A reprint from July 2008.
There’s been an interesting discussion going on beneath this post at Feministe. As part of a riposte to some rather silly criticism of Third Wave, sex-positive feminism, Jill last week put up a number of pictures of hot shirtless men. (It’s reasonably work-safe to visit.)
Some commenters (both men and women) criticized the decision to put up the photos. They asked the usual questions: isn’t it reflective of a double standard if we denounce men for objectifying a narrow range of beautiful women, while celebrating when a feminist woman posts pictures of handsome, ripped, relatively young men? Isn’t it problematic to celebrate a narrow ideal when we live in a culture in which body dysmorphia and self-loathing is rising dramatically in the male population?
Jill responds to the criticism in this comment. When the question of poor male self-image is raised, some commenters leap in to make the perfectly legitimate case that all things considered, women today suffer far more from a culture that fetishizes a very narrow notion of perfection. That’s true enough, but the damage done to young men by our contemporary ideal of the “cut, be-sixpacked” physique is very real.
But this post is not an attempt to revive some sort of suffering Olympics discussion about male v. female body image issues. Rather, I’ve been thinking about something I learned twenty years ago about desire, the ideal, and insecurity. In college, I lived for a while in a co-op on the northside of the Berkeley campus. There were 37 of us in the house, nearly as many women as men. One of my best female friends in the house lived in a “single”, and I often visited with her in her room. (I had a triple for most of my time in the co-op). Debbie had a huge poster on her wall — an ad for the “Bowflex Man.” If you remember the ’80s, you remember the ad.
I’ve done a Google image search, and can’t find it, but the picture is indelibly carved on my brain. A young, dark-haired man is pulling off his shirt, lifting his arms over his shoulders. His body beneath is tanned and spectacularly toned. A Bowflex machine is in the background. Half the dorm rooms on campus seemed to have this picture up; it was more popular than that college staple, Robert Doisneau’s kissing Parisian street couple. Here’s the picture:
Anyhow, Debbie had this picture in her room, over her bed. At one point, Debbie and I made a brief attempt at a romantic relationship. It lasted only a few weeks before we realized we were better off as friends. But I remember that when I was naked in her bed the first time, I couldn’t stop thinking about the image of masculine perfection just inches away. I was not terribly out of shape in college, but in both color and texture was a bit doughy around my middle. I certainly wasn’t “Bow-flex boy”. And after we had finished fooling around, as we lay in her very narrow single bed, I made a rather joking, obviously insecure remark. It’s been more than twenty years, so I don’t remember exactly how I put it, but it was something like “I can’t believe you want to be with me when you’ve got this guy to look at.”
Debbie sat up in bed, incredulous. She said — more or less: “For real, Hugo? That picture upsets you?” I told her no, not really, but it did make me feel, well a bit inadequate. Debbie laughed, not in a cruel way, and said something important: “Hugo, I like looking at beautiful bodies. He’s a gorgeous guy. But the fact that I think it’s beautiful, even the fact that I am attracted to the image, doesn’t mean that that is the only kind of man I can be attracted to.” I lay there for a moment, trying to figure out if I ought to be insulted, and she said something I do remember very clearly: “I can appreciate perfection without expecting it, and I can really be just as attracted to a normal body as to a perfect one.” I certainly knew I didn’t have a perfect body, and I didn’t expect her to tell me something ridiculous to the effect that I was just as sculpted as Bowflex Boy. What I wanted to hear was that i could “fall short of the mark” and still be wanted. And Debbie made it clear to me that an imperfect, human, “normal guy’s body” could still be very attractive to her.
We had a wonderful conversation that night. We each told the other what we found attractive in the other, and we confessed our particular insecurities and received some much-needed reassurance. I’d been sexually active since high school, but this was the first time I had talked openly with a lover about the difference between the attraction to an idol and the attraction to a real person. At one point, I said to Debbie something like, “So you’re telling me that you can have an aesthetic appreciation for a handsome model or actor but your real attraction is to something more real?” She snorted. “It’s more than ‘aesthetic appreciation’, Hugo. I can be sexually attracted to someone like Michael Biehn (“Aliens” star and Debbie’s favorite ‘crush’). I can think about having sex with him. But the fantasy about Michael Biehn or Bowflex man doesn’t mean that I expect to have that in real life. I’m not shocked when a guy I’m with isn’t like that, and I’m not disappointed.”
I’ve written about the problem of objectification before in various places. I take a fairly strong anti-porn line. I do believe that prolonged exposure to pornography can rob us of the capacity to be intimate. But at the same time, while I am certain that porn has a deleterious effect, I don’t think it shapes our libidos so completely as to render us incapable of responding to someone with a non porn-star body. Porn makes it easier for us to dehumanize each other, but it doesn’t cause someone to “only” be attracted to women with, say, 40DD breasts and a 26-inch waist. We are malleable, yes, but we’re not robots.
It is nearly impossible for any of us to disengage completely from the culture. In watching movies or television shows, we’re going to be exposed to celebrities whom we find very attractive. We know, of course, that their sexiness is carefully honed and cultivated; we know that the pictures we look at are airbrushed and retouched. From a critical justice standpoint, we ought to be asking questions out loud about how these images are selected and about the messages they send to all of us, young people in particular. We ought to push for more inclusiveness in every form — greater ethnic diversity as well as greater body-size and age diversity. But as we do this work, we’re still going to encounter men and women whose image we find satisfying, aesthetically pleasing, perhaps exciting, perhaps arousing. We were given eyes with which to delight, after all. Trying to avoid that pleasure is both impossible and silly.
The first pin-up I ever put on my wall was of Kristy McNichol. I had quite a thing for her when I was thirteen, and was able to find on the ‘net at least part of the picture I had up. (As best as I can remember after nearly thirty years.) I loved looking at McNichol’s picture. I did think about her sexually, of course, even though I had a rather inchoate and confused understanding of what that meant when I was thirteen. But more than anything else, I wanted an ideal on which to focus. She struck a chord with me when I was young, and I grasped on to that. Other stars would later strike the same chord, and though I never put posters on my wall of female stars after I left junior high school, I still had my “celebrity crushes.” But the point is simple: as powerful as these crushes were, like Debbie’s Bowflex fantasies, they never proved an obstacle to connecting with real women.
When I had my first sexual relationship in high school, I wasn’t horrified or alienated by the reality of my girlfriend’s body; I was awed by it in all of its uniqueness and complexity and wonder. Perfection would have been disappointing by comparison. A few years later, my friend Debbie reassured me that I was not the only one who could mark a distinction between a strong response to a beautiful image and the very real desire that could blossom for a very real person. Over the years, I’ve dated (and married) women who’ve had “things” for celebrities with gorgeous bodies; I’ve dated women whose exes have been professional athletes with physiques far more sculpted than mine. Whenever my own insecurities flared up — and they did continue to flare up into my early thirties — I reminded myself of Debbie and Bowflex Boy. We can admire perfection, we can eroticize an ideal image — and, at the same time, respond with great excitement to a flesh and blood person whose imperfections are often part of what enhances rather than suppresses our desire.
A month ago, I put up Jeanetta Calhoun’s “Mapping Desire” as a Thursday Short Poem. It’s worth concluding this post with that poem again, as it captures what it is I am trying to say here far better than I can in prose.
â€œi look like a roadmap,â€ he says,
intending, i suppose, to deflect
any unrealistic expectations of
the power of passing time on
a face i havenâ€™t touched in years
but he is forgetting
how i love a road trip
sometimes screaming down the freeway
at 2 am, the bass thumping in the speakers
like the pounding of my heart
most often, though, i like to
take the side roads
roll the windows down
inhale the sweet smells
sheltered under the arching
bowers of trees linked
together like fingers of two hands
spanning what separates them
i like to slide into
a roadhouse on the county line
have a beer, some barbecue and
a slowdance to the blues
then unfold my beloved roadmap
run my finger along a chosen course
imagine all the s-turns and heaves
glory in the forgotten lanes
and remember that the end
of one journey is the
beginning of another.