Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

You’ve got to feel a little sorry for men these days. It’s bad enough they’re spending hours at the gym vainly trying get a Brad Pitt six-pack. Or that they feel compelled to cram salon visits and Botox injections into their crowded
24/7 lifestyle. Women know all about the anxiety of looking in the mirror and seeing a face and body not thin enough, pretty enough or good enough. Now, more men are not only experiences those stresses, the poor guys get ridiculed for it.

“Are men the new women?” mocked a recent New York magazine cover on the trend story du jour: male vanity. In a story in this month’s GQ-a magazine which has done its part to promote male vanity-dudes who anxiously check their abs and obsess about protein supplements are compared to teenage girls.

Another “decline of manhood” plaint in The Weekly Standard a few years ago noted that heterosexual men were increasingly taking their lifestyle cues from their gay counterparts. The writer wasn’t referring to gay men’s sexual practices but their aestheticism.

Books like The Adonis Complex and, more recently, Looking Good: Male Body Image in America describe the compulsive runners and steroid takers, the victims of “muscle dysmorphia” who, despite their swollen chests, see a 97-pound weakling when they look in the mirror-anorexia nervosa in reverse.

Doctors decry the rise of binging and purging among men, who are now believed to constitute 30 percent of bulimics on college campuses. Is this what manhood has become in the 21st century-insecure, flab-phobic gym junkies flexing 18-inch biceps to stick their fingers down their throats?

On the bright side, traditional manhood’s loss is the marketplace’s gain. There is a lot of money to make from men’s growing concern about their looks. Just ask the plastic surgeons who offer mandibular implants that create a strong jaw line, so useful in that crucial meeting with a client. Or the salons that provide manicures and facials to busy male execs on the go. Or the cosmetics companies that are hoping to topple the last taboo: makeup for men.

Still, the consensus holds there’s something pathetic about a stock trader fretting about a bad hair day. Blame it on an information economy run on equal-opportunity brainpower, rendering physical brawn irrelevant. Who would have thought the feminist revolution, once reviled for forcing women to behave like men, would lead men to imitate women? We don’t ask why a man can’t be more like a woman, but why not?

Let’s cut the guys a break here. The notion that physical vanity is somehow intrinsically unmasculine is nothing more than sexism.

Nor did male preening begin with Calvin Klein underwear ads. In Looking Good, history professor Lynne Luciano chronicles male vanity through the ages, from the ancient Egyptian version of Rogaine to the hairpiece Hannibal wore into battle.

Not too many centuries ago, men shared wigs, powder and painted-on beauty spots with the ladies, and let’s not forget that enduring male fashion, the codpiece, which served as the penis enlargement of its no-tech day.

Yet it’s also true that women have borne most of the burden of being the decorative sex. The 21st century, however, has added a new twist: We are all now obliged to be physically pleasing-regardless of gender.

Certainly the impressive bulk of a gym-buffed knowledge worker shares something with an objet d’art: an exquisite uselessness. The same guys who sweat to build the broad backs of hog carriers never lift anything heavier than a laptop. The new model male, with his bulging chest and mountainous thighs, resembles nothing so much as a super-sized SUV, an off-road-ready machine with no place to go but the mall.

On the other hand, looking good might help you get a job or get paid more for the one you have. One study by two economists found that males who were in the top 30 percent in looks earned 12 percent more than the ugly mugs in the bottom 15 percent (a bigger differential than the 8 percent that separated the dishiest gals from their plain sisters).

And in a recent report entitled “Looking Good, Sounding Right,” the Industrial Society, a U.K. workplace- issues think tank, noted the rise of “style workers” recruited by service- industry employers not for their skills but their aesthetic appeal. As author Chris Warhurst put it, British companies are simply prescribing how employees use their bodies to represent the company.”

If that trend represents the future of employment, what choice do we have but to get on the treadmill?