Naked truth: Decoding the enigma of the sudden emergence of the male to rso

Click to follow
The Independent Online
He stands there on bus shelters and advertising hoardings, with his finely-toned pecs and his naked washboard stomach. Yves St Laurent man as the epitome of masculine beauty.

In the Diet Coke break advert, women crowd round the window for their morning fix of watching the hunky specimen of working labourer on the building site below.

John Menzies newsagents report that Street Boys, its calendar of attractive boys, is outselling its popular girlie title, Girls, Girls, Girls, by two to one. Simon Smith, of the calendar manufacturer Scandecor, reports that its Power of Man calendar of men in jeans and beachwear outsells any of its girlie rivals.

The naked male torso is everywhere. In the past, men's magazines had pictures of beautiful women and women's magazines had pictures of beautiful women. No one had beautiful men. But when The Face and Arena imported an interest in style and clothes from gay culture into the Eighties mainstream, man as model finally began to make it into the limelight. Today, he is as likely to be decorating the hoardings as any of his female counterparts.

"I think there has been a dawning realisation that men's bodies can be sexy too," says Richard Myers, a creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency.

The Nineties male, of course, is a fitter class of manhood than his Sixties or Seventies predecessor. The gym can be seen clearly etched across his chest. Even better, the muscles are the result of his mountain cycling or soccer-playing (not quite so narcissistic as sweating away on the weights).

So the office slob now faces the tyranny of comparison with Mr YSL and Messieurs January to December. That's a lot to live up to. There is some evidence that men are feeling the pressure. Around one in 10 victims of anorexia and bulimia is male, according to the Eating Disorders Association. Just as women have faced images of stunning supermodels for generations, the new wave of glossy magazines for men is engendering a similar kind of paranoia. "There is evidence that the more you are surrounded by pictures like that the more unhappy you are with yourself," says Dr Jill Welbourne, a specialist in eating disorders.

But, boys, worry not! Please don't take it seriously. Young women just want a giggle. Simon Smith said he certainly thought most women bought their calendars for their daughters or other women for a laugh. "It's done very tongue in cheek."

Mary-Ann Stephenson, of the Fawcett Society, the women's equality campaigners, says more widespread images of semi-clad men are one consequence of women's greater financial independence. "As women without children have more money today, they can spend it on what they want," she says. More advertisements are aimed at women because they are buying for themselves and not just for the household. Girl power has won women better jobs, more cash and a cheering array of beefcake for titillation.

But the prevalence of sexy male imagery is also a result of a freer society. "Women have become more upfront about their sexuality," she says. "It used to be said that women didn't like looking at men's bodies because they're much more interested in their personalities. Perhaps women thought it was a bit shallow to say that women liked looking at nice men. There has been a change from that." In real life, women are not necessarily looking for men to be a provider. "In your fantasy world, perhaps you don't need a millionaire, you want a sexual object," she suggests.

Of course, not all these ads are aimed at women. Andy Medhurst, a media studies lecturer at Sussex University, points out it is much more acceptable these days even for straight men to express an interest in clothes and fashion and the body. The fascists of Italy and Germany in the 1930s made much of the cult of the beautiful young male body, notes Dr Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a cultural historian at Fordham University in the US. "It's about the man as conqueror and it's about discipline. If you have a finely-tuned body it's a sign that you're in control of yourself. Mussolini would strip off his shift at every opportunity to show his muscles."

Such images are very exclusionary to women, she says, to the point of misogyny. Their preponderance today may even be an attempt to reassert male power. "There's been a lot of disappointment among males at the dawn of feminism and women in the workplace and women becoming fit themselves. Right now there are also a lot of ads that show women as being strong sporty figures - that must be very threatening for men."

Curiously, many women would rather see men fully dressed; though men raised on the promising allure of the long leg and the plunging neckline may find this hard to believe. Fiona McIntosh, editor of Company magazine for twentysomething women, is currently sifting the candidates for its 50 most eligible bachelors awards. They are all being photographed with their clothes most definitely on. "Guys in underpants don't do anything for me," she says. "I'd much rather see a guy in what he would wear normally, to show his sense of style."

Oliver James, author of Britain on the Couch, says if women really were buying pictures of naked men in calendars and magazines, this would be an intriguing shift. All attempts at selling women porn have failed, and the female sex has never before been turned on by isolated bits of bodies as men are. Could this be sign of a significant change?

"Over the next 50 years, we're going to find out whether given unconstrained free choice, women start behaving like men. Will they start shagging for the sake of a shag rather than for a relationship?"

Probably not. I think we may be misreading the signs. Much has been made of The Full Monty, the story of six jobless steelworkers who turn strippers. Its success has exceeded even that of Four Weddings and a Funeral. But the true pleasure of The Full Monty has nothing to do with the final striptease. It is a classic male bonding movie, an overcoming-adversity-with-gritty- British-humour film. Its success has nothing to do with the attraction of men getting their kit off. I mean, they actually look rather silly at the end, don't they?