Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Physical Examination

Susan Bordo takes a long, hard (ahem) look at the male body.

By Megan Harlan

JULY 5, 1999: 

THE MALE BODY: A NEW LOOK AT MEN IN PUBLIC AND IN PRIVATE, by Susan Bordo. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pages, $25.

It used to be that the quest for beauty was pretty much a "woman thing." But since the early '90s, men have been pursuing physical perfection in record numbers; today, they make up a quarter of all cosmetic-surgery patients. The popularity of phalloplasty -- surgical augmentation of the penis -- has surged dramatically (so to speak), mostly among men with normal-size endowments. A survey last year found that 90 percent of male undergraduates believe that they are not muscular enough ("muscle dysmorphia" is the new psychological term for an obsessive form of this belief). Men's "health" magazines -- mostly dispensing diet, workout, and thinly disguised beauty advice -- are booming. As for men's confidence about their sexual prowess: Viagra. Need we say more?

In a witty and wide-ranging cultural survey, Susan Bordo explores this new male objectification -- what it means for men's self-images, and also what it does to out heterosexual women's fantasies. The former is interesting, to be sure, but it is the latter that makes this book quietly revolutionary. Male scholars -- straight and gay -- have penned many a tome on masculinity. And countless books have "critiqued" the female form in any number of cultural, personal, psychosexual, and plain old sexual contexts. Indeed, Bordo's last book, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Unbearable Weight, explored one effect of this intense examination: eating disorders among women, which are at an all-time high in America.

But men, lucky devils, have largely escaped this skewering scrutiny by the opposite sex -- both in print and in life. How can this be? Aren't women interested in men's bodies? Doesn't male beauty matter to women? Bordo reports that the general consensus among evolutionary psychologists has long been that it doesn't: women will overlook a man's hefty girth in favor of his hefty bank account. After all, dimples and washboard abs won't feed the kids. But now that most women work and the pay gap is closing, this convention seems to be changing. A recent study shows that the more money a woman makes, the more she looks for a potential mate with a handsome mug.

Bordo, the Otis A. Singletary Chair in the Humanities at the University of Kentucky, fills her examination with humor and sensuality, apt cultural signifiers (from Ken dolls to Dirk Diggler), and the latest psychological and scientific studies. She breaks her subject down into three snappy sections: probing looks at the penis (in myth, media, and real life), at public displays of male beauty, and at the contradictory ideals of masculinity. But the most refreshing quality Bordo brings to this book is her authentic, wholehearted appreciation of men's bodies. She likes to look at 'em -- and candidly honors the notion that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Thus, she movingly recalls how her father, a disappointed New Jersey salesman, was painfully ashamed of his fleshy body and balding head. She remembers the overtly sexy masculine images offered up in movies of her youth -- the glorious, glistening, shirtless torsos of luscious actors such as Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, and Yul Brynner -- images that, she notes, eerily disappeared during the sexual revolution. She recalls that, while her male contemporaries discovered the joys of scantily clad beauties in Playboy, she somehow reached adolescence without ever seeing a penis -- not even in a picture. The overriding lesson pop culture seemed to teach her baby-boomer generation was that women were sex, their bodies meant sex -- an idea that was internalized equally by both genders.

Then came the fateful day in 1995 when Bordo opened up the New York Times Magazine to see a Calvin Klein ad featuring a lithe, flirtatious, beautiful young man in nothing but his underwear. Bordo explains: "I had my first real taste of what it's like to inhabit this visual culture as a man. It was both thrilling and disconcerting. It was the first time in my experience that I had encountered a commercial representation of a male body that seemed to deliberately invite me to linger over it." She playfully catalogues other '90s "breakthrough" moments in objectified male beauty, beauty that seems to exist only for the viewer's erotic pleasure -- the Diet Coke commercial with the construction guy, Brad Pitt looking sexily pliant in Thelma and Louise.

Bordo celebrates this shift in the sexual tide, and she argues that it's healthy for women to follow men's suit -- to cultivate their inner oglers and to have fun doing so (she includes, for example, some of Tom of Finland's bulging, tongue-partially-in-cheek gay erotic artwork). "Practice makes perfect. And women have had little practice," she says, explaining why many women seem so inhibited in their gazing.

But she also sympathetically explores how such images catch men in a "double bind": on the one hand, there is the vaguely feminine beauty ideal, à la Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, that some studies show is preferable to women. On the other hand is the aggressive, domineering macho man, as personified by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone; other studies suggest that women favor this more traditionally masculine archetype. Can a man be "beautiful" and still be masculine?

Bordo deftly traces these contradictory ideals -- including the mixed messages sent about whether "size matters" -- while admitting that they won't be cleared up anytime soon. And in the face of so much pressure and insecurity, she calls for greater tolerance from voyeur and voyeuse alike: "Obsessively pursuing these ideals has deprived both men and women of the playful eros of beauty, turned it all into constant hard work." We all live in imperfect bodies that only get older, she points out. We are all swayed by the same image-oriented consumer culture that makes staggering profits off our perceived physical imperfections. The only difference now is that the average Joe's looks are being deemed imperfect, too. Bordo posits hopefully that, more than serving just as an opportunity for average Jills to engage in a little schadenfreude, this might actually be beneficial. In the pursuit of more-realistic notions of beauty, having everyone take a long, hard look in the mirror could be a good thing.

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