The Body of Congress: Why People Love Talking About Paul Ryan's Physique

Why is America objectifying Paul Ryan?

Republican vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., gives a thumbs-up at a rally Sunday, August 12, 2012, in Mooresville, N.C., at the NASCAR Technical Institute.

In May, America anxiously read about the sexual practices of 50 Shades of Grey. In June, the country watched Channing Tatum lead a group of leather-clad strippers in Magic Mike contort on screen. And in July, people gawked over the body of Olympic athletes, including the constant press given to female hurdler Lolo Jones and male swimmer Ryan Lochte.

It appears to be the summer of the objectification of men, and Mitt Romney's running man is shaping up to be no different.

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America spent this past weekend obsessing over the body of the man who could be the country's next VP: 42-year-old Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan.

They Googled him ad nauseum, with "shirtless" being the second most-searched term tied to Ryan. They meme-ified him, with the 'Hey Girl' meme tied to Hollywood heart-throb Ryan Gosling now adding Paul Ryan to its list. And they objectified him, with Politico running the headline Saturday: "Forget the budget: Paul Ryan is hot"

Washington, though, has obsessed over him before. Ryan's body had the Beltway's attention in June when it came out that he led fellow House members in an extreme workout called P90X every morning. Ryan kept that attention when he revealed in a video that his body fat was between just six and eight percent. And his workout soon influenced 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, with Michelle Obama saying she practiced P90X, too.

But the obsession with the congressman's body only went nuclear, of course, after Romney announced his VP pick to the nation.

A clue as to why voters are objectifying the young congressman—perhaps only to the level of congressmen Aaron Schock and Scott Brown before him—comes from Lisa Wade, an assistant professor of sociology at Occidental College in Los Angeles who studies social inequality and the body.

Wade recently told the Kansas City Star that the sexual objectification of men has increased in recent years as women adopt "a more free way of being sexual."

It's also grown more prominent, she says, because of the Internet. "With the Internet," she told the Star, "we started to see an extremification of everything. Things got more violent, humor got weirder, satire got sharper. And we see it with sexualization as well."

Only in this decade have the shirtless photos of former New York congressman Anthony Weiner (who coincidentally also practiced P90X) been able to go so very viral, along with Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown's nude pose in Cosmopolitian.

A July study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology also put to the rest the argument over whether men and women objectify each other equally in the 21st century.

The study found that while men and women process the opposite gender's bodies differently, they judge them to the same extent. While a man sees a woman's body part-by-part, the study found that a woman sees a man's body as a whole. That explains why women are more often the subjects of sexual objectification of a specific body part, but proves that men are susceptible to objectification as well. And it explains why women aren't searching for "Paul Ryan abs" or "Paul Ryan ass," but instead for the whole nine yards.

It must be mentioned, too, that sexual objectification has always gone hand-in-hand with power. Who better to objectify in a time of changing (or reversing) sexual norms than a man who could soon be America's second-most-powerful, at least in name?

With the election months away, the objectification of Paul Ryan is only likely to continue.

Monday's coverage of the congressman's body didn't let up. "Wanna see my gun collection?" asked TMZ next to a photo of Ryan in a bicep-reveleaing sleeveless shirt on Monday. "Why are you trying to make this candidate look sexy when our nation is in the tank?" a commenter responded to the celebrity site.

Perhaps, TMZ could answer honestly, because in this century: We can.

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  • Elizabeth Flock is a staff writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at or follow her on Twitter and Facebook.