Yashar Ali is the founder of The Current Conscience, which examines "politics and the personal, culture and relationship" from a progressive, feminist viewpoint. Particularly after reading his post The Key to Success: Be a Man, I was curious to mine his thoughts on how beauty and body image standards apply to men today and whether modern "masculinity" has truly reached a crisis point in Western culture.
The first time I really paused to consider the naked male body happened circa age 9 while watching Blossom on the floor of my parents' bedroom, where I ironically snuck in all of my parent-disapproved TV programming. I can't remember what plot twist provoked it, but at some point, Six explains to Blossom that naked men look like "half-decorated Christmas trees." Conjuring up an image of a Ken doll in a Santa hat, my sheltered developing brain didn't get the humor. But I did get the feeling that whatever Six really meant about the unclothed penis, it wasn't exactly complimentary. Boys naked, who wants to see that?
Advertisers have long used handsome men to hawk their wares. In the 20th century, marketers who realized that women did a majority of the household shopping created dashing spokesmen, such as the Arrow Shirt Man, to appeal more to the ladies than the menfolk. And certainly advertising has played an integral role in the male beauty culture that has skyrocketed in the past 20 years, too. In fact, some scholars and experts trace men's heightened attention to self and—more importantly—how they appear to others back to a single, revolutionary image from 1982.
Talk to a group of teen boys, and they'll probably tell you that, sure, they'd like to have the swoon-inducing sex appeal of Justin Bieber, Taylor Lautner, or whomever is playing the newest iteration of the Degrassi High heartthrob. But do they want to look like them, immaculately styled and toned to the max? No way, bro.
While mulling over the male quest for muscularity a few posts ago, I brought up the notion of the "sanitized ideal" that has recently become de rigueur for the mainstream masculine body image. We're talking hair-free, sweat-free, odor-free; in other words, the same unrealistic standards peddled to women for so long, à la leg and underarm shaving. And like the hairless female ideal, it isn't just the most visible fur that men are tending to these days; statistically, men groom their pubic hair more than any other type of body hair (sans beards).
Before I got too much farther in "Isn't He Lovely," I figured it would be a good idea to chat with a male about this whole "male beauty" business. Hugo Schwyzer is a proud feminist, the Gender and Sexuality Editor over at The Good Men Project, and a professor of history and gender studies at Pasadena City College. Schwyzer fielded questions about how the beauty myth applies to young men these days, how body image standards affect non-white and non-straight men, the intersection of male grooming and dress, and the modern male's latent fear of developing "man boobs."
While I'm dubious that the Western female body ideal can be reliably found within in the pages of Playboy, a similar evolution has occurred in the sister (?) publication, Playgirl. A team of psychologists calculated the body mass index (BMI) and fat-free mass index (FFMI) of 115 Playgirl centerfolds and found that, lo and behold, the supposed male body ideal has changed as well. But instead of getting thinner, the boys have bulked up.
Pop culture's image ideals for men come with their own complications and double standards, which are worth addressing as thoroughly as those leveled toward women. Just as Western female beauty ideals are modeled around straight, white women, Western male beauty standards worship at the altar of the straight, white, six-pack ab-toting man. And both are equally problematic.
With the whole world watching, it's understandable that Kate Middleton wants to look her best on her wedding day. But her recent weight loss has provided the press with its favorite topic: deconstructing women's bodies.