The morning after the Academy Awards ceremony, my Twitter feed was buzzing with two burning questions: “What did John Travolta call Idina Menzel?” followed by, “What did he do to his face?” I wondered if there were a connection between the two, if perhaps his wig had been screwed on too tight, or the muscles of his lips freshly numbed by Botox, so that speaking became impossible.
Travolta has obviously had work done. That’s not surprising in this day and age, and in a culture that values superlative, often unrealistic, displays of youth, athletic prowess, style, and wealth. Still, as a culture, we tend to associate preening and vanity with women, or at least when guys talk with one another it seems as if women are the only ones concerned with appearances. You even see this in parent writing, where moms harp on labels — “slacker mom,” “bad mom” — which dads don’t seem to be overly concerned about.
Growing up, I heard that male animals and birds put on displays to attract a mate, but for humans it was the other way around — women work to attract us. This was an element of male power and confidence; we didn’t have to worry about aging, as there’s no shame in an older man dating a woman 20 years his junior, if anything, that’s something to high-five over! Even today, look at how many middle to later age men still do action movies — from Bruce Willis (58), Liam Neeson (61), and Kevin Costner (59), to the recent pair-up of Sylvester Stallone (67) and Robert De Niro (70) — while women action stars of any age come few and far between. Men still like seeing their grandfathers duking it out like hot-headed teenagers. Really, I think this represents an undercurrent of anxiety in how men feel about aging. We don’t want to get old and so find assurance in seeing older men who are more WWE than AARP.
Gender roles are in a period of flux, and in some ways we’re seeing men’s and women’s styles and attitudes merging with the assistance of social media, which makes everyone, no matter their age or gender, self-conscious to some degree. It seems most everyone wants to have a tight, toned body and show it off in skinny jeans and tank tops. (I only wear tank tops in an ironic kind of way because I don’t have the biceps for them, which itself is vanity.) And both men and women go in for plastic surgery, and I’m not talking only about Hollywood actors.
According to a report on Business Insider, the American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery says that between 1997 and 2012 there has been a more than 106% rise in the number of cosmetic procedures for men. In the article, Manhattan-based plastic surgeon, Dr. Douglas Steinbrech, claims that most of men undergo surgery in order to help them succeed at work. “In a marketplace where looking fit, younger, and more masculine is imperative, the better you look, the better your chances of ascending the corporate ladder.”
He says he generally works on four types of men — “male model” types who want to look more like guys you see in fashion spreads, with a sharper jaw and a ripped six-pack; the “body builder” who wants to go bigger in the chest and have breast fat removed (a side-effect of taking steroids); the “CEO” who want wrinkles removed in what Steinbrech refers to as the “Forbes facelift;” and the “athletic dad.” Of the latter, he says:
“As a play on the ‘mommy makeovers’ we now we have ‘daddy do-overs’ … This is what the banker wants. He’s married with kids, probably put on 15 pounds. He’s in his 40s, and he’s thinking, ‘Man, I used to look so good in college.’”
These guys usually get stronger jaws, a little liposuction, and an eye-lift. Better living through technology, eh? These guys are going to look great on the playground!
As I wrote before, just because men don’t usually talk about it doesn’t mean that they’re immune from unreachable standards of beauty propagated by media and movies. While previously we saw slim, effeminate, and obviously psychologically unstable men like Michael Jackson changing their appearance via surgery, now it seems most actors, even the most “manly,” go in for some kind of work, whether it be extreme like Travolta’s, or more subtle like George Clooney’s eye lift. Who can blame them? No one looks good in high-def.
I worry about these things too, beating myself up for not making it out to run more often during this brutal winter, looking down at the gentle swell of my gut and feeling shame and embarrassment — I’ve got to get rid of this thing before swimsuit season! I’m trying as hard as anyone to forgive myself for aging, and for being a parent and so not having as much time or energy to exercise. It’s important, for not just my own psychological well-being, but for my son’s as well. It’s difficult to imagine him growing up in a time when every physical flaw, even a bad hair day, gets posted and dissected online, and where cosmetic surgery becomes a normal part of the aging process.
I want my son to feel comfortable in his own skin and to love himself for who he is. Will he care about how he looks? Of course. We all do, dads and moms, men and women, boys and girls alike. But that should be managed within healthy expectations. Getting a doctor to suction fat off your abs and injecting poison into your forehead to remove wrinkles strikes me as signs of extreme, unhealthy insecurity. And in extreme cases, it can make you look like an alien, or even impede your speech!