This piece originally appeared on the Good Men Project. Republished with permission.
Man as Object: Reversing the Gaze opens today* at the SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco. A remarkable art exhibit, Man as Object deliberately centers the female gaze—and puts men’s bodies on display in a way that we rarely see. (See the exhibition’s Youtube video here. Warning: some images may not be work-safe.)
Writing an initial review of the exhibit for Ms. Magazine, Georgia Platts quotes sex-positive feminist photographer Shiloh McCabe on her work photographing men. “I’m not here to objectify or harm; I’m here to nurture and document,” McCabe says. But the images themselves, which include photographs as well as sketches and paintings, are still challenging to the viewer. We don’t get to look at men as objects of desire very often, not least because so many of us have been relentlessly programmed to believe that the male body is repulsive. (I wrote about that particular issue in this column.)
There’s a lot to say about the breadth and depth of the artists represented in this exhibition, and much to reflect on in terms of subverting our traditional expectations about male and female bodies and the way they are presented. But what I find most striking about these images is the way that they subvert our assumptions about what kind of men—and what kind of male bodies—are on the receiving end of the gazes of women and gay men.
Over the last 20 years, as idealized images of male bodies have become far more common in the media, fewer and fewer people cling to the old fiction that “women aren’t visual.” As this month’s Details magazine cover story makes clear, women are looking—and they’ve got more hot bodies to look at than ever before. The impact on men’s self-esteem is clear; the rise in eating disorders and exercise addiction among young males is well-documented. Though we’re a long way from achieving the grim milestone of parity with women’s pain, there’s little doubt that guys today are much more likely to worry about their bodies’ appearance than did their fathers at the same age.
Part of the problem, and something that Man as Object directly addresses, is that even those of us who acknowledge that women both look and lust don’t always recognize what it is that they’re lusting after. We’re conditioned to believe that most straight women long only for chiseled bodies like that of a Mark Wahlberg in his boxer briefs, or a glowering Taylor Lautner about to turn into a werewolf. Women are “allowed” to lust after six-pack abs, hairless pecs, and perfectly defined deltoids. An older generation of men might have believed that women didn’t look at all; today’s young men too often assume that women are looking, but only at one kind of man.
Among many other things, I work as a director of a modeling and management agency, Natural Models LA. We represent female models across a broad spectrum of size, from 2 to 20, though most of the women whom we’ve signed are between 12-16. The plus-size modeling business has been around for 35 years, and is both increasingly lucrative and increasingly influential within the broader beauty industry. Though it’s taken a long time, and we still have a long way to go, we’ve succeeded in creating at least some “counter-images” in the media, images that remind us that female beauty is not just found in one size or shape. The co-founder and CEO of our agency, Katie Halchishick, was recently featured in this now-iconic shot in O Magazine. Though in many ways things are “worse” for women, we are slowly getting the chance to see female bodies that deviate from the narrow ideal but which are, nonetheless, stunningly beautiful.
But we’re not “there yet” with men. There is no equivalent “plus-size” division for men. (The few fashion editorials that have featured “larger” men have used amateurs, not professional male plus-size models, who don’t really exist yet.) While agencies like ours work hard to expand the spectrum of what is considered beautiful for women, young men are reminded that if they want to be “hot,” they have little choice but to pursue a single “ripped” ideal.
Of course, we know that not every woman is attracted to young hairless men with six-packs. We also know—even many young men know—that women can be attracted to boyfriends and husbands who have soft tummies or scrawny arms. But we tend to represent that attraction as rooted in romantic connection. In other words, if a woman is turned on by her husband’s concave chest, it’s because she’s so in love with him that even his flaws become virtues. Love is blind, we say, and point to the imperfect bodies of well-loved men to prove it.
What’s so revolutionary and refreshing about this exhibit is the way in which it invites the viewer to gaze with desire upon the imperfect bodies of men she does not know. While not every image is arousing, and different people are of course turned on by very different things, Man as Object makes the bold suggestion that male beauty comes in far more shapes, sizes, and textures than the media normally represent. Men are invited to consider the radical possibility that we can be wanted not in spite of our physical imperfections but because of them. Just as those of us who work for an end to eating disorders remind women that sexiness is not just found at a single size (or shape, or skin color, etc), Man as Object forces us to confront the reality that what makes men beautiful (and worth gazing at) is so much more complicated than we imagine.
The longing to be seen is not unique to women. (In the same way, both men and women can and do fear a penetrating, judgmental gaze.) Many guys, even ones who don’t work out or wax, long to know that their bodies are appealing. At the least, they want to know they aren’t repulsive and disgusting, which is the unspoken anxiety in so many male lives. While none of us will be found desirable by everyone, and some of us will be found desirable by only a few, we’re more fascinating, beautiful, weird and—maybe—hotter than we realize. This remarkable exhibit brings that frightening and alluring truth home.
*Originally published on Friday, November 4.
Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. He serves as co-director of the Perfectly Unperfected Project, a campaign to transform young people’s attitudes around body image and fashion. Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and at Healthy Is the New Skinny.
Image credit Hazel Bartram-Birchenough. Anatomic Series 1. 2010. Conte, charcoal and arcylic on canvas. 4 x 13 feet.