"One of the things that makes the modern world "modern" is the development of consciousness of the self."
Warren Susman, Culture as History, 1973
The book you are about to read is a journey through the world of male vanity. It is a world of steroid abusers and compulsive runners, anorectics and bulimics, men who are losing their hair and potency, and patients getting face-lifts, buttock lifts, and silicone implants all in pursuit of youth, sex appeal, and success. And it's a world that has changed decade by decade both for men and for society as a whole. The story begins immediately after World War II, when America emerged as the world's most powerful and influential nation, and continues through the end of the twentieth century.
American men spent $3 billion on grooming aids and fragrances in 1997. They also spent nearly $800 million on hair transplants and $400 million on hairpieces. Sales of exercise equipment and health-club memberships raked in $4 billion. An estimated eighty-five million Americans, mostly male, are doing some kind of weight training. Even serious bodybuilding, once a fringe activity largely relegated to the lower classes, has gained middle-class status as upwardly mobile men of all ages grunt and strain for the blood-vessel-constricting high known as the pump. For men who have more fat than muscle, a lucrative foundation-garment industry offers Butt-Busters and Man-Bands to flatten bulges. Men are dieting in unprecedented numbers, and an estimated one million of them suffer from eating disorders commonly thought to afflict only women.
Also surprising is men's pursuit of beauty through the scalpel: in 1996, the bill for male cosmetic surgery was $500 million. Just under $200 million was spent on the two most popular surgeries, liposuction and rhinoplasty (nose jobs), with the rest going for esoteric surgeries like pectoral implants and the creation of cleft chins, not to mention the ultimate male surgery, penis enlargement. We are clearly witnessing the evolution of an obsession with body image, especially among middle-class men, and a corresponding male appropriation of, in the words of the feminist Barbara Ehrenreich, "status-seeking activities . . . once seen as feminine."
What, then, does it mean to be a man at the dawn of the twenty-first century? The historian and philosopher Elisabeth Badinter has concluded that models of masculinity haven't changed much over the centuries. She points to four "imperatives" for today's men: first and foremost, men must be men "no sissy stuff"; second, they must be competitive, constantly demonstrating their success and superiority; third, they must be "detached and impassive"; and, finally, they must be willing to take risks and confront danger, even to the point of violence. These four imperatives have two qualities in common: they are diametrically opposed to what is generally regarded as feminine behavior, and they say nothing about how a man is supposed to look.
Until World War II, it is true, male attractiveness was derived from activity; how a man behaved and what he achieved were the true measures of his worth. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, it seemed these ideals would continue along their accustomed track. The American male would provide for his family, succeed at his job, and be strong, rugged, and virile. While women labored at self-beautification, men devoted themselves to more important matters. Men were not exactly indifferent to their bodies, but any man who overly emphasized his physical appearance risked being accused of vanity. Men who wore toupees aroused amused derision at best. Although obesity among Americans had reached alarming proportions by mid-century, men shied away from dieting, despite warnings about heart disease. Exercise, which at least had the cachet of being "masculine" because it was associated with action, didn't get much more strenuous than golf and gardening. Workouts that raised serious sweat had few middle-class adherents, and cosmetic surgery was regarded as the exclusive preserve of women. As for the body's most intimate parts, a cloud of secrecy shrouded them, as well as their function (and dysfunction), from public debate and public view.
What has caused American men to fall into the beauty trap so long assumed to be the special burden of women? Does men's concern about their bodies mean they've become feminized? Have they been so addled by the women's movement that they are responding by becoming more like women? There is no simple, single answer. Rather, a confluence of social, economic, and cultural changes has been instrumental in shaping the new cult of male body image in postwar America.
The changing status of women brought about by second-wave feminism has radically reshaped how women view the male body. As long as men controlled economic resources, their looks were of secondary importance. Though feminism would have many, often conflicting, objectives, the liberal feminism that emerged mainly among professional and upper-middle-class women focused on social and legal constraints that denied women equal access to the workplace. As the role of breadwinner became a shared one, men's economic power and sense of uniqueness would be undermined.
The impetus behind the rising number of college-educated wives entering the workplace came less from the need to contribute to the family income, however, than from the diminishing attractions of the home. Avid middle-class pursuit of higher education, especially at graduate and professional levels, deterred growing numbers of young men and women from early marriage. At the same time, greater latitude for sexual experimentation made it less likely that women would marry just to legitimize sexual relations. An emphasis on the importance of self-fulfillment also undermined marriage as a priority for many young Americans. It was during the 1960s that the term "lifestyle" was first used in reference to being single: its significance lay in its suggestion of choice. Marriage was no longer expected but a matter of personal taste, as were its alternatives, divorce and cohabitation, which became ever more common.
By the end of the decade, the average age at first marriage had risen, and the marriage rate had begun to drop, and continued to drop through the 1970s. A survey of college students at that time showed that 82 percent of the women rated a career as important to self-fulfillment, whereas only 67 percent believed this was true of marriage. The Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown, who had spent most of the 1960s trying to create an image of the Cosmo girl as mirror image of the sexually uninhibited Playboy man, emphatically agreed: marriage, she told her legions of female readers, was nothing more than "insurance for the worst years of your life."
Try as she might to turn men into sex objects, Brown was ahead of her time in 1962. For most women, being single was still stigmatizing rather than stimulating. And as Brown herself was quick to point out, sexual liberation didn't work without economic liberation, and that hadn't arrived yet. But as the decade progressed, single life took on new legitimacy and had wide-ranging social and economic effects. One of the most significant was that in the dating marketplace, single women were as likely to be doing the choosing and rejecting as men, elevating the importance of male looks to a whole new level. Why, demands the woman who works out rigorously to keep her body lean and fit, should I put up with a man who spends his leisure time sitting on a couch watching television? Or, as the feminist Germaine Greer inquired with some acerbity in 1971, was it too much to ask that women be spared "the daily struggle for superhuman beauty in order to offer it to the caresses of a subhuman ugly mate"?
Economic change wasn't limited to women's more substantial paychecks. World War II catapulted America into unprecedented power and prosperity. Lavish government spending, corporate expansion, and the development of a vast complex of technological industries based on the postwar symbiosis of military, government, and science created thousands of secure, well-paying white-collar jobs. As union wages rose, stimulated by cost-of-living increases and buffered by national prosperity, millions of working-class Americans could afford middle-class lifestyles and the accoutrements that defined them.
For nearly a quarter century, expectations of continued affluence and material progress were undimmed. But in the 1970s, America's virtually unchallenged global economic preeminence, as well as its internal prosperity, would confront foreign competition, inflation, declining corporate profits, and unemployment. In the ensuing downsizing that persisted well into the 1990s, hardest hit would be those most accustomed to job success and security white males. To maintain an edge, it became important not just to be qualified for a job but to look as if one were; and that meant looking dynamic, successful, and, above all, young.
These changes are related to a more complex and extremely significant alteration in American life since mid-century: the rise of a culture increasingly based on self-fulfillment and the cultivation of self-esteem. Though many factors brought about this sea change, one of the most compelling was the proliferation of consumerism and its emphasis on the importance of self-image.
America's transformation from a culture of production to one of consumption was well under way by the turn of the nineteenth century. At that time, the basic needs of most middle-class Americans were being met, and manufacturers therefore sought to create desire in place of necessity. They were aided by advertisers who set out to convince consumers that their very identities depended on owning the right products, that they could be whatever they wished, as long as they purchased enough goods.
Advertising agencies appeared on the American landscape as early as the 1850s but remained on a small scale until World War I, when technological and cultural factors converged to create the modern advertising industry. New technologies like arc and neon lighting allowed ads to be displayed in more interesting and enticing ways, while advanced printing methods like lithography made it possible to copy images less expensively and more attractively. During the war, advertising and public relations joined forces with the U.S. government to generate propaganda and unifying symbols as a means of mobilizing support for the war among a fragmented and diverse population an effort devoted more to popularizing and legitimizing the war than to disseminating real information. Afterward, products poured off booming American assembly lines, and advertisers mobilized consumer enthusiasm in much the same way. Ad agencies created personalities for their products, which were sold not on the basis of what they could do but on the basis of the image they projected as one advertising mogul put it, they sold the sizzle, not the steak.
Advertising was helped in its crusade by the emergent popularity of psychology. Terms like "ego" and "repression" were bandied about in everyday conversation, and by the 1920s, the idea of complexes had moved out of medical circles and into the lives of ordinary people. Americans, buffeted by changes brought about by industrialization and the new public life of cities, had fallen prey to feelings of anxiety and insecurity. Magazines and self-help books asked, "Do you have an inferiority complex?" and emphasized the importance of self-scrutiny. Advertisers seized on the connection between the psychological and the physical, urging consumers to buy their products to overcome deficiencies ranging from dandruff to bad breath.
Well into the twentieth century, women were advertisers' main targets. Consumption that is, shopping was defined as women's work. Single women were encouraged to compete for men by buying commodities to make themselves more beautiful, and married women were encouraged to demonstrate their husbands' success by their purchasing power. But as commodities became increasingly central to defining self-worth, men, too, would be pulled into the vortex of consumerism, warned by advertisers that the wrong "look" posed a threat to career, love life, and self-esteem.
In its early days, advertising had been simply a means of linking buyer and seller by presenting basic information about a product how big it was, for example, or how much it cost. But in an urbanizing and modernizing culture, advertising evolved from selling mere products to selling their benefits. Advertising is about image, self-esteem, and display of the self. It is not about what the psychologist Erik Erikson calls, in his studies of human psychological development, "the mature person's developing sense of the importance of giving something back to community and society." In a consumer society, a sense of responsibility to the larger community doesn't develop. As the sociologist Diane Barthel points out, every advertiser knows that the critical attribute of any product is "What will it do for me?" The line between commodity and individual has become blurred, so that we are what we buy. Americans have been beguiled by marketing acumen, and the body has become the ultimate commodity.
The importance of self-presentation originated early in the century, though initially it was more subtle than it is today. As early as the second decade, social critics were noting that America was shifting from a culture of character to a culture of personality. Character implies self-discipline and a sense of inner direction, whereas personality revolves around the ability to please others not necessarily through real accomplishment but by winning friends and influencing people. While character is its own reward, personality demands external validation and appreciation.
By mid-century, the ethos of personality had almost entirely displaced older notions of character. Image is described by the historian Daniel Boorstin as "a studiously crafted personality profile of an individual . . . a value caricature, shaped in three dimensions, of synthetic materials." Like the right personality, it relies on external indicators to proclaim our personal worth and determine how others see and evaluate us. The right clothes, the right car, and even the right body and face all can be purchased rather than cultivated.
The 1960s brought not only social upheaval but an emphasis on sexuality, self-expression, and youth. Commercial packaging of youth actually began in the 1950s, when marketers recognized teenagers' "purchasing power," a term first used after World War II. By 1959, teenagers controlled ten billion dollars in discretionary income, more than the total sales of General Motors. Teen society was grounded in a sense of acute difference from adult society and was primarily defined in terms of consumer choices, especially in fashion and music. Yet in other respects, adolescents in the 1950s appeared to want the same things as their parents: a mate, a family, a home in the suburbs. They spent a great deal of time practicing for their future by playing courtship games like going steady and getting pinned. Most girls looked forward to taking on the responsibilities of motherhood, and boys wanted to become men. As for adults, though they wanted to look attractive and have that elusive quality known as "sex appeal," they generally didn't wish to look, or behave, like teenagers. The culture of youth was distinctive because it was reserved for the young.
The cultural importance of youth surged in the 1970s, as prosperity continued to allow teenagers to pursue their distinctive consumerism and because so many defining aspects of the 1960s fashion, hair, music, radicalism had centered on young people, especially those of college age. Even the soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War were younger than those of any previous American war: their average age was nineteen, compared with twenty-four for soldiers in World War II. Although the end of the 1960s was marked by disillusionment over the decade's social and political turmoil, the desirability of being (and looking) young remained undimmed. Growing numbers of Americans, confronting the prospect of turning thirty, became determined never to leave adolescence at least, not physically. Youth was no longer a stage of life to be passed through but one to be clung to tenaciously.
In the 1970s, the obsession with youthfulness combined with the emphasis on self-expression and acquisitiveness to create an entirely new culture grounded in the importance of self-esteem. Narcissism, identified in the 1960s by Erikson as a modern form of neurosis, was recast by the historian and cultural theorist Christopher Lasch into a theory of modern social history. According to Lasch, the bewildering array of images to which the average American was subjected led to a preoccupation with projecting the "right" image of oneself in order to confirm one's very existence. If the 1950s had been defined by conformity, the 1970s were characterized by a sense of selfhood "hopelessly dependent on the consumption of images" and consequently on relentless self-scrutiny. The marketing of commodities, Lasch cautioned, created a world of insubstantial images difficult to distinguish from reality. Within this world, images were incorporated into Americans' visions of themselves, with important implications for body image for both genders. Advertising and mass marketing held out the promise of self-fulfillment and eternal youth through consumerism for everyone. Finally, as the historian Margaret Morganroth Gullette has observed, "the system that sells products based on fears of aging . . . turned its giant voracious maw toward that next great big juicy market, men."
In the 1990s, that "big juicy market" was the largest it had ever been the baby boomers were entering middle age. These thirty-one million people 12 percent of the population were beginning to experience the trauma of midlife crisis. In 1993, the National Men's Resource Center declared that all men undergo a midlife crisis and that a major manifestation of this was growing concern about the loss of physical appeal.
It's tempting to surmise that men's interest in body image, and their relatively recent concerns about physical attractiveness, along with sexualization of the male body, means they are becoming feminized. This, however, is decidedly not the case. Looking good is part of a quintessential male strategy whose ultimate aim is to make men more successful, competitive, and powerful. The means of achieving this goal may be new, but the objective is not.
Millions of American men have been transformed into body-conscious consumers of revealing fashions, seductive perfumes, and the services of hairstylists, personal trainers, and plastic surgeons. Due credit for this transformation must be given to advertisers, marketers, and self-esteem gurus, who have sold men and all of us a message of self-transfiguration through self-commodification. The traditional image of women as sexual objects has simply been expanded: everyone has become an object to be seen.
*Endnotes were omitted
Copyright © 2001 Lynne Luciano