The Age of the Hairless Ball Sack

Do we agree that there’s a body image problem for men? Do we not think so? Is this disputed? Google image “statue of Adonis” or “Michelangelo’s David” sometime. These things have been making mere men push away their bowls of gruel untasted for eons. “HOW CAN I COMPETE WITH THAT?” about summed things up for our great-great-great-great-great grandwhatevers when they contemplated the statuary and oil paintings from antiquity. But what about today? Is there an ideal that’s flouted in advertising, entertainment, and print? Yes. Yes, there is and yes there are. Generations have been raised on the Abercrombie & Fitch catalog, American Apparel, Aeropostale, Axe Body Spray, and entertainment programming with everything from Matthew McConaughey to inexplicably shirtless vampires who must do crunches in their coffins when no one’s looking. (It’s the only explanation I can come up with.)

Cast an eye at the rack of magazines at your local supermarket and study it. One side infers that if women have a wrinkle, an ounce of fat, chipped fingernails, a small chest, anything less than a $30k a month haute couture habit, yellow teeth, crooked teeth, crow’s feet, last year’s haircut (pixie), or a flat ass they aren’t worth photographing (i.e. noticing). Even character actresses have to be 10s now, and leading actresses have certainly put covergirl supermodels out to pasture. The other side of the magazine rack tells men that a desirable woman would only consider propagating her DNA with a man who’s six feet tall with hair that’s thick, tousled, and wet, 1.5 days’ growth of carefully tended facial hair (hey, none below the Adam’s apple, Jasper), a junkie’s skeletal spaghetti-stick frame, and inexplicably ripped abs, back, shoulders, and biceps. And if his hands and feet have been soaked and clipped and filed, so much the better!

Some people actually look like this naturally. The world is their oyster. But most of the rest of us kick the ground and curse rotten old Fate. Then there are growing populations of others who’ll actually try to tweak their relationships with reality by attempting, in a Jenga-like way, to become more like these people we’re visually inundated with on tv, in print, on our computers, on the walls of the stores we shop in, or sitting in First Class as we pass by.

Right about now is when I expect to see the first knives. “But men don’t DO anything about it. Women do.”

It’s simply not true. Do men attempt to become their ideals in the sheer numbers that women do? No. I grant you that. No, no, no. Whole forests have sprung up where the seeds of self-doubt have been sown among women. Only orchards and scrub pine have grown up around us men. But they are growing fast and if you look back a few generations, men at that time stood on a featureless, sandy landscape with just a few arid knee-high plants around them. But it grows now. Oh boy, does it grow.

As proof of my meagre declaration, ask yourself: when was the last time you saw a man with a head like Fred from I Love Lucy or like Don Rickles? Bald on top with hairy sidewalls? This is a very common presentation of male pattern baldness, after all. You don’t see it anymore, do you? Men who are going bald now shave their entire heads before they’re thirty to imitate younger, more hirsute men who’ve been doing it as an homage to Michael Jordan, The Rock, and other celebrities for decades. Why? Vanity. Depending on your head shape it usually does look better, which I suppose is good enough reason, but it has the added benefit of aping a younger man’s style. After all, dropping a few years is one of the stated goals of the body image acolyte.

Men’s magazines in the old days catered to cocktails, jokes, vanilla politics, fishing gear, and a couple of stodgy pictures of tweed suits with a few added pictorials of unattainable women from B movies and Italian cinema. These days the cover photos show abs you could bounce a manhole cover off, hollow Valentino stares, and headlines blaring about diets, workouts, sex tips, extreme pursuits, and…(gasp) unattainable women. The message is: If you aren’t 135 lbs and wing-suiting Kilimanjaro with $2,000 sunglasses and gobs of gel in your hair, then you’ve got to be some kind of irredeemable asshole.

I call this the ‘Cosmo’ effect.  It’s coming through the walls.

If you’re a 25 year-old man, six feet tall with a full head of hair and a mouthful of white teeth and have always been an athlete, these magazines will seem like a long lost bro whispering in your ear. You can buy any garbage that strikes your fancy at a thrift store and still look amazing. You won’t have to pay any attention to the siren song of kale smoothies because your metabolism is that of a squirrel and only when you learn to overdo it on beer (you will, don’t worry) and smoke (you will, don’t worry) and work (again: you will, I’m sorry to say) and goofing off (you’ll feel you’re owed this after all the beer and smoke and work), will you look at these magazines or characters on Vampire Diaries and suddenly blurt out, “Who are these people? What planet did they parachute in from??”

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“Men’s Health” September 2013 cover (source: ebookee.org)

Imagine that one day, the long-standing girlfriend of this man dumps him for a notorious kale dealer who is known to agents of the Department of Agriculture as a kale-based person of interest. Our friend, who has let himself go in the manner described above, angrily snatches Men’s Health off the shelf during a late night frozen burrito run and then—whammo! Just like that!—he’s off to the races. The Future Mrs. Dude, he concludes after a cursory flip-through of Men’s Health, is not in it to win Don Rickles. He buys the magazine, makes an intensive study of it, mails in the subscription card.

He gets a trainer, something his ancestors gaping down from Valhalla actively roll their eyes at. He eventually gets down to his college weight and his trainer, who’s no fool, says, “Why stop there?” His friends pre-wince before arriving at restaurants with him because every one of his orders lately has become a Ciceronian oration to the waiter about what he will and won’t eat. Our friend now goes to Outward Bound for vacation, so into it does he get, and then takes up an extreme sport with friends from the gym. Cyclocross? Ocean swim racing? Triathloning? Altitude trekking in the Kumoniwannalayas?

He now removes the hair on his back, chest, forearms, and privates. “For the aerodynamics,” he tells his eye-rolling friends who wonder not only whether they’re supposed to laugh or cry but also if they’re supposed to pretend he’s an Olympic athlete now.

Hey, he’s on the market. It’s no joke. It used to be good enough to just have a Y chromosome and a pulse, but those days are gone. There’s a lot of competition out there. Grey hair is a deal buster. He gets that taken care of.  His clothes…his clothes!  The see-through boxers, oh my god! His trainer convinces him he’s earned a whole new wardrobe with that weight-loss and lifestyle change. The trainer is no fool: His wife works at a high-end department store who will gladly help him pick out and try things on. The magazines say European tailored suits that pull in tight under the ribs and then he’s got to get tailored shirts with collar shapes he’d previously been too conservative (read: chubby) to try. Oh, and there’s this wonderful man in Paris who makes shoes by hand in a grubby little atelier for all the royal houses of Europe. A two-year waiting list. Get on it now! Watches! Cufflinks! A weekender satchel that costs more than his first car.  And on and on. Over the course of a week’s noontimes he gets his crusty teeth lasered whiter than any sour cream.

This poor schlub is mere moments away from lifting his fingers out of goo in alarm after hearing Madge say, “You’re soaking in it!”

There’ll be yoga and fish oil capsules and Michelob Ultra.  A friend who’s been down this road before will praise his progress, then tip him the number of a doctor who can raise those beagle-y eyelids, iron out that stoic’s forehead and rid him of those pesky laugh lines. And here’s another number for the hair-replacement guy. Oh, no, the friend says, Don’t worry: IT’S YOUR OWN HAIR.

From where? His foot? He’s waxed it all off.

He pushes his cart through the organic supermarket in a tight white T-shirt and pants that fall somewhere on the spectrum between yoga spray-ons and track warm-ups. He swings his now scrawny ass as he moseys down the aisles, leaning his forearms on the push bar, showing off the new hitch in his get-along to anyone unfortunate enough to inhale his trailing fog bank of pheromones.

And so it goes. He’s bought into the whole body image thing hook, line, and sinker. At best, he slightly resembles the man he used to be. And why? Because he’s now in equal parts thrall and horrible enslavement to male body image.

He’s an extreme case in that he bought the whole package, but the strength of body image is a gravitational field that pulls on every guy to some extent, more strongly at the coasts. Take the list above. Just about every man you know is doing one or more of these things where in the past his father and grandfathers and the line of his people back to the beginning did none of them. They had been perfectly satisfied with dying at 62 and looking like centenarians for the last fifteen years of their lives.

While I salute the increase in health and fitness this burgeoning cult has brought about, am excited by the extension of longevity, and have no problem with minor adjustments in appearance that add much to one’s looks, I do have a problem with the fear of ageing that seems to be fuelling much of this. When I’m 70 I hope I’m not afraid to appear to be seventy. Many men are afraid and more and more will be. They fear obsolescence, being discarded by a culture that worships youth, being passed over by the gene pool. They’ve come to distrust a masculinity that over time rations out to men the very thing that once made them male. So they distrust themselves. The net result is that they make a conscious choice to pretend to remain as boys. This is bad behavior, even for boys.

You women will look at these goings-on and smile knowingly, or sadly, I’m sure. This is the world you grew up in. You’ve never known another. It’s been accelerating exponentially and now it’s sucking the men in too.

Just look at all those geezers killing themselves in triathlons who should be spending their final decades watching TCM with their grandchildren.

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Kim Kardashian and Kanye West (source: 1clicknews.com)

What all this means is that We, the People have never been more boring. Or infantile. Or more spiritually vacant. And, yes, I’m including those thousands of years when we did nothing but stare into a fire after dinner, occasionally spitting into it, and whistling the same five notes of a tune over and over. In the last 30 years, the world around us and within us has exploded with light and information and possibility and yet we still choose to remain behind and explore every last detail in the narcissistic and fanatical terrain of Self, a terrible and lonely place of high winds, enormous shadows and paralyzing doubt.

If you’ve read this far for an answer, bless your trusting heart! There is no answer.  Well, that’s not true. There is an answer, just as there has always been an answer.  There’s far more to living than what we see on the surface of life. Two perfectly amazing looking people aren’t necessarily compatible or even interesting to each other after first meeting, though our surface minds would tell us that they would be. Our eyes look across crowds and often stop to take in the most attractive. Why? Well, it seems to hit a reward center of the brain and release a chemical that gives us pleasure. That reptilian need is hard to overcome. Ask any addict.

Not everything about how we’re made is suited for the present. Most of it was adapted for past times, when life was short and sharp and our species was concerned with launching itself into the future and not dying out. We’ve used so many of our evolutionary quirks to get here, but now that the species is secure and we’ve built civilizations, much of that old information is useless. What we’re using to see and process with today is essentially a primitive mating software that hasn’t updated in a million years. Surely we can intellectually override it by realizing what it is and what it was intended for, and that most of it doesn’t really apply to life as it’s lived today. Body image is a direct result of that outdated software. It’s time we recognize that and attribute to it a far lesser importance in our lives.

Doing the override is hard. It’s fighting your naturally occurring instincts. But it can be done. Question your hair-trigger responses to the images around you, the people around you. Ask yourself: How plausible is this? Why do I assign that a value above what I know to be more important? What earthly use is that attribute I’m salivating over? Get into the habit of looking at bodies and images and body ideals with clear eyes. You need not be ruled by them, or be defined by them, or hurt by them any more.

In time, you may even pull them down.

Feature image courtesy of thefashionisto.com

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