Do you enjoy the above image? Most likely. Society has finally come to accept what ladies have known all along: women can experience visual arousal (who knew). And in recent years, men are increasingly — and more blatantly — on the receiving end of this equal-opportunity objectification. So how's that working out for everyone?
November's DETAILS features a cover story on men's growing obsession with body image. The piece is built around a slideshow of 41 images, some familiar and some obscure, that illustrate how "the male gaze has turned upon itself." Along with not-quite gratuitous shirtless pics of everyone from Barack Obama to Cristiano Ronaldo to Marc Jacobs, the slideshow cleverly charts the cultural turning points over the last five decades that have brought us to a world where men are now held to as unattainable a beauty standard as women.
It's a powerful assortment of images, and as a package (ahem) it provides compelling evidence that men are more barraged than ever before with images of perfection. Eating disorders may not yet be exclusively a "dude thing", but anorexia and exercise addiction have skyrocketed among young men in recent years. The emphasis on hardness and hairlessness grows ever stronger; pecs keep on getting bigger and smoother. But DETAILS, strangely, leaves out a key component of male body image anxiety: worries about penis size and performance. Men are increasingly expected to have erections that are as perpetually rigid (and as unobscured by hair) as their chests. Pornography is at least as powerful as other forms of media in shaping and directing men's sense of how their bodies ought to look. (Compare a male porn star of yesteryear like Ron Jeremy with James Deen, the Ryan Gosling of the adult entertainment industry, for a sense of what's shifted. We'll leave the Googling on that one to you.)
Not so long ago, some cultural critics predicted that what would end the crushingly unrealistic ideals for women would be to give straight guys a taste of their own medicine. Others thought it would never happen; barely 20 years ago in the Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf wrote that "men's fear of being objectified the way they've objectified women is probably unfounded." The culture has proved Wolf at least partly wrong: men are objectified in movies and advertising in a far more explicit way than was true just a few years ago.
But DETAILS overlooks one of the other crucial drivers of this increase in male narcissism: the growing awareness that women look. Not so long ago, psychologists insisted that most women simply weren't visually aroused. Women, we were told, might have an aesthetic appreciation for a handsome guy, but they weren't actively lusting after what they saw. After twenty years of being given permission to gaze on the hot and shirtless (from Marky Mark to Taylor Lautner), women have become more vocal than ever before about what they like to look at — and what they're thinking about when they look. The old myth that women aren't visual has been debunked by everyone from Sex and the City to the writers and readers at this very site.
This doesn't mean that women's desire is the primary cause of poor male body image. Men's own misinterpretation of what women want is far more of the problem. (For example, many men don't realize that their girlfriends might lust after Lautner or Gosling — and still be attracted to their own less-than-perfect male partners. These guys don't get that desire isn't a zero-sum game). But whatever the cause, the problem is getting worse. Male vanity, it seems, is here to stay. And the old hope that men's experience of being objectified might lead them to stop objectifying women has proved spectacularly false.
Hugo Schwyzer is a professor of gender studies and history at Pasadena City College and a nationally-known speaker on sex, relationships, and masculinity. He blogs at his eponymous site and co-authored the autobiography of Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted.