When I decided to write about the Western stereotype of the emasculated Asian American male, I understood going into the topic that this would be an exercise in imparting while learning—and that I needed an expert guide. I therefore turned to Amy Sueyoshi, Associate Professor of Race and Resistance Studies and Sexuality Studies at San Francisco State University.
When I started dating a bald man, the first questions my friends fired my way about him had nothing to do with his background, employment or interests. Repeatedly, they'd bypass the pleasantries and skip straight to his hair: So, is he really bald, or does he choose to shave his head? How long has he been bald? Could he grow hair if he wanted to? And after I would explain that, yes, he shaves his head, and, yes, there are active follicles up there, they'd typically marvel at his bravado for willfully joining the bald club. I wonder how their responses would change if he had advanced male pattern balding and thus had no choice in the matter. But even more than that, I wonder why his baldness is such a big deal.
But the short stigma is even more pervasive—if subtle—in everyday life. For while studies and surveys about women's perceived attractiveness and height result in a muddled mix of preferences for statures diminutive and statuesque, things aren't so fluid for men. Research repeatedly indicates that, statistically speaking, tall men enjoy certain benefits. And for that reason, I'd argue that height is physical trait, a beauty standard of a sort, which affects men more acutely than women.
I realize that I'm the umpteenthbloggerto toss ina couple pennies on the gender dynamics of the fall TV lineup, but I couldn't resist. Since "Isn't He Lovely" is examining social attitudes like "What Men Should Like Look Like" and "How to Perform the Tap Dance of Masculinity with Aplomb," the handful of male-in-crisis sitcoms debuting this season fit right into the narrative. For all the words that I've spilled on how men are tending to their pubic hair and pumping iron and generally not liking what they're seeing in the mirror—and also not wanting to talk about it due to the feminine associations of expressing dissatisfaction with their looks—these shows are out to grab heterosexual male America and shake his softened shoulders into action. One is even called Man Up! for heaven's sake.
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).
Earlier this year, personal care product brand Nivea pulled a men's skincare ad and issued a public apology for its blatantly racist undertones. As reported on over at GOOD magazine, the ad in question "features a preppy, groomed black man holding the head of his former self, who's sporting a beard, an afro, and a pissed-off expression." The tag line? "Re-civilize yourself." As in, "Hey, black men, get with white mainstream culture and get rid of that 'uncivilized' African hair!"
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.