Saturday, April 16, 2011

Abs = Boobs

In the fleshy marketplace of America, a man's six-pack abs are the equivalent of a woman's large breasts.

Just ask Karl Marx.

Their similarity can be illustrated by talking about them in terms of Marx's ideas of "use value" and "exchange value."

In the "olden days," young boys were urged to build their muscles by ads in the back of comic books for Charles Atlas.  The ads featured the benefits of male muscles -- with an emphasis on the biceps -- in two arenas: to compete directly against other men and to attract women.  In this regard, bulging biceps had a "use value": They were tools for intimidating, attacking, or defending against other men.  They had a practical use.  The manly muscles also had an "exchange value": They were used to attract a female.  They were used to create an exchange between two parties.

In a sense, the man's "guns" were advertised to women, who then offered to "buy" them with their companionship, and if the man found the woman attractive, an "exchange" would be made.  In this sense, the biceps as commodity have a value that is dictated by someone other than its producer, which is a key element of Marx's notion of a commodity that possesses an "exchange value."  The man may build up his arms with great effort but still fail to attract a woman; it is the women who dictate the value of the arms.  However, although the women may dictate the value, the quality of the biceps can dictate how choosy the man can be in selecting to whom he will "sell" his muscles.  The producer does not control the price, but he has some influence on it.

(All of this assumes that the women are attracted to well-developed biceps.)

Michael "The Situation" Sorrentino
The six-pack abs, on the other hand, are created as spectacle.  Just ask The Situation, the Jersey Shore Adonis.  His entire "career" is based upon displaying his.  The key is not just the muscular development of six-pack abs but their visibility.  It is important and useful to have a strong core, even for a man who works all day behind a desk; this can help him maintain good posture and avoid back pain, for instance.  But few people talk about abdominal muscles being useful against bullies.  Unlike the biceps, abs are not used to intimidate or combat other men -- two men do not step outside of a bar and lift their shirts to settle an argument.  And a six-pack, however strong, that is hidden beneath a layer of fat is not a six-pack.  So, the use value of a stomach that looks like a washboard is exceeded by its exchange value.

An admirable abdomen is intended to be displayed, just as a commodity is advertised or placed in a store window.  It is intended to be exchanged for something, such as the praise or affections of another person.

In this sense, a six-pack is similar to a large rack.  Breasts have the same use value, regardless of size: Both can be sensitive to sexual pleasure and both can nurse an infant.  Size does not influence usefulness in either regard.  However, size does seem to matter in American society -- on television, in movies, in the cosmetic surgery industry.  Large breasts, whether natural or man-made, tend to have a higher exchange value whether on the Silver Screen or on Main Street.

I will continue this conversation with thoughts I have touched on before in "Snark-Infested Waters": Laura Mulvey's notion of "being looked-at-ness" and how this is beginning to influence men.

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