Tuesday, March 06, 2007

On gay norms of masculine beauty

Gay men, so runs the cliché, are obsessed with youth and conventionalized beauty. As a gay man who is no longer young by anyone’s reckoning, and who was never considered conventionally beautiful (or, at least never considered myself so), I should, if the cliché reflects more than a seed of truth, feel somewhat underappreciated in the gay community. Frankly, I don’t. Never did. While I may have many issues with trends and attitudes manifested by many of my gay brothers, I have very seldom felt marginalized either because of my age or because of my quotient of conventional pulchritude.

Not only is the cliché false; I would even suggest that those who insist upon the truth of the cliché examine their psyches for a touch of internalized homophobia. Such insistence implies that gay men are, at least in reference to their prevailing mechanisms of sexual attraction, soulless and superficial. The evidence, however, suggests that gay men are, in fact, more open, flexible, and inventive than their straight counterparts when it comes to setting norms for objects of sexual attraction. Despite the proliferation of images of young, muscular men in gay pin- ups and pornography, gay men as a group have, in fact, made a major contribution to the amplification and diversification of western society’s image of the sexually attractive man.

Most of us, both gay and straight, have a fantasy life populated, at least in part, by people who correspond to a socially determined cannon of beauty. This canon, of course, is hardly absolute, varying widely within a culture as styles and social conditions change, and varying widely from culture to culture. Marilyn Monroe, for example, would be considered fat by contemporary standards, not to mention Rubens’ or Renoir’s women. In like fashion, few contemporary observers of male beauty would consider Johnny Weissmuller’s (The original Tarzan) body particularly attractive. Hindu gods, Taoist immortals, and Buddhist bodhisattvas have been at various times throughout history represented with pot- bellies, double chins, and fleshy, undefined musculature. In short, there is no eternally fixed, universally accepted canon of beauty. What turns us on, or, more exactly, what we think should turn us on, is socially determined.

Obviously, these socially determined images do, in fact, have some effect upon our libidos, but just as obviously, they hardly represent the whole story in reference to sexual attraction. While both straight and gay men become excited by the current socially proffered sexual image, we also become excited, perhaps even more excited, by people who don’t correspond at all to such an image. A conventionally attractive straight man, who should have no problem in attracting even the most conventionally beautiful woman, can become wildly passionate over a flat- chested, rather plain girl, while a handsome gay man can lose his heart to a balding, overweight guy with crooked teeth. The paths of sexual attraction, for both gays and straights, are highly individual and truly mysterious.

Where gays and straights have parted ways on this issue, however, is in the degree to which they have allowed the reality of their sexual attraction modify the conventional norms. While there are certainly a number of straight men attracted to older, stout, or flat- chested women, the large majority of Western men attracted to these non- ideal types, despite their empowered social status, are hardly willing to assert their taste by trying to modify the accepted norms of sexual attractiveness. Within the straight world, such tastes are frequently viewed, even by those sharing them, as mild forms of perversion. The Hollywood starlet image reigns supreme. In a large segment of straight society, failure to procure a woman who is seen as a “trophy wife” is frequently seen as a shortcoming, if not a failure, by both the man involved and by his peers.

In contrast, gay men have been much more willing to allow the reality of their sexual tastes to modify the socially dictated canon of beauty. The prime example of this intrusion of non- normative sexual attraction into the constructed world of conventional images is, of course, the “bear” phenomenon. Despite having been bombarded with images of sleek, slim or muscular young men, a substantial portion of the gay community has found itself attracted to hairy, beefy, middle aged guys. More important, however, is they are not at all embarrassed to say so, and, as a consequence, hairy, beefy, middle aged guys began to stop hating themselves and their bodies (or, at least, hated themselves and their bodies less). At the insistence of the “bears” and their buddies, the guys with the bodies by nautilus have had to move over and make room for an alternate canon of male beauty. Moreover, perhaps as a consequence of the “bear” movement, the gay age- related images of desirability have also had to be expanded to include “daddies.”

Straight society is still far from experiencing such liberalization or from allowing their repertory of constructed, conventional sexual images to be influenced by the reality of their sexual desires. Straight men have constructed a rigid, unrealistic canon of female beauty that is largely accepted by its victims, that is to say, by women. Despite a very minor movement of older women who have begun publicly to resist the pressure to have cosmetic surgery, and small groups of heftier ladies who vocally oppose the pressure to diet, botox has become a household word and thousands of young women are driven annually into anorexia by prevailing rigid norms of female beauty.

Sure, lots of gay guys spend hours daily sculpting their bodies at the gym; there are also, of course, a good number whom have subjected themselves to the plastic surgeon’s needle or knife. But gay society still provides alternative images of sexual attractiveness. Such alternatives don’t seem to exist in straight society. If anyone seems obsessed with youth and conventionalized beauty, it’s straights, and not gays.

It is, of course, only natural that we gay men have more flexible and varied norms of masculine sexiness than the straights, since we are both the subjects and the objects of the process. It would be self- defeating for us gays to develop a narrow, rigid canon of sexual attractiveness, unrelated to much of what we feel, enjoy, and, in fact, are since in doing so, we would be running the risk of excluding ourselves from the game.

Straight norms, on the other hand, are determined, at least when women are concerned, by straight men with merciless lack of consideration of the mental health of the objects of their attraction, or, for that matter, even of their own mental well being. While it’s essentially women whom pay the price of these norms, these rigid norms also affect straight men by creating conflicted feelings about sexual interest in women who do not conform to those norms. If straight men with girlfriends and wives who don’t conform to the prevailing cannon of beauty feel comfortable and proud of their attraction for such women, they certainly don’t let us know about it.

Why, you may ask, should it matter what our norms of sexual attractiveness are and how they are constructed, if we continue to be attracted by a broader range of types, anyway? Clearly, the closer our socially constructed norms conform to who we are and how we actually live, the closer we come to self- acceptance. I would submit that once a gay man in our society accepts his homosexuality per se, thanks to this broader field of options in terms of defining what’s sexy, he is considerable more at peace with both his own body and the object of his sexual attraction than his straight counterpart. This, despite our marginalized status within society as a whole.

Equally important, understanding our more realistic approach to defining what’s sexy helps break down the fictitious image of gay men as variations on the Blanche Dubois theme, sad creatures in constant flight from reality. Unfortunately, this somewhat homophobic view of gay men is shared by large numbers of gay men themselves. As it turns out, however, the large majority of us are probably on firmer, more realistic footing in reference to what we desire, at least sexually, than most straight guys. The popularity of “bears” and other types on non idealized norms of gay male beauty gives us good reason to believe that once a gay man has accepted his sexual orientation, he is more anchored to reality and less conflicted in terms of his sexuality than is his straight counterpart.


Blogger Sam said...

Hi Bruce, Keeping it real, eh? I would agree with point that gay men, as you've noted as both the object and subject of desire, have a greater tendency to keep fantasies more reality-based.

But as soon as I type that, it just seems ludicrous. As we accept ourselves and our sexuality, we do lose alot of hangups in the process, freeing us to explore more, experiment more...certainly, often, get into more "trouble." But, the same process also, I'd say, exponentially opens up all kinds of fantasy life too.

I have, more and more, the older I get, found that I have no "type." I can honestly say i've increasingly, since coming out 23 years ago, been attracted to a wider and wider range of people, and that has grown in a parallel way to the subjects of my own fantasy life. I remember realizing I had a thing for older, balding men at around 23 or 24, never really considering that someday that would be me, as it is today. And I have certainly found that I now find attractions to some types that were rather repellent somehow in my twenties. Is it age? Wisdom? Diminishing standards?! No, not that.

I'd be interested in knowing how you'd connect the concept of narcissism to your essay here, to the idea of being the subject and the object of desire.

Am I reflecting a touch of internalized homophobia myself to suggest that my own narcissism, and it's waxing and waning, and my ever-evolving, progressing and changing self view and self consciousness have a great deal to do with who I am attracted to? And to think that might be a common condition? I have to say the broadening range of what i appreciate in men seems to parallel my own growing self-discovery of who I am and what i am capable of. Hmmmmm.

Not to change the subject, but, of course, none of these observations are at all germane to the world of women who love women. Just saying. Thanks for another provocative post.

7:31 PM  
Blogger Bruce said...


Thanks for a comment at least as thought provoking as my original post.

Although I have done some casual reading in psychiatry, I have no pretenses of being even a lay analyst. So, I can respond to your comment drawing only from my own, and friends’ communicated observations.

Just as you describe in reference to yourself, I, too, find myself, as I have grown older, attracted to an increasingly broad spectrum of physical types; even more important, the person’s personality, sensitivity, and intelligence have played an increasing role for me in terms of sexual attraction. Both my partner and I frequently remark, concerning a conventionally beautiful man we may happen to meet, that he is not sexy at all, if the supra- physical elements of attraction are not there. On the other hand, we both have found ourselves quite taken by a smile, a way of moving, an open expression of intellectual curiosity, or intelligent kindness, on the part of men who are not at all conventionally beautiful.

Sam, I find this process to be a very natural one, having nothing to do with a lowering of standards. As we penetrate more deeply into the richness of human experience, and as we grow and mature intellectually, why shouldn’t we also broaden and grow emotionally and sexually? It’s perhaps to be expected that very young men, who have not yet experienced the rages of beauty offered to us by humanity, are more tied to a narrower spectrum of sexual attraction, and are perhaps more influenced by conventional images of masculine sexiness. It seems that most men who do, in fact, become interested in the “bear” phenomenon, for example, do so when they are already in their 30s.

Obviously, this broadening interest has something to do with, as you suggest, with our own physiological changes; to some extent, it is probably both caused by, and increases our own acceptance of these changes in our bodies. If the broadening of the range of sexual attraction is limited to mirror images of those changes that have taken place within ourselves, the narcissistic element is clearly predominant. This element, I suspect, is frankly to be considered in evaluating the “bear” phenomenon. But for many, including many “bears,” it is quite clearly only part of the picture. Our expanding range of sexual attraction goes way beyond our own mirror images.

You’re right that this discourse has left Lesbians out. Perhaps it is “narcissistic” on my part, and it is undoubtedly not very politically correct, by my interest here is really in gay men. I have several very close women friends, but I think of them almost exclusively as people, not as women. I frankly don’t think of women very much.

2:09 AM  
Blogger Lotuslander said...

Interesting post. In my youth I sort of fit into the steretype of young good looking clear skinned, toned guy, but gravity, etc has taken it's toll. Yet I've never even then been attracted to what was considered the norm of masculine beauty, something which constantly and still does baffle my friends. I read somewhere that the ancient Greeks found a large or even medium size penis vulgar. Sexual attraction has a lot more to do with pheremones, the tone of a voice, the twinkle in an eye, a nice forearm, and it's mysterious, yet thank god there is room for more than one kind. I fit in no category, refuse to dress in any sort of gay uniform, no facial hair, though I do have a hairy body, I'm not a bear, still slim, so I'm not sure if I'm anyone's type. But I'm happy with who and what I am. Except I wish my brain wouldn't go ballistic every now and then.

1:25 PM  
Blogger Ur-spo said...

it is always a thoughtful read to come here.
I am all for the bears; send over two or three please.

8:22 PM  
Blogger Kalvin said...

Great discussion here in the comments as well. I would say though that straight men do harm themselves with these standards by setting themselves up not to achieve in capturing a trophy wife (I don't know why any women wouldn't find this term horribly, indeed, tremendously offensive). I know that I personally talk a lot about bears, but I mostly do that because it is any easy way to elicit response and feelings even from those in the "bear community" themselves. I think part of the reason that women don't come up as much in this topic is that it is focused on the visual component of attraction for the most part which is primarily a male characteristic. Thank you for sharing your wonderful thoughts.

4:18 PM  
Blogger Curtis said...

Interesting post. I find that for myself, I'm attracted to all sorts of men (and even some women) partly because of the physical, but mostly it is their personality that makes them attractive to me. An ordinary looking man with a quick wit, or the ability to articulate thought and emotions well will automatically become somewhat attractive to me than a mean spirited or sarcastic man who fits the typical mold of beauty. I guess I'm trying to say that for me it's a particular vibe or feeling that starts the attraction. The physical is secondary.

12:32 PM  
Blogger Will said...

One of the joys of my gay life has been that I'm attracted to a wide variety of "types" to the point where I think I have no particular "type" as my ideal. I'm much more likely to be attracted by a delightfully smart-ass remark, a twinkle in the eye, a willingness to play verbally with me, or any one of a number of ways of connecting that have nothing to do with being a gym bunny.

When I was younger I thought that a middle-aged man who was lively and vibrant and who had kept himself in decent shape was the sexiest thing out there. And I found I was right. Now that I'm that kind of man myself, I've been deeply gratified that some much younger men find me attractive and are not shy on acting on that impulse. I really like cross-generational connection in gay life.

Although not all gay men are able to do this, I feel that gay men in general have the ability to integrate sex into their lives with more variety, creativity and meaning than straight men, let alone frequency.

6:29 PM  
Blogger thephoenixnyc said...

You really are a talented writer Bruce.

I agree with a lot of what you say, but I will say I have more than one gay friend who (much like many straights) is obsessed with youth (both their own and that of friends, lovers and hangers on).

12:27 PM  
Blogger farmboyz said...

I'm selecting the part in which you say that gym-built guys have "made room" for "bears". That really isn't what happened. The "bears" simply got organized and began to establish a place in the visible/socializing gay world. Most of them are obese, and would prefer sex with men more slender. (They rarely admit to this, but their actions tell it.) Bears like to stand with the leather/plaid flannel guys because it helps mask the fact that they are a subset less desirable to most. Stand amongst them and you will hear talk about dieting and cosmetic surgery. Not really body positive stuff!

Recently, we visited a bar in Manhattan called Vlada where a friend of ours is now working. The place was mobbed with men who were mostly 22 yeas old. It became quite clear to me that the newest trend in the gay aesthetic is "scrawny", discarding the "gym-built" look that was rooted in an earlier generation's attempt to mask a fear of the symptoms of HIV. And that is my point: These days, when you talk about the gay male aesthetic, you really have to talk about the ravages of HIV and its drugs. The facial wasting, the distention of torso, the fact that the ranks of men my age were considerably thinned out by the disease, leaving me, with my athletic build topped with silver hair a rarity, almost a sexual curiosity to younger guys. Death/survival/symptoms is a strong ingredient in the contemporary gay male kaleidoscopic fetishizing of beauty elements that cannot be overlooked.

5:15 AM  
Anonymous Roger said...

I have always loved men with firm or hard bodies, basically from twink up to bodybuilder. Doughiness is a turn off. Height doesn't matter neither does age or race altough I am less likely to be turned on by blacks and especially East Asians. White features I prefer. - Roger, April 15, 2009

10:51 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home