Perfection is a strange concept.
For some men, the pursuit of perfection has bound them in a perpetual illusionary quest to earn more, or look better, or be stronger. But like the ideal woman, the ideal man does not exist.
And yet, history tells us he has. He does. The funny thing is, this ideal man – this concept of perfection – is constantly evolving. Which makes perfection imperfect. And the pursuit of it plain silly.
So before you go judging yourself, or shaming yourself, or telling yourself that you need to look, feel and be a certain way, read this brief history lesson about the shifting goal posts of the ideal man, and at the end let’s agree that each and every one of us is uniquely perfect and perfectly ideal.
Ancient Greece: Muscle and Brains
The Ancient Greeks had some very particular ideals about beauty and masculinity. They favoured an athletic, lean and healthy body, as so often depicted in the statues of athletes and deities we still enjoy today.
Young men were encouraged to compete in gymnasiums and sports games to demonstrate their physical fitness. And yet, even though there were specific ratios for Greek beauty, they weren’t completely realistic.
As the Guardian says, many Greek statues had muscle groups that mortal men can’t ever achieve: you could go to the gym every day for a year and you wouldn’t acquire an Apollo’s belt like these statues boast.
There’s a reason for that.
A large penis was a symbol of uncontrollable desires. Lustful, depraved satyrs were rendered with very large, erect genitals, sometimes almost as tall as their torsos. It was vulgar, outside the cultural norm, and sported by barbarians.
Since the perfect man was supposed to be a combination of knowledge and a healthy, beautiful body, the conclusion can be drawn that the small, flaccid penis often seen on sculptures represented self-control, and served as a demonstration of an ideal that every man should strive to achieve.
Medieval Age: The Divine Body
During the late years of the Roman Empire, around 800-1000 AD, a new religious movement rose to power: Christianity. As the son of God, the body of Jesus Christ was perfect. And so, the definition of an ideal man shifted from muscular and intellectual to someone representing spiritual perfection.
According to Artsy, emaciation signified a pious denigration of the flesh, and the rigours of attaining it made the devotee an ‘athlete’ for Christ.
Renaissance: Power and Wealth
From 1450-1600, the ideal man went through some subtle changes.
Famously, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man laid out exactly how the perfect body should look. It had nothing to do with being lean or muscular, but having a body that was perfectly in proportion.
For Da Vinci, this also meant having an absolute connection to heaven and earth as shown by the meanings in his markings - the circle represents all things divine and cosmic, while the square reflects the human, earthly element.
In the background, however, saw the rise of powerful individuals like Lorenzo de’ Medici and Niccolò Machiavelli. These men were not physically perfect, and so the idea of political power began to emerge.
Many portraits of this time were surprisingly realistic, depicting bodily faults, signs of old age or deformities. Beauty could be ‘covered’ with wealth and power.
What mattered now was not so much the perfect mathematical proportions of the Vitruvian Man, but his pose, his gesture, and his importance. Men wanted to be portrayed as their own powerful selves, with a focus on individual strength.
The Gilded Age: Bigger is Better
From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, weight meant status. A big belly was considered attractive because it signified wealth – you had the means to avoid hard labour.
In fact, it was so celebrated that Fat Men’s Clubs sprung up across North America. To gain entry, you had to be over 200 pounds (around 90kg), pay a $1 fee to enter and learn a secret handshake and password.
The Boston Globe wrote about one meeting in 1904 colourfully: "This village is full of bulbous and overhanging abdomens and double chins tonight, for the New England Fat Men's Club is in session at Hale's Tavern. The natives, who are mostly bony and angular, have stared with envy at the portly forms and rubicund faces which have arrived on every train."
Alas, this was the last time that a big belly would be portrayed as the height of attractiveness.
Hollywood: Back to Brawn
Hollywood in the 1920s began favouring actors with a leaner frame because, so it was said, people looked 20 pounds heavier on film. The idea of a muscular man being the ideal has only increased over time.
The Telegraph posits that action figures like Henry Cavill in Superman may be giving our younger generation body image issues. In fact, a study found that men were more anxious about their bodies than they did 30 years ago.
And it’s no wonder, especially with the proliferation of sites like TMZ that dedicate entire sections to showing unflattering pictures of famous people who have gained weight.
You can read more about our thoughts on body confidence here.
Even celebrities are opening up about how unrealistic these standards really are. Richard Madden refuses to film ‘gratuitous nudity’ scenes because "we’re projecting a very unrealistic body image." He told Vogue, "I find myself with actor friends — after we’ve done a kind of barely eating, working-out-twice-a-day, no-carbing thing for these scenes — looking at each other going: ‘We’re just feeding this same shit that we’re against.’"
And he’s not alone.
Jonah Hill once kindly asked fans not to “comment on my body” because “it’s not helpful and doesn’t feel good.” And then there’s John Boyega, who is passionate about creating inclusive films that showcase people of different body types. “Why do leads always have to be muscular and ripped? It’s about rebranding the way in which we are fed a false narrative of perfection.”
As we said earlier, the ideal man doesn’t exist. How can he, if he is supposed to be muscular and refined, waif-like and spiritual, strong and powerful, big-bellied and wealthy, all at the same time.Trying to live up to that is impossible.
The ideal man, and the perfect body, is whoever you are right now, and whatever body you’re rocking.