We've come a long way from the Brawny man, created in 1974 to sell paper towels. With his flannel shirt and crossed arms, he looks like a nonchalant lumberjack. He looks like a real man.
But times have changed (as has the Brawny man) since 1974. Modern male icons idealize a different aspect of the masculine. Take your typical cologne model, for instance -- tan angular face, straight white teeth, and a thick head of dark hair. No flannel shirt for this guy. In fact, he's not wearing much at all, showing off his bare, chiseled abs gleaming like the plastic six-pack on Barbie's boyfriend Ken.
Today's idealized man, dare I say, appears less "brawny" and more beautiful, like the typical glowing female we are accustomed to seeing in magazines. Guys are increasingly feeling the pressure to pay attention to their appearance, and the gap between male and female attentiveness seems to be fast closing. But is it?
Contemporary males and females both feel tremendous pressure to attain an ideal. In a 2007 survey by UCLA researchers, the majority of women and more than one-third of men expressed interest in plastic surgery. In addition, 21 percent of women and 11 percent of men described themselves as unattractive, and 31 percent of women and 16 percent of men reported feeling so uncomfortable in a swimsuit that they avoid wearing one in public.
While men suffer the same scourges of body-envy that women do, they are up against a wall that women don't have to face. As a society, we've grown to expect women to obsess about their bodies. In contrast, we expect flippancy from men. Guys just aren't supposed to care about how they look; they should be retrosexual. Apart from showering, shaving and applying deodorant, grooming rituals for Average Joes are frowned upon. Too much facial hair trimming, cologne-splashing or heaven forbid manicuring takes an ideal man into the realm of the metrosexual -- and beyond.
"In a lot of guys' heads, it is not macho to smell like [crap] and not shower," says Arthur Serer, a student at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. "But among most guys, excessive grooming is associated with gayness."
The subject of grooming rituals is so fraught with stigma among men that even discussing it is taboo, particularly with other men. "A lot of guys would not have even agreed to this interview [if it were] with a guy," Serer confided. Indeed, imagine two men sitting over coffee, comparing manicures, hair-color treatments, or waxes in the groin area. Without sounding too naively stereotypical, these conversations just don't typically happen among straight men.
So men are left trying to reconcile a new ideal of attractiveness with old societal expectations regarding masculinity. These attempts, shrouded in secrecy, yield an absurd result that is clearly articulated by C.J. Pascoe in the book Dude, You're A Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. In essence, "masculinity becomes the carefully crafted appearance of not caring about appearance," Pascoe writes. We see it today as the five-o-clock shadow look made famous by Grey's Anatomy's Patrick Dempsey, which by now has trickled down even to Disney superstar Zac Efron. While scruffy in appearance, the look requires careful grooming. You want to look nonchalant, like the Brawny man. But you don't want to look like you spent a month in the forest.
This pressure paradox creates difficulties for today's men. On the one hand, they face new expectations from women who are now achieving financial independence and are seeking attractive and sensitive, rather than rich and stoic, partners. On the other hand, men also must face their buddies, who may label sensitivity and careful grooming as homosexuality.
Nowhere else is male-to-male homophobia more visible than in American high schools, where young men are still searching for their identities. In high school, the line between stereotypical heterosexual and homosexual behavior is rigid and cannot be crossed. To illustrate this dynamic, Pascoe recounts an anecdote from River High School, located in California. Because male students were so worried about appearing to care about their looks, none would change their clothes after autoshop class, even though they were greasy from working with car parts. In high school, nonchalance rules.
It rules elsewhere, too. Middle-aged men going gray still want to look young and sexy. But they don't want to use hair dye for fear of seeming like they care about looking sexy. To reconcile their dilemma, these men turn to products like "Touch of Gray"' hair dye. The concept is to achieve sexiness in age -- salt and pepper hair without too much salt or pepper.
And how do guys talk about this dilemma?
They don't. They rationalize, keep secrets, and fib. If a man gets his hair trimmed at a hair salon, he certainly doesn't tell his buddies where he's going. Cuts are done at barbershops or no-frills places like "Supercuts," not a salon. If he carefully picks out an outfit each morning, he "will do it on his own" and pretend he threw on random clothes, according to Serer. And if someone does find out about his grooming habits, he may use the ultimate rationalization -- the hair gel or the coordinated outfit was all to "get the girl" or the job. Unlike women, who can compare eyebrow waxes, makeup brands, and exercise regimens with each other, men cloak their body concerns in secrecy.
I'm not advocating an increased acceptance of body obsessions for men. We have seen the ramifications of pervasive appearance anxieties in women through the explosion of eating disorders and deflated self-image -- clearly the pressure to primp does more harm than good. But while we should not reproduce the worries of women in the male population, we can at least learn from how women deal with these issues. They talk with other women at work, at home, and in public. They write books and articles in protest. They do not suffer in silence. Our men can do the same -- they are stronger than secrecy. If only we could get them out of the closet.
Julie Goodman, a student at Brandeis University, co-authored this blog.