Approaching my middle 60s, I am only now beginning to appreciate what a rich and complex relationship I have with this body that has carried me around for so long. Not that I haven’t been preoccupied with it before--with its strengths and weaknesses, with how it might appear to others, with its familiar aches and gripes. But I have only recently begun to fully understand, in the flesh and bones, the extent to which body and mind are integrally related to each other.
We men--I should say, many of us: I cannot speak for all--allow ourselves to be trapped too often in the attempt to separate the two. Our self-image is often burdened or embarrassed by our body and alarmed when it fails to meet our demands and expectations. We do not trust it readily nor others with it. We have difficulty even taking it to the doctor when we are sick. We refuse to listen to it, still less to heed its inborn insistent wisdom.
Yet because the body is a great learner, it is also a great teacher. My own--because I know it best--learned as it entered the world nearly strangled by the umbilical cord that life and breath are a desperate struggle for survival. Not all its lessons are necessarily truthful, then, but they can have a powerful and lasting hold on us. Further:
From my father, a man who lived in constant pain with stomach ulcers, my body also learned to steel itself unreasonably against the slightest suggestion of physical or emotional discomfort. From my mother, it learned the aching desirability of intimate loving touch--and the agony of its deprivation. From taunting schoolmates at an all-boys’ school, it learned that to expose itself in all its puppy plumpness was to invite a burning sense of shame and to experience the futility of allowing anger to escape. From a pederastic teacher, it learned that the awesome murky pleasure of genital touch was a guilty secret, requiring the protection of absolute silence.
I believe that most of us have learned such lasting lessons in our bones and tissues, allowing them expression only in the form of shame or in the ravages of suppressed fear and anger. This is why body awareness, for me, has become an act--not of “self-indulgence,” as I always imagined--but of essential liberation. And because I have worked closely with other men in recent years and have been privileged to hear them speak openly about their own experiences, I know that I am not alone in this regard.
A surprising number of men, even into late middle age and beyond, feel deep in their bodies that they have somehow missed out on manhood. We look around us at the empty cultural stereotypes, to which we believe we are expected to conform, and suffer from the knowledge that, all too often, we don’t. But there’s a deeper level too. Since childhood we have looked surreptitiously at other male bodies and compared them with critical subjectivity to our own--most frequently to our detriment. Those others are taller, more commanding in their presence, have more muscular arms or abdomens and so on. Not to mention, of course, the dreaded question of the penis--surely the most endlessly fascinating and most vulnerable of our bodily features. Susan Faludi saw us “stiffed” by a culture that imposes unreal expectations on us. More painful still, because more intimate, more insistent and more immediate, is the self-judgment that arises from the way we see ourselves as men.
“Weakness is a crime,” warned a pulp magazine from the early years of the last century. “Don’t be a criminal.” It’s a message we have listened to and the one that dominates our image of ourselves. We admire physical prowess in our sports and entertainment heroes and often pursue it for ourselves, in part because we see it as the manifestation of inner strength, the power to command and control, the inner quality we most associate with manliness and success. Even our business executives and politicians must give the appearance of physical strength.
So what might the ideal man look like at this stage of the game? A number of recently published books address this question in different ways. In his provocatively titled “Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America,” social historian John F. Kasson finds the description of “a splendid specimen of manhood” in an early Edgar Rice Burroughs tale: “Standing a good two inches over six feet, [he was] broad of shoulder and narrow of hip, with the carriage of a trained fighting man. His features were regular and clear cut, his hair black and closely cropped, while his eyes were a steel gray, reflecting a strong and loyal character, filled with fire and initiative.” Not too much like you or me, perhaps, but if he sounds a bit like Mattel’s Ken doll, it’s for good reason: He’s the cookie-cutter version of today’s manly man, as seen ubiquitously in comic books, fashion ads, television shows and movies.
Kasson traces today’s American cultural obsession with bodily strength to the vaudeville days of the Prussian-born strongman Eugen Sandow, now barely remembered but an icon of masculinity--the Arnold Schwarzenegger of his day--who performed feats of strength and paraded his near-naked body (the world wasn’t yet quite ready for the penis to make its public appearance) for all to see. In Harry Houdini, the escape artist, Kasson finds the cultural metaphor also for man’s struggle for freedom from the social constraints he suffers in the tedious rote of business and family life in the post-industrial world: In his spectacular daredevil performances, Houdini--not unlike the fictional Rambo--went head to head with the indignities of imprisonment, bondage, even death and came out the winner. And in the fictional ape-man Tarzan, Kasson finds a reincarnation of the romantic myth of the authentically wild Noble Savage, the alter ego of his creator, Burroughs.
As a social critic, Kasson envisions the idealized white male body as a weapon in the field of class and racial warfare, caught in a quasi-Darwinian struggle for survival: "[I]mmensely strong, incomparably free, indomitably wild,” the “real man” is fighting to salvage his true identity amid the hostile ecology of modern, mechanized, technologized and pluralistic American life. And in the age of “personal responsibility,” the perfect body is touted more than ever as a matter of choice: With the right combination of diet and exercise, the message reads, it is within the reach of even the most average of Joes.
Teddy Roosevelt, as Kasson reminds us, was the archetype: He “transformed his ‘sickly, delicate,’ asthmatic body into the two-hundred pound, muscular barrel-chested figure of a supremely strong and energetic leader.” The lessons of Sandow, Houdini and Tarzan are the same. Puniness is choice. We too can pump up and scare away the bogeyman who shames us, kicking sand in our face in front of our girlfriend at the beach. We too can participate in the ancient male ritual of preening and display to attract the female of our species. Or, to be exact, at a time of increasing openness about human sexuality, another male. Gay culture has led the way to a recognition of the role of pleasing bodily strength and fitness in the rituals of mating.
Blame it in part on California. Here, the health and fitness fad was in full vogue already in the early 1930s, on a Santa Monica beach where both men and women congregated to participate in--or watch--the spectacles of acrobatics and feats of strength of a core group of pioneer bodybuilders described in Marla Matzer Rose’s “Muscle Beach.” Depending in large part on local lore and the memory of those who were there, Rose sketches a brief history of the heyday of this continuing weekend celebration of body culture.
Don’t expect too much from this one: It makes no pretensions of offering more than an overview, and it suffers from a repetitive quirk unremedied by the benefits of good editing. But it includes tantalizing glimpses into the events and characters (among them Joe Gold and Vic Tanny--of subsequent gym fame--along with Jack LaLanne, the television exercise guru, and Gypsy Boots, the original California health nut) attending what was surely the birth of both the modern gym and the health food crusade. And we get a whiff of the joys of beach camaraderie and of youthful delight in strutting the erotic stuff of the human body in skimpy bathing suits. When the original site closed in 1959, according to Rose, it was thanks to the exploitation of a sex scandal by a few members of the Santa Monica City Council and some editorializing by the local Santa Monica Evening Outlook: Excoriated as “an attraction for perverts” and “a favorite haven of the sexual athletes and queers of Southern California,” Muscle Beach reappeared quietly farther south in Venice a few years later with more weights than acrobatics, and its principal denizens moved on to more profitable ventures.
What followed the fun in the sun was the rapid commercialization of body image. In “Looking Good: Male Body Image in Modern America,” Cal State Dominguez Hills historian Lynne Luciano examines that process through the lens of carefully researched sociological data. Working by decade from the ‘50s through the ‘90s, she focuses on four aspects of male body obsession: hair, physical fitness and body shape, cosmetic surgery and sexual dysfunction. Here’s everything you wanted to know about hair implantation techniques and cosmetic surgery procedures, from facelifts and liposuction to the ever-popular penile enlargement--and the money that’s spent on them.
Luciano is an unsparing and effective deflater of male puffery. Like a competent prosecutor, she piles up the evidence until we (almost) beg for mercy. And she has not a little justice on her side: There’s no shortage of men who go to absurd, even extreme lengths to acquire those few extra strands of hair or the craggy jaw, whether for purposes of business or of romance. They embrace what men once patronized women for and expose themselves in turn to ridicule.
Less appealing, though--and undermining her credibility--is Luciano’s persistent indulgence in the old male-female blame game. She reminds us not infrequently, for example, of the now discredited male habit of blaming female frigidity for men’s sexual dysfunction but cheerfully heaps scorn on men for their inability to provide women with the sexual satisfaction they deserve. There’s a goose and gander issue here. And with all her data, she stays close to the surface of “looking good” without ever exploring what this might mean to men in emotional or substantive terms. For Luciano, it’s all about vanity. A more evenhanded and compassionate approach could have led us deeper into the male psyche.
By far the richest and most fully human exploration of the male body in this latest crop of books is Ken Baker’s poignant memoir, “Man Made.” Baker’s predicament mirrors the worst male nightmares about body image. Through his teenage years and well into his 20s, he suffered unknowingly from a walnut-size brain tumor, whose effect was to flood his body with massive amounts of the hormone prolactin, used in women’s bodies to produce milk. At its height, before the anomaly was discovered when he was 27 years old, his prolactin level had reached a count of 1,578: A nursing mother normally produces no more than 200, and the average male produces only a trace, a count of 2 to 18 maximum. In response, his body had skipped puberty. An otherwise attractive, heterosexual male, something of a jock in college (where he fought these extraordinary physical odds to maintain a place on the hockey team), he lived with the horrors of an incurably flabby body, lactating nipples, indifference to sex and impotence. Brought up in a blue-collar family in the tradition of gritted-teeth denial, he endured this suffering in furious, silent isolation until, in desperation, he sought the medical help and the surgery that changed his life.
Baker’s book is important not because he is different but because he is us. He was forced to live out in reality, and in the extreme, those things that most of us most fear about our bodies: that we’re not firm or strong enough, that we’re not manly looking, that our penis lacks the length and heft we attribute enviously to others, that it won’t live up to our own expectations--let alone to women’s. His lesson is equally important: that the image of manly strength to which we so earnestly aspire can be our enemy when it turns into a stubborn refusal to hear the truth our body seeks to tell us; that we are no more than who we are, as physical beings; and that the more truth we can bring ourselves to bear, the more freedom we earn in exchange. That, for me--not vanity--is what body awareness is all about, and Baker’s courageous personal odyssey toward eventual acknowledgment and subsequent release is the model of the body work we are all given to do.