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    It's tempting to surmise that men's interest in body image, and their relatively recent concerns about
    physical attractiveness, along with sexualization of the male body, means they are becoming
    feminized.  This, however, is decidedly not the case.  Looking good is part of a quintessential male
    strategy whose ultimate aim is to make men more successful, competitive, and powerful.  The
    means of achieving this goal may be new, but the objective is not.

    Millions of American men have been transformed into body-conscious consumers of revealing
    fashions, seductive perfumes, and the services of hairstylists, personal trainers, and plastic
    surgeons.  Due credit for this transformation must be given to advertisers, marketers, and
    self-esteem gurus, who have sold men--and all of us--a message of self-transfiguration through
    self-commodification.  The traditional image of women as sexual objects has simply been expanded:
    everyone has become an object to be seen.
           -Lynne Luciano, Introduction to Looking Good
 

Though Lynne Luciano's look at male body image would be perfectly adequate as a long magazine article, maybe one of those forty page jobs in The New Yorker, it feels like it's stretched pretty thin as a book.  Perhaps this is because one key element is missing : analysis and conclusions.  The basic premise, as stated above, is intriguing, if arguable.  The reportage, on trends in exercise, diet, hair loss remedies, cosmetic surgery, and sexual dysfunction treatments, over the past five decades, is excellent.  She suggests a number of factors which have led men to be more concerned about how they look, some of which are fairly obvious--the Sexual Revolution, Youth Culture--but some of which are more subtle and interesting : later marriage and multiple marriages mean that men are on mating display long after their prime, whereas in the past they had only needed to look good between the ages of 15 and 21, when nature took care of most of the problem; loss of exclusive control over economic assets means that many men, just as women in the past, need to look appealing for more financially well-off mates.  What's sorely missing though is a defense of the thesis, some discussion of what it all means, and some proposals for how to counteract these trends which clearly seem malignant.

As a threshold matter, it is not necessarily clear that the premise of the book is accurate.  It may well be that this is simply one more instance where the massive and aberrant Baby Boom generation, by dint of sheer numbers and vocality, has warped societal perceptions, making it seem that their unique pathologies signal the coming of a new day.  The defining characteristic of the Boomers has been their total and exclusive fascination with themselves.  At each step along their march through life, they've wielded sufficient numbers and power to get whatever serves them best, but have always cast their demands as societal imperatives.  Thus, when they were young, we got sexual revolution and drug culture, but they became parents and all of a sudden we were back to "Just Say No," and safe sex.  When they were old enough to go to go to Vietnam, war became immoral.  Sure enough, they got us out of that war, but for all their talk of changing the world, they seemed unfazed by Desert Storm.  They abandoned their president, Bill Clinton, when he wanted them to pay for Universal Health Care, but now they are retiring and, mirabile dictu, it's time for a Universal Prescription Drug plan.  And so on, and so forth.  At any rate, they've made a fetish out of their youth, back in those halcyon 60's, and most of the trends in physical obsession that the author talks about may well just be attempts by this unique, unfortunately influential, cohort to cling to the illusion of youth for a few extra years.

A plausible argument can even be made that this cultural moment has already passed.  Things like hair plugs and Viagra are relatively passive responses to aging, and are easily undertaken, but the type of exertion required to maintain a youthful physique is quite difficult.  It would be shocking if many older men were actually able to maintain the weight levels, muscle tone, and stamina of truly younger men.  Nor is there any evidence that they are doing so : America is notoriously becoming an obese nation.  The response, at least in recent years, has not noticeably been for older men to exercise more, rather it has been for our archetypal males to get fatter : Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Newt Gingrich, Drew Carey, John Goodman, Hank Hill, and that guy on the King of Queens are just a few examples.  And the alternatives to this body type are not typically your masculine males--the Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sly Stallone of twenty years ago--instead there are the nerds, like Bill Gates and Ken Starr, or the androgynous, like Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio.  It seems likely that as the Boomers are losing their battle with aging and the beltline, they are demanding icons who resemble themselves, which is after all easier than trying to make yourself look like some Madison Avenue version of the ideal male.

As for what it all means, to the extent that the process of objectification of the male body is going on, the focus on the physical shell rather than the inner being is easily explained as part of the broader and quite pernicious cultural trend towards extreme egalitarianism.  Given enough hair treatment, cosmetic surgery, steroids, and exercise, you could pretty much make the entire population look the same.  Hell, if Michael Jackson can turn himself into a Caucasian, what can't you do with technology ?  Just wait until we can really manipulate DNA and you may have a planet that's half Antonio Banderas and half Jennifer Lopez.  The problem, and the inherent flaw in egalitarianism, is that this inexorable grinding of the population towards a mean does not actually produce anything worthwhile in the people themselves.  One day you wake up with a whole planet full of people who look exactly the same, think the same, achieve the same, and all you've got is a huge mass of mediocrity.  The time men, and women, are wasting on making themselves "beautiful" could better be put to use improving their character and their minds.  A society that invests so much of its time, money and effort in pure externalities and ignores the soul, must surely be headed for trouble.

As for proposals, here are two :

    *  Do not provide any health insurance coverage for any cosmetic processes or for drugs which
        target physique or sexual function.  Make folks pay for all this crap and it will quickly fall out
        of favor.

    *  Strengthen the institution of marriage and make divorce more difficult.  Marry one person and
        grow old, bald and fat together.

That should be enough to get us started on the road back to normalcy.  The impending decrepitude of the Baby Boomers should take care of the rest.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (C)

  

Websites:

See also:

Sociology
Book-related and General Links:
    -EXCERPT : First Chapter of Looking Good
    -REVIEW : of Looking Good (Holly Brubach, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Looking Good by Lynne Luciano (Mark Levine, Men's Journal)

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