Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Wanted Bodies

Through Amber, a couple of great posts on the objectivity of male bodies. The main one is from Hugo Schwyzer, and he in turn links to Figleaf. It's a topic I've explored before in my post "Second Thing We Do, Objectify All The Men", so this post will be more scatter-shot. It's also a topic I'd love to get the perspective of the Happy Bodies gals on.

Schwyzer relates his experience that the first time he ever was expressly cast as someone wanted, desired, was in the context of a same-sex relationship. In his relationships with women, the idea that someone might lust after him was utterly bizarre and foreign. This intrigued me, because my introduction to this whole line of thinking stemmed out of an article by Leslie Green, entitled "Pornographies" (J. Political Philosophy, Vol. 8.1, 27-52 (2002)). One of Green's major arguments was a defense of gay pornography precisely because it objectifies gay men: men who, in Green's estimation, are perpetually told that their sexuality is something deviant and disgusting, that nobody could ever want them or find them desirable or attractive, that they have no objective worth. Pornography shows them that, yes, your body is one that is something that someone might want -- and that sentiment is an important aspect of human personhood.

It may be that Schwyzer and Green's arguments are not irreconcilable -- the internal norms and culture in the gay community may differ from how broader society views homosexuality, and the affirmation that gay male sexuality is desirable may be of particular importance to closeted gay men, or those from more repressive and homophobic backgrounds who may still be laboring under beliefs which taught them that their very identity was disgusting.

But Schwyzer's post made me reflect about my own experiences as a straight man -- have I ever felt particularly desired? When I enrolled in college, I joked that I just assured myself four years of never getting a date. My best qualities (as I saw them) were that I was nice, polite, and intelligent. Enrolling at top five Liberal Arts school in Minnesota meant throwing away all my competitive advantages. It's not that I think of myself as ugly -- I don't -- but the joke rests on the idea that it is absurd to think anyone might want me for my body of all things. Looking back, prior to my current relationship (which is very body affirming -- as you'd hope dating a body positivity blogger!) I can think of precisely one moment where a woman complimented my body. I also remember being somewhat at a loss of how to react -- I was certainly pleased, but fairly baffled as well. Jill has a favorite body part of mine (no, not that one), and while I like that she likes it, it still is something I find a little puzzling.

The post Hugo links to talks about the unforeseen consequences of men not having a conception of themselves as objects of desire. One upshot is that men have only a weak grasp of what constitutes an attractive male. Apparently, some women think we are simply overcompensating the "no homo" bit when we aver that we can't say if a given guy is attractive. The fact is that, as the Fred Thompson debacle so conclusively demonstrated, no, we're really actually confused. Outside a few obvious poles ("Gilbert Gottfried or Brad Pitt"), the terrain of "attractive man" is foreign territory.

It's not that women don't talk amongst themselves about which guys are hot and why. It's that there are almost no public channels where it is permissible to discuss men in terms of their bodies. The public language of desire has men as the desiring, and women as the desirable. It is a one-way street.

Hugo writes that "The answer lies in creating a new vocabulary for desire, in empowering women as well as men to gaze, and in expanding our own sense of what is good and beautiful, aesthetically and erotically pleasing." This is a phrase fraught with peril, even as I endorse its particulars. "Gaze" is an important term in feminist discourse, and not generally one used in a positive sense. Women are under the male gaze because they are presented solely as objects for male desire. That is how they walk through the world -- they can't avoid it. So how is it that we can say that we want to "empower women as well as men to gaze"?

Both objective and subjective worth are critical to a full sense of personhood. That is Green's position, and that is mine as well. Women suffer from the male gaze because it is the near-totality of how their lives matter in a patriarchal society. For persons who are respected as subjects, there is no danger in being gazed upon, because we know there is the foundational acknowledgment of one's basic human dignity. Quite the opposite -- for persons accorded subject-status, it can be quite damaging to be deprived of a sense of desirability.

In my post, I argued that control (better: autonomy) is the critical element: we can put ourselves out as a desirable object when we know that we have the right to withdraw ourselves. Women, today, do not have that right -- stepping out onto the street is seen as an implied license to be morphed into a sexual object; and there is no safety net of acknowledged subjectivity lying beneath them. Empowerment to gaze comes from the dismantlement of this structure.


Joe said...

"It's that there are almost no public channels where it is permissible to discuss men in terms of their bodies. The public language of desire has men as the desiring, and women as the desirable. It is a one-way street."

I think you are overstating this. Ever see Sex and the City? How about an Axe commercial?

jfpbookworm said...

I'll leave SatC to someone more familiar with it, but I think Axe commercials actually reinforce this. Being desired because of an artificial scent you wear (with the implication that it's the scent and not the person that inspires this reaction) is not casting men as physically desirable; it's casting men as physically interchangeable.

Joe said...

But by that standard no women's beauty product has anything to do with objectification either.

chingona said...

The Axe commercials are not about empowering women to turn men into objects of desire. They are selling a product that claims to turn women into helpless and willing objects of a man's desire. There's nothing remotely subversive or challenging about it.

The easiest way I can think to illustrate the difference is to look at women's magazines and men's magazines. Both feature cover shots of ... attractive women. Men want to have her, women want to be her, blah, blah, blah. The only exception is Men's Health, and that's generally seen as appealing to gay men.

When women's magazines start featuring chiseled, shirtless hotties on the cover, then we'll have actually balanced this thing out. (Whether simply turning that objectification around is good, bad, or neutral is a different discussion.) Or when "feminist" porn includes more than women with other women. Apparently straight women have so internalized the male gaze that we think we're supposed to be aroused by looking at other women and imagining we're her, not by looking at a man that we might desire. (Whether simply turning that objectification around is good, bad, or neutral is a different discussion.)

PG said...

jfpbookworm is right about Axe. SatC really only had a strong female gaze in Samantha, and to a lesser extent in Carrie (Samantha had the true "you're hot and I want to rip your clothes off," whereas Carrie had more of a "you're hot and will look good in a tux standing next to me in Prada"). It was treated as out of character for Charlotte or Miranda to prioritize physical attractiveness over other qualities (both ended the series married to men who weren't considered good looking).

chingona said...

What I think SatC turned things around was that the relationships between the women and the personalities of the women were very well developed and were the focus of the show, while the male characters were more "types" and not as fleshed out and existed more as devices to move this or that plot point. Which is the opposite of most popular media.

But PG is right. There wasn't a strong female gaze throughout the show.

matthew c said...

I tend to roll my eyes and suspect a bit of the "no homo" at work when I hear guys pull the "I couldn't possibly say thing." But your analysis makes a lot of sense. People who live under the gaze of their objectifiers - well, they know the scorecard because they're always up against it. Even disregarding it is a conscious decision. So people who live by the scorecard also tend to know how it applies to others.

I think that not having to be conscious of their "score" is ultimately a privilege for straight men. I remember reading one study showing that in male-female couples, the male tended to "overrate" his attractiveness while the woman tended to "underrate" her own. Straight men also suffer body image issues and eating disorders at a much lower rate than straight women or gay men. So not being "gaze conscious" let's most straight men get away with thinking (1) that they are pretty attractive or (2) even if they aren't attractive+ they aren't so unattractive that their other qualities can't compensate for it. The body can be a plus or a neutral in attraction, but its rarely conceived of as a major obstacle.

Another bit of anecdotal evidence for this: I can't remember the last time a guy thought it was weird that I found a certain guy attractive. But I can think of numerous occasions where I said, on an entirely physical basis, that guy X was not a guy I would want to date/hook up with/whatever, and one or more straight men were just baffled as to why that guy would be out of contention.

David Schraub said...

I should say I think there is a "no homo" element when guys claim an absolute inability to make an evaluative statement of another guy's attractiveness. If I sit back and think about it, I can usually make a determination if I find a guy attractive, and to some extent explain why. But I have virtually no conception as to whether my preferences are utterly idiosyncratic, and so I think there is a solid probability I might be pretty far wrong (I never thought Thompson was attractive, but I wouldn't have felt confident in utterly dismissing it except for all the het women who were mocking the idea).

Esquiver said...

If men want to feel more physically desired, they should do more to make themselves physically desirable.

Clarifying corollary: if women spent as little time on personal grooming and clothes selection/self-presentation as men do, there would be a lot fewer physically desirable women around.

David Schraub said...

What do you think of this passage by Schwyzer, Esq?

[E]very lad in the room identified, at least in part, with what it meant to go through puberty feeling “in love with candy, anger, and sleep”, feeling the grossness and imperiousness of the body, a body which distorts the real self, making it into a “stupid clown of the spirit’s motive.” We teach our sons that it’s okay for boys to be dirty, to be heavy, lumbering, hungry bears. Feminists often frame that, rightly, as male privilege — it’s easier to live as a slave to impulse than to deny it altogether, as girls (who must be “everything nice”) are forced to. At the same time, many young men grow up with a keen sense of their own awkwardness, their own clumsiness, their own sense that their bodies are repulsive. The idea that someone could long for all of that shaking, raging, farting, sweating bundle of energy seems impossible; who could possibly want to touch this? Who could possibly be turned on by something so evidently unappealing?

chingona said...

if women spent as little time on personal grooming and clothes selection/self-presentation as men do, there would be a lot fewer physically desirable women around.And yet somehow our ancient ancestors who went about naked and unkempt still managed to find it in themselves to fuck each other.

Esquiver said...

David -

Fart less.


ps Ok, ok, that's glib, even for me. Let me unpack: I generally like Hugo and find him reasonable. This post struck me as whiny. We do indeed teach our boys that it's ok to be all those things he cites -- but not that they have to be all those things. It is, of course, easier to be all those things. Don't like the results? Change the input.

What I disliked in his post and in the ensuing discussion is the germ of the idea that somehow women -- tsk, those shallow women! -- are failing to find sweaty, farty, enraged masculinity to be physically appealing, and that's our fault. You know what? All that stuff isn't physically appealing, in men or in women.

David Schraub said...

You mean, where he says "It’s not women’s problem to solve; it’s not as if it’s women’s job to start stroking yet another aspect of the male ego"?

I don't read him as saying "women are obligated to find sweaty guys attractive". I read him as saying that there is very little public discourse that says male bodies (outside a few special Brad Pitt cases) are even candidates as objects for female desire, and that's harmful -- to men, who can't conceptualize themselves as even potentially desirable, and for women, whose sexual expression is viciously constrained by these notions.

Esquiver said...

Well, not quite fair. You didn't quote that bit, and I'm skimming all this.
But even so: let's not blame public discourse. Public discourse probably also finds sweaty, farty, enraged men to be a tad grody.

I remain firmly opposed to the flight from agency. Society isn't always to blame. If a man wants to be desired, as Hugo expressed, then clearly it has already crossed his mind as a possible conceptualization. The rest is just execution, and you can sit around and lazily bemoan the public language of desire, or you can trim your damn eyebrows and exfoliate.

chingona said...

So I didn't read Hugo or figleaf until after I'd already started responding to comments here, but having read them both now, I don't read them the way Esquiver did.

I read them as saying that boys/young men absorb a lot of messages about their bodies being gross, and they don't receive any messages about their desirability that counters the messages about how disgusting their bodies are.

Where I think Hugo doesn't quite see the whole picture is that I think he underestimates the extent to which women also feel undesirable and/or feel that their bodies are gross, despite our near constant object status.

Because everybody sweats and farts or has hair in unlikely places or pimples or whatever. So girls and women are set on this Sisyphusian task of trying to cover up and hide the grossness of their bodies (think how many commercials for women's deodorant center on the idea that men - men who are just about to make a move on you - will turn away in disgust if they catch a whiff of your body odor), but of course you can never do so completely. Boys and men, on the other hand, get to just be, which certainly is easier and has its appeal, but what Hugo seems to be saying is they still absorb the message they aren't desirable.

I don't think the problem he's identifying is of the man who actually is a complete slob and bemoans that women don't find him attractive, but that people simply don't talk about men as attractive, even though most (straight) women find lots to desire about men.

I'm thinking of how perhaps I see my husband stepping out of the shower and I check him out and think how fine he looks, but I don't say anything. If there is time and opportunity, I'll probably act on that desire and just assume that my actions speak for themselves. But maybe he doesn't see that because it could be that I was just horny and he happened to be there.

I'll admit I've never really thought of things this way, but enough men seemed to be relating to what Hugo and figleaf are saying that I'll believe this is a real phenomenon.

And I know that I like it when my husband says something about how much he likes this or that body part, even though his actions also should speak for themselves. In fact, I know that I sometimes prompt him to say something because sometimes I need a little affirmation. But I'm not sure it's ever occurred to me to think that he might need the same ... because men aren't supposed to care about stuff like that.

So I think it's fair to bring discourse into it. But I'm also reading the whole thing in a really different way than you are.

matthew c said...

And David, I think you missed the entire point of my post, which is that, contra Hugo, men who have internalized few standards of physical attractiveness default to thinking they are physically desirable or that they are at least not total trolls (even if they are!) You make it sound like there's this tragic loss of male sexuality, but men still get to be the sexually active, shot-calling power-players in most cases. And part of the reason why is that, to them, sexual access to women isn't substantively linked to their appearance, whereas women are told constantly that they will not be fulfilled, romantically or sexually, if they don't measure up. Having men internalize the "standards" that say, Cosmo editors, can and do apply to men would not leave most men feeling empowered and desirable.

I think you're also being pretty misogynistic in the whole way your framing this. You said above that "people" don't talk about men as potentially attractive. Well, gay men certainly do. And so do a lot of straight women. And both groups can be incredibly discerning/judgmental in doing so. What you mean is "Straight men don't talk about men as potentially attractive, and they are in such a position of privilege that they don't have to internalize any criticisms that their perceived lack of attractiveness might generate." How sad!

David Schraub said...

Actually, Matt, my point is that people don't talk to straight men about it (that often), not that the conversation doesn't happen at all. The posts in this discussion are replete with women saying that they have this conversation all the time with other women -- it just never occurred to them to share with the men in their lives that they might find their body attractive.

I was also taking with Jill last night, and we drew a distinction between saying "it would be awesome for there to be a Cosmo standard for men" (which is idiotic) and there should be channels through which male bodies can be seen as desirable. The former is not the latter, because the former wouldn't be according value to individuals, it would be doling it out on basis of an unreachable ideal (much like we do to women now).

Finally, I agree with admonition that we shouldn't treat sexualized overconfidence as the same thing as a healthy view of self. From Hugo's follow-up: "And we make a huge if understandable mistake when we confuse external swagger with inner self-confidence. When we assume that because a boy or a man doesn’t express anxiety about his appearance that he must be secure in his looks, we miss the mark more often than not."

Jill Rodde said...

I think you need to describe what you mean by "there should be channels through which male bodies can be seen as desirable." Following Matt, male sexual desirability is something of a default position, which is why we can watch movies in which Seth Rogen gets with Katherine Heigel, or TV shows in which David Schwimmer hooks up with Jennifer Anniston. We take it for granted that men are sexually desirable. Maybe the problem that you're describing as an anxiety about this cultural assumption that doesn't provide a space to value a particular body. Perhaps the reason that women do not typically compliment their male partners' bodies is that we have internalized this norm too: obviously he is sexually desirable, saying so would be like saying "You have eyes."

On another note: I agree with you about the importance of feeling both objectively and subjectively valuable to developing full personhood, but I'm curious as to whether having a particular kind of objective value is a necessity. That is, is being sexually objectified necessary for full or satisfying personhood?

chingona said...

A few thoughts:

The cultural narrative certainly favors men, but I'm not sure it's fair to say to an individual man, in essence, "What are you complaining about? The cultural narrative favors you." Because most people's lived experience doesn't match the cultural narrative. (That is, there aren't nearly as many Seth Rogen-Katherine Heigl match-ups in real life as on the screen.) I think this can just as easily get turned around on women - lots of MRA types will insist that women hold all the cards because men are helpless before their sexual allure - which sure as hell isn't how most women feel, even conventionally attractive women. So, I do think we need to give men some room to have these types of feelings and talk about them without sneering about don't they know how good they have it.

That said ...


I wonder if "objectification" is really the word you ought to be using here. Objectification, as I've always understood it, doesn't refer to someone's object status in the subject-verb-object sense or in the object of desire or even simply object of male gaze sense. Objectification means turning a human being into a thing or viewing a human being as a thing. If you're being misunderstood, I think it might be in part because of the way you are using "object." Being the object of desire, especially the object of your lover's desire, is very nice. Being objectified is never nice, and I would recoil at someone suggesting that it is necessary to be complete. I don't think that's what you're trying to say, but I think some of the language you're using might be confusing the issue.

I think it's also important to keep in mind that the vocabulary of desire that exists around women's bodies serves to break apart women's bodies into a bunch of components. When lovers have complimented a body part that is not my ass or my breasts, I have found myself just as baffled as you describe yourself as being ("Jill has a favorite body part of mine (no, not that one), and while I like that she likes it, it still is something I find a little puzzling"). I have stood in front of the mirror, examining my neck and thinking "It's just a neck. What's he talking about?" So while you might feel there isn't a vocabulary of desire for men's bodies, you should keep in mind that the vocabulary of desire for women's bodies is extremely confining and gets used in pretty damaging ways.

PG said...


I'm not sure that the language for desire of women's bodies is really that confined -- maybe in the shallowest pop culture, but most poetry about women's bodies is not just about her lovely lady lumps.

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I'd have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek.)

How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin:
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing did we make.)

Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;
Her several parts could keep a pure repose,
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved.)

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I'm martyr to a motion not my own;
What's freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways.)

chingona said...


I think you're right (and poetry like that more closely matches the real experience of desire than, say, Maxim does), but I'm not sure that always (or even often) translates into women feeling they are desirable for traits beyond the those that are easy to separate as components. And here I don't just mean breasts, but I think a lot of women have a sense of a "good feature" they have - it might be their hair or their smile or their breasts or their legs - but it's probably not their neck or their knees or the shape of their ear or the freckle placed just so between their shoulder blades or any of those very particular traits that might capture the imagination of a partner.

Sadly, we get a lot more exposure to the shallowest pop culture than we do to poetry. I think there's a reason people are responding here with things like Cosmo and Axe commercials. That's what most springs to mind.

To be clear, I'm not really arguing against the point I think David's trying to make as pointing out a reason people might be reacting the way they are to his argument.

Anyway ...

Juxtaposed in each moments sight
Everything that I ever saw
And my one delight
Nothing can strike me in such awe
Mouth intricate shapes the voice that speaks
Always it will soothe
Rarer none are the precious cheeks
Is the size of each sculpted tooth
Each lip and each eye

Wise is the tongue, wet of perfect thought
And softest neck where always do i
Lay my clumsy thoughts
She is that most lovely art
Happy are my mind and my soul and my heart

David Schraub said...

I think that the two uses of "object" are intricately related -- objects are things we can use to our own ends; they are important because of their use to us. An object is not an actor but the acted-upon.

I think the better way to phrase it is to follow Green's term and say I'm anti-subjectification. Objectification means seeing someone only as an object (only valuable in terms of their usefulness to you), with no subjective (inherent) human value. Subjectification means seeing someone only as a subject (only valuable because they are inherently valuable), with no objective (instrumental) value.

PG said...

I think there's a reason people are responding here with things like Cosmo and Axe commercials. That's what most springs to mind.But I think it most springs to mind in part because we don't have a lot of hetero female-gaze poetry. High school students and English majors are force fed quite a lot hetero male-gaze poetry (and other writing and even literal views of women by hetero male artists), so you can hardly be an educated person without having heard (though you might forget) of Shakespeare's dark lady or Petrarch's Laura. But even our high culture provides little access to women's gaze on men's bodies; for most of Western history because it was too terribly immodest to do so, but even now because women aren't encouraged to think publicly in those terms. (And so far as the visual arts go, the meaningful representation of female artists in our culture sort of coincided with modernism and post-modernism, such that we seem to have missed the opportunity for women to show what they think gods looked like when they walked as men.

chingona said...

Cosmo was getting used in this thread as an example of the treatment given women's bodies. Axe got used as an example of female gaze, but three people (including you and me) disputed that.

Frankly, I remain unconvinced that the stuff we read in high school English class is a major influence in the popular discourse on bodies.

PG said...


I think it might influence our understanding of what counts as "worth talking about, acceptable for public discourse." There's the cliche of pursuing a girl with love poetry because Chicks Dig That.

chingona said...

It's too bad so many men don't care for female musicians.