Buzz Bissinger’s long, strange chronicle of his shopping addiction, particularly to Gucci, which was published yesterday in GQ makes the case for many things, including higher taxes on anyone who can afford to blow $638,412.97 on luxury clothes, mostly from Gucci, over a period of three years, and gag orders to keep parents from hopelessly embarrassing their children. But in between Bissinger’s tossed-off mentions of the medication he’s taking to treat bipolar disorder, his meandering and inconclusive discussions of his evolving sexuality (some of which seems shockingly at the expense of his wife), and his cluelessness about the extent to which his Gucci personal shopper must be having a high old time taking him for a very expensive ride, there’s a kernel of an interesting idea, particularly appearing in a magazine that does a lot to set the standards for men’s fashion.
Some of the clothing is men’s. Some is women’s. I make no distinction. Men’s fashion is catching up, with high-end retailers such as Gucci and Burberry and Versace finally honoring us. But women’s fashion is still infinitely more interesting and has an unfair monopoly on feeling sexy, and if the clothing you wear makes you feel the way you want to feel, liberated and alive, then fucking wear it. The opposite, to repress yourself as I did for the first fifty-five years of my life, is the worst price of all to pay. The United States is a country that has raged against enlightenment since 1776; puritanism, the guiding lantern, has cast its withering judgment on anything outside the narrow societal mainstream. Think it’s easy to be different in America? Try something as benign as wearing stretch leather leggings or knee-high boots if you are a man.
Whether stretch leather leggings look good on Bissinger is one question. But the other, more relevant one, is how does men’s fashion relate to men’s bodies and men’s sense of their own sexual self-presentation? And how will men’s fashion and male body image issues change, particularly as men start to have an experience that’s been most squarely the provenance of women: being objectified?
There’s something fitting about the fact that Bissinger’s screed dropped the same day as these new Gillette spots which, in the interest of getting men to buy new shaving products, is encouraging men to start acting rather like women. Specifically, the company wants men to start worrying about how much of their body hair they can retain and still be sexually attractive to women like Kate Upton, who apparently doesn’t like back hair, New Girl’s Hannah Simone, who likes a smooth stomach, and a third lady who wants her gentleman friends to go completely bare:
This is a natural expansion of Gillette’s business, of course. Once you’ve got women removing as much hair as is humanely possible from their bodies, you’ve got to start targeting other people, and other body parts if you want to crete new markets.
These business interests have real consequences, of course. Hair removal is one thing — razor knicks and skin irritation aside, it’s not as if there are long-term health consequences to shaving your legs or chest, or a lot of Olympic swimmers would be in a fair bit of trouble. But what about steroids, or heavy lifting regimens among teenage boys who are still growing? Men’s sizing for things like suits is more nuanced than sizing for say, women’s dresses, but how will more off-the-rack sizing, and popular cuts of clothing, shift to accomodate new expectations of male body size?
Body image expectations and grooming requirements have long been more stringent for women than for men, but women and women’s fashion have responded with a great deal of innovation, and flair, and fun. Men seem to be at an earlier point in this cycle, when the standards are rising, but fashion norms haven’t yet broadened as dramatically as they are for women. Someone other than Buzz Bissinger will come up with something more insightful to say about what it means for men to get pulled more aggressively into an alternately enamored and antagonistic relationship with fashion and their bodies — and what it means for that relationship to expand to include men who aren’t worried about trying to fit into tight-fitting made-to-measure Italian suiting. But Bissinger is not wrong to argue that there’s powerful, unexplored territory out there when it comes to men, fashion, and the presentation of their sexuality. He’s just missing the fact that it’s not just his personal style, but powerful business interests, that are going to push that discussion forward — and in ways that he and other men might find as difficult and uncomfortable as women have for years.