The Bod is men's new god Fit: It seems men have fallen victim to the same malady as many women: the desire to achieve unattainable physiques.

August 08, 1998|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Oh, to look like Tyson Beckford.

You've seen him, apotheosis of the male figure, black god in a Ralph Lauren Polo ad, eyes in a squint, body chiseled to perfection. His is the look to die for.

Such pining used to be the lot of women: "If only I looked like Halle or Twiggy, Farrah or Linda Evangelista, perhaps Iman." Men didn't have such worries. Their focus was on style, not shape. They could mix a bit of Rat Pack chic with Cary Grant cool, go for the pouting James Dean look, or the fabulous pompadour of Jackie Wilson.

In the 1960s, a scruffy, rebellious look took hold in some quarters, while a decade later the slightly rumpled, oh-so-understanding Alan Alda type reigned. The key ingredient was style. Even Jackie Gleason had it.

Somewhere along the way, things changed. Maybe it started with women's lib, which led to the Chippendale dancers undulating for dollar bills. Suddenly there was beefcake beside the cheesecake. Then the Village People stepped in, singing "Body, body. Got to build my body." Life was never the same after "Macho Man."

Cheryl Lynn Law, a graduate of the University of Florida, tackles this change in her research paper, "Cultural Standards of Attractiveness: A 30-year Look At Changes in Male Images in Magazines." That's a mouthful, but it pretty much boils down to this: Men, like women, have fallen under what can best be called "The Hegemony of The Bod."

Law will discuss her findings today at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference in

downtown Baltimore. About 2,000 professors of journalism, communications and advertising have been in town since Wednesday, mulling over everything from black representation in television news and minority ownership of online companies to communication in the public interest.

Law's research looks at male images in Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone and GQ between 1967 and 1997. What she found is enough to make you long for the days when a bachelor only needed a cool pad, a silk smoking jacket and a couple of martini glasses -- oh, and some mood music.

"The 'very muscular' category, which was not found at all in the 1960s, consistently increased from the 1960s to the 1990s, rising 35 percent over the past 30 years," writes Law.

The mesomorphs were on the march, slinging Soloflex machines across their shoulders like U.S. Army carbines. Men's dissatisfaction with their bodies increased. Men started having plastic surgery in record numbers. According to Men's Health magazine, 74,000 went under the knife two years ago. That's a 35 percent increase from five years ago.

The gym was no longer a place to run a couple of half-court basketball games. It became a torture chamber with "no pain, no gain" signs plastered all over the place. It sounded like a jungle. There was grunting and groaning, poseurs prowling, flexing their pecs and biceps, strutting in front of the full-length mirrors, smiling and saying to themselves: "You the man!"

Women know all about this. Society put them on a psycho-emotional roller coaster ages ago. And it has not been a fun ride. You know the worst of it -- anorexia, bulimia, countless souls looking into the mirror and finding themselves short of the mark set by those trendoids along Madison Avenue. Now, it seems, men are stumbling into the same trick bag. And that, as women know, is risky business.

"While the importance of physical attractiveness for men may never reach the same level it holds for women, some men still may put their health at risk as some women do in order to attain the cultural ideal," writes Law.

Infatuation with the male physique is not new. Apollo was ripped, tight and taut, but he was pure fantasy. Nothing to fret over. In real life, body builders inhabited their own space. They lived out on the fringe, posed for each other in Mr. Universe contests, their impossibly muscled bodies shining with oil. Again, nothing to fret over.

A 90-pound weakling in the mainstream didn't worry about physique. If he did, a quickie Charles Atlas course could save the day. There was no need to be muscle-bound. That was before The Hegemony of The Bod.

"There are countless ads showcasing rippling chests and shoulders, more shirtless actors in movies, and more male models on fashion runways flaunting washboard stomachs," writes Law. "And while the new look is clearly masculine, it is also 'paradoxically feminine,' with skin as smooth and clear as a woman's complexion."

Remember Marky Mark, ne Mark Wahlberg, modeling Calvin Klein underwear? Fabio might have been the high point, or the low point, depending on your viewpoint. He was the over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek update of the 1950s sex goddess, presented as all bod and precious little brain. He was beautiful to look at. Hang him on your arm and be the envy of your friends. He was a diamond ring with a Euro-accent and a single name. Ah, Fabio! Who could ask for more?

In this age of traps and lats, the beer belly is a disgrace. It is a sign of indolence. You can look at one and easily surmise why there is no fire in the belly. More and more men are trying for the V-shape of broad shoulders tapering down to a trim waist and buns of steel. It might all be for naught.

"This new ideal -- low body fat, very muscular -- may be just as difficult for men to attain as the thin ideal has been for women," Law concludes.

Tyson Beckford might forever hang out there, just beyond the reach of those sweating day and night on the Stair Master. But he's up there, looking down with benign indifference as men grimace and strain to lift their body weight on the bench press.

Oh, to look like Tyson Beckford.

Pub Date: 8/08/98

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