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The 'Daddy' of the Metrosexual, the Retrosexual, & spawner of the Spornosexual

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Let me Hear Your Body Talk

Are men the new women? I’ve always avoided using that line until now. As the (hetero)sexual division of labour and loving and looking continues to fall apart, men are the new everything. Just as women are.

But in the last few months we’ve been told men now take longer getting ready than women, mercifully deleting at a stroke most of the material of stand-ups like John Bishop. We’ve also been told that gents are more likely to take travel irons, hairdryers and straighteners on holiday than ladies. Now there’s new evidence they may be as body-conscious as women too. In fact, according to a widely-reported study of 394 British men published last week, lads are now more concerned with their body image than lasses.

A third said they think about their appearance more than five times a day, 18% were on a high-protein diet to increase muscle mass, and 16% on a calorie-controlled diet to slim down. While a Faustian 15% claimed they would happily trade 2-5 years of their life if they could have their ideal body weight and shape. (Probably because they hoped the years would be sliced off the end of their lives — when they’re old and crumbly and not very likely to go on Big Brother anyway).

Some we’re told were undertaking compulsive exercise, strict diets, using laxatives or making themselves sick in an attempt to lose weight or achieve a more toned physique. And although the survey didn’t cover this, other data suggests a surprisingly large number of men are also taking steroids, growth hormones and other prescription drugs to achieve a more aesthetically pleasing appearance.

Which generally means tits and abs. Men’s main preoccupation, the survey found, was their ‘beer belly’ and lack of muscles, with a whopping 63% saying they thought their arms or chests were not muscular enough. And people never believe me when I tell them that while some women are size queens, all men are.

‘Geordie Shore’s Jay knows what you want

Clearly a lot of men are gazing avariciously at the flaunted porno pecs and abs of hit TV shows like Jersey/Geordie Shore (Geordie Shore is back for a second season on MTVUK at the end of this month). We already know they’re buying Men’s Health magazine as it became the biggest-selling men’s mag recently. All those tarty, shouty Men’s Health front covers promising BIGGER ARMS! PUMPED PECS! and RIPPED ABS! in a fortnight may be as laughable as they are repetitive, but they’re clearly, lucratively tapping into 21st Century man’s deepest, darkest and beefiest desires.

Men may or may not be the new women, but men’s tits and abs are the new eye candy. Men have become their own High Street Honeys.

They’re also rather bitchy. Apparently 80.7% of the survey respondents talked about their own or others’ appearance in ways that draw attention to weight, lack of hair or slim frame. It also confirms that men of whatever sexual orientation look rather a lot at each other’s bodies, comparing and contrasting, desiring and detracting.

Dr Philippa Diedrichs of the Centre for Appearance Research at UWE in Bristol who led the survey, described this conversation between men about their bodies as ‘body talk’ (which makes me think of both Olivia Newton John beating up the fatties in ‘Physical’, and also that single from the same era by the incredibly camp dance band Imagination.)

‘Body talk reinforces the unrealistic beauty ideal which reinforces leanness and muscularity. This is traditionally seen as an issue for women but our research shows that men are feeling the pressure to conform too.’

Rosi Prescott, chief executive of Central YMCA which commissioned the research also sees this as ‘damaging’:

‘Historically conversation about your body has been perceived as something women do, but it is clear from this research that men are also guilty of commenting on one another’s bodies; and in many cases this is having a damaging effect. Men’s high levels of body talk were symptomatic of a growing obsession with appearance, she added.

Some three in five men (58.6%) said body talk affected them, usually negatively.’

I’m a bit conflicted here. Probably because as an ‘avid fan’ of the worked-out male body I’m part of the problem. On the one hand I welcome this kind of research and the publicity it’s received because it’s both putting the spotlight on both how much men’s behaviour has changed of late, and also undermining sexist assumptions about ‘men’ and ‘women’, which many feminists, like lazy stand-ups, buy into. And it’s always good to draw attention to the Patrick Batemanesque dark side of the metrosexual revolution – and its costs.

On the other hand, I’m not entirely sure that applying the problematising, pathologising and sometimes Puritanical, dare I say ‘Wolfian’ (as in ‘Naomi’), discourse that’s been used on women’s bodies wholesale to men would be something to welcome. Men aren’t the new women, but they might be the new moral panic.

This ‘body talk’ amongst men isn’t necessarily a sign of ‘guilt’ as was suggested. It might be a healthy honesty. And whilst obviously this kind of critique and competition might push some into anxiety and obsession and self-destructive behaviour, or conformity to rather narrow ideals of male beauty, the generalised, compulsory, traditional self-loathing that existed amongst men before ‘body talk’ and (male) body interest became acceptable was in many ways worse. It was also, remember, ‘normal’.

After all, not wanting to talk about their bodies is part of the reason why men historically have been very reluctant to visit their GP and tend to die much earlier on average than women. Until very recently the male body was simply an instrument that was to be used until the mainspring broke. Barely giving men time to rewind their horribly symbolic retirement clock.

And certainly, men didn’t look at one another’s bodies. Unless they were queer.

Not anymore. Men’s ‘body talk’ has become deafening. On the hit ITV reality series The Only Way is Essex Arge, who is a little on the husky side, was always gazing longingly at Mark (above) and asking how he gets his ‘fit body’ and whether he can help him get one too.

A married squaddie mate who is an occasional gym buddy always subjects my body to a close scrutiny in the changing rooms after our workouts, appreciatively commending, say, my deltoid or tricep development, and mercilessly criticising, say, my forearms’ failure to keep up with them. And my belly’s general miserable flabbiness. Part of me dreads the scrutiny, but another welcomes the frank ‘body talk’ too. I’m glad he gets all Olivia Newton John on my ass. If he didn’t, I might have to pay someone to do it.

Mind you, his wise observation about gym culture to me one day sticks in my mind: “It’s all about ‘ow you look isn’t it, Mark? Nobody really cares whether any of this makes you fit or not. You could be rotten underneath but if you look great no one gives a fook.” He’s right. The metrosexy cult of male beauty is all a bit Dorian Ghey.

Which reminds me, apparently a quarter of the respondents in this survey were gay (well, it was sponsored by the Central YMCA). Of course, some people will hastily seize upon that to disqualify its findings. And while it probably is reason to treat them with at least as much caution as those of any other survey, I’m inclined to see the large sample of gay men included as a sign of this survey’s relevance and inclusiveness. After all, it’s gays that are to blame for the cult of male bloody beauty….

Gays like The Village People. Love it or loathe it, the body-fascist foundations for the metrosexy male culture we’re living in were laid in the early Eighties. And I’m deliriously happy the Central YMCA commissioned this survey as it’s a perfect excuse for me to post (below) my Favourite Music Video of All Time. I suspect it was part of the inspiration for Olivia’s ‘Physical‘ video. (And both were almost certainly inspired by this epic.)

Every frame is a joy, but the Busby Berkeley (or is it Leni Riefensthal?) shot of the swimmers diving one after the other into the pool as if they were perfectly-formed poppies scythed down by the camera’s gaze never fails to send me into paroxysms of delight. For me, it’s always fun to stay at the YMCA.

Which is just as well. In the 21st Century we’re all checked in there. Permanently.

 

On The Town: with Glenn/Glennda, Two Bruces & Two Old Musicals

by Mark Simpson (First appeared in Attitude, July 1998)

‘Yoo can’t stop the moo-zik/No-body can stop the moo-zik/Take the cold from snow/Tell the trees “don’t grow?/Tell the wind “don’t Blow?/’coz  it’s ee-zee-er to doo!’

I’m singing a cappella, out of tune and fighting against a Pet Shop Boys ditty whining and clattering on the PA in this tiny, pre-Stonewall retro New York fag bar with the fabulously cheesy name ‘IC Guys’, the show-stopping, pull-out-all-the-stops-and-wear-something-glittery big finale number from Nancy Walker’s epic Village People movie ‘Can’t Stop the Music’.

I’m trying to infect my native New Yorker friend Glenn Belverio, the artist formerly known as Glennda Orgasm, with my out-of-towner enthusiasm for that 1980 box-office bomb and show why it is my cultural compass for my first visit to New York since the Eighties.

He’s not impressed. In fact, he’s looking at me with a textbook rendition of ‘askance’, with a side-order of wariness and concern, and says dismissively, ‘It’s just a bad movie Mark’. I put this down to my singing, and embark on an intellectual exposition instead.

‘Look,’ I plead, trying to ignore the skinny, queeny barman-cum-go-go-dancer (I told you this place was small) who is coquettishly counting his ribs for us, Can’t Stop the Music is a tour-de-force! The “music” that “can’t be stopped” is clearly desire – something that vibrates in everyone, choreographing them to its own plan. One that has little rhyme or reason.  The opening number alone, with it’s kooky collage of the technicoloured, steamy street-life of Manhattan – roller-skating, boom-boxing, jogging in leg-warmers or just showing off their baskets – is so exhilarating, so chaotic, so… VITAL. Even the giddy contrast between the high camp of the big production numbers and the low-rent bathos of the terrible script is movingly apposite to…..’

‘Yeah right,’ interrupts Glenn, staring openly in disbelief at our skinny stripper who is now jiggling his bones in time to Sylvester’s ‘Mighty Real’ like something escaped from a Ghost Train ride, wearing nothing now but a thin, lascivious, slightly vengeful smile (in any other bar in New York no one would even see him; here you can’t avoid him). Glenn finally manages to tear himself away: ‘Whatever.  All I can remember is that I wasn’t able to sit through that film.’

‘But, but,’ I burble, disappointed that Glenn of all people – the Glenn who once told me that ‘old movies are all I have’ – isn’t with me on this one, ‘the “YMCA’ Busby Berkeley pastiche!  With the young men falling into the pool like a line of muscular dominoes! Even more perfect when you learnt that apparently they were actually hand-picked serving US Marines loaned by the US Navy who had been led to believe that this musical would be a great recruiting sergeant….’  But Glenn isn’t paying attention.

So I try another tack. ‘Well, my other New York reference point is “On the Town’, 1949, starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra as sailors determined to have a good time on 24hrs shore-leave in Manhattan – the energy, and sheer… SPUNK in that film is breathtaking: ‘Noo Yawk, Noo Yawk, is a wonderful town/the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down’

Glenn winces at my rendition and looks even more bored. ‘Just because it’s got sailors in it.’

‘But,’ I protest, ‘Gene Kelly’s bell-bottomed thighs are historic. An exquisitely curvaceous, “cheeky” counterpoint to the rigid phallicism of the Forties Manhattan skyline…’ But Glenn has decided I’m now being ironic.

But I’m not. Actually, like IC Guys, I’m being nostalgic. I feel that both those films capture something about New York that has been lost; something that made New York the centre of the world in the Forties and again in the Seventies – before the election of a Fifties film star as President in the Eighties saw the West Coast eclipse the East, private spaces eclipse public ones, safe sex eclipse the dangerous variety, and shallow visual values eclipse lyrical ones.

Until that time New York – the City of cities – was synonymous with a crazy, edgy exuberance: otherwise known as ‘song and dance’ or just ‘life’.  As ‘The Sound of the City’ the opening number in Nancy’s Village People meisterwork has it:  ‘Listen to the sound of the city/Listen to the sound of my town…’.

Even this much was clear to me as a whiny sprog visiting New York in the early seventies with my suffering parents on holiday from my home town of (Old) York, England. The smell, the heat, the dirt, the noise, the steam escaping bafflingly from the street, the perpetual motion of six million driven souls and the giddy grandeur of the sky-scrapers. New York was literally a city where you couldn’t crick your neck enough trying to take it all in.  Everywhere you looked, including heavenwards, there was human vanity.

In hindsight I can see that New York was the key to the Seventies: funk, disco, Kojak, punk, leg-warmers, ‘The Godfather’, bankruptcy, bisexuality, hip hop, the last gasp of liberalism and, of course, the band who changed the world or at least persuaded it to wear leather chaps more, The Village People, all had their origins here. New York even invented the end of the seventies – AIDS. But back then, both me and the Seventies were in short trousers and it was a confusing, terrifying experience for a small-town boy, perhaps all the more so because it bore clearly and garishly the traces of something rarely seen in suburban Yorkshire. Passion.

A quarter of a century on, I’m ready to embrace that confusion and passion – at least for a couple of days. But New York, damnit, has gone and cleaned up its act. As everyone knows, the drugs, the disease, the debt, the crime, the scandal and vice are all on the wane. The Disney Corporation has been stomping all over Manhattan, flattening Times Square, biting the heads off street hustlers and scaring away more interesting monsters.  Everyone is now very sensible in New York.  Even the junkies have pension plans and gay leaders like Larry Kramer and his earthly representative Michaelangelo Signorile call for gay men to abandon the messiness of promiscuity, public sex, and shameful shags with straight men, and go for hygienic, orderly, proud gay monogamy (i.e. celibacy).

At the gay nostalgia bar, IC Guys, Glenn and I are joined by the decadent novelist and connoisseur of bohemia Bruce Benderson, Camille Paglia’s early inspiration and the author of a book advocating downward mobility called ‘Toward a New Degeneracy’. He thinks that artists have a duty to live with the people of the streets (a duty his yen for street hustlers makes less onerous a burden than for most). Bruce wears a placid, congenial expression, but appears to have a cheeky smile perpetually playing around his eyes. I complain to him that Glenn is blind to the genius of ‘Can’t Stop the Music’.

‘Oh,’ he says, matter-of-factly, ‘there is no question but that it is a MARVELLOUS movie. Its surrealism borders on high art. It conveys the absurdity of life very well.’ Bruce has a voice which seems to be perpetually threatening, albeit ironically, to add ‘Mary’ to the end of each sentence but never actually does.

‘I love you, Bruce,’ I say, hugging him and directing gloating looks at Glenn. ‘But what,’ I ask, disentangling myself and studying him carefully, ‘about “On the Town”‘.

Bruce’s eyes cloud almost imperceptibly. ‘Well now, “On the Town’ is more… difficult. I was never much of a fan of Gene Kelly’s dancing. I’ve always preferred the French school myself. I have little time for that, that…’ Bruce tails off.

‘Clean-cut, large-thighed vigorous virility?’ I offer.

‘Precisely.’

‘Ah, I’m afraid I have little time for anything else,’ I confess. ‘I wish it weren’t so. But then, that’s what a Northern English public school education does to you.’

In an attempt to rescue me from my lack of sexual imagination, Bruce whisks me and Glenn off to one of his favourite haunts, an Upper Upper West Side Latino hustler bar: ‘One of the last, sadly.’ he laments during the long, long Yellow Cab journey. ‘There used to be many more. But the clean-up of Manhattan and the pillage of Times Square has banished them.’ He sighs folornly. Inevitably, Bruce now searches for illicit, lyrical, messy sex on the Internet. He’s just written a book about cybersex, which is only being published in French. He researched it with a video camera atop his computer monitor. ‘I spent weeks sitting naked in front of that computer having a whale of a time before I realised that it wasn’t only the people I was talking to on the Net who could see me. I really should have drawn my curtains.’ (Of course, the internet has been another kind of ‘curtains’ for public sex in NY.)

As we stagger out of the cab and into the hustler bar, I mention out loud that Glenn walks like a puppet who has had two strings cut. ‘Do I really?’ he demands of the assembled group. Silence. ‘Well,’ he says, resignedly, ‘I guess it must be true. Omigod!  I walk like a puppet whose strings have been cut! Not one but TWO!’

‘Well,’ I say, putting on my best talk show voice, ‘In our own way, Glenn, we all walk like puppets who’ve had two strings cut.’

‘Oh, shut UP!’

In another hustler bar, a grubby little shack perched on some disused dockfront, there turns out to be rather more hustlers than punters. Which is especially bad news on a Friday night when a working boy is hoping to pay off the subs he’s chalked up during the week. Four of them in their skimpy shorts and press-on goatees stand in a line on the small stage facing the oval bar in the centre, go-going in their decidedly un-clean-cut Latino way. Everyone recognises Bruce and they are clearly happy to see him; hardly surprising since he is probably single-handedly responsible for keeping this place open.

One in particular, a short, bleached-blond number, exquisitely beautiful, hops off the stage and prowls towards us in that swishy-but-not-faggy cat-like – highly ‘musical’ – walk that Latino boys can do, something very alarming bouncing underneath his shorts, tenting them out. He smiles easily and convincingly as he allows us to pull his waistband out far enough to get a glimpse of his salami-sized penis, which is somewhat purplish as it is tied off at the base. ‘Oh,’ exclaims Glenn nonchalantly, ‘that’s where one of my puppet strings got to.’

We stuff some dollar bills down the boy’s waistband and he smiles even more easily and convincingly. As he rhumba-sashays off back to his perch the back of his neck passes under my nose and I smell a sudden, all-enveloping sweetness. I ask Bruce about this. ‘Yes, Latino hustlers have that nutmeggy smell even when they’ve been on the streets for days,’ he explains authoritatively. ‘Whereas white boys, well, they just have this really acrid, ammonia smell.’

‘Is it diet or temperament?’ I ask, as if we were discussing dog breeds.

‘Oh, I think diet has a lot to do with it,’ ventures Bruce, scanning the chorus line. ‘But,’ he adds, ‘maybe Catholicism has something to do with it too. The marvellous thing about Southern Catholics is that they have very poor memories. They forget. Which always makes the next morning so much easier.’

‘Ah yes,’ I concur. ‘There’s nothing more off-putting than eau de regret.  Which is why I should really get into the Latin groove instead of the anglo-celtic schtick I’ve got going. I have enough ammonia in my life to clean kitchens with.’

Glenn, who is a little worse for wear now, is pointing at one of the hustlers on stage. ‘HE’S NO LATINO!’ he shouts. ‘HE’S JUST SOME MUSCLE MARY FROM CHELSEA WITH AN INSTANT TAN!’ (Glenn is very proud of his own authentic Latino heritage.)

Another Bruce we’ve been expecting, the Canadian film-maker Mr LaBruce, someone who definitely isn’t in denial about his love for camp movies, finally shows up. ‘Are you Catholic, Bruce?’ I ask him as he joins us.

‘Certainly not. I’m of Celtic Protestant stock,’ he says proudly, but won’t allow Mr Benderson and I to sniff him. After a quick round of drinks, we bid our farewells to Bruce #1, leaving him happy as Larry in Latinoland. Bruce #2 then whisks Glenn and me away to another hustler bar, one which he promises will be ‘less “Night of the Iguana”’.

On the way there Glenn bursts out laughing and points at Bruce #2 who is trotting ahead of us: ‘Well, I may walk like a vandalised puppet, but Bruce walks like she thinks she’s Jean Shrimpton in platforms on Carnaby street wearing a big floppy hat!!’ (I make sure that I walk behind everyone else.)

The second hustler bar isn’t quite so Latino. More Northern European and black, with just a smattering of Hispanic. As I’m talking to Bruce #2, one of the black dancers walks up to him and nonchalantly flops his penis in his pocket. Equally nonchalantly Bruce tips him ten bucks.

Much, much later, over blueberry and cream cheese blintzes in some SoHo diner, Glenn tells us he has a confession to make. He looks at us anxiously. ‘Promise not to laugh.  OK?’

Bruce and promise, solemnly.

‘OK. Here’s the thing. My Dad was a big fan of the Village People. He even joined the YMCA. And bought poppers.’ Glenn grimaces at the memory. ‘I was very worried about him for a while. What made it worse was…’ He tails off.

‘Yes, Glenn?’

‘He was in charge of a factory making uniforms.’

Bruce and I break our promise. Loudly.

Yoo can’t stop the moo-zik….

 

UPDATE: Glenn no longer walks like a marionette that has had two strings cut (it was probably the cheap martinis he was downing that night). And is no longer in denial about liking camp movies. Remarkably, he still returns my calls.

Copyright Mark Simpson 2007

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