A major reason for young men striving for six-pack abs, pumped, picture-perfect bodies to create a brand for themselves on the social media is their economic crisis and austerity, finds a new study.
The term ‘spornosexuality’, a portmanteau of ‘sports star’ and ‘porn star’, was coined in July 2014 by media commentator Mark Simpson, in an article in The Daily Telegraph about the rise of men attending the gym primarily for reasons of appearance, rather than for health or fitness.
New research from the University of East Anglia (UEA) suggests traditional routes to success and power have been eroded in ‘Austerity Britain’, causing young men to seek value instead through their bodies.
Since the 2008 financial crash, there has been an empirically observable rise in young men sharing images of their worked-out bodies on social media platforms, said the study’s author Jamie Hakim.
Hakim of UEA’s School of Film said: “One of the most interesting aspects of this development is the power-shift of a segment of society who have historically defined themselves through their mind, whilst at the same time defining those they have subordinated — women, gay and working-class people — through their bodies. The former group has historically been employed as high-paid decision-makers, whilst the latter have had to rely on their bodies for low or no-pay work, such as manual and domestic labour, slavery and sex work.
“Austerity has eroded young men’s traditional means of value-creation so they have become increasingly reliant on their bodies as a means of feeling valuable in society. In theoretical terms, so-called ‘spornosexuality’ is an embodied response to material changes brought about by neoliberal austerity,” he added.
Hakim examined data from Sport England that showed a significant year-on-year increase in the amount of 16 to 25-year-old men attending the gym between 2006 and 2013.
Meanwhile, the market research company Nielsen found that sales of sports nutrition products that are used to strip body fat and build muscle increased by 40% in Britain’s 10 largest supermarkets — the second-largest growth in sales of any product sold in supermarkets in 2014.
Likewise, Hakim found that this demographic is both consuming and producing print and digital media that relates to body building. The print version of Men’s Health magazine became the best-selling title in the British men’s magazine market in 2009, selling nearly twice as many copies as its nearest competitor, the well-established GQ magazine.
At the same time, the overall consumer magazine market was dramatically decreasing in circulation, while fitness-related hashtags on social media sites numbered in the multi-millions.
The research shows that young men have become increasingly adept at building a social media brand based around their worked-out bodies and similarly savvy about marketing themselves through social media.
This involves a significant amount of work but offers very little reward. Large amounts of time and constant labour are necessary to maintain both body and brand, but the pleasures yielded are only fleeting.
But with little else of enduring value available in the current economy, these men feel compelled to continue to pursue these activities.
“The rise of men going to the gym and sharing images of their worked-out bodies began around 2008, coinciding with the intensification of neoliberalism that occurred in response to the 2008 economic crash and the following austerity measures. This is no coincidence,” he further said.
“There is a correlation between the rise of young men fashioning muscular bodies and sharing them online, and the austerity measures experienced by their generation. These economic tactics are widening inequality, especially for those born after 1980, with prohibitively high house prices, the loss of secure long-term contracts, tuition fees and other hurdles to economic security. The projection of what constitutes a ‘good life’ has become so spectacular even while the means of achieving home ownership, a prestigious career and a high income are radically diminishing,” he added.
Through interviews with young British men who regularly use the gym and have built a social media ‘brand’ based on their worked-out bodies, Hakim found each man talked about the importance of peer response to the images they circulated.
“They continue to addictively pursue these fitness goals because the joys of accumulating spornosexual capital are one of the few remaining for young men in Britain’s post-crisis austerity economy. This is an embodied and mediated response to the precarious feelings produced by neoliberal austerity,” he said.
The study was published in Journal of Gender Studies.
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