In 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.
This 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.