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Last month, in anticipation of Southern Maine Prideís Pier Dance, Gary Wagner, a 31-year-old gay guy who lives in Portland, assembled a coterie of what he hoped would be 20 of Portlandís buffest and most-jacked, clean shaven, perfectly coiffed gay men of all ages ó to appear at the dance in nothing but sarongs.
" Itís really all your fault, " he scolded when I asked him, considering his recent task, if heíd be interested in speaking with me for a story about the emerging phenomenon of male beauty-consciousness. He pointed out that, as an editor at in newsweekly, a Boston-based gay and lesbian news and entertainment paper, I am among those who are culpable for peddling the images of superhuman men that gays and, more and more, straight men are emulating and attempting to become.
Wagner, who is a regular on the gay party circuit, recalled a full-page ad for gay.com personal ads that portrayed two unreasonably fit and fantastically polished men embracing on a beach. One of the men has apparently hooked a merman who is wearing nothing but a fishnet. Invoking Boticelliís Venus, this man has assumedly just risen from the depths of the sea, and both were certainly created in the image of Poseidon himself because such perfect bodies are nearly unachievable by the average man.
What Iím talking about is not the stuff of obscene body building a la Arnold Schwarzenegger or the demure, innocent beauty of Michelangeloís David, but rather bodies and faces that are so perfect that even Photoshop is unnecessary to augment them for print.
" That ad with the two guys in the fishnet . . . it just blew me away. They just have phenomenal bodies. And it made me want to wear a fishnet and look that good, so I figured a sarong is the next best thing to a fishnet, " said Wagner, who has spent most of his life at the gym with the intention of coming as close as possible to perfect. To be sure, he doesnít look his age and, among Portlanders, he turns heads.
Wagner isnít alone ó he is among a growing number of gay men who are adopting the polar opposite of the gay ideal of 20 years ago: that of the slender, fey, hairy waif. Today, the look is becoming that of a compulsively, sometimes bionically, engineered male.
To be sure, the gay press is heavy on male imagery ó few clients use fat, balding men to sell their products ó but the images are also reflective of a community with a changing attitude towards body image that has been building for years and is now as much fascinating as it is controversial. From the gay party culture that drips of superhuman men, oozes drugs, and espouses ab-enhancing starvation, to the guys who simply spend hundreds of hours at the gym, to those who actually seek cosmetic surgery, the ideal male image is no longer a Hollywood thing, itís a Main Street thing. And itís not just a gay thing, either.
Straight men are catching on, too, because just about everyone is grudgingly accepting that body image, particularly oneís physical appearance, is more important than ever. For decades, women have had to contend with a culture that frowned upon fat, shrieked at superfluous hair growth, and placed a premium on proper attire. What this added up to was both an emotional and financial premium that, for some, was back-breaking. But women are now getting their just desserts.
They are insisting that their guys get fit, use expensive products, smell nice, and dress appropriately. Just walk into any CVS ó unisex brands like Nivea, Neutrogena, even Miss Clairol are peddling products that are specifically packaged for men. Last yearís Superbowl was marked by a television ad for menís hair color ó not just to touch up the gray, but to achieve a blond sandstorm effect. Spas specifically aimed at attracting men are popping up all over the place. For years, hair replacement was huge among men, but now hair removal is just as big an industry, as both men and women are more satisfied with a male body that closer resembles a baby seal than a wooly mammoth. The list goes on.
" Itís becoming a way of life and I think itís a good thing, " says Ciara McDonagh, a marketing specialist for Vein Clinics of America (VCA), a conglomerate that is enjoying fat returns from a sister company that specializes in menís hair removal ó sales are already up 40 percent over last year. " I think men are focusing on their appearance much more than they were just a few years ago and I donít think itís all that unusual. In fact, from traveling to Europe, I know that itís very European, and it has been for decades, for men to use tons of skin-care products, spend a lot of money on their hair, and a fortune on clothing, real fashion. Even the taxi drivers dress well in Europe, so I think that the sensibility that Americans are acquiring is a good one. Itís new, but I think itís here to stay. "
Maine is not exactly known for its inhabitantsí attention to appearance ó even women havenít faced an extreme amount of pressure to be rail thin, perfectly coiffed, and haute coutured ó hell, Maineís idea of high fashion is the off-the-rack duds offered at Macyís and Fileneís and the seconds at factory stores in Freeport. Thatís why it seems so unusual that people are beginning to notice that even guys here may be spending more time and money on their appearance. But the phenom is real.
" We have always seen some men, but there are definitely more now, " says Verne Weisberg, a plastic surgeon in Portland, of the number of guys seeking skin clips (no, not that clip) and assorted tucks. " And, the treatments that men are looking for have changed. In the past, it was generally hair replacement and some liposuction, but, now, I do things like facial contouring and a lot of eyelids, generally so people donít look as old as they are. Men are trying to compete in the workplace or want to look good [for their partner], and what weíre seeing is younger and younger men coming in earlier and earlier. Wrinkles, acne scars, facial contouring . . . men are coming in more than ever. "
For the most part, itís easy to see whatís behind the trend ó media. TV, magazines, and clever marketing for such things as skin-care products are all aimed at convincing men that not only is it okay to care for your appearance, but that it is actually mandated by society.
For gay guys, the messages are many, and they are complicated. For the straight men, though, things are pretty simple ó itís typically the women who are fueling the fire. " The best way to lure a man to shop is to educate the woman he is trying to impress and take cues from the womenís market, " Lloyd Boston, a stylist expert from the Today Show and host of E! Entertainment Style, told Soap and Cosmetics, an industry trade rag that estimates that, since 2000, there was a 400-percent increase in the number of people who earned more than $100,000, and thatís what spawned a new desire among young professionals to " covet luxury, sophistication, quality and value, " including personal grooming.
VCAís McDonagh admits that she has been a huge influence on her husband and that, although hesitant at first, he has welcomed the nudging. " Now he spends a lot more money on clothes that specifically look good on him, and he spends more money on things that he wouldnít have before. He goes to the salon to get a cut rather than to Supercuts and paying $12 for a chop job and thatís because of me, because I suggested he try it out. Itís not about being macho anymore, itís about being put together and he likes the results. I canít tell you how excited I was when he started using Aveda instead of the Aussie Three Minute Miracle, " she gushes. " Maybe I brought it on, but heís the one who decided to keep it up. "
Mainers know that the $100k mark is a high one, but that doesnít mean that men in Vacationland have not been yanked and mesmerized by image machines. Store owners anecdotally say that personal-hygiene products designed specifically for men are flying off the shelves. Vaseline Intensive Care is being replaced in medicine cabinets throughout Portland by moisturizers and eye gels from the likes of Origins, Clarins, and Kiehlís, all of which have been well established in the womenís beauty market for years and all of which carry hefty price tags. A recent purchase of a bottle of Kiehlís moisturizer set me back $40, but I didnít mind ó itís supposed to be the best and, besides, my skin is worth it.
Sound expensive? It is, particularly when a little crème doesnít quite do the trick. Even in Portland, more and more men are realizing that hours at the gym arenít working either and thatís where local docs like Weisberg come in. Weisberg adds that, if you think that cosmetic surgery is a luxury like, say, a $20 tube of non-foaming shaving cream, think again.
" If it were such a luxury, I would think that a weak economy would be the litmus test. I havenít seen any significant drop-off and I think that reflects the fact that people treat this as a medical problem ó something needs to be done to enhance their appearance, " explains Weisberg, who counts facial contouring, liposuction, eyelid reconstruction, acne scarring, and hair replacement as the most commonly sought procedures by men.
As yet, Weisberg isnít doing any implants, but he notes that men are starting to request them. From pecs to buttocks to calves to abs and penises, everything can be enhanced by a minor surgery these days ó check out www.bodyimplants.compage 1 page 2
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