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The myth of the "ugly" male body
The body is meant to be seen, not all covered up.
You might be surprised, but the vast majority of straight men do not have any awareness of their own physical attractiveness whatsoever. A man may know what it is to be appreciated as a provider and/or confidant; he may know what it feels like to be loved and adored, and looked up to as a leader and role model, but I can assure you with good authority that very few men have actually had the sense of being longed for in a physical sense. You see, we boys have been indoctrinated by society into thinking that the female body is a work of art worthy of display, while the male body is a horrendously hideous hunk of junk, practical enough for the menial tasks of killing sabre-tooth tigers and skinning wooly mammoths, but nowhere near comparison to the female body in terms of aesthetic attractiveness. In other words, while the female body is an indication of The Creator's artistic genius, the male body is a representation of His artistic mistakes. In this essay, I attempt to debunk the myth of the male body's aesthetic inferiority, and maintain that the male body is no less beautiful and worthy of physical longing than the female body.
Unless you've been living under a rock, it should come as no surprise that contemporary Western women enjoy more fashion freedom than their male counterparts. The average woman's wardrobe contains a vast array of garments which exist in all shapes and sizes, and these range from sleeveless blouses to backless tops, from suits to trousers and ankle socks. When you compare it with the average man's highly restrictive choice of garments (no skirts, no backless tops, and Lord forbid you wear anything other than a conservative 3-piece shirt and pair of long slacks on formal occasions), the world of fashion does seem pretty bleak for the boys. Is it any surprise why many of us guys wear women's clothing? It's because we can't find anything that suits us within the rigidly defined norms of male fashion! In fact, with the exception of that one rule of decency which forbids women from exposing their bare breasts in public (a double standard no less, but soon to be abolished in our highly feminist society), I think most of us can agree that women have much more leeway as to how much skin they can expose in public. It certainly doesn't help with the running dogs of the patriarchy, the so-called guardians of male dignity, rambling on about how men should cover up to be cool. Here's a snippet of what a male blogger whose name I will keep anonymous has to say about men showing off their physiques through their clothing:
"They wear tank tops all the time (the ones they call ''wife beaters'')... or those sleeveless T shirts. These are the same guys that wear Under Armour shirt to the gym (hint... all of us look much more muscular in those shirts, but they are really corny). Make sure and wear fashionable clothes that ''happen'' to show off your nice physique. Maybe a fitted short sleeve vintage T shirt instead of a tank top. Wearing clothes that are blatantly meant to show off muscle mass make you look totally cheesy. Show off your body in the context of ''good fashion''.
However, this same blogger contradicts himself with regard to handing out fashion advice to women:
'I think women are too conservative at times. There are times when it is appropriate to wear skimpy clothing, especially if you are in great shape. You won't look good forever, so enjoy it while you can!''
So let me get this straight. This guy is basically saying, "If you're a bloke, then please cover up. Nobody wants to see your ugly male body anyway, especially not women! But if you're a woman, then please bear all! Because everybody wants to see the beautiful female body as opposed to the horrid male body which is better left to the imagination." I don't know about you, but from what I can see, the undertones of his advice simply reeks of patriarchal conditioning. So this guy is basically saying that a woman who shows off her body looks sexy, but a man who shows off his looks stupid. It's funny though, how these so-called straight male fashion gurus seem to have the world all sorted out, especially since "the world" is a phenomenon that occurs through their rigid, hetero-normative viewpoints. Perhaps they haven't considered that women also possess libidos, and that straight women also lust after the sexualized male body in the same way men lust after the sexualized female body. Don't believe me? Then go ahead; go and pay Madame Josephine's a visit on Hen's Night, and see what I mean! And check out what this lady had to say about the current trend of today:
The male body is an exquisite miracle that should be honored. I, for one, am so tired of the female body and it's glamorous position in our society. Give it a rest girls and let they guys turn it on.
...When I see the male form, I stare in awe at the incredible beauty of the shape, form and texture. It's not strength, power or any of those other typical male associated attributes that stand out, it's the sexuality, the passion, the way they are enjoying the way they look and sharing it with others, particularly me.
...I can't describe how sick I am of having to see the female body sexualized all over the place. I can't go anywhere without being exposed to the images of scantily clad women posing in provocative ways. It's everywhere, t.v., magazines, movies, games, anywhere and everywhere. It just doesn't reflect what I want to see when I go out into our over-the-top commercial society.
The fact is that:
"Males have always determined and governed the rules of modesty—both for women and for themselves. Men have always decided, in this and every other culture, how the body will be displayed, and where, and to what effect."
(Kevin Esser, Baggy Pants)
It's interesting to note that in Ancient Greece and Rome, it was not the female body that was glorified as it is today, but rather, the male body. Ancient Greco-Roman society was of the impression that the male body was essentially more artistically pleasing than the female form, in the same way that contemporary Western society is of the impression that the female body is more artistically pleasing than the male form. Of course, it is important to note that these societies were under a powerful gay influence (I don't mean to sound homophobic, but many of the big men of Ancient Greece were actually homosexual men; prior to the advent of Christianity, homosexuality in Greco-Roman society was not at all considered taboo). As Esser puts it, it was men who have always more or less been the governors of the body's modesty. In that regard, Ancient Greece and Rome could well be said to have been no less patriarchal than contemporary Western society; the only difference being that while the former was a gay male patriarchy which catered for the homosexual male gaze, the latter is a straight male patriarchy, which caters for the straight male gaze. In my humble opinion, neither of these phenomenon is healthy; both of which undoubtedly end up repressing a certain segment of the population from expressing their sexuality, and a certain segment of the population from enjoying the aesthetic value of the opposite sex.
If you were to observe the trend from the 60s, onwards to the present day, you would notice that boys and men did enjoy a brief period of liberty with their bodies during the liberal era of the 60s, onwards to the 80s. It was the era of Jimi and Elvis, an era which celebrated freedom and diversity over conformity. In fact, I even managed to get hold of a photo of a male model from the 1960s in a (manly) dress! (Fig. 4) Men proudly strutted around the beaches with their speedos and short shorts, which came in a wide assortment of colors from red to yellow. They weren't afraid of donning tank tops and tight tees, of growing long hair and toying with the androgynous.
The original Flower Child exuberance gave way, in the Seventies, to the feral excess of punk and glam, a carnival of hedonism and sexual ambivalence featuring the likes of Queen, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, David Bowie. Long hair on girls, long hair on boys. Short-shorts on girls, short-shorts on boys. The teen idols from these years—tender boytoys such as Davy Jones, David Cassidy and his brother Shaun, Leif Garrett, Tony DeFranco—were the perfect avatars of this new androgyny.
There was a unisex worship of the id, a unisex celebration of the Body Erotic that reached its heyday with disco, with Village People and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, with macho men doing the milkshake and having fun at the YMCA. Suddenly, remarkably, gay and mainstream were one and the same, no segregation, no distinction between queer and straight, an entire culture cheerfully and unwittingly homo-eroticized. The hetero aesthetic and the homo aesthetic had become indistinguishable among young males—in matters of music, hairstyles, and, yes, clothing—no thought or care given beyond looking good and feeling good.
(Esser, Baggy Pants)
Hell, it was not until recently when I discovered that straight women DID indeed desire the male body, and that most straight guys were wrong in their assumptions that women had no interest whatsoever in the male body. Until of course, that fateful day 2 years ago when my dad remarked that there was a woman who was checking me out. At the time, I still could not believe that women saw the male body in the same way men regarded the female body - it was all too incredulous for my patriarch-indoctrinated mind. But secretly, I had hoped that it was true; that I might be longed for by women in the same way I longed for them. Soon, I would meet women who were honest enough to voice their desire for the male body; women who were not ashamed of admitting that they found the male body, and mine in particular, to be attractive. (Many men are actually under the assumption that all women are asexual, in that they have absolutely no visual interest in men) And it wasn't as if I am some single-digit bodyfat underwear model-esque type either. I'm a boy with a healthy weight for my body type, with good muscle tone, but I'm not unrealistically lean either.
In that bygone era, the dark ages of conservative, homophobic tyranny had yet to befall the world. The baggy surfer shorts which have become a uniform of sorts for beach-going men of today had not yet come into existence, and all men, regardless of their sexuality and/or body type, wore speedos without shame. Our forefathers enjoyed a much greater degree of personal liberation than we do today, and would doubtless be ridiculed in this present day and age, in today's highly conservative, hetero-normative era of GQ and Esquire.
It is not only men who have bought into the notion that the male body is detestable, and should be deliberately kept hidden away from the naked eye. It seems that some women also seem to regard the male body with a certain disgust that resembles that of our hardcore conservative brothers. In the article by The Guardian UK writer Jess Cartner-Morley titled The male cleavage: put it away, boys!, the author seems to be highly critical of even a slight display of male chest.
I have tried, really I have, to look on the bright side and welcome this development as a step toward gender equality. But (a) is it not a little depressing that of everything women have contributed to civilisation, it is displaying your naked chest that men have picked up on, and (b) well, just, eew. I can't take it any more. Those photographs of Cowell in his boxfresh white drawstring trousers and mirrored sunglasses, an overgrown Ken doll dressed unconvincingly for kung fu, were bad enough, but then Cowell has long famously struggled with the concept of where one's waistband should sit, so it is only to be expected that he would misjudge how much chest to display. No, the final straw came when Jude Law – the 11th best-dressed man in Britain, according to GQ magazine – took Sienna out for dinner in Mayfair, dressed in a V-neck sweater slashed as low as a wrestler's vest. Gentlemen, please. Put it away.
How any heterosexual woman can come up with something like this is beyond me. It does not seem, in this case, that the author is simply pointing out a fashion faux pas made by men. It would seem that her vilification of male sexual expression results not from personal sentiment, but rather, through social conditioning, which manifests itself in the highly prudish manner we as a society treat the male physique. It almost seems as if the author is deliberately going out of her way to vilify the male body with choices of words, such as "ew", in order to conform to social expectations of her gender. You certainly don't hear of men telling women to "cover up"; it would certainly be unusual, for instance, of a man saying something to the extent of, "ladies, I've tried. I've tried really hard to appreciate your boobs, to be visually turned on by your bodies, but I just can't! So please, for the sake of us all, and for the sake of your own dignity, please cover up"! I imagine that a man who said something to that extent would either A) Have his sexuality thrown into question B) Be regarded as a fundamentalist religious nut whose delicate sense of propriety is offended by the slightest display of female flesh. C) Be labelled a sexist misogynist pig who has no right to tell women what to wear. But it would seem that it is perfectly acceptable, heck, even admirable, for women to say that men should cover up, which reflects the misogynistic attitude that implies women have absolutely no interest in the male body, that they have sex not because they enjoy it, but simply to please their husbands/boyfriends. (Which is an extremely male chauvinistic as well as misandrist way to look at it, because you're implying the notion of woman as a prostitute who rewards the man in her life with her body, and the man as a pimp who provides for his wife/girlfriend in exchange for sensual and visual pleasure)
Boys in contemporary Western society have been taught that women are a type of being which exists on a higher plane of existence than themselves; we're taught that women are more gentle, less aggressive, more hygienic, less animalistic, etc (Homer and Marge Simpson for instance; while Homer and his son Bart are bumbling incompetent slobs, his wife and daughter are the complete opposite), and that the female body is a work of art, while the male body is something disgusting best kept hidden away. You see it on TV all the time; the stereotype of the male body as grotesque is certainly nothing new. In the last scene of The Hot Chick (2002), Rob Schneider's body is portrayed as a hairy, sweaty, bumbling lump of flesh; the very caricature of humanity. On the other hand, his female counterpart, dressed in a tux, is seen as being possessed of a certain dignity which is the very anti-thesis of Schneider's cross-dressing portrayal. The message is clear: While women can successfully pull off men's clothes without making fools of themselves, the male body is so ugly that if men were to try donning clothes of the opposite sex, they would simply fail, and be humiliated in the process.
And then there is the school of thought which maintains that women are interested in the male body, but they are only interested in ONE particular type of male body (e.g. Calvin Klein models with <10% body fat). The obvious lack of "plus-sized" male models gives men the impression that in order for women to desire their bodies, they have no choice but to strive for that "ripped" ideal, despite the fact that it may not be in their genetic cards. You certainly do not hear of men being told to "love their bodies". The moment a man brings up his body issues, he more often than not gets rebuked. He is often told (by other men no less) to "stop making excuses", that everyone can get a six pack if they try hard enough. (That may be true, but the fact is that six pack abs may not be healthy in the long run for certain individuals, it would be like naturally curvaceous Marilyn Monroe trying to attain and maintain Gwyneth Paltrow's naturally slender frame; not a healthy pursuit at all). Society has finally began to admit that female beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, and this is reflected by the success of the so-called "plus-sized" female models, e.g. Crystal Renn and Lizzie Miller. However, society still lack a solid "plus-sized" male modelling scene, which is an issue that I feel needs to be addressed, for the sake of men who do not meet the impossible-for-some ideal espoused by Abercombie/Calvin Klein/etc. I mean to say that while women of all shapes and sizes are beginning to be represented in the media, society still has a very skewed perception on what the ideal male body should look like. To you boys out there who have been trying for six pack abs, you need to realize that you may be hotter than you think you are; just as straight men can appreciate the aesthetic beauty of different female body types (don't believe that men are only attracted to thin women; that is absolute bullsh*t), women are not only attracted to male bodies with six pack abs and V-cut torsos. Male beauty also comes in different shapes and sizes, and to say that a Calvin Klein model has a better body than say, me, for instance, would simply not be a valid comparison. That would be like saying Kate Moss has a better body than Mae West, when in fact neither is essentially "better" than the other. They are simply different, that is all.
Men's fashion only comes in one type these days: Fitted/Baggy and ALWAYS painfully modest. The men's department is devoid of backless tops, short fitting shorts, tube tops, etc. It almost seems as if there is no market for figure-hugging/daring cuts in the straight men's wardrobe. Women often remark how boring men's fashion is, and I have to agree. And don't tell me it's because women aren't interested in viewing the male body, and men aren't interested in showing their bodies. They ARE interested, but for some reason, it seems that most women aren't too keen on voicing their desire for the male body, and men don't seem to keen on voicing their desire for personal liberty. We like to condemn the fundamental Muslims for their repression of female sexual expression, but have we considered that we are indeed a case of pot calling the kettle black? Perhaps some day we may even be covering men's heads with the contemporary male version of the Hijab, lest any sight of male flesh were to upset the delicate sensitivities of the patriarchal male gaze.
My point in writing this hub was not, as many people seem to think, in order to place men in a subordinate position to women, nor to place women in an authoritative position over the male body. I simply want to make people aware that the male body is in no way any less beautiful and worthy of display than the female body, and that men would do well to realize that their bodies have a wonderful kind of beauty that is not only appreciated by gay men, but also by straight women. It has perhaps been one of the most reassuring things for me to know that straight women desire the male body in the same way straight men desire the female body, and that I didn't need to look like a single-digit bodyfat Calvin Klein man in order to be construed as having an attractive body. And if you really love your husband/boyfriend, you will take my advice and tell him how beautiful he is in your eyes. You will tell him how much you long for his body, how much you long for its touch, its smell, its taste, its texture. You will tell him that his body is a work of art, no less desirable in any way than yours.