In perhaps the latest sign of a looming apocalypse, erstwhile tween heartthrob Justin Bieber had his legal team send website BreatheHeavy a cease-and-desist letter demanding that the site remove photos indicating that his penis had been photoshopped for a series of Calvin Klein ads. To its credit, BreatheHeavy complied, not wishing to “intentionally stir the pot” or “make anyone feel bad.” Elsewhere, Bieber’s personal trainer added his two cents, noting that “I can definitely confirm that he is a well-endowed guy.” So there we have it, I suppose: Bieber has a great penis bulge (though, in the interest of providing what legendary radio personality Paul Harvey would call “the rest of the story,” I’d urge you to cut to 1:04 in this video and compare that shot with Bieber’s CK marketing images).
If the shares and “likes” and pageviews are any indication, many of us cared about this seemingly meaningless story—but why? Certainly the Biebs had a pressing interest in the matter; he and his brand management crew didn’t want anyone thinking he was possessed of a “flat front.” Some undoubtedly wanted this to be true, wanted to mock and emasculate Bieber in much the same way that they had been since his tween glory days. Others probably saw this as another small battle in the ongoing war against Photoshopping, a practice that has wrought considerable damage to the self-esteem of millions of unwary young men and women.
Here we have a story that is ostensibly about the Bieber’s bulge but is at root about a feeling we’ve all experienced: inadequacy.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the stories that captivate us are only superficially superficial; from celebrity infidelities to tragic sports injuries, these shareable moments, however vacuous they may initially seem, evoke deep and universal emotions. Here we have a story that is ostensibly about the Bieber’s bulge but is at root about a feeling we’ve all experienced: inadequacy. Likely more than a few guys thought to themselves, even as they ridiculed Bieber, that they too might not measure up.
Bieber, who is worth a cool $200 million and has indeed toned up since his preteen idol days, would seem to have nothing to worry about. There are showers and there are growers in this world, and only arousal can sort one from the other. But in underwear ads, everyone has to be a shower: The subject needs to be “between soft-medium and hard,” explained one experienced male model. And, as George Costanza learned to his dismay, sometimes partners aren’t willing to look past momentary shrinkage toward future delight. But Bieber’s insecurity, and his resulting need to reaffirm his phallic bona fides, is strangely humanizing. $200 million or no, he’s subject to the same social pressures as the rest of us.
The penis, at least for men, is the situs of innumerable irrational concerns about adequacy. It’s concealed most of the time, but when it’s revealed, one often finds himself terrified that a) it won’t work and b) if it does, it won’t measure up. The underwear or jock shot constitutes a liminal space between flaccid and turgid. Here there has to be at least the suggestion of more, the hint of concealed power waiting to be unleashed. Bieber, for all of his wealth and fame, doesn’t want his name listed among Hollywood’s most poorly-endowed stars.
We are always 15 pounds, two penis inches and a few rippling abs away from something…and those somethings likely aren’t even real things.
Research on the subject of size is mixed. To summarize: it seems that size used to matter back during caveman times, when a larger member perhaps increased the odds of pregnancy, only now it doesn’t matter as much, except that women may have a slight preference for guys with larger flaccid penises. It may also have some limited bearing on the sex role that a person assumes during same-sex intercourse. So maybe Bieber, in attempting to stage-manage public perception of his lower half, is on the right track.
But that’s ultimately a fool’s errand. Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer, which appears at least a dozen times a week in my Facebook feed as an accompaniment to some crappy background image, urges us to “accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,” doubtless has some truth to it. Naturally, said prayer often appears alongside or immediately before sepia-filtered or MySpace-angled selfies, which themselves offer visions of idealized selves that don’t yet exist and likely never will.
This is 2015, though, and change is in the air. New year, new you, amiright? Unfortunately, we prefer impracticable resolutions, because they allow us to reside in a comforting Never Never Land of infinite impossibility, but there are all sorts of simple changes you can make that require naught besides time and effort to accomplish.
We dudes are always 15 pounds, two penis inches, and a few rippling abs away from something…and those somethings, like Bieber’s retouched pictures, likely aren’t even real things. The manliest, most courageous course of action would seem to be to accept natural imperfection, while still striving to improve in those areas of our lives that we do control (dressing better, eating healthier, maintaining a normal sleep schedule, getting along better with your friends and family, and so forth).
Will that ease the anxiety associated with inadequacy and impotence, with the fear of being caught flat-fronted in a pair of Lululemon boxers by your heart’s desire? No, assuredly not. Nothing short of some snake oil-type penis enlargement could possibly remedy that. But the people who claim that such worries are irrelevant, myself among them, are always right, even when they aren’t. Much like women who must acknowledge the existence of, say, Cosmopolitan while conscientiously distancing themselves from it, you’ll retain some sense of what the world expects from you as you struggle to put that well out of mind.
That is, until you land your first big underwear shoot and the director of photography demands that you fluff yourself. In the meantime, in 2015 will you make that concession to penile insecurity, or will you pose confidently and nonchalantly? My money’s on the latter outcome. This year, I’m betting on all of you guys.