A new study from the Journal of Gender Studies suggests an explanation for the rise of the "spornosexual" man, a trend in which men become obsessed with trying to look like athletes or porn stars. The study suggests a poor economy and men's feelings of disenfranchisement may drive them to spend hours at the gym and to post countless thirst traps online.
Dr. Jamie Hakim, the author of the study and lecturer in Media Studies at the University of East Anglia, based his research on qualitative interviews with a small sample of young white men in Britain, who spoke to the relationship between the fixation on their appearance and the fallout from Britain's 2008 financial crisis.
The recession led the country to instate austerity measures aimed at cutting Britain's deficit. These measures have reduced the amount of benefits the country's citizens receive from the government, and, as a result, young people in Britain who didn't have accumulated wealth before these measure were set forth have struggled in recent years to secure jobs and own homes.
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Hakim explains that while these austerity measures affected women and ethnic minorities much more than white men, it has had the unique effect of "taking away certain privileges" that white men in Britain have relied on historically.
"The traditional breadwinner role that they could fall back on has become more or less obsolete in the austerity economy. The increase in going to the gym and producing and consuming media can be explained by the fact that bodies are the only thing they own any more," says Hakim.
But it's not primarily about health, says Hakim. "It does make them feel good and strong, but none of them are doing it to compete in sports. It's about how you look in a picture." He says that instead of gaining feelings of self-worth from monetary value, "social and cultural value, and the erotic value of feeling sexy, are becoming increasingly important [to white British men]." Social media allows men to create an image of themselves that has achieved the ideal, and tools like Instagram can help men create images that replicate glossy fashion spreads, Men's Health shoots, or pornography.
Though being "swole" and sexy doesn't typically solve the economic problems these men may face—except, perhaps, for a few fitness professionals—they do get something in return from posting pictures of their abs online: a thrill.
"The people I spoke to say they get a buzz from compliments or the number of likes on a photo. There's a digital value they can get from counting likes," says Hakim. "However, there is also a self-awareness, and the way they describe these moments was as intense, but fleeting. Even fitness professionals were dubious of the actual value of these social media posts. It's not an enduring satisfaction like a man may have had as a breadwinner."
Valuing oneself according to appearance is nothing new; Hakim points out that women have been socially conditioned to do this for a long time. "What's significant now is that it's also middle class men using bodies the way women and minorities have had to historically. There's an expectation for men to appear a certain way now that there wasn't in the past."