Can you imagine Cary Grant tinting his eyebrows? Or a young Sean Connery on the Paleo diet? Would Steve McQueen have agonised over his eye creams and anxiously measured his body fat index?
Probably not, but the timeless icons of male beauty and style are increasingly irrelevant to today’s modern men. The reflection staring back at us now is entirely different to the one that met our forefathers, because now more than ever men are in the throes of an aesthetic crisis. The notions of what is considered handsome and what is considered masculine have shifted dramatically.
The changing landscape of what we find attractive and what has become the social norm is the subject for debate at Selfridges department store this month with the Beauty Project, a season of talks and events aimed at changing perceptions of beauty. Alongside the events designed for women are several promotions specifically for men, including a debate hosted by Intelligence Squared to be chaired by Dylan Jones, editor of GQ, on the subject of male vanity. Among the guest speakers are interiors maven and debonair gent-about-town Nicholas Haslam and the novelist and biographer Frances Wilson.
''Men have always been preoccupied with their appearance, historically, even more so than women," Wilson says. "Now, I think, it’s become more acceptable and more visible. What’s interesting is that all this primping and preening isn’t for women, it’s for themselves and other men. Does a woman want a man who’s perfectly smooth and rose-scented or a man who’s rough and smells of the soil? I think we’d all agree the latter."
Wilson points to a creeping vogue towards the admiration of male beauty that hasn’t existed before with such intensity. "I think it’s a gender issue – as a society it’s become acceptable to admit we like male beauty. When I grew up, men were invisible and women were very visible, now it’s almost the reverse. Staring at a beautiful woman can be regarded as demeaning and undermining to her but staring at a beautiful man enhances his power. It’s about degrees of legitimate objectification."
You need only look at the raft of pwhoar-some commentary over actor Zac Efron’s latest striptease, the former rugby international Thom Evans’ underwear ad campaign, and at the success of the website TubeCrush for evidence that society’s eye is set firmly on what men look like. TubeCrush, set up in 2011 as a joke between four friends, encourages users secretly to snap photos of handsome men on the London Underground and upload the shots to the site for rating "up" or "down"; since its launch the site has gone from 40 to 50 users a day to an average of 2500 in 220 countries.
This year the runner Kelly Roberts found fleeting viral fame when, as she ran the New York half marathon, she secretly snapped a series of attractive men, one for every mile she ticked off, then uploaded them to Twitter; the hashtag #hotguysofthenyhalf swiftly trended. From goodlookingguysofinstagram.tumblr.com to hotguysoffacebook.tumblr.com it is clear that, thanks to social media, any man worth his glutes can have holiday shots of himself in his shorts critiqued and lusted over, sometimes unknown to him.
"Historically if you look at outfits and the rise of the dandy, men have always been preoccupied with their physicality," Wilson says, "it’s just that we now have the media to increase awareness of it."
Men’s grooming is, for example, one of the fastest-growing sectors of the British beauty market, with men’s skin care estimated as worth £60 million ($108 million) last year, a rise of 20 per cent in the past five years. This spring Salon Services UK released a report that claims a staggering 21,000 jobs in the hair and skin care industries will be created in the next 12 months to cope with men’s ever-increasing grooming demands.
HSBC this year identified a new group of consumers called the "yummy", young urban male professionals who spend their money on personal grooming and fitness. "Taking pride and taking greater confidence from maintaining a well-groomed appearance now defines what it is to be a 'man' in today’s society," the HSBC report stated.
Personal trainer Matt Roberts, whose clients include David Cameron and Tom Ford, has noticed a rise in men signing up for his services hoping to emulate their sporting heroes and raise their fitness levels. With increased awareness of the effects of cholesterol, alcohol and the traditional excesses of the "male" pursuits, the Richard Burtons and Oliver Reeds of yesteryear are no more. "I think a lot of it isn’t just about vanity, there’s a focus on wanting to feel healthy and well, as well as wanting to achieve certain targets, from completing that triathlon to climbing Kilimanjaro."
Roberts also points to Britain’s tricky economic terrain as a catalyst for this focus on the physical. "I think the recession acted as a real shake-up for most men in terms of harnessing a competitive spirit that naturally bled into fitness and looks. It became about marking yourself as the dominant male and showing that you’re stronger, fitter, in better shape and more dynamic than the men around you."
While his clients don’t cite the recession as a key factor in wanting to change their appearance, Roberts says the language they use – "getting ahead of the game", "look like I mean business", "on the ball", "powerful and in control" – points to a competitive work culture in which job security is no longer a given. "I’ve always had clients in the 40-45 age bracket but I’ve definitely seen a rise in numbers. It’s about staying young, staying fit, showing they can be as strong as the 20- to 30-year-olds they’re now competing with."
A 2012 report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development noted a drop in employment among men of 400,000 against 2008’s figures, with men aged 35-50 the most affected.
Perhaps it is also indicative that male modelling – once the pursuit of pouting Zoolander wannabes and the subject of sniggering ridicule – has now become a bona fide rite of passage for sporting heroes. Once the preserve of the Everyman – think of the male adoration of George Best in his heyday – our sporting icons, some would say role models, are now expected to come freshly preened and with rippling abs. With Didier Drogba launching a range of underwear, Thom Evans flexing topless for D Hedral and fellow rugby player Ugo Monye stripped down for Molton Brown, these men are more likely to be found knocking back protein shakes than pints.
Ultimately, though, it’s all about Beckham. The Salon Services UK report cited David Beckham as the number one figure that men want to emulate, and it is a name that comes up again and again; hardly surprising given the swimwear ad campaign, which sees him posturing down at us from billboards in his pants. He is the man who most exemplifies the transformative effect of grooming, style and fitness – from sarong-wearing, hair-braided figure of scorn to a bearded, tattooed, Savile Row-attired byword for suave and sophisticated.
"Most of my clients will jokingly cite a male celebrity that they want to look like, but I think underlying that is a desire that they really would like to emulate them. And yes, David Beckham is probably the most common example,"Roberts says.
Beckham’s particular style marries effortless, everyday cool with the impeccable and well put together. The beard, the hint of sartorial rebellion via his various tattoos and his casually swept back side parting give an impression of ease, but it is encased in handsome tailoring and a sharp, off-duty wardrobe of James Dean-esque T-shirts, leather jackets and jeans.
And it isn’t merely football that has kept him trim; a high-intensity fitness plan by LA Galaxy coach Chris Neville and spinning classes mean that, even as he approaches 40, middle-age spread is kept at bay.
A glance at Instagram shows the litany of changing-room selfies of men flexing in their underpants that has contributed to a cult of peer pressure.
"For the past 10 years eating disorders in men have been steadily rising," says Sam Thomas, founder and director of the charity Men Get Eating Disorders Too, citing last year’s report from the Royal College of Practitioners that found a 66 per cent rise in the number of men being treated for eating disorders. "Now studies from the NHS Information Centre show that approximately one quarter of all sufferers of eating disorders are male," he says.
Thomas points to celebrity culture as one reason men are feeling pressure about how they look. "There are two extremes of cases that we see. One is the traditional masculine image of what a man should look like – muscly, macho – and the opposite is the super-slim. The difference between men and women is that women have one slim ideal, whereas men are expected to be both slim and defined and muscly."
The fashion industry’s focus on a youth-centric, skinny boy image – almost as big a trend as their teenage female counterparts – is also evident in today’s crop of male models. The top earners and the models most in demand are the 23-year-old Frenchman Clement Chabernaud, Texan Jacob Morton, 20, and 24-year-old American Sean O’Pry: undoubtedly a striking bunch of chaps, but their looks are distinctively boyish.
Thomas says there is pressure to live up to being a "modern man", saying: "A fitness culture has grown up around comparing muscles, comparing how much you can lift. We see cases that are a form of reverse anorexia, where the pressure to bulk up sees men abusing steroids, which can kill." He points to the death last year of 20-year-old Oli Cooney, a British bodybuilder who suffered three heart attacks and heart failure following steroid abuse.
In an attempt to redress the balance, a series of short films will debut this month on nowness.com, an online video platform. One film brings together photographer Jonas Ackerlund and black albino model Shaun Ross, whose striking appearance has seen him walk for Alexander McQueen and Givenchy, grace the cover of Vogue Italia and star in videos with Beyonce and Katy Perry. "We don’t just want the Ken doll aesthetic now," Ross says.
"I think we’ve become more welcoming towards uniqueness and diversity. I think that we’re becoming much more open about the idea of men not conforming to type. With the increased focus on men’s looks we’re more open to stepping outside the comfort zone of what we think a man should look like."
Hence the rise of a more "imperfect" vision of man, embodied by the heavily pierced and tattooed Jimmy Q, a professional skateboarder and tattoo artist who has modelled for Vivienne Westwood, Donna Karan and Haider Ackermann, and bald, "skeleton" tattooed model Rick Genest, the star of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way video.
Grappling with society’s critical gaze and unrealistic body images has been a thorn in women’s sides for generations, so perhaps it was only natural that it would gradually permeate the male psyche. We gents may feign indifference but we can be a competitive bunch. And, while the focus on health and fitness as well as a move towards a wider spectrum of male beauty is to be encouraged, perhaps it is time to reiterate to young men that an unkempt eyebrow or less-than-honed biceps aren’t crimes against the body beautiful. -
Daily Telegraph Magazine, London