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Refashioning the Male Body: Contemporary Media Representations of the Spornosexual and the Waif

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Part of the Palgrave Studies in (Re)Presenting Gender book series (PSRG)


Jay McCauley Bowstead’s topical contribution explores two divergent fashionable physiques—the so-called spornosexual and waif aesthetics—that have become prominent in contemporary fashion and lifestyle media. By investigating examples of these body styles in fashion imagery, McCauley Bowstead places shifting and contested ideals of masculinity in a broader social, cultural, and economic context. Though these differing corporeal ideals are associated with discrete markets, both point to the ‘spectacularization’ of the male physique in visual culture. In this way, the pressure to construct a desirable body is connected to notions of self-branding, self-fashioning, and the rhetoric of self-improvement common to contemporary (social) media. The article examines how dominant economic paradigms manifest themselves in image making and bodily practices, and how men navigate these forces by refashioning their physiques.


  • Spornosexual
  • Waif
  • Slender
  • Muscular
  • Self-branding
  • Class

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Fig. 5.1

(© Alamy Stock Photo, n.d.)

Fig. 5.2

(© Alamy Stock Photo 2020)


  1. 1.

    In this way, the slender body is connected to (romanticised) notions of dispossession, displacement, and poverty, as in the phrase ‘waif and stray’.

  2. 2.

    In this regard, see also the article on idealized male bodies in boxing and wrestling magazines by Ana Stevenson and David Patrick in this volume.

  3. 3.

    See, for instance, Roberts (2012), Ward (2017), or Stahl (2020).

  4. 4.

    In this sense, the terms ‘working class’ and ‘middle class’ are increasingly problematic simplifications: the élite and super-élite have pulled away from other segments of the population becoming ever more wealthy, while, on the other hand, younger members of the professional classes are increasingly insecure (unable to benefit from the expansion of professional jobs enjoyed by the baby-boomer generation).

  5. 5.

    This process of delinking may have begun in the 1980s with the increasing eroticisation of the athletic male physique in popular culture (Triggs 1992); nevertheless, the representations produced by the likes of Herb Ritts and Bruce Webber drew upon the iconography of sportsmen, laborers, and (neo-)classical statuary. This use of an established canon of masculine iconography perhaps neutralized some of the subversiveness implicit to the commodification of the male form.

  6. 6.

    Eric Anderson uses the term “orthodox” rather than hegemonic masculinity: in doing so, he suggests that formerly dominant expressions of masculinity are no longer unambiguously hegemonic and that, amongst certain demographics, other more inclusive and diverse forms of gender expression have become acceptable for men (2009, 30–31).

  7. 7.

    Of course, there is a long history of eroticized representations of masculinity from antiquity to the present day, and images of the male body have been much discussed in relation to 1980s advertising (Triggs 1992; Mort 1996, 109–111; Nixon 1996, 117–120). However, there is something qualitatively different from these 1980s representations of the male body in the mass nature of contemporary spornosexual style. Here, I would argue, the gaze has been internalized on a much grander scale.

  8. 8.

    For the seminal queer theorist Judith Butler categories of sex and gender—male and female, men and women—are created through discourses, representations, and behavior. In this way, gender is something that you do rather than something you are intrinsically: Butler describes gender as ‘performative’ to allude to the ways in which it is produced through habitual, naturalized actions, modes of dress, ways of moving the body, speaking, and so on (1990).

  9. 9.

    Another significant vehicle for the dissemination of both the svelte male ideal and designer fashions are Korean K-Pop bands such as EXO and BTS as well as Korean solo-artists like G-Dragon. These musicians are notable not only for the music they produce, but also for their distinctive, fashionable appearances characterized by sumptuous garments, slender frames, clear ‘glass skin’ complexions, and bleached or brightly colored hairdos.

  10. 10.

    For example in such magazines as Hero, Vogues Hommes, Arena Homme+, Varón, and Another Man.

  11. 11.

    Moreover, research into the working conditions of male models (Fowler et al. 2016) has underlined the real as well as the symbolic vulnerability of models who are subject to arbitrary demands to remold their bodies, lose weight, or gain muscle, who lack agency within the creative process, and whose employment is extremely insecure.

  12. 12.

    Campaigners for ‘fat equality’ might question the use of the word ‘obesity’ with its tendency to pathologize fat bodies and shame ‘fat’ people (though the term remains widespread in medical and popular discourse).

  13. 13.

    In The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen describes how wealth is expressed through engagement in conspicuously non-productive ‘leisure’ activities. Rituals of sport and leisure are important to the moneyed classes, argues Veblen, because they act to exclude those without the time and capital to participate, and those who are ignorant of the ‘correct’ forms of dress and etiquette (knowledge which again takes time to accrue).

  14. 14.

    See for instance Russell (2016), Apparel Online (2017), and Technavio (2020).

  15. 15.

    These shifts were discussed in a co-authored paper presented in 2019: McCauley Bowstead, Jay, and Ben Barry. “Influential Images: Diversifying the Male Body in Fashionable Representation.” Fashion Costume & Visual Cultures Conference. Roubaix: Université de Lille (Roubaix), July 9–11, 2019.


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McCauley Bowstead, J. (2022). Refashioning the Male Body: Contemporary Media Representations of the Spornosexual and the Waif. In: Dexl, C., Gerlsbeck, S. (eds) The Male Body in Representation. Palgrave Studies in (Re)Presenting Gender. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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