Beauty Papers

Will Self on Male Beauty

It really doesn’t matter how even-minded we try to be, there remains something deeply problematic – possibly even oxymoronic – about the idea of ‘male beauty’. Female beauty is, by contrast, quite uncontentious; true, socially accepted forms of female beauty may change over time, and be different in different places, but almost always, if you examine any given paradigm of female pulchritude, you’ll find it conforms to the neotenous, by which I mean: it exhibits the retention of infantile features into adulthood. Beautiful women are known for their small and delicate features, for their silky-downy hair and slim figures. True, somewhat against this childlike image, child-bearing hips and large mammary glands are also feminine desiderata, such that when you look objectively at women considered to be the most beautiful – top models and their screen-acting equivalents – you see weird anachronisms: young girls, equipped with far older reproductive organs.

Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the eye that largely beholds female beauty is the necessarily patriarchal (and let’s face it, all too often misogynistic) male one. So, what of the eye that beholds male beauty? Well, I’ll get to that – but first let’s consider that little word ‘small’ in the preceding paragraph. The great French anthropologist and philosopher, Claude Lévi-Strauss, contended that smallness is intrinsic to our idea of the beautiful, and that all artworks are, by definition, miniatures – his most compelling example being Michelangelo’s frescos, which, while they may cover the ceilings of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, are – given that what they depict is nothing less momentous that the creation of the universe itself – perforce miniatures.

So, the very term ‘beauty’ can be problematic when applied to men, who are more usually – if especially attractive – deemed handsome, like buildings. Like buildings because they’re big, and from the point of view of evolutionary success, a big man – like a big-breasted woman – appears, superficially at least, to be a good bet. It explains why our conventional notion of male beauty tends to coalesce around the image of a man so preposterously muscled he does indeed appear to have mammary glands. Of course, there are cultures in which male beauty has managed to transcend these biological imperatives. I remember visiting the sacred site of Delphi when I was a young (and not notably beautiful) man, and having something of a coup de foudre on viewing the celebrated statue known as the Charioteer. Celebrated, perhaps, because although depicted fully clothed, and in something which to the modern eye appears to be a dress, the posture, attitude and especially visage of the statue does convey a remarkable impression of pulchritude. Square-jawed, strong and yet sensual, the Charioteer stares alluringly at us down the millennia.

There is also a particular way ancient Greek sculptors had of modelling the male stomach and pubis – and in particular the sinuously thin line between them – that I find particularly aesthetically pleasing. Is it, I wonder, because man-boy love was such an accepted – even enjoined – aspect of Grecian interpersonal relations that I join in this trans-temporal male gaze? A few years ago Germaine Greer staged a breathtaking act of not just cultural but sexual appropriation by publishing a book called The Beautiful Boy, which featured pictures of sub-adult males throughout the ages. Greer argued specifically that gay men shouldn’t have these visual delights all to themselves, but while I don’t doubt plenty of heterosexual women find hairless chests, slim waists and faces that’ve never yet known the slice of a razor, beautiful, I somewhat doubt such beauty arouses many of them the way equivalently neotenous female appearances excite heterosexual men.

No – nature is a cruel business, and our very emotions are its stock-in-trade: a man with a ‘characterful’ face – think Daniel Craig, Steve McQueen or Humphrey Bogart – who is by no means conventionally handsome, can nonetheless be experienced as beautiful. Beautiful because his countenance tempers aggressivity with compassion, and impulsivity with wisdom. But when I find a man truly beautiful, it is, I realise, because his physical form has aroused me, and I would like to touch and perhaps even be kissed by him. Handsome is indeed as handsome does – and as I don’t sleep with men, I’m clearly not gay in the accepted sense; I am, however, perfectly comfortable with the idea of making love with a man, and I’m sure it’s this that allows me to experience some men as straightforwardly beautiful. Frankly, I’m not, so I haven’t deliberately cultivated my capacity to be sexually attracted to men purely in order to experience their beauty.

How horrible it must be for all those determined hetties – cut off by their own obduracy from experiencing the chisel-jawed, aquiline, flinty-blue-eyed, compellingly intelligent and kinetic delights of… Daniel Day-Lewis. Yes, in two-and-a-half-words that’s my idea of male beauty, and ever since I saw him for the first time in Stephen Frears’s My Beautiful Laundrette I’ve nurtured a not-particularly-silent passion for his looks. The great delight in finding a contemporary screen actor beautiful – as any hettie woman knows – is that you can appreciate the maturation of his appearance. The Daniel Day-Lewis of My Beautiful Laundrette may’ve been my Tadzio, but there was no need for him – or me – to die in Venice. Or at least, if we did we’ve been resurrected ever since in film after film. I don’t want to come over all preachy at this point, but I do think every red-blooded man should cultivate a taste for male beauty; not least because in so doing he’ll also embrace the idea that an ageing countenance can be a beautiful one. And if this facility is comprehensively applied to the female form it will, I’m sure, release millions of women from the dismissive tyranny of the male gaze.

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