Charting the decay of male beauty? Bring it on.


Does anyone remember the male midlife crisis?

There was a period of time which I think probably began in the 1970s and lasted about 20 years, in which a staple trope of sitcoms, soap operas, drama and even highbrow literature was the man aged around 40 to 50 with a couple of decades of marriage behind him, whose kids were growing or grown, and would suddenly become disillusioned with his life achievements and consumed with his lost youth. He would overcompensate by buying a leather jacket and an electric guitar, a motorcycle or a Porsche. He would typically have an affair with his secretary or leave his wife for a woman twenty years younger.

As a man who is now that exact age, I almost feel cheated. I was quite looking forward to a new guitar, at the very least. But the golden age of the male midlife crisis is long past. I’ve been struggling to recall the last textbook example from popular culture, and I think it was probably Kevin Spacey in American Beauty, released in the dying weeks of the 20th Century. Compare Walter White in Breaking Bad. Had this series been made in the 1980s, this would, I think, have been written as a midlife crisis story. In this century it was written instead as an endlife crisis. Tellingly, when Walter was attempting to disguise his new secret life, everyone assumed he was following the old script and was having affairs, just about the one moral transgression he wasn’t pursuing.

Yes, of course men still have affairs, buy expensive gadgets they don’t need, and human psychology hasn’t changed much. The manifestations, however, those with cultural salience, have changed. Today you are less likely to find the anxious 40-something man browsing the Harley Davidson showroom and more likely to find him in a gym crunching his abs in a desperate effort to restore a six-pack.

These thoughts were sparked by Suzanne Moore’s column today, in which she pondered the ways in which our culture processes the physical decline of the ageing male body in the era of TOWIE and ‘Sporno’. Although there wasn’t much in the piece I disagreed with, I found it a little frustrating, as if it stopped short of reaching its conclusion. In fact I think it ends just at the point where it gets really interesting:

This gap in our visual culture, though, is not accidental. The bodies we see least of are those who are in power: the ageing middle-aged man. It is almost as if they have something to hide.

I think the crucial word missing from Suzanne’s piece is ‘money.’ It is no coincidence that the recent resurgence of the male as physical object of sexuality and beauty (as a cultural trope, at least) has occurred at the exact same time as a decline in the pre-eminence of the male as an object of status, success and wealth.

Only a couple of generations ago, there was still a dominant popular notion that if a woman wished financial security for her children or full-blown wealth and status for herself, the obvious and usual way to attain it was to bag herself a man with potential or actual wealth. The income of a household was assumed to be entirely inseparable from the income of the man. We can still see remnants of this in, for example, the would-be WAGs hanging out in the clubs where they hope to meet a professional footballer, but it is a rapidly dying phenomenon.

I’m not suggesting that any of this (on the part of either men or women) is conscious, far less manipulative. Our ideas of physical attractiveness are very largely socially constructed. To a certain extent almost all of us adapt to what we perceive to be the attractive traits of the day, from the trappings of hairstyles and clothes up to our body shapes or the car we drive. Simultaneously, what we find desirable is, to a degree, what culture tells us to find desirable. I should add that (thankfully for the likes of me) trends are there to be bucked. Human attraction is immensely diverse and unpredictable and there will always be someone out there who is drawn to the big-eared, skinny ,ginger bloke with an emaciated wallet and a bulging bookshelf.

As a broad rule, the liberation of women’s careers, choices and lifestyles is, I am sure, directly culpable in the rise of male body perfectionism and the decline of the old-school midlife crisis. When a woman can secure her own income, conspicuous symbols of male wealth and status must lose their cachet. Men, unconsciously of course, have cottoned on to this and realised that given a straight choice, an attractive woman would now rather run her fingers over a well-toned torso than over the keys to a sports car.

As a well-meaning liberal who dwells on the problems of contemporary man, a lot of people expect me to furrow my brow and fret about the growing pressures on men to be physically perfect (or at least pass muster round the pool.) In truth I struggle to raise much concern about it, and this is part of the reason why. Yes, of course we have to be wary of the mental health consequences, self-esteem, eating disorders and all the rest, but almost anything is dangerous when taken to extremes. As a general rule, I think the resurgence in appreciation of male beauty is an inevitable and healthy consequence of an increasingly egalitarian society. If, as Suzanne Moore suggests, this will inevitably lead to the decline of male bodies being “obsessively charted,” then so be it. I think we can take it on the chin. Or more accurately, the paunch.

Comments

  1. Carnation says

    This comes back to the old discussion about whether men (and women) really want to impress peers of the same, rather than opposite, sex. Not many women seem particularly fussed about Arnie style muscles, preferring toned refinement – but your average man might well prefer the Austrian look.

  2. Ally Fogg says

    I don’t think it is about impressing other men so much as outperforming other men. Everything is comparative.

    So it is not about ‘I have a six pack’ it is about ‘I have a better six pack than him.’ And of course we don’t know that unless we are constantly checking out the competition.

  3. Carnation says

    @ Ally

    I don’t think it’s (only, mostly or mainly) a 6-pack – I think it”s more basic than that – men tend to want to bulk muscles, particularly around the arms and chest. Why? I’m not quite sure… But I’m fairly sure heteronormative patriarchy has something to do with it. And I say that in full knowledge that gay men are amongst the most statueesque and ripped of the type we are talking about.

  4. Ally Fogg says

    No, of course it is the whole package, not just abs. But I do think it is a competitive activity!

  5. Adiabat says

    Ally:

    Men, unconsciously of course, have cottoned on to this and realised that given a straight choice, an attractive woman would now rather run her fingers over a well-toned torso than over the keys to a sports car.

    I agree. I think it’s been a major oversight of feminist theory, especially when it criticizes male behavior, just how much the preferences of women affect the behavior of men, and vice versa.

    Perhaps the only point in the OP I can criticize is that, as shown in American Beauty, working out and getting toned, was very much a part of the mid-life crisis. So maybe it hasn’t gone completely but just some parts of it more prominent than others. Now cycling (on £3000 bicycles!) and ‘fitness’ seems to be the focus.

  6. Ally Fogg says

    as shown in American Beauty, working out and getting toned, was very much a part of the mid-life crisis.

    That’s true, I’d forgotten that.

    With hindsight, maybe that represented the cusp as the old-style MLC transformed into the new.

  7. Adiabat says

    Possibly Ally. Like you I’m struggling to think of any later popular depictions of the classical MLC.

    P.S I should add regarding ‘oversights’ that second wave feminism was so much better in this area*: it wasn’t afraid to point out behaviours that women engaged in that contributed to problems.

    I suspect the blowback they had from doing that is what gave rise to the third-waves reluctance to do the same.

    * and so much worse in other areas of course.

  8. sonofrojblake says

    I blogged about this almost exactly five years ago. Back then I said:

    Male mid-life crisis is going to die out, or at the very least become a lot less common.

    A few decades ago, it was a cliche that in his late thirties or early forties, a man would grow a pony-tail behind his bald spot, start wearing leather trousers, buy a sports car and have an affair with a younger woman, all in a bid to recapture something he felt he’d lost or missed out on. This was understandable, because men in those days generally left home in their teens and put away “childish things”, either to go to work or university, and never went home again. They entered the world of work, marriage, fatherhood and responsibility, and wouldn’t question it at first because everyone else would be doing it. Then at some point, when they’d been doing it for about 20 years, a number of things would happen at once. They’d reach a plateau in their career and see no prospect of further advancement, their hair would start going grey or falling out and their parents would begin needing their help to do things. It would be brought home to them forcefully that this, their one and only life, was slipping away from them, and they’d react badly.

    But the world has changed. Consumerism and advertising has extended adolescence well into the thirties – it’s more socially acceptable to simply play around. In the 1980s the concept of a videogame with an 18 certificate would have been ridiculed, whereas now such things are commonplace, indeed, bestsellers. Meanwhile rampant house price inflation sees men in their twenties and thirties still living with their parents. With no jobs for life, the idea of a career plateau is laughable. People in their forties are less likely nowadays to be worrying about whether to put their parents in a home, and more likely to be trying to keep up with their tweets from Thailand or Canada or Spain.

    Mid-life crisis was something that happened to men who had been forced by society to grow up quickly. But society doesn’t do that to men any more. If anything, it encourages them to behave like teenagers until they’re physically incapable of continuing. On that basis, I predict that the incidence of mid-life crisis will fall dramatically over the next decade. Bad news if you’re a Porsche dealer…

  9. Carnation says

    Slightly off-topic, but The Pledge is a stunning and often overlooked film that deals with what might be termed an end of life crisis.

    A bit back on topic, The Sopranos is many things, but a study of masculinity in modern society is definitely one of them, as Tony et al negotiate middle age.

  10. mildlymagnificent says

    One big change between then and now is the ages of people when their children are born. That male midlife crisis went right along with his wife’s empty nest syndrome. Not possible for us. When my husband turned 45 our youngest was still in kindy. No time for a midlife crisis when you’re still supervising bath time and reading stories for the littlies each night. Nor did I have any middle aged “empty nest syndrome” to cope with. I was well past 55 when the youngest one left home.

    It wasn’t terribly common 30+ years ago when our kids were born, but it’s becoming more and more common as time goes on. I don’t see the move to later marriage and child-bearing stopping any time soon.

  11. mildlymagnificent says

    Different issue. Body image.

    I do think that the issue of men wanting that six pack, ripped appearance is much more about male competitiveness than it is about attracting women. Like practically all the women I know, I’m with Clive James on the Arnold Schwarzenegger look. Ugly – like a condom full of walnuts.

  12. 123454321 says

    “more about male competitiveness than it is about attracting women.”

    That’s pretty much the same thing when you think about it.

  13. D506 says

    @12 mildlymagnificent

    I do think that the issue of men wanting that six pack, ripped appearance is much more about male competitiveness than it is about attracting women. Like practically all the women I know, I’m with Clive James on the Arnold Schwarzenegger look. Ugly – like a condom full of walnuts.

    While you’re absolutely right that it’s probably not a common preference, I don’t think you can conclude that it isn’t about attracting women. It may be a small minority, but there is some portion of women who find the look very appealing. Fact is, being considered extremely attractive by a small portion of women is a much better strategy* than being considered of average attractiveness to most women – particularly when few other men fill that niche. It also has the advantages of being both visible and viable. Sure, more women may prefer toned abs and an attractive face – but men can’t change their face or wear a belly shirt to the bar. Most women may even prefer an average looking guy to a body builder, but I’ve never seen a woman introduce herself to comment on how average a man is.

    *Depending on your goals, that is.

  14. lelapaletute says

    Have to say I disagree with you a bit.

    While it may be a symptom of healthy development, a renewed over-emphasis or overvaluing of physical perfection in men that parallels society’s long established one regarding physical perfection in women is inherently unhealthy and to be discouraged before it gains any more traction.

    I think of it like the chemotherapy of increasing equity of opportunity in the education and labour markets is killing the cancer of the “men want sex, women want security” trope, but it’s also making us puke out a new demanding standard on men that we have already observed is harmful to women.

    It won’t help women labouring under the same problem to just tell men to just “take it on the paunch” because it’s their turn. And it certainly won’t do men any good.

    I may be being a bit too poe-faced about this, but this is always the most depressing thing about the outcomes of feminism (and other equality movements) – so often it just turns into a game of levelling up, so that on any particular problem, the goal becomes “x group now has it as good/bad as y, so that must be fair” rather than looking at an issue holistically as to what could be a better way for everyone…

    On a lighter note, lovely picture Ally – love what you’ve done with your wig :P

  15. scoobertron says

    What I found frustrating about the Suzanne Moore piece was the suggestion that for a man, the desire for an attractive body was simply a harmless expression of male competitiveness, whereas for a woman, it was an external pressure to conform to the desire of the male gaze. While there may be broad differences on the issue of body image between the genders, this (like just about everything else) strikes me as an area where a lot more nuance is required. Female competiveness is a thing, and anecdotally appears more important than the ‘male gaze’. I suspect that many men feel an external pressure to measure up, and that this can cause harm and distress. I think that it is a good thing that we are having a discussion about how male body image is changing. The tone of such pieces and lazy gender stereotypeing, however, really gets my goat.

  16. drken says

    @14 D506
    There was some data crunched by OKCupid (I think) that confirmed that the percentage of women who rate you highly is a much better predictor of how many messages/replies you get than your overall average, so there is something to that.

    Ally: It wasn’t just a “popular notion” that back in the day women would need to find a rich husband in order to be financially successful herself. Women were banned or at least very forcibly discouraged from pretty much any well paying job outside the entertainment industry. Women dreamt of “marrying a doctor” because that would be the closest thing they could get to becoming one (outside of nursing, a much lower paid profession). Now, they can (and do) become doctors, so the pressure to marry a doctor is much less (thankfully). Occasionally I’ll hear some MRA or anti-feminist complain about how now that women can get sex and money outside of marriage, there’s nothing left for men to offer them. I think they’re selling themselves short, but maybe this rise in preening by men is related to that. Also, I think some of it has to do with the fear of growing old/dying and the idea that they can stave off old age by exercise. This would also explain why more men are getting plastic surgery. Personally, I’d like to think gender equality wouldn’t be about men and women picking up each others bad habits, but here we are.

  17. Jacob Schmidt says

    Frankly I’m not convinced that mid life crises were all that common in the first place. Certainly there were “[men] aged around 40 to 50 with a couple of decades of marriage behind him, whose kids were growing or grown, and would suddenly become disillusioned with his life achievements and consumed with his lost youth,” and likely a few women as well, but the stereotypical “buy a Harley; work out; get a mistress” behaviour? No. Just men trying to find out why they were dissatisfied with their life. Some tried cool vehicles, sleeping around, and getting buff. Some tried volunteering, or going back to school. Some tried art, realized they sucked at art, and shortly thereafter figured out that their current stations in life were actually pretty good if they made the most of it, now that the kids were gone.

  18. Ben Finney says

    I can’t believe you’re so insensitive to the facts, Ally:

    American Beauty, released in the dying weeks of the 20th Century.

    Dying weeks? When that movie was publicly released, on 1999-10-01, the end of the 20th century (2000-12-31) was still over 65 weeks away.

    I’m crestfallen you would rob the century of its final year, tacitly supporting the ignorance of history and the oppression of those who correctly observe the full 100 year length of a century.

  19. Ally Fogg says

    Jacob

    Frankly I’m not convinced that mid life crises were all that common in the first place.

    No, nor am I. As I do say above, it was the cultural trope that was common. I honestly have no idea the extent to which that reflected reality, but what is interesting is that it was assumed to be happening.

  20. The Big Banana says

    I do think that the issue of men wanting that six pack, ripped appearance is much more about male competitiveness than it is about attracting women. Like practically all the women I know, I’m with Clive James on the Arnold Schwarzenegger look. Ugly – like a condom full of walnuts

    I disagree slightly, just on the grounds that taking Arnie-esque body builders as the example is a bit of an extreme, an outlier. I’m sure women don’t find them attractive but there’s a big difference between normal-guy-with-muscles and Arnie.

    Take that Thor fella from the Marvel films. He’s got arms like tree trunks, and the ladies seem to greatly appeciate him (I’m sure being a good looking film star helps, obviously).

  21. Adiabat says

    Drken:

    Women dreamt of “marrying a doctor” because that would be the closest thing they could get to becoming one

    There were women doctors in the 18th and 19th century. Not many mind you. There were many obstacles but nothing that being from the ‘right family’ couldn’t get past.

    Occasionally I’ll hear some MRA or anti-feminist complain about how now that women can get sex and money outside of marriage, there’s nothing left for men to offer them.

    Feminists also say this, they even write whole books on the subject. But I agree with you in both cases.

    Personally, I’d like to think gender equality wouldn’t be about men and women picking up each others bad habits, but here we are.

    I don’t think they are bad habits. It’s good to see men valuing and looking after themselves more, and for women and society to see value in them for who they are rather than what they can do.

  22. Carnation says

    @ Ben Finney

    You, Sir, must be chastised for your attack on Mr Ally Fogg. He is right; you are wrong.

    There were (almost exactly) 5200 weeks in the 20th century. 65 weeks represents 0.0125% of the preceeding century. Let us imagine the dying minutes of an hour – the last three. That represents just 0.05% of an hour. Are you telling me that I’m wrong?

    For your own honour and dignity, you must apologise immediately and undertake NOT to transgress again.

    Ben Finney, there once was a man named Sid, who did as Adiabat bid. They both were silly, got themselves in a tizzy, but eventually we did get rid.

    Don’t be like Adiabat. Be correct.

  23. Ben Finney says

    For your own honour and dignity, you must apologise immediately and undertake NOT to transgress again.

    My honour remains intact and unspoiled. Your petty number-based arguments have only strengthened my resolve. While you may be technically correct, I remain correct in principle and am thus vindicated.

  24. Carnation says

    @ Ben Finney

    Your honour hinges upon your capacity for acceptance. Acceptance that you came to this blog to fight and win, but you fought and lost. I salute your courage but scorn your tactics.

    You, Sir, must simply accept an honourable retreat.

  25. Marduk says

    A symptom of a post-industrial social collapse.

    http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/anatomy-of-a-new-modern-douchebag

    “For most men, being sexy was something that used to happen by accident. Nowadays, your modern British male dresses like he’s trying to fuck the world. He is a Razzle centrefold of a man. He smells like a solvent abuser’s rag and is built like a flat-pack shithouse with luxury ply bog roll.”

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