The XX Factor

Are Beauty Standards Higher for Men Now?

Hollywood continues to love beautiful people of all genders

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images.

Andrew Sullivan runs responses from his readers to the idea that men must be hyper-muscular now in order to be considered attractive. Sullivan was skeptical of Richard Cohen’s column in the Washington Post arguing that it’s a great injustice to expect male movie start to fix up in order to be plausible lovers of size-zero women half their age. Most of Sullivan’s readers agreed, pointing out that the world continues to be more forgiving of physical imperfection in men. Nonetheless, believers in the idea that Hollywood—and society in general—is run by black-hearted women spoke up loudly, as they tend to do in these situations. Sullivan originally ran a letter from this silly woman: 

I’m a female in my late twenties, and maybe the “roid-age” look has affected me. Anything from a swimmer’s build to an Alistair Overeem turns me on. I told my boyfriend of four years at that time I was leaving if he couldn’t drop the gut. (He already had strike one against him since he is a decade older, but you can’t have everything you want. He succeeded and two years later we’re engaged.)

And this response from another reader: 

Can you IMAGINE if a male reader wrote in and said, “I told my girlfriend of four years that I was leaving if she didn’t improve her physical appearance in the following, specific bodily way.” Good lord. Your inbox would light up with outraged readers.

Which, it’s worth pointing out, is exactly what happened in this case, but let’s not let the evidence get in the way of pretending the gender that spent thousands of years with the right to own the other is suddenly an oppressed class because of a handful of decades of feminism. Truth told, men don’t often have to tell their girlfriends to lose the gut to be considered loveable, because everyone else in society is already on it: mothers, women’s magazines, TV shows, fashion designers, billboards, pop stars, random people on Facebook mocking Christina Aguilera, the wedding-industrial complex, and probably at least a couple of ex-boyfriends. Men understand that when so many people have your back, pressing your point is considered a tad vulgar. 

But, as a thought experiment, I did imagine what would happen to a man who bragged about telling his decade-older girlfriend (stop laughing!) to lose her gut. Potential consequences, besides being carped at by a few fed-up women online, include getting hired by Ask Men, if he’s an unapologetic ass about it. He could also explore a career telling women to dramatically change themselves to please men in one of your more popular ladies magazines.

Sullivan’s original post on this issue remains as sensible as it was in the first place. In it, he argued that in those areas where male beauty has always been a priority—i.e., any Hollywood product not catering specifically to the male fantasy of being with a woman way out of your league—the surge in musculature is almost surely the result of increased steroid use: 

But [Cohen] is over-estimating the amount of work and time needed in a gym to get a great bod if you eat right, rest well and use the right, responsible mix of steroids. …  But all those dudes from their twenties to their fifties with ripped, lean bods? You think that’s all diet and exercize and creatine? I worked out for years with mild but decent results and then got on HIV-related testosterone therapy and everything became so much easier, and I got a hell of a lot more buff with the same amount of effort.

It’s worth noting that the beauty standards put on female stars that Cohen’s and Sullivan’s readers accept without question cannot be purchased in pill form, but usually require a strict diet that most doctors would consider a symptom of an eating disorder. Even then, it’s unsustainable, because the expectation put on starlets to avoid the process known as “aging” is literally impossible to achieve. These new beauty standards for men grab our attention because they’re so novel, but in no way does that mean they have surpassed what’s expected of women, either on-screen or all too often in real life.