Wednesday 26 March 2008

What Should a Man Look Like?

Aesthetics has always been something of importance to me. In fact, it is something I have fairly definite views on, especially as it relates to men and women.

I think aesthetics are often a far more profound statement than we realise, because to a huge degree, the image we present to the world is under our own control.

And they say a lot about us as individuals, but more, about the perceptions we have in common.

For example, I cannot see that having big wooden plates as lips, will ever attract me, but there is a culture somewhere that does hold this view. How this conception originated in that culture remains a mystery to me, but they do it all the same.

If I look at myself, there are some quite definite statements I make in my own mode of self presentation. I'm obsessed with my hair, this is something most people seem to be aware of, most especially the curled forelocks I've spents years cultivating. They hang down my forehead, stopping short of the eyes, but if pulled straight, will actually reach to below my lips.

And of course, there are several statements I'm making. The most obvious one, is that I'm more concerned with fulfilling a certain aesthetic vision, than I am with judgements people might make concerning my sexuality. Since I know what my sexuality is, I really don't give a damn what anyone else thinks. So my hairstyle alone, conveys a huge signal about my social attitudes.
But also of course, in a more pernicious way, it's a status gesture. It's a statement that I clearly don't work at something where my hair could get out of place. I'm identifying myself consciously and publically as someone who firstly, spends a fair bit of money on their hair and secondly, can keep it the way they sprayed it in the morning, till they come home at night.

Why I go for the 'kisscurls', as my mother calls them, is part of my wider aesthetic outlook, which I'll come to later.

Status does of course affects a lot of aesthetics.
Why do we wear ties? Potentially they're quite dangerous. They could get caught in machinery and choke us. If you work in a restaurant, it could fall into the food.

Precisely. We wear ties mainly to prove that we don't get our hands dirty. It's a public statement; my brain, not my brawn earns my keep.

None of this is new.

There are two obvious aesthetic movements throughout history which have tended in this direction.
The first, was a conception that played a huge role in the development of racism. It begins in the middle ages, as a poetic concept. Read any medieval romance, a sign of beauty and breeding is the soft, snow white skin. Not just for women, for men. It proved you never got caught in the sun, like the serfs in the field, or even the townsmen plying their trade. Even the robber baron only ventures forth into the open air, firmly covered by armour, his hands gauntleted. So musclebound he is, but his hands stay soft and his skin stays white.

This was taken further in Spain, where a large proportion of the population were of Moorish origin. The only way, in time, that you could tell the real old, undiluted nobility of Castille, was if the skin was so white you could see the veins. Which of course, show up blue. The blue blooded.
This was carried by the conquistadors to the new world where, as Humboldt said, shade was the definer of class in a world where the blue blooded really were a tiny minority, then a more mixed class of settlers who had mixed somewhat with the natives, then the natives, then the darkest of all, the African slaves.

It is actually a fairly recent idea that being tanned is beautiful. Even last century, it was seen as 'weatherworn', hence the parasol.

The other obvious example of status driving fashion, was the eighteenth century, and this, I think, may be of more relevance to us today.

The aristocratic males of the early eighteenth century were making a definite statement.
They had long wigs, wore make up and high heels.

They were so refined, so confident of their social status, they didn't need to dress practically. They dressed extravagently. And, in a way that if we look at it, emulates women.
It is if the highest eschelon of male society says 'We are SO much the dominant male, we can afford to look like women. We don't need to make ourselves attractive to the women, because we have all the power. So we'll make ourselves attractive to US.'

The funny thing is, I do think they did look rather fine then. I'd love to have dressed like that.

I think these days, men are in a different position. Feminism scares them. Men fear the loss of their manliness, so they try to hype it up visually.

It is, I think largely insecurity, that fills the gyms with Effogen taking weightlifters, uncomfortable with the advance of women into typically male fields.

At the other end of the scale of course, men generally DO make more effort with cosmetics than they did twenty years ago.

My own view is, that really, the whole idea of maintaining such wide divergences in our aesthetic judgements of men and women, is flawed. I think the eighteenth century male was on to something. I think the fact remains, that women have traditionally had the best deal on this front. Being the 'fairer' sex, not having to go to war (where shorter hair is better in preventing the spread of lice), shoe horses, work in coalmines etc, meant they got to keep their hair, their cosmetics, to be pretty. Men weren't allowed that luxury.

Women have been conditioned to look for the musclebound breadwinner, whilst men have felt that a certain aesthetic slovenliness should be aimed for. The muddy schoolboy with his shirt hanging out.

There are certain things which will always be appropriate for one sex and not the other. Women always look nice in dresses, men never will. Men's legs don't look good on show in that way. But I think it's more rewarding now that dresses are reserved for special occasions. They allow us to really appreciate the female form at it's best.

But hair, I think we're still wrong about it. Generally, although a minority defy the conventional wisdom, women have long hair, men have short hair. But in fact, the length of hair that suits a face, depends on the shape of the head. Some men look a lot better with long hair, and one does see women who pull off a shaven head in a way that is quite striking.

Make up is another area. A lot of men tacitly use cosmetics, but get uncomfortable using mascara and the like. None of us would wear it to work, certainly, and whilst I did occasionally use it in my youth, I wouldn't now, mainly because of the societal judgement.
But generally, the reason why most transvestitites look truly awful, is because they are wearing a ridiculous amount of make up. A woman wearing that much make up would look just as awful.

I think really, most women look better when the make up isn't obvious, it just covers blemishes and heightens their best facial features. The same, in fact, would be true for men.

I often joke with my lesbian friend that lesbianism is simply female frustration at the grotesqueness of the male physique, an underlying recognition by women that in fact, men are very aesthetically unappealing.

It's tongue in cheek, but I sometimes wonder if there isn't something in it. I don't believe that homosexuality and heterosexuality are clear cut, I think we all tend to the bisexual one way or another, and to ally the two different forms of homosexuality against heterosexuality, often seems to me slightly bizarre, because in some ways, you can't get much further apart than men who like men, and women who like women.

Personally, I think too much muscle definition looks pretty unattractive, regardless of gender. There is something slightly primeval about it, one suspects their underwear smells of sweat.

Obviously, we all basically want to look attractive. But aesthetics should emphasise our best features, emphasise those points we want to show off to members of the opposite sex. Often, it turns out, the same things will work equally well for both genders.
Tight jeans for example. If you have the figure for it, works either way. It did for me when I was 22, I even used to get the odd catcall about that particular part of my anatomy.

The fact is, we are still bound up in creating separate visual images for males and females, without really concerning ourselves with freeing the aesthetic potential of the individual.

My view?
Come on Metrosexual males!

Time for us to get some of the benefits of feminism.

We don't have to be knuckle dragging unkempt beefcakes any more.

There can be TWO fair sexes!


Anonymous said...

This post makes me sad :(

Aesthetics are important. How we present ourselves and how other people perceive us is very important if we want to succeed at anything I suppose. It's just a shame some people are more aesthetically pleasing than others.

Anonymous said...

Why does it make you sad?

Aesthetics have been very kind to you!

I have to spend half hour every morning turning what looks like a chimp-human hybrid into something half presentable.
Trust me, at 6AM, I'm living proof that man is closely related to apes...

Anonymous said...

Ok, fair enough. if it's to cover up blemishes, men can use make up too :-)

Anonymous said...

(1) I've heard from plenty of heterosexual women that they don't find men all that appealing visually.

(2) Oesterbunny makes a critical point, one that I've heard many a feminist (and people who just have common sense) talk about. The ideal aesthetic demeans everyone. I won't look like Apollo any more than a woman will actually look like Aphrodite. In the meantime, everyone feels cheated and ugly when they notice "imperfections" (better understood as "individualities") in themselves, and in their mates.

Anonymous said...

I find the forces behind what is defined as attractive to be so very fascinating. It is odd how almost arbitrarily it is decided, but how rigidly we (myself included) hold onto it.

Anonymous said...

I have to use a lot of make up these days to make my Carmen Miranda effective....

Anonymous said...

Err… I wear a tie because that is what my employer seems to expect, slightly loose. When I decide for myself I generally don’t for comfort’s sake. I am not wearing it to prove anything in particular. If circumstances dictate I have to wear one I do tend to try to make sure they look ‘nice’, that the colours and patterns are pleasing to me and match my clothes, This is aesthetics, but this aspect is to please myself more than to make a statement.

Hair? I go for short enough that it looks acceptably neat with minimal bother, wash brush/comb it in the morning and you are good to go for the day.

I suppose I do like to look reasonably ok, so people will think I care enough about them to have bothered. So maybe that is a statement.

Oestrebunny has good a point. How people percieve us can indeed influence our sucess, wellbeing, etc.

All told an interesting post and you make some good points.

Anonymous said...

Eve- You should se the brown rings under my eyes!
I have a chicken poc scar that has given me years of agnst as well.

x-dell- We're not visually appealing at all. I saw a great postcard once. God was standing by a design board, with a picture of man, genitalia on head. The caption read 'Let's face it gentlemen, it's going to loook pretty silly wherever we put it.'

I think what I'm actually saying, is we don't free ourselves as much as we could, to fulfill what suits as individuals, in an aesthetic sense.
Of course, if I had the money, I would certainly have my cheekbones lifted :)

Princess P- A lo of it, really, has to with mathematical ratios and patterns of symmetry.
Mankind loves patterns. It's part of what defines our logic, we seek them out, which is of course, how we understand things.

Mutley- But it is still effective. Gets me going every time!

Phil- I take mine off as soon as I reasonably can. I hate them. I call it the corporate dog leash.

Some of my tastes are to please myself. I think I wear black a lot, mainly because I have a closet desire to be a priest.

I think aesthetics are important and we have far more power over them than we realise.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your comment on hair. It depends on the shape of your face on whether long, short, wide high suits best. When I was young I had some truly awful hair styles!

As to makeup, minimal is best. Just enough to highlight your eyes lips etc without noticing the makeup. I was told a very good trick on how to make eyes stand out ;-)

Also different coloured clothing suits different complexions (black is a no no next to my face it makes me look like a corpse!)

I had a chicken pox scar that I used to hate I don't notice at all now, I do still worry about alopecia, although I don't notice it nearly so much any more...

I must be getting old!

Anonymous said...

Another interesting post Crushed, especially when all the women are now dressing more like men in some ways. Especially they have given up the dress and skirt and adopted pants as a way of life on most occasions.

I had to laugh this past fall when pants suits, mostly dark grey, became the in thing for women. A hark back to the seventies when we adopted that male fashion. I even wore a scarf tied like a tie with them.

I think wearing apparel is often metrosexual and a good thing too. I don't think anyone is confused by it all for a second, do you?

Anonymous said...

Cherrypie- Really short hair doesn't suit me.

I've had the same hairstyle now for several years, but I did have long copper burgundy hair at one point.

I'm quite plale, but I still prefer black. Possibly I like the way it heightens the pallour.

jmb- I had to read your middle paragraph several times to get it- fall, so very North American, I didn't realise it was a noun as opposed to a verb :)

I don't think anyone is really confused, no. I think it makes life brighter. I look at men in the nineteen fifties with their heads cropped and the brown and white drabness, and I'm glad we don't live like that now.

Anonymous said...

Hey - It wasn't actually sepia or black and white in the 50s, despite the pictures.

Also I must confess to sporting a short back and sides, lots less bother and cheaper to maintain :-)