The Not-So New Male Beauty Myth

JAKE Voices Editor Daniel W.K. Lee calls out the unstated racial assumption when we consider the "new" male beauty. 

 Photo credit: Victor Ongpin

Photo credit: Victor Ongpin

by Daniel W.K. Lee / @danielsaudade

A new and impossible male beauty myth, proclaims Harris O'Malley, in his recent article  at The Good Men Project. Those standards, for O'Malley, are epitomized by the “spornosexual”—British cultural critic Mark Simpson's moniker for the second-generation metrosexual whose sickening body is the ultimate accessory, “where sport got into bed with porn while Mr. Armani took pictures.” In essence, the new male beauty myth is that a man is expected to have an elite CrossFit athlete's bod without making it, or making it seem like it's his life's work.

But for Western gay men in particular, the regime that demands of men physical perfection is not new at all. This male beauty myth as articulated by O'Malley seems more of an infiltration of gay standards of physical desirability onto the heterosexual measuring stick. O'Malley himself says, “See, despite what we tell ourselves, the male beauty standard isn’t about what women think men should look like; it’s brought onto us by other men.” To a degree, this homosocial legislation of the male body and of course, masculinity itself, is an ironic “gay-ing” (not “queering,” mind you) of what it means to be a coveted straight male. O'Malley muses but speaks truth when he writes, “Zac Effron traded in an almost feminine beauty in his younger days to look like something that – quoting Seth Rogan’s character in Neighbors – a gay man designed in a laboratory.” I would even go further and argue that transgender men cannot escape the influence of this regime either, particularly if such trans men are oriented to have sex with other men—trans or cis.

But what O'Malley fails to see is that this male beauty myth—inherited or not from the gay gaze—is almost exclusively white. BuzzFeed Video's recent video on the “ideal man” from around the world confirms as much, particularly in the United States and in South Africa:

Though I don't necessarily agree with the video's claim that the “future” of male beauty is mix-raced (I mean, if this is true, I'd imagine Grey's Anatomy star Jesse Williams would at some point be People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive...but I'm not holding my breath), it is clear that the present manifestations of male beauty are white men. O'Malley references Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Gerard Butler, Tyler Durden (aka Brad Pitt from Fight Club), Stephen Amell, and Hugh Jackman. BuzzFeeds's findings add Channing Tatum and Chris Pratt. And mass media, of course, reflects and perpetuates this assumption that the ideal beautiful man has white skin. Denzel Washington is the only non-white to ever be People's Sexiest Man 1996, and the 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report revealed 83.3% of all lead actors in films from 2013 were white. The regime is moreover an oligarchy where whiteness grants position, prominence, and far too un-critically, “preference.” So what does that mean for the male person of color? What does that mean for the queer male person of color?

It means accessing—let alone reaching—standards of male beauty (in the West) are elusive to men of color often with consequences to self-esteem, notions of desirability and masculinity—especially in the sexual marketplace. Even if a queer man of color feels “outside” of this myth, he can't not be touched by it. Gay hookup apps, like their personal ad predecessors, are notorious enforcers of the racial divide and stratification. Click around the website, where you'll find these gems that smack of self-loathing or outright racism:

I remember my homosexual-with-training-wheels days (around the age of 9), walking through the men's underwear section at Venture (think a local version of K-mart) in Forest Park, IL. My eyes found a box of red sport trunks that featured an image of a chiseled, white torso. I became obsessed with this underwear: contrived reasons to myself why I had to go back to Venture almost every day (I lived down the block and didn't ever really need to tell my parents or grandma where I was going anyway) just to glance at the box. It became my goal to buy this underwear, convinced that should I don it, I would be as desirable as the headless creature on the box. Being a chubby pre-pubescent, when I finally procured the trunks and put them on, it immediately occurred to me that I was not anything like the white, chiseled torso but that was what I wanted to be. It didn't occur to me then that I could never be it either.

“To overthrow this regime of impossible male beauty requires us to call out our own and other people’s whack-ass hate.”
— Daniel W.K. Lee

It would not be until sophomore year of NYU—after deconstructing my desires and seeing how all that time drooling through International Male/Undergear catalogues socialized me to want white bodies above others—that I would entertain having anything sexual to do with non-white men. I, at last, saw my Asian/gaysian brothers as sexy, beautiful, fuck-able—corresponding to my own self-acceptance. And when I finally achieved my own six-pack mid-section, which came long after a stint as a stripper, I understood with Windex clarity that a sickening Asian body would not have the same currency of desire as white skin.

I don't say this as sour grapes, but to render white privilege: that men of color who put their bodies and psyches in a relentless crucible in order to erect—if nothing else—a facade of desirability and masculinity vis-à-vis standards of (gay) male beauty, come with a cultural handicap even if genetics have granted them the feasibility of spornographic physiques. This is not to say that there aren't those who find men of color of greater desirability, but whiteness is very often assumed or unconsciously acknowledged as the paragon of male beauty.

Even if completely illusory, that is, a product of good lighting, Photoshop, Instagram filters, and cosmetic surgery (we are calling it a “myth” after all), men's quests toward the perfect body have resulted many consequences, such as the rise in the of number of men suffering from eating disorders and an increasingly pervasive body dysmorphia of varying degrees not just in gay men. Yet the solution progress cannot only be a mantra of self-acceptance, self-love, or even O'Malley's matrix of how one acts, how one dresses, and how one makes others feel. As a culture (of men, of queers, etc.), we must concurrently and constantly resist practices of exclusion, challenge orthodoxies which disallow harmless deviances, and overcome our deficit of compassion towards faces, skin, bodies that are not our “preferences.”

In other words, the work to be done is not purely personal. It is societal as well. To overthrow this regime of impossible male beauty requires us to call out our own and other people's whack-ass hate. As it has been said, you cannot fix yourself by breaking others. Equally so, one's problem is not imperfection, but rather the world is ill-suited for perfection.

Daniel W.K. Lee is a Seattle-based poet and cultural critic.

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