A surprising import to American English in recent years has been the French expression se sentir bien dans sa peau. It gets used in exactly its original sense, and by such decided non-Francophones as Nancy Reagan and Laura Bush. Each has described her husband as “comfortable in his own skin.” Here are three books–two medical/historical ones about men and one piece of performance art about women–devoted to people who are really, really uncomfortable in their own skins.
Both Looking Good, by the California-Dominguez Hills historian Lynne Luciano, and TheAdonis Complex, by med school profs Pope, Phillips, and Olivardia, diagnose a crisis in the way men feel about their bodies, appearance, and sexual performance. The evidence for the seriousness of such a crisis is strong: One magazine found 43 percent of men dissatisfied with their appearance versus 15 percent in 1972. Many go in for dangerous new operations: silicone pectoral and calf implants, hair implants, penile augmentations. Three million men take anabolic steroids as a bodybuilding aid. The evidence for the extent of the crisis is much weaker: Men spend $400 million a year on hairpieces, $500 million on cosmetic surgery, and $3.5 billion on toiletries. Although the Adonis authors call this last number “shocking,” it amounts to only $23 per male per year.
Luciano’s focus is on social history. Postwar America was a new kind of society, the first in human history in which a majority of people weren’t going to get their exercise naturally. A man’s most important physical needs, said one doctor, were “muscles sufficient for a firm handshake and ‘a head hard enough to withstand noontime martinis.’ ” Luciano traces male body image from the 1950s, when the white-collarization of America put a premium on “personal appearance,” through the youth cult of the 1960s and the societywide sexual liberation of the 1970s into the supercharged consumption of the 1980s and 1990s. She takes the occasion to discuss some of the ways men pay to have their bodies mutilated; they’re worth discussing on another day.
For Luciano, the problem is largely one of commodification of the body. “As long as men controlled economic resources,” she writes, “their looks were of secondary importance.” Once they lose that control, men are as liable to be cast as sex objects as women have been through the ages. What’s excellent about the book is that it avoids sensationalism by creating a continuum of male vanity that has a normal end. Men have always worried about hair loss, for instance. If minoxidil (Rogaine) had been available in 1930, a lot of men would have taken it.
But there’s a kind of historical sleight of hand going on here. Luciano tends to focus on the normal male psychopathology of everyday life in her early chapters and on exceptional mental illnesses in her later ones. Her idea of 1950s maleness comes from The Organization Man and The Lonely Crowd; her idea of 1990s maleness comes from plastic surgery journals. Luciano also puts too much emphasis on class, which is surely part of this story but not all of it. Classes don’t binge and purge or take steroids or decide their penises are too small–people do.
Moving this discussion onto more psychological terrain is about the only service The Adonis Complex performs. If women don’t like the huge muscles bodybuilders create, the authors ask, why do men pursue them? They speculate that men are evolutionarily programmed to prove their “maleness.” As women enter all of men’s traditional sanctuaries–from VMI to locker rooms to the cockpits of jet fighters to assembly lines–that becomes harder and harder to do. The Adonis authors are sociological-psychological, where Luciano is cultural-historical. Under both approaches, there’s a shoe that doesn’t drop. Both claim an explicit, even overdetermined, link between male illness and female progress–but then lack the guts to draw the necessarily radical conclusion that either a) half the nation will suffer grievously until we put the male of the species back in the driver’s seat, or b) we need a radical new idea of maleness for the feminist era.
Adonis has other problems. It deals purely with the pathological aspects of male body obsession, even inventing a syndrome (“body dysmorphic disorder”) that it seeks to popularize through bullet lists, questionnaires, and charts that ask the reader, in effect, Are You at Risk for BDD? BDD rests on a cliché (“Men, according to our society, do not–and should not–worry about their appearance or the shape of their bodies.”) that seems quite out of date. The authors provide an explanation–first, anabolic steroids; second, the increasing parity of women–that is way too simple to cover a wide variety of problems. Their preferred solution–the antidepressant Luvox combined with cognitive behavioral therapy–is way too simple, too. For all its insights, Adonis is not so much a real book as a self-diagnostic addiction-and-recovery manual designed to lend legitimacy to the authors’ obsession and (one fears) drum up business for their practice. (All the while contributing to the phenomenon that it claims only to be diagnosing.)
Considering all the brouhaha surrounding TheVagina Monologues–Eve Ensler’s one-woman show, which has become a cult artwork and a rallying point for feminist activists and fund-raisers–the volume that reproduces them is bewilderingly slim. “You mean this,” the incredulous noninitiate will ask, “is it?”
This is an insultingly slim book. It consists of a handful of monologues by women who once felt uncomfortable with, but now rejoice in, their vaginas. There’s an inhibited old woman, an abused Southern black woman who becomes a lesbian, a lesbian dominatrix, a masturbation enthusiast, and a woman who wants to “reclaim”–from whom is left unclear–the word “cunt.” The book is padded with a few tiresome questionnaires devoted to what your vagina would wear if you dressed it up, what it would say if it could talk, and (this of a 6-year-old girl) what your vagina smells like, as well as a half-dozen “Vagina Facts” (like that the clitoris has twice as many nerve endings as the penis).
The first thing that will strike nonideologues is Ensler’s clumsy prose, which ranges between bad Rod McKuen (“It was a mouth. It was the morning.”) and the very worst of Henry Miller (“Then the quivering became a quake, an eruption, the layers dividing and subdividing”). While Ensler would call this a work of desacralizing, it’s ultimately a work of desexualizing. I take a backseat to no one in my enthusiasm for the vagina itself, but the Vagina According to Ensler is a combination between a bath toy and a household appliance. Its vision of female sexuality is at least as narrow and insulting as Henry Miller: A woman is a machine you work like a crank until you produce the desired quantity of fluid–from you and from her.
The masturbation-workshop monologue is the key episode in the whole play because masturbation is the sexual ideal the play proclaims: “Maybe it was knowing that I had to give up the fantasy, the enormous life-consuming fantasy, that someone or something was going to do this for me–the fantasy that someone was coming to lead my life, to choose direction, to give me orgasms.” Consider her male homologue whacking off in a glass booth in Times Square. Only an ideologue blinded by hatred could feel anything but pity for this woman.
The play is parasitic on two types of discourse Ensler probably thinks she loathes: not just pornography (in its mechanistic and exploitative view of sexuality) but also religion (in its unanswerable dogmatism). It would be nice if one could remain neutral about the separatist-feminist politics of this piece, but, really, one can’t. The allegiance of political extremists is the only thing that could possibly explain the popularity of this play, for there’s nothing in the realm of quality that could. (To borrow from the old ILGWU joke: “What’s the difference between the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the women who attend TheVagina Monologues?” “Two generations.”) Think of this as an urban version of The Turner Diaries.
To make this look more like a book that somebody has actually worked on, it’s preceded by a doctrinaire rant by Gloria Steinem that praises the play for “saying the unsayable.” (As if there’s anything sexual–let alone feminist–that is unsayable.) And it’s followed by observations, testimonials, letters, and propaganda concerning V-Day, the hundreds of annual Valentine’s Day performances of TheVagina Chronicles devoted to stopping violence against women. There’s no worthier cause, of course, and no reason to doubt that Ensler, who has spoken in interviews of having been an incest victim when younger, is sincere in her devotion to it. (She takes no money from any of the V-Day receipts.) But the play itself has little to do with violence against women (unless such violence is responsible for across-the-board man-hating in it). And one can’t withhold criticism of this very bad play just because it’s attached itself to a charity any more than one should think it off-limits to criticize the music in the Concert for Bangladesh.
I’ll keep an open mind that there’s something in the performance that goes beyond what appears on the page. But if what appears on the page is indicative at all, then (as Oscar Wilde said) one would have to have a heart of stone not to burst out laughing at it.