Adam Polaski

'Details,' Stop Telling Me What My Body Should Look Like

Filed By Adam Polaski | October 27, 2011 11:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Media
Tags: body image, Details Magazine, gay men, male body, male dominance, Naomi Wolf, women's studies

MaleBody.jpgIn my Women's Studies class, we've been talking this week about women's relationship with beauty and attempts to shape their appearances into the perfect vision of what society considers beautiful. To frame our discussions, we began talking about a quotation from Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth:

in the modern age in the West, beauty is the last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact.

My classmates and I largely agreed: As more and more governmental policies that keep Western women subordinate to men are removed, one primary institution - beauty - will be left to maintain that subordination. Nearly all female attempts to perform Western conceptions of beauty - makeup, nice clothing, jewelry, tanning (or skin lightening) new hairstyles, exposed cleavage, high heel-manufactured height - are made with the goal of receiving male approval. Whether women are dressing up to be taken seriously by men in the workplace or dressing down to impress men in social settings, female expressions of beauty are designed for an audience. Whether that immediate audience actually includes men or not doesn't matter: The ideas of what is beautiful originated with men. Since men have set the agenda for what is beautiful, and since women want to achieve that beauty, men wield significant power.

If this is true, then doesn't the same argument explain why, as a gay man, I feel similarly compelled to "perform" beauty? Is my quest for male approval the reason that I spend any amount of time or money on my hair, pluck the hairs between my eyebrows, and buy T-shirts that are a bit too small for me but reveal what little arm muscles I have?

Again, we see here how men have set the agenda for what people should look like. In addition to deciding how women's femininity "should" look, men have also been responsible for deciding how men's masculinity "should" look. Moreover, men have become masculinity police, pointing out, embarrassing, and belittling men who step outside of their terms of male beauty.

Details.jpegThis is strikingly apparent in the new issue of Details, that men's magazine that's been trying for years to pretend that it's not explicitly targeted at gay men.

The cover headline screams, "AMERICA'S NEW MALE BODY OBSESSION" and tells me that inside, I'll find "41 Moments that Changed the Way You Look in the Mirror."

The feature story inside seems to applaud the obsession (probably because there'd be no market for Details if the obsession didn't exist):

Look in the mirror. (And we know you do.) We've all become body-conscious to the core (not to mention conscious of our core). Working out more, eating better, dressing in slimmer clothes, getting the hedges trimmed (and maybe even a nip or tuck). Because, in the end, we all want to look as good as David Beckham does in briefs. Have we entered a grand age of self-improvement? Or is it narcissism? Or homoeroticism?

I'd like to propose that the male body obsession (which is really not that new) is neither fully about self-improvement or narcissism or homoeroticism. It's about upholding structures of masculinity and the image of what a man - at least a good, self-respecting man, of course - should be, especially if he wants approval or acceptance from other men.

This idea of accepting the male body can be summed up in the cover photo of the new issue of Details. The man on the cover, a hunky model who might as well be nameless due to the magazine's framing of him as little more than a pretty face (and arms and pecs and abs), stares into my eyes. He tells me two contradictory things: 1) that I'm supposed to sexually desire men who look like him, and 2) that I could never fulfill those sexual desires with a man who looks like him - unless, of course, I too look like him. The subtext of the cover is a call to action that whispers, "If you want my approval, and if you want me to see you as a real man, you need to comply with 'America's New Male Body Obsession.'"

I agree with Naomi Wolf's statement that our societal compliance with beauty - a concept agreed upon by males - is a roadblock to women moving forward. But more than this, I propose some rough idea of a corollary to her statement: Gay men also fall prey to this system of beauty, which further reinforces Western male dominance. Again, men are determining what is attractive - but in these cases, they're doing so with regard to other men. I am complacent with this structure of beauty based on judgement and implications of superiority and inferiority, and so are other gay men. That's a dangerous - albeit largely unconscious - way of continuing to prop up that system of male dominance.

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Beauty is not "one thing". It's not "a woman being skinny, tanned, blonde, and in a revealing outfit". "Beauty" is a standard of traits deemed desirable by some other party, and the example listed is but one standard of beauty. It seems, then, problematic to call all men "agreed upon" by a standard of beauty. They aren't. No one is. It doesn't mean that there isn't a predominant standard of "beauty" in America, but it does mean that you can't reject what "is" and "isn't" beauty by the traits themselves. That only seems possible in animals, where time after time, the peacock with the largest, prettiest feathers or the bird of paradise with the best display and dance is always the most desirable.

Beauty for someone else's sake is always oppressive. Even if beauty was controlled by women (all agreed?), that would only mean Woman A is conforming to the expectations set by Woman B, and so on for everyone else. A non-male controlled beauty standard would be just as oppressive as a male one, but the standard would just be different. It could be "butch is beautiful", which would result in Lipstick forcing to conform; "Androgynous is beautiful" would result in shorter haircuts and breast tapping seeing an upswing, and vice-versa.

For gay men, bears were supposed to be the anti-gay beauty, but they've also become just as regimented (not to mention frustratingly interpretative) about what is "beautiful". You have to have heft, you need to be furry, you need to have muscles, you need to be tall, need to have a beard, DON'T trim the hedges, etc. (And depending on who you talk to and where, being an attractive bear could mean the OPPOSITE of all those things). So it seems that no matter who is in control and what standard they're rejecting, they inevitably become their own oppressive standard.

It seems the only solution is to reject the idea of any beauty standard in entirety, but that just takes you from a macrocosm to a microcosm, where you're left trying to conform to meet the specific standard of your desired romantic interest. So you've dismantled the beauty standard for gym bunnies in general, but you haven't (and can't) dismantle "that guy you really like"'s personal thing for gym bunnies. So if you really want him to notice you, are you going to hit the gym or give up and find someone into boys with "what little arm muscles you have"? In the end, is it any better to hear "You're beautiful, but you're just not beautiful TO ME"?

While sitting in my favorite coffee shop I play a little game. I call it, "who is the boss?". Shoes, cuffs, trousers, suit coat - blazer on fridays, and hair cut. Shoes are immaculate and have leather soles. The cuffs "just" break. Trousers are well fitted and pleats only on the slim men. The coat fits across the back of the shoulders. Coat and trousers are wool, period. The tone is less is more. The boss knows how to dress.

In the club it may be about ideal beauty, in the office it is about presentation.

I agree with luminum. The article itself is basically a catalog of cultural forces and milestones that already exist. Details isn't telling you what your body should like, Details is telling you what popular culture says your body should look like. I'm sure Details could put an intelligent, well-adjusted but not particularly attractive man on the cover but would that magazine sell any copies? Would you buy it?

It also implies that you should be attracted to people mainly for their personality traits. Which is a load of bull.

Personality is important in maintaining a relationship, but ultimately the drive to find a boyfriend/lover/husband is sexual. Otherwise you'd be fine with friends. And you can't control sexual attraction, as many gay should know by now.

Point is, if it hurts you to get turned down due to failing someone else's standards, you can try to rise up to the standards, or you can move on to the next person whose standards you will meet. You're not entitled to be found attractive in any circumstance -- that is the prerogative of the person you're courting.

Details isn't telling you what your body should look like. It's telling you what it needs to look like if you seek a wider pool. You are free to narrow it down in exchange for not having to invest into changing something you're happy with.

When I turned 50 I decided I just don't go there anymore.

So I don't go there.

The article and the comments I have read so far miss one important facet of this topic. Conforming to the expected presentations in the Gender Binary.Based on your birth assigned gender you are expected to strive to look like David Beckham, or Jennifer Aniston respectively. If your 'beauty', or 'handsomeness' isn't up to snuff, that's one thing. But if you are genetically a David Beckham and feel more natural in a skirt and heels, that can get you killed! The societal pressure on cissexual individuals to strive to a contrived, manufactured ideal pales in comparison to the pressure a Transgender person feels!

"When I turned 50 I decided I just don't go there anymore." ...Amen, and Thank You A.J.

Adam it's good to hear from you again, and thanks for such a thoughtful, well written article. There was one statement you made that sent me off into another line of thought completely: "a hunky model who might as well be nameless..." It started me thinking about the anonymity of our culture - not just LGBT, but everyone - and the removal of ourselves from the mass. We've become disconnected from each other, hidden behind a digital wall of screen-names and manufactured profiles. It makes me question the motivation behind the hype for everyone to achieve this "beauty" standard. Is it really as simple as peacocks and plumage, or is it something inside us screaming for the connection to others that we've lost in this digital anonymity?

I can't accept that it's all about appearance. The human animal has never been that uncomplicated. I also can't fully accept that it's only a desperate attempt to attract the attention of others. As Momma Rosie would have said, "there's more to gumbo than shrimp." Our pervasive "Youth & Beauty" obsession carries within it as much complexity as the personalities of the individuals who follow it.

For myself, I'll admit that the Details coverboy has his charms. But experience has taught me something more. Of my ex'es - and there have been plenty - two in particular stand out as perfect examples. One was "beautiful", perfect build and handsome face... and then he'd wake up. He made my life a psycho-drama for 3 1/2 years, until I finally could take no more of it. The other was tall and rangy, looked bug-eyed behind his coke-bottle glasses, his nose had been broken and was a tiny bit too big for his face. For 19 months he made me laugh, made me feel like I was the center of his universe, made me bless the Gods for the gift of his love, and in my eyes he was beautiful. I cherished every moment I had with him. On New Years Eve he was killed in an accident, and the joy and beauty went out of my life. But his brief presence confirmed something my Gram tried to teach me: that substance, not surface, makes real beauty.

Thanks to everyone for taking the time to comment.

I'll agree that the issue of beauty - how it's constructed, what it really means, the ways in which it differs from person to person and community to community - is very complicated. But we shouldn't let the fact that it's complicated stop us from talking about it and analyzing it and understanding our relationships with it. Beauty is a significant force in our lives and we should be able to talk about it and, if we feel so compelled, reject it - at least its mainstream constructions.

One of the many great aspects of being a man is that we never have to worry about how we look or what we wear. I have always embraced that philosophy and have only had positive results. I get hit on heavily by women and men everywhere without doing anything related to appearance. Having the advantage of good genes is extremely nice but I would hope even if I was not naturally handsome I would never "spend any amount of time or money on my hair, pluck the hairs between my eyebrows, and buy T-shirts that are a bit too small for me". By the way, any man who has ever shaved or trimmed any hair on any part of his body except for his face is not a real man and not attractive to gay men.