When I was a kid growing up in the 70’s, chest hair was the thing. Everywhere you looked men were walking around with their shirts unbuttoned at the top to show off their chest hair. I couldn’t wait to start growing mine, since it was a sign of masculinity. The images of masculinity at the time varied from Al Pacino to Sean Connery to Burt Reynolds. Masculine men came in a variety of sizes and shapes. Not too short, and not too wide. There was no muscle requirement; slim was fine, as was slightly chunky.
Little did I realize that as my Italian genes were kicking in the image of what was masculine was about to go through a major overhaul.
Big changes do not happen overnight, and over time the ideal of what was masculine beauty began to change. A great early example is Richard Gere in American Gigolo (1980). More and more we saw images of muscular, toned bodies. We heard stories of men going to the gym.
Flash forward to the early 1990’s and the advent of the Calvin Klein model. Today’s boys are socialized to be gym rats; overly-muscled, bare chested. In shape. A very long way from Al Pacino, certainly. (It is interesting to note that eating disorders, once thought to belong almost exclusively found among women, are increasingly found in men.)
With the change in the dominant image, what we have seen is the objectification of the male. In some way it is a reaction to the women’s movement; the attempt to change the focus from objectifying the feminine. What happened, and I’m not placing blame on the women’s movement, is that media and marketing took the easy way out. As William Burroughs once said; ‘It is easier to degrade the customer than to improve the product.’ The path of least resistence was to objectify men just as women were. The masculine body, too, became a product. Masculine gender identity, which had been tied to a more natural ideal, became something you had to work toward.