Lying face down on the massage table as cosmetologist Suzanne rips another strip of wax from my back, I cannot help thinking that something bad is happening to men in our culture--and, at this particular moment, to me.
I have been assured by my Hollywood friends--starting with my wife's sister, who works for Paramount--that men who are serious about their appearance are getting their backs waxed these days. Their response when I ask the question is: "Duh, of course! Hair on your back is, like, you know--gross."
So I wander upstairs to the health spa of the hotel where I'm staying and ask whether they do waxing, and the answer is: Duh, of course! I tell Suzanne that I'm a journalist from the unfashionable East, and that I just want her to do a strip or two, so I can describe for readers what it feels like. But one strip leads to another, and in a few minutes, my back is transformed into a smooth, silky state I haven't felt since I was a teenager.
That's the whole point, of course. The search for a youthful look, once an exclusively female obsession, is now leading men to wax, pluck and surgically alter themselves--not to mention lift weights and diet--into what they hope will resemble a virile twentysomething package. (Suzanne does ears, too-- those unpleasant tufts that inexplicably begin to sprout in middle age--but that's another story.)
This culture of male narcissism is one of the themes of Susan Faludi's new book, "Stiffed." At more than 600 pages, it's a somewhat long-winded statement of the obvious: that the traditional definitions of what it means to be a man--many of them rooted in the lifestyle of the blue-collar working man (who typically didn't do a lot of body waxing)--haven't survived very well in the age of women's liberation, economic dislocation and sexual confusion.
Men have joined women, Faludi says, in a "display culture," where they've become the equivalent of "hood ornaments"--with the bulging pectoral muscles and ripped "abs" and hairless torsoes of marble statuary.
If you doubt that this transformation is taking place, take a look at the supermarket magazines that are pitched to young men in their twenties and thirties. At the Ralph's on Olympic Boulevard in Santa Monica, there's a whole section devoted to them--magazines like Men's Health, Men's Fitness, Men's Journal, Details and Maxim. The titles on some of the articles make you cringe--like those cover stories in Cosmopolitan that promise women 25 ways to drive their men absolutely crazy, which you suspect are read primarily by women who haven't had a date in months.
Details, for example, features a survey of 100 women who critique the raunchy HBO show "Sex and the City" and "tell you what really goes down in their beds." Nearby is an article bringing readers up to date on whatever happened to muscular airhead and O. J. roommate, Kato Kaelin. (Short answer: Nothing.)
"Last Longer in Bed," shouts the cover of Men's Heath, which also pitches a feature on "Ultimate Abs." (Those would be, in my book, the kind that require absolutely no exercise.) Inside are 150 pages of advice--ranging from which raisin bran cereal to eat to techniques for coping with impotence (titled "This Never Happened to Me Before," natch).
And Men's Journal this month is a virtual cornucopia of advice for the budding narcissist, including a terrifying piece in which a cardiac surgeon explains how dangerous it is to eat a steak. It makes eating red meat sound nearly as life-threatening as landing on Guadalcanal. ("If you must indulge," advises the doc, you should eat 10 miligrams of Vitamin E regularly, along with 81 miligrams of aspirin daily, and up to 400 micrograms of folic acid every day, plus eat a lot of tomatoes with your steak--and you begin to think: Just pass the damn raisin bran!)
Flipping through these magazines, you realize that it's tough being a young man nowadays--especially a single man who, judging from the guys featured in their pages, must be totally pumped and ripped and body-hairless and vegetarian to stand any chance of scoring with the chicks.
And yet, you cannot help suspecting that this isn't what modern women are looking for--this mirror-gazing, body-obsessed man of the 1990s who's always asking: "Honey, does this Armani jacket make my butt look too big?" As Faludi's book suggests, feminism helped create this modern hulk of insecurity--so in a sense the feminists have gotten what they deserve. But sensible women like Faludi are now trying to help men find a way out.
"Don't wax your chest!" advises my cosmetologist friend, Suzanne. "It hurts too much." She explains that a client recently broke down sobbing as she tore the hardened wax off his hirsute pecs. Apparently, he hadn't realized that getting in touch with his feminine side would be so painful.
Suzanne spreads a final layer of green wax on my shoulder blades, places a gauze strip on top, waits until it's hard and dry, and then--rrrip! It's over. She advises that I'll need to come back for another "treatment" in three weeks, or I'll revert to my previous state.
To which I answer: No way! It will be weeks before I can even look at a candle without cringing.