Yashar Ali is the founder of The Current Conscience, which examines “politics and the personal, culture and relationship” from a progressive, feminist viewpoint. His writing has also been featured in the Wall Street Journal, TIME Magazine, the New York Observer, the Huffington Post, Jezebel, the New York Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle. His insights on gender and sexuality offer a powerful, honest perspective on how male privilege and false generalizations continue to simmer in the mainstream, tainting the personal and the professional.
Particularly after reading his post The Key to Success: Be a Man, I was curious to mine his thoughts on how beauty and body image standards apply to men today and whether modern “masculinity” has truly reached a crisis point in Western culture.
Bitch: What do you think about this notion of exploring beauty and body image standards for men? Is it a worthwhile conversation?
Ali: I think any opportunity to explore body and beauty standards is a worthwhile conversation. These standards, with respect to the mainstream, are either ignored or not discussed. And we often assume these standards are “just the way things are.” While I think there’s a slight shift with respect to beauty standards for men, in which the bar is creeping upward, I genuinely think that body image standards for men are virtually non-existent.
Thinking and talking about both beauty and body image standards for men also serves as a useful comparison to the huge weight of beauty and body standards that we saddle women with. When we talk about the relative absence of beauty and body image standards for men, we can take the opportunity to notice and highlight the shocking inequity between the standards for men and women.
The media has been reporting a lot about men in “crisis,” and it has even slipped into fall sitcom plot lines. Do you agree that American manhood is somehow endangered, or could this possibly be a maturing point for contemporary gender relations?
The reaction that media and men generally (and frankly some women as well) have to feminism or a discussion about the struggles of women is incredibly defensive. It often ends up resulting in this idea that the positions and roles of men are being greatly diminished, and as a result, men are no longer masculine. It’s absurd.
I think the masculinity crisis is not about men being emasculated, as much as men saying and seeing their power as being diminished. If women get more college degrees, work more, speak up for themselves, basically if they have a chance at any form of equality, it’s an attack on men and their masculinity? That’s ridiculous.
How do you think male privilege informs the beauty/body standards for men? Does it lessen the pressure of those messages, compared to what women might experience? Or does it merely silence men from expressing resulting anxiety or concern?
I don’t think there’s a secret underworld where men have anxiety or concern about beauty/body standards, because, frankly, those standards don’t exist in any real way. On a personal level, having recently ended a seven-year career in politics, I am reminded of my own beauty/body standards. My face has rarely seen the business end of a razor in years and if a woman applied the grooming and beauty standards to her life, she would not have been as successful as I was. It’s just a fact. It’s a perfect example of how male privilege informs beauty stands.
As a non-white, non-straight male, how did you identify with/relate to/reject the Western heteronormative “masculine ideal” growing up?
Ali: I didn’t really come to terms or understand my sexuality (despite the fact I was born this way), until I was in my early 20’s. So, it’s hard to understand how that impacted my growing up. In terms of my ethnicity (Iranian), being different from my mostly white classmates when I was growing up gave me an independence that I am glad to have. I didn’t feel the need to conform in any way. I feel comfortable being who I am because when I walked into the classroom, I was already different in a way I couldn’t hide.
What can today’s men learn from feminism and apply to their own gendered identities?
I’m going to separate feminism, the idea that men and women are equal, from the feminist movement. What I think men can learn from the feminist movement is consciousness. Like any kind activism, the feminist movement is about bringing issues to the surface—shining a bright light on inequities. When men gain a consciousness about what women really face in our culture, when we men acknowledge that we have incredible privilege that we benefit from on a daily basis (in ways big and small), we can begin to shift this inequity. But until we have consciousness, we can’t learn much.
More recommended reads from Yashar Ali at The Current Conscience: