Picture this. You open the newspaper one grey morning, and there in a bright pixel smear on the third page is a full-length photograph of a young man. The young man is almost naked; a flesh-coloured thong clings tightly to his hairless cock and balls; he looks over his shoulder at you, his jaw a perfect masculine square, his dark eyes smouldering. Everywhere, this young man is hard, smooth, impenetrable and yet submissive, wanting you to consume him. You turn the page.
There are more young men on each of the pages that follow, naked or scantily clothed, poreless, flawless, with broad shoulders and rock-hard arses and muscles that bunch and gleam under oiled skin. You are used to the sight of these young men; these days, they hardly even arouse you. Their glassy eyes follow you on public transport, on the internet, on television, in the fashion spreads of magazines.
Picture this. Every one of the men and boys whose images you see repeated thousands of times a day is impossibly perfect, hewn from some arcane piece of rock on the platonic plane. Not one of them is over thirty-three. In the shadow of their hard, robotic masculinity, the possibility of paunches and puppy fat and male-pattern balding is unthinkable . They rarely speak, and when they do speak, they ventriloquise; they implore you to look at them, to understand their silent semiotics of commercial masculinity; they threaten and seduce you in a boring parade of billboards, adverts, music videos.
These men don’t seem to be doing very much. Usually, they are moronically thrusting and jerking around cereal boxes, insurance packages, bottles of shampoo and soap. They seem to beg to be penetrated, but it is they who have invaded your body and brain, as if the images were trying to force themselves out through your skin. Some of them are known to you by name or sobriquet, as singers or actors, or as the sons or lovers of powerful women. They grimace beautifully as they drape their impossible bodies over stages and sets, showing off watches and shoes and beautiful clothing that hangs from their perfect torsos in artful folds and flutters in artificial winds. Their images cluster in everywhere , unseeing, bored, as if they can’t quite decide whether to fuck you or punch you.
You know that it’s not real, of course. You understand vaguely that the real men and boys who pose for these images are almost all on punishing diet and exercise programmes; cocaine and steroid abuse and compulsive weightlifting are endemic in the modelling and media industries.You know that in order to make your body resemble the bodies you see around you you would have to push it to its limits, to the exclusion of all else. And yet the idea occurs to you, almost daily, oozing out of every advertising surface. You see more images of perfect men, on a daily basis, than you meet ordinary men in real life. Your sense of reality, of what gender and beauty and power mean on a day-to-day basis, becomes warped. They are the real men, not you: if you don't look like them, you're not trying hard enough. Other men in your peer group clearly are trying, perhaps not hard enough, but hard enough that they don't seem invisible in this glossy, thrusting semiotic stream of plastic masculinity. So you try harder, too. You start to eat less, go to the gym more, maybe play around with taking some steroids - everyone's doing it, what harm can there be? And maybe you succeed, maybe you don't. At least you're trying. At least you're buying things. Isn't that the point?
You begin to forget what real men look like. Older men, overweight men, plain men, scrawny men seem to shrink and fade as you look past them, unsure how to react to the freakish weight of their humanity. Images of men over thirty-five are such a rarity that when you glimpse real elderly men, they seem obscene, the lines and trappings of years a monstrous deformity. The few much-photographed men who have been permitted to age are known to have undergone extensive, brutal surgical procedures and to spend thousands of dollars a year ‘maintaining’ their appearance. Whatever their age, they all have full heads of hair -male-pattern balding becomes an obscenity, and the hair loss and implant industry is worth billions each year, as is the dangerous and murky skin-lightening industry, because these men aren't just all lean, perfect and young, they're also all white.
The small proportion of images of men from non-white backgrounds features young men who have typically Caucasian features, from height and straightness of hair to pale skin and blue eyes. Airbrushing helps here, too, bleaching faces, hardening the lines of lips and noses and erasing epicanthal folds. The pop-star Kanye West appears on a box of Rogaine looking suspiciously pale, but the firm denies altering his appearance, and the singer is contractually bound to shut his million-dollar mouth and keep on smiling.
Across the country, young boys are caught in this stream of images, and being young, they make the mistake of trying to swim. Young black and asian boys bleach their skin with illegal creams and dyes and turn up at hospital with third-degree burns; young boys of all backgrounds, some as young as five and six, are embarking on diet and exercise regimes to try to look more like their favourite male models, actors and porn stars. Boys of seventeen and eighteen are having surgery on their penises, their pectoral muscles and their faces to make them resemble the ideal. Fully half of teenage boys are on a diet, and some begin to take the process too far, cutting out snacks, then meals, then sustenance altogether. They pump iron for hours everyday, their infant muscles screaming with pain. By the time they arrive at university, one in ten of the best and brightest young boys are already racked by anorexia, bulimia, compulsive exercise and steroid abuse. They drop like flies, and you can do nothing to save them.
But there's more. Something strange is happening to many of the boys who have managed to continue to feed and nourish themselves, the boys you thought were safe. They spend hours in front of mirrors fretting about their appearance, applying make-up, spending money they don't have on clothes that might make them resemble the images they see everywhere around them, the images that everyone knows are false. They stop doing their work, abandon their studies, dumb down their intelligence, desperate to be accepted as that vital thing - handsome. They want you to notice them, they want to be allowed to exist in a culture which only allows them full purchase if they look great, gorgeous, glowing, up for it. They learn to erase their sexual identities. They learn to flirt, to give the impression of putting out, at every opportunity. They learn to be silent. They learn to stick their arses out when an important woman is in the room. They learn to smile.
These young men know that their chances of getting a decent job will be massively improved if they invest time, money and hours of pain and anxiety in their appearance and give an impression of sexual availability. These men want full, whole lives, they want what everyone wants - to be able to walk in the world as human subjects - but they understand that the culture of beauty fascism isn't going to change soon, and that means that they also have to be accepted as physical objects, and for that they need to prove their worth in the relentless economy of white, lean masculine beauty. The plea, on a fundamental level, is a plea to exist. These young men are crying out for truth and understanding, but in an economy built on lies, how can they be expected to fight the tide on their own?
What is the response of the government, of the media to this trend? They say nothing. These silly young boys don't know any better than to copy what they see. And anyway, women have to worry about what they look like too! Granted that it's the men, not the women, who are judged on the basis of their appearance in public life - but then, there are so few men in politics and in business that we're bound to look at them a bit funny, aren't we? It's all in good fun, isn't it?
And so government remains silent, as legions of young men drop out of the system, fail to fulfil their potential or grow up into miserable, half starved adults. It doesn't matter, not really. The men's groups kicking up their silly little boys' protests don't understand the logic of the market. Images of lusty young men sell products - that's all there is to it. Red blooded women like to look at hot young men - and that's evolution, that is, and evolution means never ever changing, and that's all there is to it. And after all, women find it easy to develop individual personalities, unconstrained by silly, masculine, frivolous worries about their bodies. What is it about young men that they can't do the same? Are they defective? They must be. Come on, let's talk about women's problems some more.
[Image via the excellent OddityCollector]