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I’ll be honest. A part of me did a little cheer when I read about the nascent ‘spornosexual’. I’m a sucker for a media-friendly moniker, and this one – coined by the writer Mark Simpson to denote a more extreme, body-and-sex-obsessed version of the 1990s ‘metrosexual’ male – seemed to fit the steady stream of hyper-moisturised, super-ripped, badly-dressed and appallingly-inked men I see pouring out of the bars of Shoreditch every Friday night.
Simpson has past form. Back in 1994 he correctly predicted that the image-conscious City boy singleton would become one of the most rapacious consumers of “products, practises and pleasures previously ring-fenced for women and gay men”. He’s been proven correct: a Mintel report last year revealed men are out-spending women on shoes; record numbers are using facial moisturizer, eye gel and lip balm; and more are opting for plastic surgery than ever before, with demand for breast reduction to eliminate ‘man boobs’ having increased by 24% in the last year.
The spornosexual takes his cues from oily porn stars and tattooed sportsmen. His patron saint is David Beckham, now more famous for his underwear range than for his right foot. He spends aeons in the gym sculpting a body that looks like a dubious example of a 19th century repro statue; and hours in the bathroom emulating the peachy pores of a Kardashian sister. In Simpson’s words: “their own bodies (more than clobber and product) have become the ultimate accessories, fashioning them at the gym into a hot commodity – one that they share and compare in an online marketplace.”
Faced with a prospect this bronzed, buff and apocalyptic, though, why are we celebrating? Because it finally sounds like Adam is to be beholden to the same exacting physical standards as Eve. Welcome, men of the world, to the body dysmorphia club. Now you can see what it feels like to have every inch of your body scrutinised, to resent yourself for having cankles and no discernible gap between your thighs, to spend your hard-earned money on juice detoxes, fake tan, and spinning classes that promise to give you upper arms as banging as Michelle Obama’s.
Obviously, this is a selfish reaction. No one should be made to feel like their shoulders ought to be wider than a nightclub doorway; their tattoos as tacky as Ezekiel Lavezzi’s; their abdominals as throbbing as the Magaluf party season they train for every day. Nor should we condone the sporting of sprayed on t-shirts or hairstyles that belong in an aviary.
‘Real’ men – the ones who drink beer rather than gin and slimline tonic and eschew music produced by Calvin Harris – are up in arms. And if they aren’t, then they should be, for if they’re not careful, they’ll soon find that it’s not enough to be clever, or funny, or well dressed. Instead, if they don’t turn themselves into a walking Tom of Finland sketch, they’ll be left behind, ostracized by a society that values pecs over PHDs, and hypersexuality over, say, a good job. And what then? A nation of men who look like they masturbate in front of a mirror, that’s what.
This behaviour is nothing new. In being subjected to a disturbingly sexualized vision of masculinity, men are merely experiencing the same pangs of insecurity that women have been burdened with for years. The greased up, inflatable footballer-cum-gigolo is just a male version of the angel-winged Victoria’s Secret model. The rock-hard abs of the cast of Geordie Shore are as painstakingly crafted as Miley Cyrus’s waistline. The ‘Victory V’ of abdominal muscles on a male torso is as fetishized a body part as a skinny, stiletto-clad ankle on a woman.
All of which means we are on an inexorable road to a worryingly retrograde vision of sexuality, where men and women are openly encouraged to jack off over each others’ increasingly injection-moulded forms. The Daily Mail’s sidebar of shame will soon contain as many ‘How I lost my beer belly in ten hours’ stories as it does baby-weight-loss shockers. Sales of moisturizer will continue to thrive; gym memberships will go through the roof. We will all obsess over small muscles in our backs we previously had no idea existed. Posters of Cristiano Ronaldo in his CR7 underwear will line the streets and we won’t even notice as his name becomes a brand, a byword for six packs and sexuality, expanding to flog us a range of protein shakes and condoms.
This isn’t a sign of gender equality. Subjecting men and women to this kind of body fetishisation and self-loathing can only end in horror and turmoil not seen since Dante’s inferno. It goes without saying that pumping weights for an hour a day doesn’t make you a ‘real man’ any more than surviving on 500 calories a day makes you a ‘real woman’. But you know this. Because it’s also equally patronizing to suggest that an entire generation of men are obsessed with flexing their pecs and waxing their body hair, as it is to suggest that hordes of women are sat at home crying into their kale while they measure the gap between their thighs.
The only answer to all this, as far as I can see, is a big bowl of pasta. With extra cheese.