled body of underwear models.
As my partner drives past these billboards, he can’t help but look down at his flabs protruding out of his seatbelt. He tucks his belly in by taking a deep breath but leaves out a heavy sigh wondering if we would ever look like that in underwear. But, it got me thinking – Why do underwear models on billboards have six-pack abs when in reality, most men have a good amount of flabs to flaunt?
The issue isn’t the underwear models. It is the societal understanding of “the perfect male body”.
The Perception Of The Male Body
Ask any man, and they will tell you that sometimes they feel forced to look a certain way. To look ‘masculine’, rather. The idealised male figure is that of a heterosexual man with good looks and a chiselled body attained due to spending hours at the gym. The prevalence of this perception has led to many men struggling with body dissatisfaction.
“Body image” is mostly associated with women. However, even men suffer from this issue and it is as complex as what a woman goes through. No comparisons are made, though. Note that point.
“I look at the mirror and see my belly hanging and find it disgusting at times. I do work out, but getting that perfect body isn’t easy. In fact, it goes beyond working out too. You need to love your body first. That’s hard when you have people around you making fun of your love handles or ‘tyres’. It’s hard for me to even speak about it,” shared Jeevan (name changed to maintain privacy).
The underlying pressure of having the perfect male body doesn’t come just from ogling at bulked up bodies at the gym. Rather, it is media influences that play a role in creating a negative perception about what is normal and what is not.
The media promotes well-built, muscular men as the highest standard of the perfect male body. The underwear models on billboards on the roads are one of the many examples of it. Ever since the pandemic hit, fitness as a category has blown up. Transformation videos, athleisure photoshoots, fitness inspiration, and the workout-from-home formula really pressured people to get fit. On the positive side, it opened new doors for people who wanted a change in their lifestyle. However, for those who couldn’t achieve their ideal body, the feeling of not being able to be ‘perfect’ hit hard. Real hard.
The Malayalam movie industry has slowly started to bring in the stereotypical masculine body on-screen if you’ve noticed. It is only recently that many Mollywood male actors have taken fitness seriously. Mohanlal, Mammootty, Tovino, Unnimukundan, you name it, they’re all pumping it up hard in the gym these days. A couple of months ago we had to witness Prithviraj wearing a tight police uniform to show off his muscles as though that was equivalent to heroism. This wasn’t the case a couple of years ago, back when Vinod (Nivin Pauly) said, “Keralathile aanpillerkk enthinada six-pack?!”.
We’re not generalising because we do have brilliant actors like Fahadh Faasil, Joju George, Indrans and more, who put acting on a pedestal and not their bodies. But the transition of Mollywood actors’ male bodies is quite interesting to look at.
Karthik (name changed to maintain privacy) shared, “I am a huge fan of Mohanlal. Most of the time, I find myself checking out his workout videos on Instagram only to feel bad about myself later. I have to admit though, it did inspire me to change my lifestyle. But, at the same time, I also felt ashamed of my body. I was called ‘thadiya’ all my life and looking at Mohanlal triggered a sense of shame due to all those high school memories which were kept buried.”
The pressure to look a certain way trickles down to youngsters consuming body-related content. Which in turn, leads to a skewed understanding of masculinity. Jeevan commented, “It isn’t just about abs. Other parts, such as the hair on your head, the size of your penis, your jawline – everything is judged. For some reason, the way you perform in bed too is judged. That’s a lot of fucking pressure, and no one is really talking about it.”
The Root Of It All
The problem is much bigger than the underwear models with six-pack abs on billboards. Body positivity among men is still a niche in India, let alone Kerala. It’s easier for people to shame a man for their ‘imperfect body‘ than to acknowledge the problem.
Karthik told PinkLungi, “It’s definitely going to take years for men to accept their natural self. It’s a difficult path, but we’re slowly getting there. At least I am.” The traditional notions of masculinity are culture-driven. But, within this culture, a new narrative is slowly taking the limelight and it’s all about breaking the male body barriers.