Recently, in a compelling article titled Heavyweights Only: Body Exclusion in the Weight Room, Isabel Simon PO ‘18 outlined the pressures she and other women face in the weight room. She explained how the gym’s “tacit atmosphere” discourages those with bodies who deviate from the male, thin, muscular ideal from working out. In her article, Simon laudably focuses on the atmosphere’s negative impact on the people it marginalizes.
I believe an absence of hyper-masculine men in conversations about hyper-masculinity perpetuates this unsafe culture.
When I discussed the article with friends who use the weight room regularly and benefit from its norms, I was frustrated, but not surprised, to hear them voice disapproval. They felt attacked by the “political correctness” of the gym. These men recognized the pressures of gym culture. However, they did not recognize their role in perpetuating that culture, nor did they see its effects on women and people of color. Simon had explained the system that fueled these men’s frustrations with the gym, but it was not an explanation they could stomach.
Here, I should acknowledge that from my vantage point as a straight, white male, I cannot speak to the full extent of harm caused by problematic gym culture or for people of marginalized gender identities who feel unsafe in the gym. However, I believe I can speak to the need to engage the “hypermasculine men” in conversations about toxic masculinity.
While there are those who actively oppose attempts to rectify the injustices of gender hierarchy, there are also men who identify pressures of toxic masculinity but recoil when these pressures are articulated in progressive, academic vocabulary.
Many men who are privileged by gym culture also complain about grunting in the weight room, recognize unachievable male beauty standards, and lament the performative aspects of weight-lifting. However, when they hear these issues expressed as symptoms of “toxic masculinity” and “systems of gender-based power,” they grow confused, defensive, and combative. Their misconceptions about the current conversations on masculinity in progressive and academic spaces prevent these men from engaging in any conversations about masculinity.
When these men do not engage in critiques of masculinity, the problems of toxic manhood persist. Affirmative consent and problematic gym culture can never be addressed if the main perpetrators of these issues do not have space to discuss them. Thus, the status quo is preserved. These men could, and need to, productively join the dialogue.
However, the burden of teaching cisgender men should not fall on those with a marginalized gender identity. The burden should be on men who inhabit hyper-masculine spaces, but who have also gained an awareness of the systems that enable the gym atmosphere and rape culture. These men have not absolved their complicity by learning about gender injustice.
As the best-equipped to engage the hypermasculine in productive discourse, the “aware” men have a duty to create spaces where other men can investigate manhood.
This new discourse may take place in formal spaces, like a sports team, or more casually, within friend groups. These discussions would complement the existing efforts of various campus groups to investigate masculinity. They can provide men, who are not yet equipped to enter more academic discussions, with a platform to do so later on. Men and their friends, teammates, and coaches must initiate this discourse with the help of ourinstitutions’ resources.
Indeed, the capacity to create a space that hyper masculine will find most accessible lie with those who inhabit hypermasculine communities. These are people who should claim responsibility for perpetuating hypermasculinity and for addressing it.
I hope that once the precepts of academia are stripped away and critiques of masculinity are delivered more accessibly, men who originally derided theories of toxic manhood will recognize it, unlearn it, and hold each other accountable for it. I hope that, in the future, the silence of cisgendered men will not be out of disinterest or dismissal, but out of reflection, listening, and deference to marginalized voices.
Peter Heckendorn PO ’21 is a first-year at Pomona College. He plays soccer and enjoys hiking and cooking.