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PERSPECTIVE ON THE BODY : It's Not Just an Underwear Ad : Images of physical perfection and brute male glamour spread a societal anxiety worthy of academic study.

July 04, 1993|LAURENCE GOLDSTEIN | Laurence Goldstein is the editor of the Michigan Quarterly Review at the University of Michigan. He is preparing a special issue, "The Male Body," for fall publication; "The Female Body" was the subject of the fall, 1990, issue.

A flier appears in my campus mailbox soliciting papers for an academic conference in the fall. Of the many panels on popular culture, one is more postmodern than usual. It will feature essays that "interrogate how the commodification of Marky Mark's body becomes the locus/vehicle by which Calvin Klein underwear is sold." As an "icon of sexuality," Marky Mark is "the object of both male and female gazes" and therefore in need of interpretation. What, in brief(s), does this muscular torso mean?

The more likely question coming from the society that pays the bills for such conferences is, who cares? For the majority of citizens who went to college and studied "The Iliad," "Hamlet," "Middlemarch" and other masterpieces, the notion that a rap singer's body is also a "text" requiring prolonged intellectual scrutiny by literature professors may seem absurd, and perhaps offensive to common decency. Now that scholars of gender are turning their attention to manhood and masculinity, however, we can expect more research into representations of the male body, and more skepticism about the value of that research as well.

What needs to be said emphatically is that our society will benefit from sustained analysis of the beefcake offered to us by the fashion and entertainment industries--and by every other industry or profession that exploits the brute glamour of the male physique.

The model for recent studies of the male body is the resistance of feminists to demeaning images of the female body purveyed by the media. If the depiction of women as soft and seductive limited their horizons in obvious ways, so, too, the matching image of men as hard and aggressive has led to an abundance of personal heartbreak and social troubles. "Men's bodies are the most dangerous things on earth," Margaret Atwood asserts, and plenty of men, as well as women, would agree. The task of a sane society, then, is to think about ways of reducing the danger by scaling down the idealization of bodies pumped-up like Marky Mark's, or like other musclemen in the national spotlight.

What constitutes a wholesome male body? Walt Whitman told us more than a century ago in "I Sing the Body Electric." It is not swollen biceps and marble pecs but a general sense of carnal well-being, "beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh." This joyful self-image can be shared by males of any age or shape, for Whitman defines the body not as a favored anatomical type but as "the exquisite realization of health."

What threatens the body in our time is the temptation to self-loathing induced by those who profit from envy and anxiety in consumers. Unless you have a face without wrinkles, and a frame with bulges in all the right places, proclaim these advertisers, you're an inferior specimen; buy our product to compete with your betters, or plan to come back in the next life with more sex appeal.

A sane society can afford a certain amount of beefcake and cheesecake as part of its fantasy life. Indeed, we'd have to worry if classical forms of beauty disappeared from the media. The athlete is rightly our essential model of physical perfection, not because of how he or she looks (and certainly not by the perverse standard of the steroid-engorging bodybuilder) but because of how gracefully he or she accomplishes challenging physical goals. We may argue about whether the "look" of a slugger is preferable to that of a tennis champion, but our admiration is universal. The sports-obsessed excepted, there is no psychological damage in knowing that one has a body less honed than Michael Jordan's or Wayne Gretzky's.

As our "society of spectacle" grows ever more powerful, however, the fantasy body, the body offered as sexual fetish, becomes more and more inescapable, and the occasions for self-doubt and anxiety more and more frequent. Those who profit by preying on such anxieties rob us of our well-being, our sense of having a body sufficient for the pleasures of everyday experience. How to resist their blandishments becomes a cultural question as important as any in our time. Why should not the academy turn its attention to this problem?

Nor will academic texts and classic discourse be abandoned when scholars and teachers take the body as subject matter. On the contrary, great literature and the masters of art and philosophy will be indispensable for nourishing our understanding and guiding responsive behavior on this matter.

And so, as they prepare their papers for conferences and publication, professors will hope for support from citizens who may feel uneasy about the body being a course of study for their kids in college. Some course topics may sound unconventional to a fault, but there is nothing frivolous about this one. It should contribute serious balance to the siren song of physical perfection and contribute to our well-being--even if the inspiration for intellectual reflection is only an underwear ad.

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