Selling Male Sexuality
Male sexuality has always been closely linked to body appearance. The impetus behind the increased emphasis on a fit appearance in today’s males comes from the desire for good health, to enhance personal attractiveness—sexual and otherwise—and to conform to the ideals for male body shape that are currently valued in society. Nowadays, there is an increasing sexualization of culture—tying the sales of products and personal appearance goals to sexuality, even if there is no actual connection. We are used to seeing ads with sexy women acting ecstatic over a box of detergent with the implied message: wash your clothes with this product and you will be sexually alluring and satisfied. However, only recently have we been seeing men portrayed in the same light.
Additionally, our culture places a high value on youthfulness, which is also mixed in with sexuality. There is a logical reason for this, because sexual readiness is occurring earlier and earlier. Probably due to availability of surplus calories to reach a critical body weight at a younger age, the onset of menstruation in young women is occurring about five years earlier than at the beginning of the 19th century. Today, 12-year-olds are able to have biological sex; but, unfortunately, social and psychological functioning has not kept up the pace. Therefore, female sexual readiness takes place sooner than emotional maturity—not a good combination.
Similar changes toward earlier sexual maturation is almost certainly occurring in boys, but the documentation is difficult because physicians do not record their pubertal progress as they do the onset of periods in girls. This earlier sexual maturation, occurring in a culture saturated with sexuality, leads to a valuation of sexually-provocative appearance and a de-emphasis on inner values. However, our fascination with youth and sexuality probably has as much to do with biology as economics.
There are positive consequences of the increased openness about sex. For example, women’s menstrual issues are no longer trivialized. Condoms are sold up front, not behind the counter, which ideally limits sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. Erectile dysfunction and prostate cancer are talked about openly. While these pluses also have to do with merchandising, they are for the public good. Regardless, they represent an increased social emphasis on sexuality.
Appearance communicates to others a man’s idea of his worth, social status, power, desires, and personal history. What is a guy saying at a singles bar when he enters, dressed in an Armani suit? What does the 24-year-old say when he goes to the neighborhood party wearing tight jeans and a black, V-necked T-shirt with chest hair showing? They are both on the make, but looking for different kinds of women, sending rocket flares of information about what kind of guys they are. They are casting their fishing lines with different kinds of bait. Aside from mating rituals, appearance is a vital part of culture. There is abundant evidence that a larger portion of males today are interested in appearance than 30 or 50 years ago. Appearance has never been unimportant in any society, but compared to a few decades ago, today’s men are more attuned to their bodies and clothing. Much of their concern can be attributed to the influence of advertising and selling.
Choosing a man’s underwear, for example, used to be the function of wives or mothers, who faced decisions whether to buy white or white, boxers or briefs. However, this task has now become big business. A typical ad for underwear shows men with their pants dropped, each wearing a different style in cut and color. They are all highly responsible—perhaps health professionals with stethoscopes dangling from their necks or are recognizable professional athletes. They may be firefighters with the “cajones” to run into a burning building, but sensitive enough to gently hold a Dalmatian puppy. Of course, all the men are buff, physically fit, and hugely masculine without being threatening. The message is clear: buy this or that kind of underwear and you will be a stud—sexy but good-hearted and trustworthy. You will be buying for yourself the social esteem and image of these models. What a deal for only three to four times the price of the plain old white underwear that wives and mothers used to buy. While women have long been exposed to such sexual objectification, men have just been pictured this way in recently.
The emphasis on displaying the male physical body has increased in intensity and in its details since the 1960’s. There has been an unchanged emphasis on the underlying belief that the human body is meant to be cultivated and displayed, not hidden or ignored. Since the “sexual revolution,” sensuality and sexuality became less and less hinted at and more overtly flaunted. Specifically, there has been an increasing amount of naked male skin in advertisements, films, sports, and magazines. Pictures of athletes in the 1930’s and 40’s hinted at a wholesome and mostly clothed power and sensuality, but more and more of the male body is now frankly displayed. Advertisers are constantly “pushing the envelope.” Marky Mark’s appearance on a huge Times Square billboard in the 1990’s proclaimed the arrival of a physically explicit, casual sensuality for men in the guise of an advertisement. Nothing was left to the imagination in this enormous billboard, including the genitals, which were prominently emphasized, but played peek-a-boo under the briefs being hawked. Few males, other than young, naturally-gifted athletes, could pass that sign with Mark’s almost naked body without being depressed by the comparative inadequacy of their own bodies. The same picture and copycats of it have appeared on billboards and in magazines ever since.
Male skin is in. Having a defined set of prominent abdominals is the new hallmark of male fitness, attractiveness, and sensuality. Numerous TV shows include male nudity with butt shots; and while frontal male nudity remains prohibited, the rest of the body is openly displayed. The usual take on love scenes includes a shot of the woman’s bare back, a glimpse of the man’s nude posterior, and then, skin to skin on the bed, her face resting alongside his nipple.
Reprinted with permission from Making Weight
By Arnold Andersen, M.D., Leigh Cohn, M.A.T., and Thomas Holbrook, M.D.
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