issue 160 - June 1986
Defending the wimp
Everybody respects a man in a suit and we all love a square-jawed
cowboy. But a wimp makes us feel uncomfortable. Here Bob West explains
why he likes looking sissy and thrives on the unease he creates.
In one of his recent broadcasts British DJ Steve Wright told his estimated nine million listeners that men who wear white suits are 'really flash ponces'. Why, I ask myself, is such an image so threatening to Mr Wright and where does that leave me? I'm 36 this year, white and middle class, balding on top but immensely hairy elsewhere. I'm slightly round-shouldered at 5' 8", blessed with a biggish bottom, muscular arms and thighs, and - at eleven and a half stone - carrying a little extra weight. But this is only half of me, the masculine side of my body. Add to this my curves: my pronounced waist, my chest with its fleshy suggestion of breasts and my nipples poking through a swirl of soft hair.
At boarding school the boys called me 'titsy' with a wounding venom that haunts me still. Thankfully nowadays, from head to toe, my 'femininity' is a reassurance, whether it be my delicate feet or my searching eyes with their long 'girlish' eyelashes. But if all men share this androgyny, as I suspect they do, even if only as a denied and so terrifying contradiction, there is little visual evidence of a desire amongst men to become an aesthetic sex in their own right. Indeed, to deny ourselves visual attractiveness seems to be one of the main defining features of so many forms of masculinity. Hunky, dull, off-the-wall slobbery seems to be the one dominant style, and the pressures for this self-denial stretch back as far as the school room.
As teenager in the 1960s, and chided by my friends for my breasts, I endeavoured to become the perfect boy's boy. Boarding-school uniform was rigid. It consisted of grey shirt, pullover, socks and shorts, with a black blazer. My life lacked colour. Furthermore, once freed from my mother's selfless domestic ministerings, my clothes invariably missed the fortnightly wash. By mid-term my shirts were creased, grubby and buttonless. Socks had stiffened, while my tie and blazer faded under countless daubs of egg yolk, kipper juice and pig muck from the school's educational farm. But my corduroy shorts were worse still, combining as they did the inky doodlings of weeks of boredom at the back of the classroom and the half intoxicating, half disgusting, mutant smell of hot boy's parts restlessly parked on ancient school chairs. For one positive moment this might have represented image as resistance, but this lad, who irked his parents so, was nothing more than another look-alike from the Just William stories. My self-image relied upon male camaraderie more than anything else.
Sadly I look around me and see that little has changed, except that the grubby boys grew into shabby men and the High Street stores grew wise to the fact that male youth culture could be shifted in the direction of brand-name loyalty.
Even the stylish and ludicrously expensive genre of designer boutique clothes gesture towards a new kind of 'traditionalism' for men. Our fashion is about being solid and safe looking. Otherwise what is the explanation for this rediscovery of the 1950s look - all angular haircuts, granite jaws and sad young rebels without a cause?
Yet we don't have to be this way if only we dared be otherwise. And dare we must. Although indulging androgyny can become a seductive pleasure in its own right, it also has disruptive personal political effects. For a sexuality which contains both masculine and feminine elements can contradict the taken-for-granted codes of conventional manliness that govern daily life. So how we behave in private becomes all-important, from the drudgery of washing, ironing and mending our clothes, to the care that we take in the bathroom. I linger in the shower for the sheer pleasure of it, douche myself in the bidet, dry my skin with a clean warm towel, tend my face with moisturising cream, put peppermint lotion on my feet, talcum powder my parts and apply my favourite Italian toilet water to wrists, neck and shoulders. Of course for many this is narcissism, but for me it's the accepting of the vulnerability of my body and enjoying my physical being.
This feels like a progressive version of appearance as resistance to the dominant ideas of masculinity. It's a process that I amplify in how l choose to dress. Currently I opt for clashing combinations of colours: shocking magenta pink top and baggy bottle-green trousers look good together with a glimpse of white sock. Alternatively my outfit can be a play on a black and yellow theme, with bumble-bee socks and a huge jaunty black beret from Chelsea Girl. Dressed like this I walk with a spring in my step, a roll of hips and a slightly camp air meant to convey an uncertainty about my sexuality. I like to feel that my presence in public unsettles as many of the conventional codes of masculine anti-attractiveness as I can cope with.
Another dominant image I challenge is of men in repressive collar and tie. Even their decorative cuff-links or tie pins are not so much a stylish flourish as an elaborate way of keeping everything in place. Jewellery for men is nearly always discreet, except when it comes to new technology. Digital watches are all the rage, and their high-tech design embodies the added appeal of sounding the audible presence of their owner in annoying, reminding blip blips every half an hour, day in, day out. This happens routinely, as if one man's up-tight time schedule took precedence over all time. Me, I prefer a long wooden necklace or a kitsch brooch with mock rubies and pearls.
We are who we are not just through our clothes but through how we behave and how we communicate. Take life in the pub. Here men stretch out, gestures get bigger, elbows extend across the bar as we hog as much public space as possible. Then we start gazing at women, that lecherous and horrid X-ray leer that I fight off in myself more or less successfully. Groups of men stand together leering in unison like so many hapless, predictable automatons. Then we start talking. Men never listen but deliver monologues one to another in voices that spiral upwards in intensity and loudness, and when in mixed groups women are expected to stand meekly by to nod and reinforce. Should they dare to speak, women must be prepared to have men butt in, or just be ignored. We seldom stand contemplatively, we rarely listen or are attentive. We don't know how to talk quietly, gently and thoughtfully but always compete. Some of us - particularly NI readers - might like to see ourselves as non-sexist paragons free from prejudice, but our clothes, body language, speech and lack of interest in our self-presentation towards becoming the attractive sex. That's too subordinating. We wouldn't want to be mistaken for women, would we?
Why are we so fearful of this self-examination, when each of us knows privately of the possibility of enjoying looking attractive too? Of course this question is fraught, primarily because as Ros Coward pointed out in Female Desire, '(the) sublimation of self-as-desirable is one of the conditions on which male dominance rests. By refusing to see the male body as desirable, men are deemed to be doing the desiring, judging and controlling.
Yet to break free raises the possibility of more men finding each other routinely attractive, as women tend to do with each other and perhaps enhancing homosexual desire. Unfortunately, the man who wants to be beautiful in public can risk ridicule or being beaten up. It is the joint fear of emasculation and rejection that keeps us hanging about the sartorial dustbin.
Bob West is currently completing a PhD on English ruralism.
If it's printed it seems true. But you might be having
Editor: Why have you chosen to write about the embarrassing details of your everyday life - your use of Italian toilet water and your intimate bathing habits - in contrast to the less personal, more objective styles used by most other authors?
West: If I embarrass you it's simply because what I have to say is too near the knuckle. Most men will recognize themselves somewhere in all of this. Those that can't handle seeing themselves like this will undoubtedly be embarrassed, or angry, or dismissive or find themselves laughing in anxiety.
I feel a deep mistrust for the impersonal and objective styles of most other authors. Do you mean most male authors? I agree with that, but what does objectivity involve? To me it's a male way of writing. And it's dishonest, because it presents its view of the world as the whole truth by denying another important part of what's going on: the author's emotional involvement in what they've written. Nothing is ever impartial - and I distrust writing that pretends otherwise.
Editor: You move from the personal 'I' to the word 'we' when discussing men's clothes shops. This technique groups all men together. But there's a lot of difference between a man who does his share of the housework and a man who has to be waited on hand and foot. Aren't you over-simplifying?
West: My underlying assumption is that a number of masculine types are on offer. But they are limited to what is thought 'normal' and 'manly'. So, on the one hand I speak from my personal experience, but on the other hand I know that I can generalize about growing up male: men do have a common experience. All men share the advantages of being the ruling sex, although white middle-class men are more powerful than black or working-class men, and heterosexuals are more accepted than homosexuals. Knowledge of men's superiority permeates every aspect of our daily lives - even when we are at pains to deny it.
Editor: You suggest that understanding yourself is the key to solving the world's problems. Isn't this overestimating the power of introspection?
West: The point of examining my memories and feelings is to get at the social conditioning which shaped my masculinity. By being open about myself I begin to get at the types of masculinity that society offers men, and how we feel about these mental straitjackets.
I want to ask myself and other men how our pleasure, unhappiness, power and the fear of vulnerability translate into our appearance and behaviour. How has becoming so-called 'real men' handicapped our friendship and love for both sexes? Answering these questions is solving the world's problems because the abuse of male power - as seen in rape, or the purchase of weapons by First and Third World governments - affects every moment of our lives.