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3.25.2004

Men's Grooming . . . Part II

By John O'Connor, former Prada model

My earlier post attributing all changes in men's grooming habits to gay men is perhaps an overstatement. But, duly qualifying my earlier remarks, I would say that three forces together have conspired to revolutionize men's grooming, and other aspects of men's culture, beyond recognition. This triumvirate consists of gay males, Hollywood, and the ongoing industrial revolution of the world.

Whether it's gay or straight or bi or unlabelled, men's vanity has slipped its leash and is roaming at will through our culture.

Men who dye their hair. (Al Gore). Men with big, fancy haircuts (Kerry, Clinton, almost all local newscasters). Men with Botox (Kerry, and others unknown). Men who are fashion slaves (England's David Beckham) and trendsetters (same). Men who wax their faces so that they don't have to shave (unknown, but cited below). This is not all gay. I have not cited to a single openly gay male so far. But is all sort of gay-ish, and I think there is a trend that way in our culture.

Many things that used to be gay aren't any more. First and foremost I would mention bodybuilding. One reason Arnold had a career was that promoters, led by the likes of Joe Weider and others, were desperate for a straight role model they could put forward to demonstrate that weight-lifters could indeed by heterosexual. The earlier presumption was that bodybuilders basically were not. Bodybuilding was introduced into this country in the 19th century by Eugene Sandow, a gay German, and it has had a strong gay aspect ever since. Arnold was hailed as the messiah who could sell this as a straight activity. Judging from the prevalence of gyms and lifting in American life, he has succeeded. American males don't think twice about lifting weights, and American women are right there with them. This is a quiet revolution, but a real one.

One thing that made it necessary is the economic change of the country. It is very difficult to stay in shape by doing your job. Most American guys can't do that. So, sports or exercise of some sort have become a necessity, not a luxury. Failure to exercise leads to a body which is too thin and underdeveloped or too fat and unwieldy.

There is a whole magazine industry devoted to this, all those men's health and men's fitness magazines. No, it is not gay porn. But the physical ideal set forth in these things is essentially what you would find on an erotic website. TV and movies are also not shy about presenting ideal male physiques as normal -- something which women are used to, but which is newish where men are concerned.

Hair is one of the key indicators here. Plenty of businessmen now dye their hair -- good for sales, etc. My own late father, a rock-ribbed conservative, dyed his. It was not an endorsement of the Clinton era. When I was a kid, men never had hair stylists. They never dyed. Young men did not streak their hair with blond highlights, or wear the sort of look we now associate (derisively, I admit) with boy bands.

Yes, ethnicity is a factor. A white person, a black person, and a Latino all will tend to have different ideals for what it means to be a well-groomed man. It's the sea-change among white men that I find most interesting. Obviously, this is where resistance to change is probably the strongest. But it is also where the change is most visible.

Hollywood markets these changes and makes them stick. Ever seen a guy in a one-piece full-body swimsuit? These were standard attire for American men until Johnny Weissmuller, of Tarzan fame, pioneered the men's swimsuit as we know it today. Nobody but John Ashcroft has probably ever worn the old-fashioned kind. Many probably don't realize that what they would wear today is breath-takingly radical, immodest, and immoral. That, however, is because they are used to the change.

--jo
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