Monday, June 28, 2010

thin is in: in search of the perfect male body (from the guardian)

With Men's Fashion Week running wild (I'll get a few more posts up, I promise...Paris, you did not disappoint), talk has turned to what styles or themes we'll be seeing in men's fashion come Spring 2011. But Polly Vernon, deputy editor at the Observer, instead directs her attention at what she thinks is a shocking, perhaps worrisome trend: increasingly waifish, rail-thin male models.

(l: dior homme spring 2007 | r: rick owens spring 2011)

This article is problematic for a number of reasons, from the petty to the more troubling: firstly, many of her cultural "icons" she accuses of promoting a new skinny male ideal are stuck in 2006. Is Johnny Borrell relevant anymore? Does he really have the power to shift the body image zeitgeist in 2010? But seriously, her discussion takes a very heterocentric turn in her informal polling of women's male body preferences, glossing over what is an equally important question of the gay male gaze--especially noticeable since, of the 9 men quoted at the end of the article, 4 are gay. She also doesn't hide her schadenfreude at the apparent rise of destructive body obsession; after mentioning that the percentage of eating disorder sufferers who are male increased from 10 to 20-5%, while female figures (pardon the pun) have remained relatively constant, she says:
What do women think of all this? I'll be honest: we have to work hard not to cackle, and scream: "Welcome to our nightmare, suckers!" We've been subject to these kinds of pressures for centuries, expected to grow and shrink and entirely redefine our body shape depending on prevailing diktats on what is and isn't hot. You, men, have not helped us with your endless, casual objectification, your porno-lite lads' magazines and your inability not to deliver a relentless commentary on every aspect of our physical being. We've struggled between polar physical ideals for decades: between the intimidatingly severe and extremely thin architecture of the catwalk model, and the super-tanned, curvaceous obvious pulchritude of the glamour girl. Relatively, you lot are amateurs at all this.

At another point, she also refers to "manorexia," a problematic and cringe-inducing portmanteau that implies eating disorders are for women alone, that men with EDs are merely a catchy, tabloid-ready craze. She's not-so-successfully fighting off the urge to point her finger at men and go "neener neener" throughout the whole piece, applying her perverse delight to the nebulous "we" of all women. Well, as a young woman who herself has recovered from anorexia, I say no. It sucks for anyone, regardless of gender or orientation. End of story.

While it is true that fatphobia does affect men, she seems to be conflating it with the "mainstreaming" of the bone-thin, slender look always prevalent in music and fashion. She points the finger at Hedi Slimane, receiver of pointed fingers since his first collection at Dior Homme in 2001 to his step down in 2007. He's the designer most closely associated with the so-called "skinny-man movement," not least because of his idolization of youth, pin-thin tailoring, and friendship with Pete Doherty. HOWEVER, I find it important to mention that a lot of Slimane's inspiration comes from the indie rock world, from his associations with Pete Doherty to his album covers for Phoenix to his projects with These New Puritans. Hell, he even put Bryan Ferry's son Isaac on the catwalk once.

Thing is, the "gobsmackingly lean silhouette" has been the norm in the rock world for decades; you run through a list of iconic frontmen from 1970 on (okay, we're actually going to run through my own charts) and you get David Bowie, Iggy Pop, pretty much every punk ever, Peter Murphy, Jarvis Cocker as mentioned in the article, Brett Anderson--all sex symbols (in part) because of their ectomorphic silhouettes. Thin White Duke, impeccable cheekbones, stick insect, snake their medium, it's considered sexy, even when it's the ravages of drug abuse, to be lanky and thin. Yes, ever since Slimane's Dior Homme, male models have been bone-thin (it seems like they're stuck on the "alien" trend the female modeling world went through a few years back). But is this really symptomatic--or, even more extremely, a direct CAUSE--of increased male self-disgust? Probably not. Most of the quotes at the end of the article express more personal dissatisfaction than an envy of emaciated alien boys ("I was fed up with having man boobs. I could see silverback gorillas looking at me with envy," so sayeth Stephen Fry). The worlds of high fashion and rock music appeal to only a small percentage of modern men; while women are dictated how they SHOULD look across all media equally--fashion, music, Hollywood--only certain media marketed to men include similar instruction. There's a trickle-down effect from high- to low-fashion for women; I highly doubt you'll see any of Jil Sander's neons or florals in the men's equivalent of Forever 21. It's all just a different kind of body scrutiny in my eyes; just as the Victoria's Secret big boobs/tiny-everything-else combination is just as or more impossible to achieve than being rail thin, so is the gigantic, muscular shape. It ain't good where anyone's concerned, but it still seems strange to me to talk about it now when there's always been an unachievable ideal. It's just that THIS decade's fashionable ideal isn't considered acceptably "masculine," so now everyone's uncomfortable.

(jean paul gaultier | alexis mabille | rick owens)

I think, when we confine ourselves to the fashion industry, it's more symptomatic of increased androgyny in menswear, emphasis on more "unisex" clothing. Perhaps it's purely a zeitgeist thing; post-Slimane, the idea of über-sexual, predominately masculine menswear has faded away, and not just as far as model casting is concerned. You get the obvious example of Rick Owens, who uses a lot of drapery and skirting, and has definitely ushered in the trend of the "man-heel," but even the old guard has been doing it more subtly (for instance, fabric choices more typically used in womenswear. A YSL collection a few seasons ago used silk gazar, organza, crêpe de chine, etc. in garments which seemed entirely, traditionally masculine in construction until you touched them). You've got La Roux performing in a Monsieur suit at Viktor and Rolf (I dislike her, but that's besides the point), models looking like they rolled around in daisy fields at Alexis Mabille. Jean Paul Gaultier, who's always played around with varied casting, had some models who were ridiculously muscular, some you couldn't tell were boys on first glance. As far as fashion is concerned, it seems less about ushering in a new male body ideal than some designers, both emerging and established, blurring and subverting gender in clothing. From 19th-century dandyism to the 2010 waifs, it seems to be a reaction to mainstream masculinity as a whole, not just body image.


  1. fuck you polly vernon SOME OF US ARE ENJOYING THIS

  2. intelligent article. bravo. : )