Updated: Feb 21, 2019
In the article Sebag-Montefiore argues that men are now under the same kind of social pressure that women have faced for centuries, to fulfil a particular physical state of apparent perfection.
For men, the article argues, the epitome of attractive masculinity today is lean (ripped), muscular and in a traditional physical mould that suggests power, speed and strength.
Whether this is healthy, sustainable or even attainable in many cases is the question that Sebag-Montefiore asks in her piece, and she is right to do so.
The comparison between the historical female experience under peer, culture and commercial pressure and that experienced by men today is an interesting one. Of course the big change between what was experienced by women since the Second World War, for example, and men (particularly young men) today is largely to do with the power of consumer technology and its reach.
Up until the 1990s both men and women were affected by the influence of media and advertising to shape opinion and behaviour. Today that pressure is complimented (if that is the word) by the constant pressure of the internet and social media - both of which have demonstrated themselves as being hugely powerful in shaping self-image and lifestyle - partly because both are driven by the subjects of such pressure themselves. The internet and social media encourages us to commoditise ourselves and millions of people actively take part in that process.
For men (and particularly western men) the world today is more competitive and insecure that at any time in modern history and the masculine role more fluid than ever it was. Sexuality, appearance and behaviour in the relativist age are more fluid in 2015 that a generation ago, and one quick fix for men so concerned to remain competitive in the market for a partner or lucrative career is to prioritise the building of the perfect body and its associated grooming.
But is this process really healthy in the long-term (especially if it comes at the expense of building a mature, nurturing personality and character)?
The modern gym, conflating the realms of health and fitness has become the focus of activity by men desperate to build the better physique, sometimes at the expense of a healthy body and mind that can support a long and productive life. Heavy weight abuse, supplement packing and, in some cases, a reliance on steroids, can detract from a balanced, healthy fitness programme and lead to a whole host of new problems for those men who go down this path.
So what is the solution for men vulnerable to the myth of the perfect physique and body image?
Well, my advice would be to bear in mind that life itself is a learning process, so it is important to keep your ears open, observe the world around you and the messages you are receiving and to then make your own lifestyle choices.
It is, after all, your body and your life.
My understanding of my body image began when I was six-years-old, after my parents encouraged me to join a rugby team. It seemed to me at the time to be very natural to run across the field tackling other players, trying to get the ball and scoring a try. I never get bored with the sport and am still playing it here in London and France and will do so until I no longer feel the excitement I currently feel for the game.
I have played with and against all types of players, with different morphologies over the years; tall, skinny, short and heavily built guys, and yet I cannot tell you how many times I have been surprised by the potential of some players with what is described as a non-advantageous body type in the game. The important characteristic to being successful in rugby (probably in all sports, I would say) is that if you put all your energy into your actions, you can win, no matter what type of body you have.
I have also made some great friends over the years playing the game and have learnt what teamwork means. I have learned that you need others to succeed in any game you play - a principle I still follow today in my work in the gym.
Along with the experience I gained in rugby experience, I also went to university and studied law, through which I discovered a new network of people.
In my experience, the concept of teamwork at university can be difficult to gauge, as it is place where the majority of students are doing their best to succeed as individuals. At that time only a few of my colleagues were practicing sport in their free time, though retrospectively I think that was interesting to spend so much time with those who had little interest in the passions of my life, which was (and remain) sport and fitness.
I discovered other perspectives and different points of view whilst at university and though rugby was still my passion, I also found it interesting to spend time with people who had no attractions to the sport.
Why? Because life is, in itself, a learning process! So even though those years at university focussed me on studies that took me away from the sport that was the love of my life it also helped me to grow in a more complete and rounded way.
What I learned through my university studies was to find the information I need in life, how to structure my thoughts, how to find the right approach to a subject (ideally taking a broad view of the subject at hand, then breaking it down into its core components) and how to build a successful critical argument to make a best case.
I met many inspirational people along the way; professors and colleagues, with whom I keep in regular contact even today; people with convictions and the enthusiasm to successfully express their ideas. It was a meaningful foundation experience in my life and one which continues to motivate me in my fitness career today.
So, what is the solution to feeling vulnerable about your physique and, more importantly, your body image in the age of constant aspiration and competition?
To begin with, understand that you are more than a simple physique. Outside of the mirror image, we exist also though our convictions and the way that we interact with the other people in our lives.
Think broadly, rather than narrowly.
Secondly, don’t visit the gym thinking that the way to impress or attract others is to build a physique that is actually out of proportion to your actual physique.
Or, to put it another way, avoid becoming, or even attempting to become, a caricature of your real self. Instead, be as healthy a version of yourself as you can be.
Finally, beware one of the great dangers present in every gymnasium and at the heart of every narcissistic workout programme, and refuse to compare yourself to others that appear to be more physically attractive than yourself. Such a comparison is as superficial as a mirror image and just as two-dimensional (and if being attractive to a potential mate is your goal, who really thinks being seen as two-dimensional is the way to go?).
And how best to resist the potentially destructive (and expensive) lure of a fitness lifestyle that puts the attainment of the perfect, ripped physique above all else?
It’s quite simple really; go to the gym regularly to build your fitness, enjoy your life and the company of your loved ones and friends, make it a goal to meet new and interesting people, regularly change your routine and move on with your life.
Because at the end of the day that life you are living is yours and yours alone, so live it well.