Why we care how many inches Justin Bieber is (or isn’t) packing in his Calvin Klein ad

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It’s the bulge discussed ‘round the world, or, more specifically, the
possibly faked bulge discussed ‘round the world. Everyone suddenly
seems very invested in what pop star Justin Bieber
is packing under his briefs, when the larger question might be whether
we should care at all—or if we’re caring for the wrong reasons. As
celebrity buzz sites hustle to suggest that Bieber’s recent Calvin Klein shoot was manipulated to suggest that his package is a bit larger than real life, Bieber’s legal team has fought back. The
real news story here, however, is in the attempted emasculation of
Bieber and how that plays into our larger perceptions of masculinity.

20-year-old Justin Bieber got his start with the sort of soft, boy band-ish pop that
tends to catapult male stars to the top of the charts, and in his case,
it worked. In recent years, Bieber has been trying to cultivate more of a
bad boy persona, complete with tattoos, friendships with prominent
rappers, and a bizarre incident involving some eggs and a neighbor’s house.
That persona has also, notably, been an attempt to firmly put his
childhood behind him, as he desperately wants to grow out of “boy band”
territory and into adulthood, much as other squeaky-clean child stars
did. His loyal and mostly female fans, known as “Beliebers,” have driven
his career consistently higher since his emergence on the pop scene,
and it’s not surprising that Calvin Klein turned to him as the face of
their latest campaign. Everyone loves a hot, half-naked pop star.

Well, not everyone, it turns out. Almost as soon as the shots were released, gossip sites were claiming that photo editing software was involved, presenting “unretouched” evidence as proof that Bieber’s images had been altered to give him more prominent muscles, more body hair,
and a bigger bulge to draw attention to the star attraction of the
ad—the underwear. The move smacked of an attempt to literally emasculate
the star, shrinking his penis to place him firmly back in his place as a
harmless boy followed by hordes of screaming teenage girls, rather than
as a grown man. All sizes | Justin Bieber -DSC_0481-10.20.12 | Flickr - Photo Sharing!

As it turns out, the image likely wasn’t Photoshopped—at
least, not in the way people mean. All print images for magazines and
elsewhere are digitally edited in production for a variety of purposes,
including cropping, color correction, smoothing out blemishes, and
addressing other issues. The level of photomanipulation depends on the
model and the publication, but, notably, editing of this nature is
routinely accepted for images of women in media and pop culture—so much so, in fact, that the movement to present undoctored photos of women is viewed as revolutionary.

When
it comes to men and masculinity, there seems here to be an assumption
that Photoshop isn’t necessary, and that men’s images are evidently
perfect right out of the box. This despite the fact that images of men
are also given the editing treatment before publication, just
as Bieber’s was—yes, Calvin Klein likely did some work on the image to
more clearly define his abs, address any skin blemishes, and accentuate
features on both Bieber’s and his co-model Lara Stone’s bodies. That’s
industry standard. Yet, by suggesting that his photograph had been
edited, critics are implying that he’s less of a man—such a failure that
he had to be edited like a woman.

In fact, analysis by photographers and skilled editors suggests that the “unretouched” image was actually subjected to a fair amount of editing,
highlighting numerous inconsistencies and flaws in the image indicative
of photomanipulation. So perhaps it’s not surprising that Bieber’s
attorneys issued a takedown notice to Breathe Heavy, the site that
originally posted the supposed raw image, and that Bieber’s personal trainer defended the pop star’s package
in what must have been an awkward and unpleasant situation for everyone
involved. This may also explain why the gossip site was so hasty to comply
after its failed potshot at Bieber’s pride. The truth behind Bieber’s
package will have to remain a mystery for those who aren’t intimately
acquainted with the star, but the endless debate about the subject
illustrates how closely we associate the penis with manhood in Western culture.

The
fixation on Bieber’s bulge betrays an interesting social attitude about
penises and manhood, reinforcing the idea that the only worthy penis is
a large penis. It’s certainly a pervasive cultural norm, one that’s
enforced not least by underwear companies, which tend to use
well-endowed men in their advertising campaigns. The brouhaha is similar
to that over Jon Hamm’s trouser snake, as the media discussed his penis
considerably more than he’d desire. Angry and defensive about the
speculation surrounding his allegedly unusually large member, Hamm lashed out in both 2013 and 2014 about the issue.

More
than anything, though, he was upset at having his body treated the same
we do women’s bodies every day. Women face the same kind of scrutiny
when their images appear in print campaigns, with critics crawling out
of the woodwork to discuss every flaw of their bodies and accuse
producers of digitally altering their breasts, thighs, and other
features. Implying that Bieber needed help from a photographer to look
like a real man is a complicated putdown, denigrating the star’s body
and reducing him to the level of a gender perceived as lesser.

As
highlighted by this ad campaign and his recent public antics, Justin
Bieber is done with being a boy. While the Beliebers may run strong, he
wants to put that past behind him and move on to edgier, more adult
music, working to capture a more mature market while still drawing upon
fans who’ve followed him since the early days. Like Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, and other counterparts, he’s tired of being stuck in a box—and unlike Justin Timberlake, apparently he doesn’t want his dick in a box either.

Defending
his penis, whether through lawsuits or personal testimony, isn’t just
about a perceived offense from speculative gossip blogs and the media.
It’s also about asserting his masculinity in a culture where penis size
is often the ultimate determination of what it means to be a man. Bieber
knows that a Baby Bieber won’t fly—it’s time to bring on Big Daddy.

Photo via Joe Bielawa/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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