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On magazines, on posters, in movies, the female "ideal" has notoriously become unattainable for the majority of women. Unless you're disproportionately tall and slender, have the breasts of a woman three dress sizes up from you, and are happy to spend the whole of your life ten pounds underweight, most women simply can't look the way we're told they should - and they probably should't want to. But just as the feminine ideal has moved from Marilyn Monroe to Callista Flockhart, so the masculine ideal has also become, not just unattainable, but literally impossible.
Unlike many apes, humans don't have much physical dimorphism (two shapes) between the sexes. Men are generally a bit bigger, a bit heaver and have a little more muscular definition. Women have broader hips, are generally a bit shorter and lighter and have less visible muscular definition. But really, that's it: we're talking about a few inches and a few pounds. As of the 1999-2002 United States National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the average man was 4% taller and 8% heavier than the average woman - a difference of about 14 pounds if the man weighs 170lb.
Looking at Hollywood, though, you'd never know it. On the silver screen, women are tiny and men are huge. In his Batman films, Christian Bale weighed around 220lb. When Angeline Jolie made an action film, she weighed about 125 pounds. That's a pretty big difference - Jolie weighed about half what Bale weighed. That's a difference between men and women on the silver screen that's seven times bigger than it is in real life.
Of course, both these actors are noticeably taller than the average. Since there's not much we can do about our height, though, women feel under pressure to both have curves and be very slim, but men are increasingly under a corresponding pressure to be both very muscular and very lean. "A decade or so ago, Stallone and Van Damme and Schwarzenegger were the action stars," said Deborah Snyder, who produces her husband Zack Snyder's films: 300, Man of Steel, the upcoming Batman vs. Superman movie. Speaking to Men's Journal, Ms. Snyder went on: "Now we expect actors who aren't action stars to transform themselves. And we expect them to be big and powerful and commanding."
A physique that would be unusual in a professional athlete is thus presented as the average, everyday norm.
While for women that means a body that would make a ballerina's friends spring for an intervention pizza, for men it means a degree of muscularity and leanness that's not just unrealistic - it's unreal. It's not just unattainable for most people: it's literally impossible.