What Do Men Want?

Facial hair fascinates me. I’m not actually much of a fan of it personally, but symbolically I’m besotted. Particularly the way that it is no longer a secondary sexual characteristic, a sign of manhood, or a love of Real Ale, but an adorable accessory that men today adopt and discard according to whim, following in the capricious, scented footsteps of Beckham et al.

Though of course, if you’re gay and living in a metropolitan area whim isn’t allowed. You have to sport a beard at all times. Otherwise you won’t get any dates. Gays will just hiss at you instead.

So I read with interest this YouGov survey published this week which provides some confirming data on the fashionability of face fuzz and its accessorization by males today: ‘stubble’ is reportedly the most popular form of facial hair today – especially with 18-24 year olds (51% say they have facial hair and 80% of those describe it as ‘stubble’). Stubble of course being the most easily adopted and discarded form of facial hair.

But the survey – called ‘Let’s Face It’ — is much less interesting for what it reports than for what it doesn’t. What it’s not facing. At all. The assumptions behind it and the way that compulsory heterosexuality is used to deprive all men of a voice, even about their own bodies.

Here’s the first paragraph of the YouGov press release/summary:

Are you male and looking for a date? It might be a good idea to shave beforehand, our survey suggests, as we discover that two thirds of British women prefer the appearance of a man without a beard, compared to less than one in ten who like the more hirsute type.

The first assumption of course is that the date a male is looking for is necessarily with a woman. (And as I say, if you’re gay you have to have a Captain Haddock to get a second look.) The second, and closely-related assumption, is that men’s affinity for facial hair is naturally to be measured entirely in terms of what women want:

  • 66% of British women prefer the appearance of a man without a beard
  • While 6% prefer the appearance of a man with a beard, and 27% have no preference either way

The survey asks men whether they have facial  — and chest — hair, and what kind. (And a third assumption here is that women don’t have facial hair….) But only asks women the questions: ‘Do you prefer the appearance of a man with or without a beard?’, and ‘Do you prefer the appearance of a man with or without chest hair?’

  • Fortunately for the two thirds of women who aren’t keen, only 37% of men currently have facial hair

Men are objects here, and not in a good way. They are not allowed subjective feelings about facial or chest hair, their own or anyone else’s. They merely have it or they don’t. What they might want is of no interest. Women are the only ones allowed to want here. (Even when they are lesbians — the survey polled 1417 women, and no mention is made of screening respondents on the basis of their sexuality, so statistically a significant number of them will have been Sapphic. Just as some of the 1340 men not asked this question would have been gay or bisexual.)

It would have been great to also find out whether males think facial hair enhances men’s appearance or not. Especially in a survey on male facial and chest hair. But they weren’t asked. YouGov apparently isn’t interested here in what men think about other men’s appearance. Though they were asked (but not mentioned in the press release) about their reasons for having facial hair — ‘habit’ was the most popular response at 32%. Amongst 18-39 year-olds ‘To make myself more attractive’ came in at 19%.

Either way I’d guess the popularity of stubble with young men today probably has rather less to do with what women (say they) want than the male celebs young men admire – and want. Even if it’s only about giving them permission to have stubble.

I don’t mention this to score gayist points and invoke ‘homophobia’. Or to diss the importance of women to most men. I mention it to illustrate how (hetero)sexist assumptions are sometimes used to shut men up. And maintain the reassuring pretense that even in a world where young men have become brazenly narcissistic and ‘passive’ – desiring to be desired – and where women are now allowed and indeed encouraged to have active preferences about men’s physical appearance, that it’s still all about good old heterosexuality.

When it’s as plain as the designer stubble on your face that it really aint.

Edited 28/8/11

Tip: Big Daddy Keltik

8 thoughts on “What Do Men Want?

  1. Queer women were queer long before the women’s movement was around. Certainly the necessity to survive in a man’s world (economically) made it necessarily very often to have sex with men, so already queer women had to behave sexually like heterosexuals- in the closet so to speak. Not that much different than males.
    Feminism seems to have a number of different faces.

  2. Elise: This kind of assumption that your appearance is entirely for the benefit of the ‘oppposite’ sex is perhaps less common than it was in the case of women. It’s certainly been challenged a lot more. If this survey had been about the length of women’s hair YouGov would have hesitated to do what it did to men. They would probably have asked the women what they thought about long or short hair on other women – and not just left it to men to pass comment.

    But of course, it’s still the case that asking women what they think about the appearance of other women isn’t considered GAY!!! in the way asking men the same question is.

    I’m really impressed how people’s minds are still trained to police men with that GAY!!! thing. And the general faith in niches. I got into a pointless row with someone on Twitter who claimed to have read this post, but characterised my complaint as being that ‘YouGov didn’t interview gay men’ and justified YouGov’s failure to give any men a voice by saying ‘less than 10% of men are gay’.

    I suppose if you keep telling yourself that, and shut your eyes, the world must seem just the same as it was forty years ago.

  3. You sound about as insulted as I was when I read that women’s magazine column on how you shouldn’t cut your hair short because men don’t like it. (I emulate not only female but male celebs – especially if the latter have better hair, which most do nowadays.) I’m not sure if it made it worse, or not, that it was a woman giving the advice.

  4. Mark S: you can always take some sort of derivative satisfaction in having created the cosmetic and cultural atmosphere in which people could make such marvelous (and profitable) gadgets as the scraggly beard razor and so many other wonderful and profitable grooming tools. Unfortunately, we live in a capitalist, anti-intellectual culture where concepts and ideas are of little value since “intellectual property” has to be immediately profitable and something ou can hold in our hand and not in our head,curiously enough.

    We do still have that niche for Bears and, at least here a strange place for ga men where the try to look and act like straight male “jocks”. Now there are gay bowling and softball teams (between pedicures) and people who run & bike in marathons. And I think even a National Gay Rodeo.
    Unfortunately this is paired with married life, recover groups for people obsessed with sex outside of marriage– (this last drives me crazy as you can imagine). These last are so busy at their bank jobs that the can’t see that the country is sliding down the toilet faster than the an get to the alter. The have to groom too-don’t worry, the won’t show up sweaty soon(somehow).

  5. Interestingly I was talking to a friend the other week about Brighton’s buzz, otherness and general cutting edge brilliance. We agreed however, the the gay scene here is the least Brighton-like aspect of Brighton and sadly exhibits very little imagination or originality.

    I can only hope that London beards may catch on down here and provide at least a different look, even if nothing else.

  6. Stephen: I haven’t been to Brighton for a while, but London gays have been into beards big time for a few years now. Maybe most of the gays in Brighton are refugees from London’s hirsuteness.

    Mark: I wish I’d patented an overpriced fancy beard-trimmer that doesn’t work very well instead of ‘fathering’ the metrosexual.

  7. “Though of course, if you’re gay and living in a metropolitan area whim isn’t allowed. You have to sport a beard at all times.”

    Not here in Brigton!

    I’ve had my beard for over 25 years and would love to see more beards and though there has been an increase over the last 5 years, most gay men here seem to want to remove as much hair as possible from the top and front of their head, and sadly the rest of their body too.

    Oh, those heady, hirsute 70s

  8. the partially shaven, stubbly look is especiall popular around here where most things ga are popular appart from open sexuality. A visitor at Minneapolis’ Pride activity said that the local celebration was the most ungay (unsexual)event the had ever seen.
    In an case, imported fashion is of importance.
    So they grow short beards and shave their heads, and have tats all over. They play gay, I think. And hook up over the net. Which is strange to me.Almost as bad as having a date.

    The local Target and Walgreens stores make a fortune on these very expensive beard stubble razors.

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