By Jill Neimark, published on November 1, 1994 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
A seismic shift in gender roles is turning men into objects of desire--much as women have traditionally been. At the leading edge of this social revolution, a very select group of women care--unusually stringently--about men's bodies. Increasingly, men are running into a double standard of attractiveness--what women like about men's bodies and what men think is manly.
Men don't look like they used to. Think of Fabio. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Or the countless men who, in cologne ads, lie like languid odalisques on sandy beaches. In movies, heartthrobs from Alec Baldwin to Keanu Reeves are seen shirtless, with rippling pecs and lats; on fashion runways male models in skin-tight tanks and jackets unbuttoned to flaunt washboard bellies pace before cheering crowds.
"There's coming to be an acceptance of men as sex objects, men as beautiful," reports fashion arbiter Holly Brubach, style editor for the New York Times Magazine. Male mannequins now sport genital bulges and larger chests, and for the first time in window-dressing history, have achieved equality with female mannequins. The male body is even being used to sell cars, no doubt to both men and women: "If the beautiful lines of the new Monte Carlo seem somehow familiar, they should," reads a current ad. "After all, we borrowed them from you." Above the caption, melting photos show the classic waistline of a woman, curving leather, and the sinewy torso of a naked man. A closer look at each photo reveals a masterful blend of male and female images, of shadowy clefts and powerful bulges.
I've always loved to look at men. There is power in a certain kind of masculine beauty, and it's a turn on. Am I alone? No, according to the first national survey ever of men's appearance and how they feel about it, collected from Psychology Today readers. It turns out that the world indeed is changing, and that there is now a subset of women who themselves are attractive, educated, and financially secure, who care about every aspect of the way their men look. They can choose good-looking men, and they do.
Those women, by the way, are currently a minority. Still, all revolutions begin with a band of pioneers. And when I look around at what's happening in the culture, I sense a sea change.
The male body has arrived. Not only is it being offered up for scrutiny, it seems to be both hypermasculine and strangely feminine, a new mix that accurately reflects tremendous and ambivalent changes in our culture.
What's happening to men's bodies--and how do both men and women feel about it? In Psychology Today's November/December 1993 issue, we asked our readers to help us delineate what seems to be a seismic shift in male body image. Over 1,500 of you responded with completed questionnaires and comments, which were analyzed in depth by psychiatrist Michael Pertschuk, M.D., and his colleagues. About twice as many women answered as did men, demonstrating women's keen interest in the subject. The answers revealed fascinating shifts and misconceptions:
Men believe their appearance has a greater impact on women than women themselves actually acknowledge. From hairline to penis size, men believe their specific physical features strongly influence their personal acceptability by women.
Women, in general, are quite willing to adapt to their own mate's appearance, accepting features such as baldness or extra weight, even though their ideal male is different. Women tend to like what they've got--whether he is bearded, uncircumcised, short, or otherwise "off" the norm.
A significant subset of women who are financially independent and rate themselves as physically attractive place a high value on male appearance. This new and vocal minority unabashedly declares a strong preference for better-looking men. They also care more about penis size, both width and length.
For both men and women, personality wins hands down: it's what men believe women seek, and indeed, what women say is most important in choosing a partner.
Nonetheless, men still care about their own looks. Though men give top priority to their sense of humor and intelligence, a nice face is a close third, and body build is not far behind. Women give an overall lower significance to men's physical appearance, but height is still an important turn-on for women.
Men are scared of losing their hair, but women are more accepting of baldness in a mate than men realize. Both men and women prefer clean-shaven men--today.
Men are less worried about being overweight than are most women, but more concerned about muscle mass--reflecting our cultural ideals of thin women and powerful men. The muscle-bound body build was highly rated by men, while women preferred a medium, lightly muscled build in their ideal males.
Curiously enough, there seems to be emerging a single standard of beauty for men today: a hypermasculine, muscled, powerfully shaped body--the Soloflex man. It's an open question whether that standard will become as punishing for men as has women's superthin standard.
We are moving away from the old adage: men do, women are. As noted anthropologist David Gilmore, Ph.D., author of Manhood in the Making, states, "That dual view will never entirely go away, but now we're reaching some kind of compromise, where there is more choice. Women can choose men who are not rich or successful, but who are beautiful."
WHAT'S IN A MAN?
It seems that the whole idea of what it means to be male is molting. Cultural upheavals from the women's movement to the national emphasis on health and fitness have altered our sense of how a man should act and look. The new male is no longer the unquestioned head of the household, in control of the nuclear family if nothing else. Gender parity in the workplace has made inroads: today a man may easily have a female boss. Men's health has been given new emphasis ever since several post-World War II studies found that men were at greater risk of heart disease than women.
According to cultural critic Hillel Schwartz, Ph.D., author of Never Satisfied, that awareness of men's physical vulnerability led to a new concern with their bodies. Then, in the 1960s, the Kennedy excitement with amateur sports helped kick off a resurgence in exercise and jogging. Of late, the phenomenal rise of self-help groups and popular movements such as Robert Bly's "wild men" has led to a new male awareness of feelings, and growing intolerance of the once typical "tough guy" upbringing. Marks and scars are no longer badges of honor.
The old ideal of American maleness is under attack, according to the New York Times. "Today, the world is no longer safe for boys," wrote Natalie Angier. "A boy being a shade too boyish risks finding himself under scrutiny...for a bona fide behavioral disorder." American boys are being diagnosed in record numbers with hyperactivity and learning problems.
As ideals of manhood shift, so has the ideal male body. While it is clearly more masculine--well muscled and sexually potent--it is paradoxically feminine as well. Our ideal man is no longer rough and ready, bruised and calloused, but, as Schwartz puts it, "as clean skinned and clear complected as a woman." His body is "no longer stiff and upright, but sinuous and beautiful when it moves. Sinuousness didn't used to be associated with manliness." As a sexual object, a source of pure visual pleasure, men are increasingly being looked at in ways women always have.
This fascination with male beauty is not entirely new--consider the ancient Greeks, the beautiful boy of the Renaissance, or Elizabethan noblemen parading the court in revealing tights, silks, satins, and jeweled codpieces. Charles Darwin himself popularized the idea of women as selectors of plumed and spectacular male mates. "He was speaking of finches and partridges," explains historian Thomas Laqueur, Ph.D., author of Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Harvard University Press, 1990), "but we generalized to humans. It was known as the peacock phenomenon--the notion of the male as the one with plumage." It wasn't until the rise of capitalism and the bourgeoisie that men renounced flagrant beauty and adopted the plain suit as a uniform. During the so-called "great masculine renunciation" men began to associate masculinity with usefulness. Then, notes Laqueur, "gradually women became the bearers of the science of splendor."
The consequences of today's shift in male body image are already apparent. The number of men exercising has soared--8.5 million men now have health club memberships, according to American Sports Data, a research firm. And men spend an average of 90.8 days a year in the club (that's over 2,000 hours). That's nine days a year more than women.
Men may be nicer to look at, but males with body image disorders are showing up with increasing frequency in psychiatrists' offices. More and more men are abusing steroids in an attempt to build muscle. An article in the American Journal of Addictions noted that "anabolic steroids are increasingly used for the nonmedical purposes of enhancing athletic performance and physical appearance. As illicit abuse patterns increase, so do reports of physical dependence, major mood disorders, and psychoses." In the 1980s, body-image studies by psychologists Elaine Hatfield and Susan Sprecher found that men were catching up to women: 55 percent of women were dissatisfied with their appearance; men weren't far behind, at 45 percent.
Mirror Mirror: Women Look at Men
For both men and women, male personality is regarded as the most significant quality in attracting a mate. In a sense, this flies in the face of our concern with appearance: it lets us know that no matter how enormous our body obsession, both men and women still rate inner beauty as paramount. In the accompanying survey, intelligence and sense of humor were rated most important, and sexual performance and physical strength least important.
However, there are intriguing differences, even misconceptions, between the sexes about the importance of certain physical characteristics. For instance, men believe an attractive face is more important to women than empathy and the ability to talk about feelings. They also put more emphasis on body build than women do. In general, men judge their physique to be more important than women do.
Yet appearance is still only a piece of the pie. Women's sexual response to men is more complex than men's to women. "How odd and unsettling an experience it is," comments Brubach, "to look at all these ads of sexy men sprawling on beds and beaches. I think, 'What a nice chest or legs,' but I don't ever feel that this would be enough material for me to have a sexual fantasy. For most of the women I know sex appeal isn't purely about physical appearance."
Gilmore agrees. His studies of gender and sexuality in tribal and modern cultures have found that for women, "the male image conveys much more than sexual virility. Male power, wealth, dominance, control over other men--all those inspire a response in women. The pure visual image of the handsome man, the languid beautiful male is attractive. But it does not necessarily connect with inner virility, which also turns women on. What's so interesting about this subject is that men today get a double message: The culture tells them, 'Be successful, be the boss of bosses, and women will fall at your feet.' The media tell them, 'Look like a model, and women will fall at your feet.'"
Some women, of course, value male looks very highly. One of the most fascinating survey results was that women who rated themselves as more attractive tended to rank men's facial appearance and sexual performance higher. These women were a little older on average (mean age 38), thinner (only 6 percent met criteria for overweight) and better off financially (almost half earned over $30,000 annually).
This is particularly intriguing given the anthropological literature about female mate selection: In most cultures, women seem to choose sexual partners on the basis of a male's ability to protect and provide for a mate and offspring--whether that is a big salary, hunting game, or achievement as a warrior. Throughout the Mediterranean, notes Gilmore, men are compared to brave bulls, fierce bears, virile rams--"all admired for their courage, force, and, especially, their potential for violence when threatened. And when women have gained political power, they have responded powerfully to male looks. Freed from economic worries, Queen Elizabeth I flirted shamelessly with the handsome Raleigh; Catherine the Great took a long list of comely, but otherwise ordinary, lovers."
That may be happening in record numbers today. Attractive, self-sufficient women may place higher value on physical features because they have been reinforced for these attributes. Traditionally, beautiful women have been able to leverage their looks to snare a wealthy and powerful man. Now that some women have greater financial independence, they may use that power to seek a stunning mate.
TWIN PEAKS--HAIR AND HEIGHT
"In America," writes Gilmore an essay called, "The Beauty of the Beast" (in The Good Body, Yale University Press, 1994), "male concern focuses on two main issues: height and hair." What do height and hair symbolize? Raw maleness. Philosophers like Edmund Burke and art historians like Johann Wincklemann conflate the sublime and the masculine--and associate both with greatness, strength, and majesty. "What are height and musculature, after all," Gilmore asks, "but male equivalents of voluptuousness in females? How is height in a male different from bust size in a female? Short men can have terrible problems." And in a culture that eroticizes differences between the sexes, the potent masculinity of a tall male can be appealing.
Though many studies indicate that women love a tall man--Hatfield and Sprecher found that women prefer a man at least six inches taller than themselves--male concern with height seems linked to competition with other males as well. "Men are worried about how they appear to other men," notes Gilmore. "I remember boys being mercilessly ridiculed and beaten up for looking effeminate. Size and power were of absolute importance. I knew a fat boy who had a kind of bosom, who was persecuted so relentlessly that he had a nervous breakdown at age 13."
No wonder, then, that both men and women in the survey rated a trimmer, taller male as more attractive. However, a striking finding emerged from the data: There was a discrepancy between what women desired and what they would accept in a mate. Women adapt to their own partner's height--in fact, their preferences seem strongly linked to their mate's actual height. As Michael Pertschuk points out, this ability to adapt, to adjust abstract ideals in favor of the real man, showed up again and again among the women in the survey. It seemed to cut across all variables--from height to weight to penis size. It seems that "negative" appearance factors become lost within the greater gestalt of the partner. The woman sees past or through a less-than-ideal feature.
Hair, in turn, is another highly valued masculine signpost. Hair is a traditional signal of youth and power, an index of male virility. Hair signals man in his natural, wild state--uncivilized, and somehow more primal and sexual. Not only is hair a potent symbol, it is one that can be easily manipulated--and has been throughout history. As Pertschuk says, "In the early to mid 1800s, men went to jail for wearing beards. By the Civil War era you would be hard-pressed to find a general who was not sporting a beard. This fashion lasted until the turn of the century, when it was replaced by militant 'clean shavenism.' In some Protestant sects, long hair and beards are suspect. Other sects, such as the Jewish Hasidim, are expressly forbidden to cut their beards. In England the antimonarchists wore their hair short, in protest to the long, flowing locks that were approved of by the monarchy."
Though it's tempting to look at hair as a concrete reflection of the role of males in society, Pertschuk feels it may be more indicative of rebellion, of setting oneself apart from an existing social order. Boys coming of age in the rebellious 1960s wore their hair long and grew beards in a gesture. The next generation was clean shaven. The punks dyed their hair fluorescent pinks and greens, spiked it, and shaved their heads in Mohawk designs--a veiled threat, an attempt to upset and defy the existing order.
BODY BUILD: THE MUSCULAR MALE
The showy, muscle-bound heroes of today are a far cry from yesteryear's aristocratic heartthrobs--Cary Grant, John Barrymore. And although Charles Atlas body-building ads pumped up the back pages of magazines and comic books as far back as the 1920s, we are witnessing a new fascination with the perfectly proportioned, tautly muscled male god. "When women swoon over these men," notes Gilmore, "it's not unlike the response men have when they see a beautiful woman. Men like to be sex objects, too. It's never been acknowledged, because that desire is not considered manly, and the more urgent need is to appear masculine. But studies have shown that men envy women their ability to attract and command the attention based simply on their appearance."
This cultural emphasis on a specific male type has a definite dark side--the growing number of men suffering from body image disorders. According to Steven Romano, M.D., Director of the Outpatient Eating Disorders Clinic at New York Hospital/Cornell Medical Center's Westchester Division, "I'm seeing more and more males who have body image disturbances. They are compulsive exercisers, and there are a number of steroid abuses." Another expert calls it "reverse anorexia."
"Psychologically, this group is very tied to female anorexics," says Romano. "Just as the anorexic continues to see herself as fat even though she's thin, these males are well muscled but they look in the mirror and see themselves as too thin. They are judging themselves by the ideal projected in the media. I had a 19-year-old walk in who said he had to look like Marky Mark. He would only eat a diet that allowed him to build muscle. These men tend to be straight males who think a well-muscled physique is what women are interested in."
Gilmore concurs. In interviewing men about body image, he found "body anxiety is related to appearing unmasculine or effeminate. This obsession especially attaches to body hair, chest development, waist, and hips. Our culture lays considerable stress on a manly physique."
No wonder, then, that the male PT readers who responded to the survey indicated that they value muscle mass. Yet male fascination with muscles may have more to do with other men than with women. "Women don't know what goes on in the playing field among boys," insists Gilmore. "It's very cruel. Boys are beaten up if they don't measure up. To be masculine requires a certain musculature."
The new male fascination with muscle may indeed hold destructive potential for men--though perhaps less so than the female ideal does for women. Women who starve themselves to reach a cultural ideal of feminine beauty are damaging their physical health; men who exercise and work out at the gym to build muscle may still eat well. Yet if men feel compelled to make over their bodies to achieve difficult aesthetic goals, they may be opening themselves to problems with steroid abuse, musculoskeletal injury, and eating disorders. If weight is a male concern, it has more to do with looking effeminate, puny, and thin than carrying a few excess pounds.
Where is the essence of masculine power distilled, if not in the penis? The penis is the visible badge of masculinity. If the ideal of the sublime, the majestic, the truly masculine resides in power, size, and the ability to attract women and make one's mark on the world, no body part is more symbolic than the phallus. Popular culture, and pornography in particular, link penis size with male appeal. Yet there is an opposing thread in our culture that says size doesn't matter. The origin of this belief is the work of Masters and Johnson, who reported that smaller, flaccid penises become larger upon erection than do larger flaccid penis. This is not entirely true, but most sex manuals indicate that size does not matter.
"Not surprisingly," reports Pertschuk, "feelings and attitudes about penis size reflected the general upheaval in our culture where male body image is concerned. Questions about male genitals elicited many passionate comments--but the one constant was that women were evenly divided about the importance of organ size. Fully half preferred it large--the other half was unconcerned or disliked a big penis."
MALE BODY AS CULTURAL CRUCIBLE
Our culture has never openly addressed the reason masculine beauty matters so much. There is a long Western tradition merging aesthetics and ethics, stretching back to Plato's belief that the beautiful is good--and in particular, that masculine power is the ideal emblem of our culture. "This moral primacy of male beauty," muses David Gilmore, "this exaltation of maleness as both heroic and beautiful places a powerful stress on males. Masculinity becomes an apotheosis of national identity. The erotic and social appeal of a virile, handsome, muscular man successfully accomplishing some task is very strong. It's what our culture prizes above all. Men experience deep psychic terror of failing literally to embody national ideals."
The pressure on males to measure up to such iconic images has never been adequately examined by anthropologists or by social psychologists. Why? Ironically, says Gilmore, because "men don't talk about it. It would seem narcissistic, and that would seem feminine. It's an old male code--never complain." Yet studies have long shown that the height of males is linked to the attractiveness of their female partners, that handsome men are more successful than short or plain men, and that taller men earn more than short men.
Even more important, this male silence has helped drive the sexes apart. "If we could talk about it openly," comments Gilmore, "we could mutually experience the agony of the visual tyranny in our culture. Both men and women experience it in different ways. My own interviews with men between the ages of 30 and 50 have revealed deep-seated concerns about appearance, many in terms that rival the feminine 'beauty trap.' Men's passionate worries struck me as no less poignant than those expressed by women. The male body, like the female's, has become a punishing crucible painfully subjected to the tyranny of a cultural ideal."
That ideal has helped shape our political history. For seven straight decades America elected the taller of two presidential candidates. Richard Nixon was the one to finally break the pattern. When Carter and Ford debated, according to Ralph Keyes, "Carter's camp was jittery at the thought of their candidate standing right next to the 6'1" President." They asked that both debates be seated but were refused. Finally, they settled for lecterns placed far apart and, in payment for that concession, changed the background to camouflage Ford's encroaching baldness.
What can we learn from the new emphasis on male body image? Similar cycles of obsession among men have characteristically occurred at times when male social roles were ill defined. The dandies and aesthetes of the late 19th century, who whittled away the hours on their lace cuffs and silk vests, had no other function in society.
Contemporary men are experiencing an upheaval in their social role. It is unclear just what it means to be male anymore. The physical limits of the body provide a tangible arena of control and purpose. And so the ideal male body has become more rigidly masculine than ever.
At the same time, our willingness to gaze almost brazenly at male flesh, to pursue it as an object of pleasure, is a stark sign that men are joining the ranks of women. They are being looked at. That is inevitable in a culture where a staggering amount of visual information shapes our very existence--from cinema to advertising to television, from children dying in war zones to world leaders showing up on "Larry King Live," to Madonna kissing the crack in a man's buttocks in her book Sex. This is truly a culture where a picture is worth a thousand words. Men are no longer exempt.
There seems to have been an explosion in cosmetic surgery of late. In 1992, over 350,000 Americans went under the knife--and 13 percent were men. Though there is still a stigma about plastic surgery for men, that is changing, according to Manhattan plastic surgeon Joseph Pober, M.D. "About 20-25 percent of my practice is men, and contrary to the myth, most of the men are heterosexual.
"These men tend to be basically successful and secure, and they usually look good already. They tend to worry most about being disproportionate--not whether they are fat or thin, but whether their calves and waistlines and chests are proportional."
Respondents' feelings about cosmetic surgery were surprising. Though both men and women were more accepting of cosmetic surgery for women, men were overwhelmingly more accepting of surgery for both sexes. Among women, those who approved of cosmetic surgery for women or for men tended to be older and to rate themselves as more attractive. In addition, they tended to be more pro feminist.
People who approved of one procedure tended to approve of them all, and those who approved them for women were very likely to approve them for men. Among men, approval of cosmetic surgery was unrelated to any specific demographic factor.