SINGAPORE: It seems like Singapore is having a Magic Mike moment with buff, shirtless men making the news in recent weeks.
On Thursday (Apr 29), a photograph of model Chuando Tan’s sculpted torso made it to the cover of the country’s national broadsheet, ostensibly to herald his first film role where he bares all in the movie.
And when American fashion brand Abercrombie and Fitch announced two weeks ago that it would be closing its Orchard Road store, the first thing most of us probably remember about the label was its somewhat controversial decision to hire male sales associates or “models” to stand around the store without their shirts when it first opened here.
Then, there’s the Hunky Man Cleaning Service marketing photographs that have made the rounds on the Internet.
The series of images feature a group of muscular men wearing only jeans as they clean and do heavy lifting, while a woman (fully clothed in a dress) looks on admiringly.
SEXISM AND DOUBLE STANDARDS
All of this reeks of a weird sexist double standard that is rather disconcerting.
We clearly know what the reaction would be if a cleaning agency advertised the services of female housekeepers dressed in the bare minimum. Or if lingerie store Victoria’s Secret began hiring sales associates and mandated they report to work wearing only push-up bras.
There would invariably be a loud reaction decrying the objectification and exploitation of women.
On the flipside, there is a certain glee among the public in witnessing this parade of nearly naked men.
Mr Tan’s film debut is not exactly page one breaking news because Google will tell you there have been more than a handful of stories about this much vaunted role and his abs over the past year.
Not surprisingly, each time there is an article about the same old topic, you can bet there will also be at least one gratuitous topless photograph of the man, if not more.
In fact did you know that Abercrombie & Fitch’s practice of populating its store with unclothed men was discontinued in 2015? However, it also appears that the attention and the hordes of shoppers standing in line to enter the store also dwindled when the topless models had to put their shirts back on.
It makes one wonder if people were there to buy the brand’s tank tops or to gawk at a public spectacle. Worse, it raises questions about the brand’s somewhat successful yet problematic marketing tactics.
As for the shirtless man cleaning service, in the weeks since it was first rolled out as a publicity stunt, the company says it has received over 70 enquiries by people looking to hire these men. And a quick scroll through its social media posts will reveal a significant amount of “thirsty” comments objectifying the male cleaners.
Why is it that people seem perfectly fine when off-colour comments are directed towards men or if men are the ones shedding their clothes?
IT’S NOT COMPLICATED
A recent Instagram post by women’s advocacy group AWARE attempts to give some context by pointing out the historical power imbalance between the genders.
While the group recognises that men too suffer from body dysmorphia due to unrealistic media portrayals of the male body, it points out that men typically have not been sexually exploited to the scale that women have. Neither are they at a disadvantage at the workplace because of their appearance.
The implication is that there can be different standards of acceptability when it comes to objectifying men in comparison to women.
But this line of reasoning does not sit that well in the context of this recent spate of bold-faced body baring. Surely, it is regressive in the fight for gender equality, which should cut both ways, to say it is somehow less offensive to objectify men since they have less historical baggage?
If anything, women, the group which has traditionally suffered the consequences of objectification, can now afford to exercise a little more empathy and clarity of thought on why such behaviours should be called out when the tables are turned.
Perhaps it gets clearer such objectification is misguided when we consider the possibility men may view disrobing through a different lens. It is more culturally acceptable for men to show off a toned, taut body as a sign of power.
So for the men who choose to bare skin for commercial reasons or attention, they are more likely to be viewed with admiration than with censure.
This then is the other societal double standard we have to be aware of - men are glorified for shedding clothes while women are slut-shamed for doing the same.
TIME TO CHANGE THINGS
It is time to change perceptions, starting by sending the message that such Neanderthal, chest-thumping behaviour has not been acceptable since the Stone Age.
In the case of the male house cleaning stunt, I was amused to notice there were a few germaphobes like myself who were mostly concerned about potentially hiring cleaners only to have them drip sweat all over the apartment because they are not properly attired for the job.
Yes, I would pay for the muscle to help me move heavy furniture but please guys, keep your shirts on and your sweat stains to yourself.
At the end of the day, such examples of sexualised marketing might still surface every now and then because there is some societal demand, and wanting to eliminate them altogether might be naïve thinking.
It is exactly this fact that serves to remind us it is how we as individuals - and by extension a society - reacts that reveals our true characters.
Our responses do shape national norms on gender relations. We each have a responsibility to uphold standards of acceptable behaviour and address this unsettling pattern to nip it in the bud.
It is also timely to speak up now when the Singapore Government is putting together a comprehensive review of women’s issues. There is no doubt we all want to stem the troubling, deeper issues that undergird the rise in sexual assault cases and the continued sexual objectification of women.
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A good starting point could be to tackle the problem with sexually objectifying people – regardless of gender.
Why not begin to take baby steps by having an open, honest but difficult conversation about gender, sexism and the double standards we seem to hold and what we can learn from these recent episodes?
And for now, Singapore, can we please hold off on the mass publicising of half-naked male midriff-baring photographs? It’s just a little much.
Karen is a freelance lifestyle, travel journalist and a graduate of Columbia University’s School of Journalism in New York City.