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.
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.
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.
While we might scoff at the spray-tanned guys of "Jersey Shore" and their year-round pursuit of bronze, skin lightening isn't so easy to laugh off. First, skin lightening is far more globally and culturally pervasive than tanning, with pressure to lighten being highest for those of Asian, Latino, and African ethnicities. For instance, baseball star and native Dominican Sammy Sosa made headlines in 2009 when he copped to using a nightly skin bleaching cream that had noticeably whitened his face. A couple weeks ago, Jamaican dancehall artist Vybz Kartel sparked controversy regarding his forthcoming cosmetics line that includes a skin lightening solution called "cake soap."
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."
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.