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A Few Good Men

HOUDINI, TARZAN, AND THE PERFECT MAN The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America By John F. Kasson; Hill & Wang: 320 pp., $26

MUSCLE BEACH By Marla Matzer Rose; St. Martin's Press: 320 pp., $16.95 paper

LOOKING GOOD Male Body Image in Modern America By Lynne Luciano; Hill & Wang: 272 pp., $25

MAN MADE A Memoir of My Body By Ken Baker; Tarcher/Putnam: 286 pp., $23.95

July 08, 2001|PETER CLOTHIER | Peter Clothier is the author of "While I Am Not Afraid: Secrets of a Man's Heart."

Approaching my middle 60s, I am only now beginning to appreciate what a rich and complex relationship I have with this body that has carried me around for so long. Not that I haven't been preoccupied with it before--with its strengths and weaknesses, with how it might appear to others, with its familiar aches and gripes. But I have only recently begun to fully understand, in the flesh and bones, the extent to which body and mind are integrally related to each other.

We men--I should say, many of us: I cannot speak for all--allow ourselves to be trapped too often in the attempt to separate the two. Our self-image is often burdened or embarrassed by our body and alarmed when it fails to meet our demands and expectations. We do not trust it readily nor others with it. We have difficulty even taking it to the doctor when we are sick. We refuse to listen to it, still less to heed its inborn insistent wisdom.

Yet because the body is a great learner, it is also a great teacher. My own--because I know it best--learned as it entered the world nearly strangled by the umbilical cord that life and breath are a desperate struggle for survival. Not all its lessons are necessarily truthful, then, but they can have a powerful and lasting hold on us. Further:

From my father, a man who lived in constant pain with stomach ulcers, my body also learned to steel itself unreasonably against the slightest suggestion of physical or emotional discomfort. From my mother, it learned the aching desirability of intimate loving touch--and the agony of its deprivation. From taunting schoolmates at an all-boys' school, it learned that to expose itself in all its puppy plumpness was to invite a burning sense of shame and to experience the futility of allowing anger to escape. From a pederastic teacher, it learned that the awesome murky pleasure of genital touch was a guilty secret, requiring the protection of absolute silence.

I believe that most of us have learned such lasting lessons in our bones and tissues, allowing them expression only in the form of shame or in the ravages of suppressed fear and anger. This is why body awareness, for me, has become an act--not of "self-indulgence," as I always imagined--but of essential liberation. And because I have worked closely with other men in recent years and have been privileged to hear them speak openly about their own experiences, I know that I am not alone in this regard.

A surprising number of men, even into late middle age and beyond, feel deep in their bodies that they have somehow missed out on manhood. We look around us at the empty cultural stereotypes, to which we believe we are expected to conform, and suffer from the knowledge that, all too often, we don't. But there's a deeper level too. Since childhood we have looked surreptitiously at other male bodies and compared them with critical subjectivity to our own--most frequently to our detriment. Those others are taller, more commanding in their presence, have more muscular arms or abdomens and so on. Not to mention, of course, the dreaded question of the penis--surely the most endlessly fascinating and most vulnerable of our bodily features. Susan Faludi saw us "stiffed" by a culture that imposes unreal expectations on us. More painful still, because more intimate, more insistent and more immediate, is the self-judgment that arises from the way we see ourselves as men.

"Weakness is a crime," warned a pulp magazine from the early years of the last century. "Don't be a criminal." It's a message we have listened to and the one that dominates our image of ourselves. We admire physical prowess in our sports and entertainment heroes and often pursue it for ourselves, in part because we see it as the manifestation of inner strength, the power to command and control, the inner quality we most associate with manliness and success. Even our business executives and politicians must give the appearance of physical strength.

So what might the ideal man look like at this stage of the game? A number of recently published books address this question in different ways. In his provocatively titled "Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America," social historian John F. Kasson finds the description of "a splendid specimen of manhood" in an early Edgar Rice Burroughs tale: "Standing a good two inches over six feet, [he was] broad of shoulder and narrow of hip, with the carriage of a trained fighting man. His features were regular and clear cut, his hair black and closely cropped, while his eyes were a steel gray, reflecting a strong and loyal character, filled with fire and initiative." Not too much like you or me, perhaps, but if he sounds a bit like Mattel's Ken doll, it's for good reason: He's the cookie-cutter version of today's manly man, as seen ubiquitously in comic books, fashion ads, television shows and movies.

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