Vanity, Thy Name Is Man

News flash: Men worry about how they look! They're liberated from the shapeless gray flannel suit of the 1950s, and no longer the unkempt scarecrows of the all-natural '60s and '70s. In the greed-is-good era of the '80s and '90s, to show we were the Masters of the Universe, we hid the consequences of too much work, too many drinks, and not enough jogging by wearing Armani. (As fashion commentator Anne Hollander points out in her 1995 book, Sex and Suits, suits provide the shining sheath of an armored breastplate, replacing perfect skin and muscles.)

But we can't hide anymore. Male vanity is now front and center in the pages of the Voice, where ads for gyms compete for space with depilatories and hair replacements.

Once "t&a" ruled the ad waves; now it's all about abs. Male abs. They've made it to the burbs, not to mention the shopping streets of Manhattan. Bruce Weber's pictures for Abercrombie & Fitch, huge landscapes of ripped male torsos with sculpted pecs, hang at the entrances of stores. Smaller versions swish by on the shopping bags that disappear into the crowd of dumpy normal folk.

illustration: Ben Nettles


The Adonis Complex: The Secret Crisis Of Male Body Obsession
By Harrison G. Pope Jr., M.D., Katharine A. Phillips, M.D., and Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D.
Free Press, 288 pp., $25
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Facebuilder For Men: A Fast, Effective, And Proven Muscle-Toning Program
By Carole Maggio and Mike Gianelli
Perigee, 96 pp., $13.95
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Sex And Suits: The Evolution Of Modern Dress
By Anne L. Hollander, Deborah Baker (editor), Philip Turner (editor)
Kodansha America, Inc., 224 pp., $13
Buy this book

Men have finally admitted they want to look good. For whom? The increasingly obvious answer is, each other. To be sure, gym rats still sometimes speak of "curls for girls." But The Adonis Complex, a recent book by three medical researchers about the male craving for muscles that sets teenagers to lapping up steroids, makes it clear that the girls couldn't care less. Muscle is a male obsession. Look at any of the six-chicks-talking-about-sex articles in magazines like Men's Health or GQ. When asked to name their favorite male body part, women name hands, or eyes. What about pecs and biceps? men ask plaintively. The truth is, that's guy stuff. Deborah Tannen, in her wildly successful books about the differing ways men and women interact with words, points out that men socialize by competing, women by sharing weakness. Looking great—pumped up, young—is a way to one-up the next guy. And we want to do it naked.

Faces are naked all the time. They're the subject of all the recent articles on Botox, recently approved by the FDA for deadening wrinkles, and not just in women. They're the subject too of the new Facebuilder for Men, by Carole Maggio and Mike Gianelli. "Take ten years off your face," it invites, dangling business success as the lure. According to the authors, the book's isometric exercises are the natural alternative to Botox, making the muscles of your face burn the way your pecs do after a bench workout. They also tell us that pillows wrinkle your face and the sun makes you old. Drink plenty of water, Maggio and Gianelli tell the reader. Eat your veggies. Get your sleep.

I can't speak to the isometrics. But the authors are right about all the rest. I know because I'm a model. Currently, my hugely enlarged face smiles from the windows of Allfirst banks all over the mid-Atlantic region. I'm supposed to inspire confidence in their checking accounts for small businesses, and I'm told I do. When the makeup woman did my face she sighed with pleasure: "Finally, a face that doesn't need repair!" she exclaimed. My chest pops my T-shirts at 44, my waist's the same 32 it was in high school. At six-two I'm about the upper height limit of a male model, and yes, I have abs. And I just turned 48.

Maybe becoming a model is my version of a midlife crisis. I haven't given up my day job—I'm an English professor at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, author of four scholarly books, many articles, three avant-garde novels, and a collection of dance essays. I'm a husband and father, with a new baby son.

One day several years ago I was sitting in front of a museum watching my strawberry-blond, blue-eyed daughter, then six, riding the merry-go-round. A wizened figure straight out of the Brothers Grimm approached me. "Have you ever thought of modeling her?" she asked. "You too!" She handed me a business card.

Yes, I had thought about it. At the Naval Academy, people think a lot about how they look. That's where I learned about men looking good for other men—as we say in guy-speak, "sharp." Check out the navy's gleaming "whites" uniforms. When I meet my students by chance in the gym, I see newfound respect as they eye my "guns," weight-room jargon for biceps.

With guys, in fact, I'd almost say it's all about looks, men being the visual sex. Men's magazines divide about equally into those featuring half-naked women and those with half-naked, buffed-up men. All guys, gay and straight, like looking at other guys, and being looked at. Part of the game for straight guys is not letting on that you know how you look, or that you're sizing up the competition.

Modeling for the bank is my first big exposure after several years in the business. One agency took me on immediately. Another said I looked too much like one of their other models, who eventually left the area. I filled his slot, type replacing type. Now jobs are starting to trickle in.

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