At a recent “Black Lives Matter” protest in Bratislava, I saw some young women holding signs that read: “racism is small dick energy”. This isn’t a uniquely Slovak phenomenon, just a slogan that has been used at similar protests around the globe. How is it possible that a group of people seeking justice, equality, sensitivity and protection of human rights resorts to such blatant body-shaming rhetoric?
Body shaming is often defined as mocking others based on their physical attributes, be it weight, height, or other physical manifestations and expressions. While the issue of body shaming aimed at women and their bodies has, fortunately, entered into public discourse (albeit not to a sufficient degree), and at least some parts of society find it unacceptable, the issue of body shaming aimed at men is rarely discussed. “We often talk about “women body-image issues, but we forget that men are increasingly becoming victims too. In recent years there has been a spike in men being targeted and shamed for their bodies,” psychiatrist Dr Shobhana Mittal, who has studied this subject in-depth, told the Times of India. Among other issues, she studied the shaming of men linked to the size of their private parts. This kind of shaming has caused mental trauma in a large number of respondents, often leading to hospitalisation and sometimes even suicide attempts. A research project carried out in Great Britain in 2012 showed that up to 80,7% of men had been exposed to public ridicule due to their physical appearance. If this problem is so widespread, surely we must be witnessing it every day. Yet, it seems that we are turning a blind eye to it in our private and public lives.
As I thought of the places and situations in which shaming linked to the size or shape of men’s penis occurs, I realised how incredibly varied they are and how easily they move between the intimate and the public sphere. If you have ever been inside a boys’ locker room or men’s showers after a sports event, you have most probably witnessed these typical ‘humorous’ interactions. “For boys, it is often normal fun to tease each other because of their perception of masculinity, and this is almost always penis size,” Abraham Morgentaler, urologist and director of a men’s health centre in Boston, told Vice Magazine.
Unfortunately, this kind of humour is not limited to closed male groups. I often see it amongst my own friends, male and female, most of whom would self-identify as feminists and who are otherwise highly aware of and sensitive to the needs and feelings of others. This is obviously not based on statistical data, merely my own personal experience, which I don’t wish to and will not, generalise. However, I have come across this too often to simply ignore it. When this type of body shaming occurs in a conversation with my friends (and more often than not, it is my female friends), it usually happens in the context of criticising a public persona, be it a celebrity or a politician (or sometimes just an arrogant driver), whose values they don’t share. I’m sure I am not the only one who has heard people dismiss a politician as incompetent/stupid/corrupt/perfidious because they have a small penis.
To some extent, I do understand the frustration and anger that makes people say this sort of thing. There are definitely many reasons to be angry with the current Slovak government. Still, I cannot accept the argument that the reason Milan Krajniak (Minister of Labour, Social affairs and Family) is a religious fanatic and Igor Matovič (former Slovak PM) is incompetent. An uneducated clown is that their private parts are small.
We are shooting ourselves in our own foot by implying such things and committing several unnecessary and painful mistakes. On the one hand, we minimise the actual structural problems these politicians represent, reducing them to bodily frustrations, which supposedly explain their incompetence and unacceptable behaviour. On the other, the very suggestion that their bodies might cause them to be so frustrated that it adversely affects their political decision-making gives the impression that there is some kind of direct correlation between the size of a person’s penis and their moral worth. As the Indian and British research shows, normalising this kind of discourse can stigmatise and cause trauma for many people. In addition, as I will demonstrate in a few examples, this type of rhetoric legitimises body shaming as an effective political weapon.
Trump’s small hands
In 2017, when Instagram model Alexis Ren broke up with her boyfriend Jay Alvarrez, also an Instagram model, she let hundreds of thousands of her followers know that her ex has a small penis. Of course, Instagram starlets are not the only ones made to realise how damaging this kind of rhetoric can be. The world’s top politicians have used similar tactics to belittle their opponents. During the 2016 election campaign, Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio tore into Donald Trump by saying: “For someone his size, Trump’s hands are relatively small. And you know what they say about people with small hands!”. In the presidential debates that followed, Trump was forced to defend, on national television, not only the size of his hands (he said, quite predictably for Trump: “I have never heard that I have small hands. In fact, people always tell me, Donald, you have the most beautiful hands”) but also the size of his penis (“I guarantee you there is no problem. I guarantee.”)
However, this verbal clash was just the beginning of the issue of Donald Trump’s small penis. In February 2016, a portrait by the artist Illma Gore showing Donald Trump with tiny genitalia went viral. Accused of body shaming, the artist said that she actually wanted to achieve the opposite: rid us of our prejudice and stereotypes. Later she exhibited a series of paintings of other men with small genitalia, including Harvey Weinstein, Osama Bin Laden, Darth Vader, Einstein and Superman, the Pope and Jesus. I will leave it to my readers to decide whether this kind of imagery helps break down stereotypes or is just a cheap marketing stunt. Statues of a naked Trump inspired by her art were soon to be seen in Cleveland, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. These were put up by the anarchist collective Indecline. In reference to Hans Christian Andersen’s famous tale, they called this intervention “The Emperor has no balls.”
Does this kind of art help make public and political discourse more civilised? I have my doubts. Instead, it builds on stereotypes that have become ubiquitous: in movies, TV shows, stand up comedy routines, music as well as in commercials. (For example, a commercial by the US fast-food chain Fat Shack showed an attractive blonde eating a sandwich, with mustard dripping from it and a caption that said, “Four inches has never been so satisfying”.) And I challenge you to find a rap diss which does not claim that a rival rapper is less good as a musician because his penis is smaller. Music pundits will probably tell me that this is just part and parcel of the genre and that I shouldn’t take it so seriously. They may be correct; it is indeed all part of the game, just like the impression that a proper rapper is a street gangster.
Nevertheless, as with jokes, political attacks or artistic interventions, this raises the question: at the end of the day, what impact does it have on our lives? How do these offensive stereotypes affect our understanding of masculinity? Why are we mocking a man with a big car, suggesting that he is compensating for something, instead of subjecting him to legitimate criticism for causing harm to the environment?
I do not think we should start curtailing humour, but perhaps it wouldn’t hurt us to show sensitivity and think about whom and how we might hurt by making such statements. And we should not help turn the body shaming of men and women into a weapon in the political fight, whichever side of the barricade we stand on. There is still a great political struggle ahead of us, and we should enter the fray armed with courage, common sense, convincing arguments and strong beliefs rather than cheap shots, regardless of the shape or size of our private parts.
Translated from slovak by Nastaran A Motlagh and Julia Sherwood
Image: Norman Lewis’s “Alabama” (1960), Internet
*Originally published in a monthly journal Kapitál in the Slovak language.