Friday, December 4, 2009

The Feminization of Men

In late August this year, Edward (Teddy) Kennedy, the last of the male progeny born to Joseph and Rose Kennedy, passed away after a fifteen month battle with a brain tumor.  For the next number of weeks, the media celebrated the achievements of Kennedy, who sat on the U.S. Senate for over forty years.  Much was written about the Kennedys in general and Edward in particular, in magazines like "Time," "Newsweek," and "Macleans," including the good, the bad, and the tragic, and most articles were accompanied with numerous photographs, particularly of brothers John, Bobby, and Teddy.  The Kennedy boys were a photogenic bunch, flaunting their handsomeness, as well as their quiet but unmistakable masculinity, in picture after picture, particularly on the beaches of Cape Cod and Florida, where the family spent much of their recreation time.

As was the case with John Kennedy Jr., before the tragic small aircraft accident that took his life, and that of his wife's and her sister's, in 1999, much photographic documentation exists of the Kennedy men with their shirts off.

There's a picture of a shirtless Teddy on a beach with his first wife, Joan, taken following the plane crash he survived in December 1964. In the picture, Kennedy, about 32, wears nothing more than a modest bathing suit and a back brace, the front straps of which perfectly frame the thatch of dark chest hair that extended from the base of his neck to the bottom of his pecs, and from one side of his trunk to the other.

There's another picture of Jack, Bobby, and Teddy in 1960, the former and the latter wearing suit coats and ties, while Bobby in the center wears a polo shirt with two buttons open, the neckline revealing a thick swatch of dark hair at the top of his chest.

And, best of all, there's a picture of the three brothers photographed on the beach in Palm Beach, Florida, all wearing nothing more than long shorts, the thickets of chest hair obvious on them all, but especially on the muscular torsos of Bobby and Teddy.  Obviously, the male members of the Kennedy clan were a hairy-chested bunch, which continued on down the line to the next generation, to John Jr., the number of pictures of him shirtless, muscular, and hirsute plentiful, as well as delightful, to look at.

What occurred to me as I saw each of these pictures published after Teddy's death was how the original Kennedy brothers lived in a very different time.  My guess is that hairy chests were worn proudly then, an unmistakable badge of manhood, a symbol of masculinity, and that none of them would have even considered trimming their chest hair, let alone shaving it off altogether.  They came from an era when dark chest hairs curling over the collars of tight white Ts were a sign of manliness; were proof that young males had successfully grown to manhood; and were in no way to be confused with the decidedly hairless bodies of women.    

Today, a majority of men, young and old alike, trim or shave off some or all of their body hair.  At the height of summer, when many men remove their shirts to seek relief from the heat, it's rare to see a full hairy chest like that readily on display in the '60s, '70s, and '80s.  Now, chests and stomachs are usually covered in short, stubbly hairs, reminiscent of pinfeathers on chickens, or are bare altogether, without even a suggestion of the thick hair that naturally grows there.

What happened between the Kennedy heyday, when men were men, their body hair confirming that, and today, when men's bodies, more than ever, resemble that of women's, at least in terms of their hairlessness?  Why did this unfortunate and regrettable cultural shift take place?

As far as I can tell, it was a revolution, one that may or may not have had something to do with gay men, believe it or not.  Despite a whole segment of the gay male population that adored hairy men, especially men with hairy chests (count me among them), gay men in the '90s began working out more than ever, focusing on building muscle mass that was often covered under a layer of hair.  To ensure their hard gym bodies were apparent, they began to trim, and, in many cases, to shave off much of their body hair, especially that on their chests and stomachs.  In this way, their pectoral and abdominal muscles were revealed, and the definition of each muscle group was out there for all to see.

What probably originated in the gay population transferred to the straight population, when young men, like Brad Pitt in the movie "Thelma and Louise" (1991), for example, showed off their muscular and hairless bodies, creating a sensation among some gay men, who appreciated the long, sinewy, depilated look, and many straight men, whose girlfriends all of a sudden appreciated their men hairless and Brad Pitt-like.  The culture changed.  Where hairy men--think Tom Selleck--used to be admired for the broadlooms across their chests, prompting women to swoon in admiration of their manliness, the same hairy men, if seen out in public today with their shirts off and their chest hair untouched, are now considered relics, dinosaurs, in need of make-over interventions.

By comparison to today, times were simpler back then, in the '60s and '70s.  Yes, politically, those decades were challenging, characterized by racial discrimination, feminism, and the fight for gay rights.   But on one thing you could count--men were unmistakably men.  Men looked like men.  Men dressed like men.  Men conducted themselves like men. The only hair they shaved was that on their faces, and sometimes not even that. Everything else was kept long and natural.  And, for the most part, women preferred it that way.

I lament the hairy-chested man of the seemingly distant past.  I consider myself fortunate to have grown up during the time when the Kennedy brothers made their mark on the American landscape, when men bared their chests and wore the hair found there with pride and machismo.  I remember well the Tom Joneses, the Robert Wagners, the Ryan O'Neals, the Paul Michael Glasers, the Clint Walkers, and, yes, the Tom Sellecks of the world, the men who defined masculinity for our culture, and for me, back then.  The men who set an example of what physical masculinity looked like, and what all young men, coming of age in the '70s and '80s, aspired to.

Since then, I've also lamented that, ultimately I never measured up to that example, which has been an ongoing source of frustration.  But I consider myself so much luckier to have grown up with men like that all those years ago, where the young men of today have no idea what real physical masculinity looks like.  I worry they will give too much power to the young women of today, who grew up in a world of hairless boys, and who now expect the men in their lives to demonstrate the same control over the natural growth of their bodies.

Because I grew up in an era when hairy-chested men were plentiful and admired, not only have I attempted to define my own physical masculinity according to that standard, but also, as a man who is gay, I've attempted to find a man to share my life with who embodies that symbol of manliness that I've been attracted to my whole life.  Chris is a throwback to that period, his own hairy torso belonging more to the day of the Kennedys than to today.  That's one of the many reasons why I love him so much--because he hasn't succumbed to the nonsensical definition of masculinity today, and because he's happy to be the naturally hairy man that he is.  I love living with and loving a man who's a man, who wears his hairy chest with quiet pride, and whose masculine presence, by proximity, helps to define my own.

In that sense, I also happen to believe that a part of being gay is about finding in your partner that which you don't possess yourself, so that you feel more complete and whole as a result.  In Chris, I've found a missing part of me, and now, as a result, whenever I feel frustrated about my own shortcomings, I always have Chris to look at and to admire.            

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