What follows is another excerpt from a lengthy academic paper I wrote for an Independent Study project of my own design, analyzing crying and nudity in American college men. I am a philosophy undergraduate at the University of Maryland, College Park. The excerpt below focuses particularly on nudity, and the section is titled:
Naked Beneath his Clothes
I have written about how American manhood manifests in the arenas of emotion
, but have left its most visible arena of expression for last: American college
men construct and display their façades
most routinely with their clothing.
In no other arena are American gender norms more rigidly enforced and fervidly expressed than in clothing. It is on the canvas of his costume that an American man paints, assembles, and proclaims his masculinity. In the wrong garb, he is ‘out of uniform’, and vulnerable to serious questions about his commitment to being a proper man. His every public activity, from grocery shopping to attending class, will require of an American college man the display of relatively conformist, masculine clothing if he wishes to be treated with the respect and honor granted to "men".
On a recent visit to a podiatrist’s office, I noticed a chart advertising the orthopedic shoes available from a certain manufacturer. On the left side were all of the shoe styles available for men, and on the right were those for women. The men’s shoe styles were practically indistinguishable from the women’s shoe styles: both genders’ styles came in a selection of four boring colors, and, after struggling to find any visual difference between the men’s shoes and the women’s shoes, I concluded that they were exactly the same. Looking closely, I saw that the each shoe style was actually named. Not named things like “Pro Sport 4000” or anything, but actually named things like Chuck, Joe, and Bruce for the men’s shoes, and Mary, Sally and Doris for the women’s shoes. Then I noticed that even the colors had different names depending on the gender market for that shoe. The men’s “khaki” was the women’s “tan”. The men’s “white” was the women’s “ivory”. It became apparent to me that the manufacturer’s aim was to accommodate its customers’ demand that clothing -- in this case, shoes -- be associated with gender, even though the shoes themselves displayed no inherent gender association.
In addition to establishing their masculinity per se, American men use clothing to convey their standing in the social hierarchy—i.e., their degree of masculinity. David R. Williams, Ph.D., makes this point in his consideration of neckties:
What, after all, is a tie? Why do men wear a piece of cloth around their necks? Is it to hide the buttons? What is the symbolic meaning of a tie? Ties are first of all masculine objects; men wear them. They are also symbols of authority, which is a form of power. World leaders, lawyers, businessmen, men who expect to be taken seriously, all wear them. So ties are long narrow objects that hang down in the middle of men’s bodies and are symbols of masculine power. They tend to be pointed too. Those squared, cutoff ties can be found in the backs of the racks, but they are clearly less popular. Maybe John Bobbitt wears one. And what about bow ties? Aren’t they usually associated with . . . nerdy wimpiness? (118)
Williams is suggesting not just that academicians
and scholars could view the necktie as a phallic symbol, but that most Americans do view it this way, though often unwittingly. The meaning of a necktie is not buried or esoteric
, as Williams demonstrates. If a man is unaware of the representation of his penis in his raiment
, it is only because he works subconsciously to deny it to himself.
Phallic suggestion surfaces elsewhere in American clothing too. Denim jeans usually have alternate-color stitching along the fly, depicting -- again, perhaps without conscious intentions -- the outline of a phallic shape directly in the groin. Even though I noticed this imagery long ago, I had dismissed it as a coincidental byproduct of the functional purpose of the fly. But I was forced to readopt my position that the fly-stitching does indeed symbolize a uniform, displayed phallus when I purchased a pair of Old Navy brand swimming trunks that had this same sort of alternate-color stitching in the groin, but no functional fly—just stitching. The purpose of fly-stitching can be, at least in the case of these swimming trunks, none other than to suggest the image of a penis.
A striking irony in the phenomenon of phallic imagery in clothing is that the whole purpose of clothing in the first place is presumed, (by almost everyone), to be the hiding or obscuring of the underlying body, particularly (and at a minimum) the ‘private parts’. The depiction of the penis in clothing that was supposed to hide the male body is a lot like a man’s shedding of a single tear to show he is not going to ‘cry’. In both instances, the message men send to the world around them seems to be, “Look at me—I’m denying myself, just like I’m supposed to.” And yet, the man underlying the façade -- his body, his emotion, his true self -- refuses complete suppression.
Masculine body-symbols other than phalluses are also exhibited in American college clothing. Shoulder pads were once the most common example of this, but such things as bicep-hugging t-shirts and gluteus-enhancing jeans have become quite a bit more common—even nearly required—among heterosexual men in recent years (Carmona). Together with other body-enhancing behaviors previously associated strongly with femininity, such as attending to one’s hairstyle, this trend is known as “metrosexuality” (Berger, et al., 3, and Carmona), a term which has gained almost-annoying popularity in the last year. By its most popular definition, a “metrosexual” is a male who attends to and recognizes his body's potential beauty. Usually the term is used for young, heterosexual men, (presumably because these behaviors are taken for granted in homosexuals).
The surge of metrosexuality in popular culture is paving the way for the objectification of young men in the same way that young women have historically been objectified. The increasingly-ubiquitous idealized male body image has led to a disturbing phenomenon of body-shame and body-awareness in the current generation of college men, so much that the phenomenon now has a name: ‘The Adonis Complex’ (Hoyt/Kogan, 199). The Adonis Complex is a body-image disorder, (or 'Body dysmorphic disorder'), rooted in modern social messages that pressure young American males to achieve physical perfection in order to establish their value as men (Cowling, 2). In its most serious form, the complex involves compulsive starvation, excessive exercise (with particular emphasis on muscle training), and the abuse of illegal steroids and supplements (Ibid).
Confronted with ever-constricting norms governing their physique, American college men are now encouraged as never (recently) before, to maintain certain bodily hallmarks of masculinity. Unfortunately for the man who aspires to cooperate with these new expectations of physical perfection, he is likely to be forced to concede that the idealized form is unachievable. In fact, much of what is demanded of a man wishing the Adonis physique -- a thick, fashionable coiffure; sparse body hair; a tall, slender figure; bulging but apparently-natural muscularity; a flat, rippling abdomen; and more (Berger, et al., 8-13) -- is determined by genetic composition, not effort (Hoyt/Kogan, 199). Clothing can serve the purpose of veiling natural genetic diversity, making it possible for men to convey the image of an idealized body that they do not truly possess.
Indeed, it is the cultural role of almost all clothing to change the appearance of the human body in such a way that it conforms to cultural expectations.
The valuation of the idealized American male form -- or, more importantly, the resultant fact that many college males are unsatisfied with their bodily features as measured against that ideal -- is an influential factor in college men’s anxiety about common nudity. The expectations of aesthetic conformity which have historically surrounded American male clothing -- and still do surround American male clothing -- have now breeched the male body itself. More than a few subjects I interviewed in my research reported feeling shame and concern about being “too skinny”, too fat, or otherwise abnormal, therefore preferring to constantly hide their bodies from view by using clothing, rather than submit themselves to potentially humiliating scrutiny.
Another factor cited by the male interviewees in explaining their hesitation to be nude in the presence of their peers was the notion that nudity is patently erotic. Members of the male focus group pointed out that the presence of a known homosexual male in the locker room would increase their discomfort at being nude significantly, because of concerns that their nudity would attract sexual attention. Even if satisfied that there were no homosexual men present, the focus group participants reported, they would still worry that the patently-sexual nature of nudity could create an homoerotic environment. The possibility that an homoerotic situation (of an inexplicable and indeterminate sort) might arise was described by subjects as unbearably awkward, even if no sexual behavior or feelings were to surface in those subjects themselves. Most subjects, though, conceded that the practical realities of college life, especially for those involved in athletics, made it necessary to set aside this discomfort with nudity, provided that certain boundaries are respected. Most of the subjects said that they had learned to become comfortable with brief locker-room nudity, as long as nobody directly or obviously observed any part of their body, and as long as such nudity was unavoidable. So, despite an obvious preference to never bare his body to his peers, most American college men are pushed by circumstances to take on the mindset that incidental nudity is “no big deal; whatever” (as one interviewee put it), and that nudity is not in fact always patently sexual.
Some subjects also confided that they were unsure whether their genitals would be considered of acceptable or normal size. Though I was encouraged by their self-disclosure and honesty, this anxiety was difficult for me to make sense of alongside the rules forbidding visual observation in the locker room, since, if followed, those boundary rules would obviate any concerns about genital shortcomings. Evidently, many young men anticipate a certain pervasive curiosity in their peers. It is a curiosity which, I speculate, they may themselves share.
The matter of common nudity presents an obvious mental tension for many college men. While there is, on the one hand, an undeniable American cultural message that the sight of certain body parts is necessarily erotic -- e.g., Janet Jackson's Superbowl wardrobe malfunction -- there is also, on the other hand, the simple commonsense fact that it need not be erotic. This tension sometimes presents earlier in life than college age, especially for particularly athletic boys involved in team sports, but since showering after gym class is rarely required anymore (Tom, 9), college is sometimes the first place it is dealt with.
The equation of nudity with eroticism is not uniquely American, but is nonetheless very unusual in other Western nations, particularly those in Europe (Leahy, W16). Americans friendly to the European open-mindedness about shared nudity aspire to divorce the concepts of nudity and sexuality in American public opinion. The primary benefits of naturism , according to naturists, are the elimination of body shame and the achievement of total comfort with one’s sexuality (Peckenpaugh, 11). One Christian organization I encountered in my research, RejectShame.com, seeks to “[Break] the Grip of Shame Among Christians by Promoting Body Respect.” Here is a synopsis of how common nudity is justifiable, and even laudable, from a Christian perspective, in site author Nate Dekan’s words:
Discomfort with simple nudity, or worse, believing it to be indecent or obscene, is an indication that something about our relationship with God is off. (Let me be clear, pornography is NOT simple nudity, it is corruption . . .) If our discomfort is not from the pride of wanting to be more it most likely comes from the satanic deception that the human body is bad. God said that His creation is very good, that to the pure all things are pure, and that as His children, we have the mind of Christ. To believe that nudity (itself) is indecent, obscene, causes lust, is to believe the deceiver, not God. It is to discern or "know" nudity differently than God intended (~¶16).
An American man wouldn’t need to be a Christian (or even any other sort of theist) to appreciate the spiritual value in rejecting body shame. Even setting aside the overtly-religious aspects of Dekan’s argument, there is a clear benefit in the self-affirmation that must attend a man’s rejection of the cloak. By casting off clothing, he is one step further to casting off the shame of who he is. Body shame is metaphoric self-hatred.
American masculinity demands self-hatred -- shame -- from its men.
Carmona, Chris. “The Metrosexual Phenomena: One Man's Struggle to Accept Fashion's Latest Avant-'Garb'. The Villanovan. 30 Jan 2004. 12 May 2004.
Berger, Allison, Ben Dockery, and Steven Holland. The Universal Definition of MAN. Undergraduate paper. George Washington University, 2004.
Cowling, Tania K., “The Adonis Complex: Is Your Son at Risk?”. Family TLC. 13 May 2004.
Dekan, Nate. “The Root of Shame”. RejectShame.com. 2002. Natura Family Naturist Resort, and the International Naturist Association. 6 May 2004.
Hoyt, Wendi D., and Lori R. Kogan. “Satisfaction with Body Image and Peer Relationships for Males and Females in a College Environment.” Sex Roles: A Journal of Research. (2001): 199+.
Leahy, Michael. “I See Naked People: Megastars Baring All, 'Girls Gone Wild,' Nudists Next Door. Where is America's Fascination with Nudity Taking Us?” The Washington Post. 2 Nov 2003, The Washington Post Magazine: W16. (Republished online). 13 May 2004.
Peckenpaugh, William D. “Familial and Societal Attitudes Toward Nudity, and the Effects on Children's Development”. Federation of Canadian Naturists Web Site. 1996. 6 Apr 2004.
Tom, Jessica. “Hitting the Showers: Inside Yale’s Locker Rooms.” Yale Daily News. 11 Dec 2002.
Williams, David R, Ph.D. Sin Boldly. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2000.