I love Men’s Health magazine. There. I’m out of the closet, and I’m not ashamed. Sure, I know what some of you are thinking: What self-respecting ’90s woman could embrace a publication that runs enlightened articles such as “Turn Your Good Girl Bad” and “How to Wake Up Next to a One-Night Stand”? Or maybe you’ll smile and wink knowingly: What red-blooded hetero chick wouldn’t love all those glossy photo spreads of buff young beefcake in various states of undress, ripped abs and glutes flexed so tightly you could bounce a check off them?
Either way, you’ve got the wrong idea. My affection for Men’s Health is driven by pure gender politicsby the realization that this magazine, and a handful of others like it, are leveling the playing field in a way that Ms. can only dream of. With page after page of bulging biceps and Gillette jaws, robust hairlines and silken skin, Men’s Health is peddling a standard of male beauty as unforgiving and unrealistic as the female version sold by those dewy-eyed pre-teen waifs draped across the covers of Glamour and Elle. And with a variety of helpful features on “Foods That Fight Fat,” “Banish Your Potbelly,” and “Save Your Hair (Before It’s Too Late),” Men’s Health is well on its way to making the male species as insane, insecure, and irrational about physical appearance as any Cosmo girl.
Don’t you see, ladies? We’ve been going about this equality business all wrong. Instead of battling to get society fixated on something besides our breast size, we should have been fighting spandex with spandex. Bra burning was a nice gesture, but the greater justice is in convincing our male counterparts that the key to their happiness lies in a pair of made-for-him Super Shaper Briefs with the optional “fly front endowment pad” (as advertised in Men’s Journal, $29.95 plus shipping and handling). Make the men as neurotic about the circumference of their waists and the whiteness of their smiles as the women, and at least the burden of vanity and self-loathing will be shared by all.
This is precisely what lads’ mags like Men’s Health are accomplishing. The rugged John-Wayne days, when men scrubbed their faces with deodorant soap and viewed gray hair and wrinkles as a badge of honor, are fading. Last year, international market analyst Euromonitor placed the U.S. men’s toiletries markethair color, skin moisturizer, tooth whiteners, etc.at $3.5 billion. According to a survey conducted by DYG researchers for Men’s Health in November 1996, approximately 20 percent of American men get manicures or pedicures, 18 percent use skin treatments such as masks or mud packs, and 10 percent enjoy professional facials.
What men are putting on their bodies, however, is nothing compared to what they’re doing to their bodies: While in the 1980s only an estimated one in 10 plastic surgery patients were men, as of 1996, that ratio had shrunk to one in five. The American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery estimates that, nationwide, more than 690,000 men had cosmetic procedures performed in ’96, the most recent year for which figures are available. And we’re not just talking “hair restoration” here, though such procedures do command the lion’s share of the male market. We’re also seeing an increasing number of men shelling out mucho dinero for face peels, liposuction, collagen injections, eyelid lifts, chin tucks, and, of course, the real man’s answer to breast implantspenile enlargements (now available to increase both length and diameter).
Then there are the underlying social factors. With women growing ever more financially independent, aspiring suitors are discovering that they must bring more to the table than a well-endowed wallet if they expect to win (and keep) the fair maiden. Nor should we overlook the increased market power of the gay populationin general a more image-conscious lot than straight guys.
But perhaps most significant is the ongoing, ungraceful descent into middle age by legions of narcissistic baby boomers. Gone are the days when the elder statesmen of this demographic bulge could see themselves in the relatively youthful faces of those insipid yuppies on Thirtysomething. Increasingly, boomers are finding they have more in common with the parents of today’s TV, movie, and sports stars. Everywhere they turn, some upstart Gen Xer is flaunting his youthful vitality, threatening boomer dominance on both the social and professional fronts. With whippersnappers looking to steal everything from their jobs to their women, post-pubescent men have at long last discovered the terror of losing their springtime radiance.
The more men obsess about growing old or unattractive, the more marketers will exploit and expand that fear; the more marketers bombard men with messages about the need to be beautiful, the more they will obsess.
Younger and younger men will be sucked into the vortex of self-doubt. Since 1990, Men’s Health has seen its paid circulation rise from 250,000 to more than 1.5 million; the magazine estimates that half of its 5.3 million readers are under age 35, and 46 percent are married. And while most major magazines have suffered sluggish growth or even a decline in circulation in recent years, during the first half of 1997, Men’s Health saw its paid circulation increase 14 percent over its ’96 figures.
Masters of psychology, marketers wheel out their sexiest pitches and hottest male models to tempt/intimidate the readership of Men’s Health. Not since the last casting call for Baywatch has a more impressive display of firm, tanned, young flesh appeared in one spot. And just as in women’s magazines, the articles themselves are designed to sell stuff.
All those helpful tips on choosing blazers, ties, and belts come complete with info on the who, where, and how much. The strategy is brilliant: Make men understand exactly how far short of the ideal they fall, and they too become vulnerable to the lure of high-priced underwear, cologne, running shoes, workout gear, hair dye, hair strengthener, skin softener, body-fat monitors, suits, boots, energy bars, and sex aids.
Mark Jannot, grooming and health editor for Men’s Journal, told Today show host Matt Lauer in January, “This is a huge, booming market. I mean, the marketers have found a group of people that are ripe for the picking. Men are finally learning that aging is a disease.” Considering how effectively Men’s Health fosters this belief, it’s hardly surprising that the magazine has seen its ad pages grow 510 percent since 1991 and has made it onto Adweek’s 10 Hottest Magazines list three of the last five years.
To make all this “girly” image obsession palatable to their audience, lads’ mags employ all their creative energies to transform appearance issues into “a guy thing.” Men’s Health tries to cultivate a joking, macho tone throughout (“Eat Like Brando and Look Like Rambo” or “Is my tallywhacker shrinking?”) and tosses in a handful of Y-chromosome teasers such as “How to Stay Out of Jail,” “How to Clean Your Whole Apartment in One Hour or Less,” and my personal favorite, “Let’s Play Squash,” an illustrated guide to identifying the bug-splat patterns on your windshield. Instead of a regular advice columnist, which would smack too much of chicks’ magazines, Men’s Health recently introduced “Jimmy the Bartender,” a monthly column on “women, sex, and other stuff that screws up men’s lives.”
It appears that, no matter how much clarifying lotion and hair gel you’re trying to sell them, men must never suspect that you think they share women’s insecurities. If you want a man to buy wrinkle cream, marketers have learned, you better pitch it as part of a comfortingly macho shaving regimen. Aramis, for example, assures men
On a larger scale, positioning a makeover or a trip to the liposuction clinic as a smart career move seems to help men rationalize their image obsession. “Whatever a man’s cosmetic shortcoming, it’s apt to be a career liability,” noted Alan Farnham in a September 1996 issue of Fortune. “The business world is prejudiced against the ugly.” Or how about Forbes’ sad attempt to differentiate between male and female vanity in its Dec. 1 piece on cosmetic surgery: “Plastic surgery is more of a cosmetic thing for women. They have a thing about aging. For men it’s an investment that pays a pretty good dividend.” Whatever you say, guys.
The irony is rich and bittersweet. Gender equity is at last headed our waynot in the form of women being less obsessed with looking like Calvin Klein models, but of men becoming hysterical over the first signs of crows feet. Gradually, guys are no longer pumping up and primping simply to get babes, but because they feel it’s something everyone expects them to do. Women, after all, do not spend $400 on Dolce & Gabbana sandals to impress their boyfriends, most of whom don’t know Dolce & Gabbana from Beavis & Butthead (yet). They buy them to impress other womenand because that’s what society says they should want to do. Most guys haven’t yet achieved this level of insanity, but with grown men catcalling the skin tone and wardrobe of other grown men for a readership of still more grown men, can the gender’s complete surrender to the vanity industry be far behind?
The ad for Men’s Health’s web site says it all: “Don’t click here unless you want to look a decade younger, lose that beer belly, be a better lover, and more! Men’s Health Online: The Internet Site For Regular Guys.”
Of course, between the magazine’s covers there’s not a “regular guy” to be found, save for the occasional snapshot of one of the publication’s writers or editorsusually taken from a respectable distance. The moist young bucks in the Gap jeans ads and the electric-eyed Armani models have exactly as much in common with the average American man as Tyra Banks does with the average American woman.
Which would be fine, if everyone seemed to understand this distinction. Until they do, however, I guess my consolation will have to be the image of thousands of once-proud men, having long scorned women’s insecurities, lining up for their laser peels and trying to squeeze their middle-aged asses into a snug set of Super Shaper Briefswith the optional fly front endowment pad, naturally.
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I'd be willing to take your money. Bitch.