The Difficult Truth About Boys and Self-Image
This is not a new topic. I’ve heard talks on this by Trent Horn (Catholic apologist), Ben Shapiro (political commentator), Marilyn York (men’s rights advocate and divorce attorney), Jordan Peterson (clinical psychologist), and Cristina Hoff Sommers (philosopher), among many others. But long before I heard any of these people speak, it became obvious to me that men and masculinity are under attack.
While taking a communication and media class at the local community college, I had a teacher who challenged my understanding of how the world views masculinity. She told the class that after spending years in Hollywood, she had to get out of that cesspool and return home to work as a playwright, producer, and teacher. She went on to tell us that while women face horrible discrimination and abuse in Hollywood, it was marketing to boys that concerned her the most. This shocked me. But as she described the intentionally unrealistic portrayal of toys in commercials targeting boys, I was truly rattled. Ever since then I have paid closer attention to the messages being sent to our young men.
It’s generally widely accepted that women, especially young women, have become victims of the beauty myth; this is not surprising given that we live in a society that embraces and even encourages the objectification of women.
But what is our culture saying to young men on this topic?
I don’t want my son thinking that in order to be masculine he must eat only steamed vegetables and excessive amounts of chicken, or that the size of his muscles, the length of his beard, or any other physical attribute makes him more or less of a man.
Western culture is actually filled with examples of distorted masculinity.
Steve Rogers, better known as Captain America, has a best friend named Bucky. These two men have a close, intimate relationship. And despite the fact that the characters have never been portrayed as romantically drawn to one another, there is a vocal group of fans who insist that such an intimate relationship is proof of a sexual attraction. And this idea isn’t new or exclusive to the Marvel universe fans either. Fans have been suggesting for years that Star Trek’s Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock have a secret sexual relationship.
Subtle though it may be at times, this convincingly teaches young men that they are incapable of emotional intimacy with other men. It also strongly implies that all attraction is sexual in nature. These ideas aren’t simply outdated and in direct opposition to Catholic belief, but they are also damaging to the foundation upon which young men build their understanding of healthy sexual expression.
Speaking of superheroes, let me take a minute to touch upon actor Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of the Wolverine. Since the 1980s, Wolverine (one of the X-Men for those of you less familiar with the X-men series) has become a fan favorite. And since the incredibly charismatic actor Hugh Jackson began playing the role beginning in the year 2000 with X-MEN, the character has become a widely-known cultural icon. In 2017, Jackman left the role after playing the character in nine movies. He shared that one of the reasons he left was due to the physical toll it had on him to shape his body into that of a superhero. In addition to his extreme workout routine and diet, Jackman had to dehydrate himself before filming scenes where he was shirtless. Apparently, this caused his muscles to appear more prominent.
My point is not to dismiss all superhero movies. I love superhero movies! But within them there exists an idea—an idea that we need to guard young men against. And this trend doesn’t end with superhero movies. While being interviewed about the 2013 movie Pain and Gain about two weightlifters who become thieves, actor Mark Walhberg said, “I was 165 pounds for my last movie, but I had to walk on the set at 205. So that’s forty pounds of muscle in seven weeks. That’s a lot of physical preparation.” Sorry Mark, but that’s more than just a lot of preparation. That’s insane. And Walhberg did this while in his early forties. I’m in my mid-thirties and after picking up my kids all day, I’m not sure I could do a sit-up.
I could go on and on with examples, like Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, Chris Hemsworth, and Terry Crews. But it isn’t the physical features of a man that we should find admirable. Mark Walhberg goes into a Catholic Church every morning to pray before going to work. He isn’t able to always stay for Mass, but Wahlberg has made prayer before the Blessed Sacrament a daily part of his life. And Terry Crews has publicly spoken up about being the victim of sexual assault. Furthermore, he saw the damage he caused to his marriage by consuming porn and refused to use divorce as an option. Instead he suggested to his wife that they take an extended period of abstaining from sex within their marriage so as to re-establish emotional intimacy and heal from the wounds his actions caused.
Most of us don’t have personal trainers paid for by movie studios. We don’t have full gyms in our homes or professional chefs to cater to our very specific diets. And even if we did, most men simply can’t build muscles big enough to look like the heroes they admire. That’s just not how most bodies are designed. These actors, and many others, are putting themselves through agony for entertainment and a paycheque. And I don’t blame the actors. That’s the job. But the negative impact is floating right under the surface.
All the way back in 2005 I shared a college dorm room with a nice young man. He was smart, kind, and completely lacked all confidence. He said he needed to start going to the gym on campus because he believed that if he “got muscles, then he’d get girls.” Despite my best efforts to convince him otherwise, he was unable to see how this way of thinking was based on a lie.
As a father, this concerns me. I want my son to grow up knowing that love is not all about feelings. I want him to grow up defending femininity while embracing masculinity, all the while knowing that God designed masculinity and femininity to be complimentary. I want my son to pursue emotionally deep friendships with other men without confusing friendship with sexual attraction. I don’t want my son thinking that in order to be masculine he must eat only steamed vegetables and excessive amounts of chicken, or that the size of his muscles, the length of his beard, or any other physical attribute makes him more or less of a man. And while there’s nothing wrong with going to the gym, I’d rather my son first spend time at Church, studying the Bible, or serving the poor.
In short, I want my son to be a real man. I want him to be a man for others. And most of all I want him to be a man of God.
So while he may not be able to be like Captain America, Wolverine, or other fictional heroes, my son can grow up to be like St. Padre Pio, St. John Paul II, St. Joseph, or the thousands of other real-life heroes we call Saints.
Tim Lucchesi is the Director of Chaste Love, a ministry inspired by St. John Paul II's Theology of the Body. The mission of Chaste Love is to help people discover their dignity and empower them to repair and strengthen their relationships. More importantly, Tim is a Beloved son of God, a husband to an amazing woman, and the father of two. Tim loves cheesecake, superheroes, and tacos.