The Intersection

We’re Sexually Confused.

i-0424b25689970afb82ebebdc4570fb74-07diary600.1.jpgOkay, so it’s Fashion Week in New York. But there’s something I just don’t get. Sure, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, yadda, yadda, yadda…and yes, everyone is beautiful in their own way, but uh, will someone please explain to me what’s going on with the male models?

“Where the masculine ideal of as recently as 2000 was a buff 6-footer with six-pack abs, the man of the moment is an urchin, a wraith or an underfed runt.”

I couldn’t make this stuff up folks, that’s straight from my own NYTimes!

Now we’re used to hearing everyone complain about the women on runways being too thin and in recent years, doctors (and parents) have been vocally up in arms over the ‘look‘ said to promote an unhealthy and dangerous body image to young women. In fact, for decades it’s been pointed out that our modern incarnation of the ‘idealized‘ female form in fashion–a tall runway model lacking curves–is de facto reflective of traditionally male attributes.

From an evolutionary perspective that doesn’t make much sense, but it’s not news that cultural norms involving beauty have a funny way of turning biology on its head.

So back to the fellas, I just don’t get it… Consider this quote at the end of the piece from 26-year-old Argentine model Demián Tkach:

“My agency asked me to lose some muscle. I lost a little bit to help them, because I understand the designers are not looking for a male image anymore. They’re looking for some kind of androgyne.”

Even the models are noticing adrogyne! Sigh… So help me out readers, what’s up? I’m completely perplexed. Is it really possible? Are we becoming a society that wants our most fashionable women to look like boys and our men to look like women?

What would Darwin say?


  1. #1 Scott Belyea
    February 8, 2008

    Let me get this straight – you’re trying to apply logic to the fashion industry??

  2. #2 Cara in NY
    February 8, 2008

    we are confused in tge fashion world aren’t we? loved this and emailing it around. thanks for beginning my day with a laugh sheril

  3. #3 Nancy Tuckett
    February 8, 2008

    “Are we becoming a society that wants our most fashionable women to look like boys and our men to look like women?”

    Not society, but fashion designers. You know, the people that, from time to time dress models up in plastic bags or Halloween costumes, while other people sit around the runway and pretend that these “fashions” are anything but laughable.

  4. #4 Linda
    February 8, 2008

    Another important reason in this ‘upside down’ world to use our own good judgement and be our individual selves, not following the ‘money hungry’ medias of any kind.
    That ‘LOOK’ is unhealthy and purely pathetic.

  5. #5 wenchacha
    February 8, 2008

    Go back to the 70s, look at some music videos. Young men were not body-builders. The clothes were lean and lanky, not bulky or baggy. Tall skinny hippie-cowboy types were the ideal.

    Now look at the last ten years or so. Couch-potatoes became the norm. Bodies just became larger. In the 70s, most of us teens laughed at Charles Atlas-type body-builder shapes. Body-building is big again. Some of the popular hip-hop stars are not fat, but muscular, perhaps with the help of steroids.

    Look at women, for even more body changes. It was common to see braless women in the 70s. Most of those women had normal-sized breasts. They didn’t have half-mounds of jello planted on top of their chests.

    Body shape does change over the decades. I don’t know if fashion is the driver, or if there is something else at work and fashion just capitalizes on it. I think it has at least something to do with personal wealth and using the body to display that wealth. In cultures where there is poverty and starvation, body fat is attractive. Where there is plenty, we notice the people who spend money or time or energy to modify the body.

    I’m not saying anything new, but I think it becomes more noticeable as I become older.

  6. #6 odograph
    February 8, 2008

    Well, first of all it’s just “fashion.” It has to change from year to year … or it would be “values” or something.

    But also … how to put this … there is the “committed bachelor” factor in fashion-market selection.

  7. #7 K
    February 8, 2008

    This post was forwarded to me and if I may interject without starting WWIII, as a professional in the fashion industry, clothing hangs better on skinny models.

    It’s as simple as that. The rest of the non-enlightened world can complain all they way about messaging, but take it from a designer – Skinny is in.

  8. #8 aweb
    February 8, 2008

    Since others seem to be dancing around the issue, I’ll come right out and say it: the fashion industry has a group of designers disproportionately (compared to general population) skewed to gay males. They quite naturally (consciously or unconsciously) would prefer to hire models that are closer to their ideal. And this is the tall thin non-curvy female…Females look, well, more female, when they put on weight (up to a point, since overweight people of both genders kind of blend together too).

    Also, designing and tailoring clothes that look good is a lot easier for this body type. Seaming and pinning and allowing for different breast/hip/whatever sizes; that’s a lot more work. If all the curves are provided by the fashion, and there is little to distract from the clothes (like say cleavage), the designers and clothes are the certre of attraction.

    And no, “society” isn’t trending towards these ideals. The fashion industry is. I’d be surprised if ideal body types (perhaps measured by silouette studies?) had changed much at all in the general population.

  9. #9 Andrew
    February 8, 2008

    As a 128-pound 5’9″ male, I can’t help but be excited by this new ‘ideal’ male form.

    Sorry, folks. Can’t help it.

  10. #10 Mark P
    February 8, 2008

    Wait a minute. Are you making an assessment of culture based on a NY Times story? That’s the first mistake. Look at the quote. Whose masculine idea are they talking about in 2000? The fashion world or the real world? And whose ideal are they talking about now? They are confusing two different worlds, comparing a real-world ideal from 2000 to the fashion model of today. Why not compare two things of the same type? I think you’ll find that the NYT article is FOS, as usual, and the masculine ideal of today is very much the same as it was way back in 2000.

  11. #11 Wyatt
    February 8, 2008

    I think that that is the direction this is heading, that guys are looking like girls and vice versa. I’ve notice a good portion of guys on my campus who are generally labeled by my generation as “emo” “scene” or other term of that nature wearing womens pants! I know girls who like this. Personally, I enjoy the lack of restriction provided by male fashion and I refuse to wear womens clothes. But to each there own.

  12. #12 Sheril R. Kirshenbaum
    February 8, 2008

    as a professional in the fashion industry, clothing hangs better on skinny models.

    Unless you mean ‘hang‘ in the literal sense, I generally disagree.

  13. #13 Kirby
    February 8, 2008

    I think the fashion industry, and elites in general, are often driven to differentiate themselves, to prove that they are different than the masses. Why else design and wear new, expensive clothing every season when last year’s will do just fine?

    In other words, they want you to be what you can’t be, because that is the only way they can convince you to buy what they are selling. Since the vast majority of us are not young, skinny and beautiful, having models that are actually may help to drive sales. Who would be interested in buying clothes modeled on an average looking person?

  14. #14 agnostic
    February 8, 2008

    You’re really baiting me into writing here!

    Gay males have zip to do with it — female designers prefer the same look.

    At 5’8 and 135 lbs, I’m lovin’ it.

    Fashion changes just to change, so we don’t need to rationalize it. Someone already mentioned that skinny lanky rocker dudes were the rage in the 70s. The wheel turns.

    Our culture is more heterogeneous than ever. In one part of the culture, this androgynous thing is popular. In another part of pop culture, the J-Lo booty is in. That even moved out of Black / Latino culture into White culture (finally). There was that rock band that resurrected Queen’s “Fat Bottom Girls,” right? And there’s even a country song called “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” — no lie.

    In general, it’s silly to look to fashion models to see what anyone considers sexually appealing. They’re not the opposite of appealing, but you’d do better to look at pornography, strip clubs, Maxim, and that sort of thing.

    No one imitates fashion models anyway, so what they do can’t rub off on impressionable minds. By the time the average person feels the influence of high fashion, it’s traveled a very indirect route, being distilled at each step by an interpreter.

  15. #15 Marla
    February 8, 2008

    agnostic said:

    “No one imitates fashion models anyway, so what they do can’t rub off on impressionable minds.”

    Be careful. This is not true. Young women look to these images and think they define how we should look and who we should be. We are not shown images of women who have other accomplishments in art, writing, math, or politics, as role models.

    America celebrates models. TV portrays Paris Hilton as an ideal. She’s an image crafted by money and power for runways. It’s not real but it’s celebrated.

    It is sad. Women and girls try and achieve airbrushed perfection and we are making our society very sick. We are paying attention to what doesn’t matter and glossing over the scientists and authors and artists who are changing the world.

  16. #16 Barbie
    February 8, 2008

    I hate that we’re a culture obsessed with weight and being skinny. That said, I’m a victim of the pressure. I’ve been very sick and trying to recover.

    I’m glad we’re discussing this. That’s a baby step forward.

  17. #17 John
    February 8, 2008

    The US is very obese country. I am a visitor from Europe. There is nothing wrong with the models pictured. It’s an American oversensitivity to be politically correct.

  18. #18 Interrobang
    February 8, 2008

    There is nothing wrong with the models pictured.

    The man, maybe. The woman? She looks like she just spent three months’ hard time at Birkenau. Women are, actually, biologically supposed to have more body fat than men (something like 25% instead of 15%, ideally). Not that North Americans in general don’t trend towards carrying more fat than that, but that isn’t the point. Lots of men can attain the man’s look without starving themselves, being undernourished, or using drugs. Most women — the vast majority of women — can’t look like that woman without starving themselves, being undernourished, or using drugs. (Five gets you ten that woman is from an Eastern Bloc country somewhere and never had a good meal until she was an adult, since that’s usually how it works these days.)

    To the point, though — are we sexually confused? Does androgyny or gynandry equal “sexual confusion”? Precisely what does “looking like a man” or “looking like a woman” actually mean? Further: Define “man” and “woman.” If you’re talking about biological sex, maybe you have a point, but if you’re looking at performative gender (which is generally what the fashion industry’s about), you’re scarily off-base. Gender ought to be bigger than a breadbox (which in this culture it isn’t), and people shouldn’t be castigated for being androgynous or gynandrous or anything. Crikey. Personally, I’d vote for rejecting the notion of binary gender entirely, since we’ve already basically done away with the notion of binary sex (most people now recognise male, female, and intersex).

  19. #19 XXX
    February 8, 2008

    When I was a child I though… wouldnt be great to look like them? now, I can’t admire them. They are taking away from the kids a healthy way to look like…I’m not a parent yet but , I’m worry about the image that those models are promoting to the kids, I’m not worry about u guys nor me, but the kids. And think about the meaning of the word “model” please. Thanks

  20. #20 Megan
    February 8, 2008

    Frankly, i like the androgynous look. On men and women. I see nothing wrong with promoting a range of genders, sexualities and looks in mainstream culture. I think the more androgyny we get, the less tied we are to the gender dichotomy ideal we are forced to digest since birth.

    I find questions like “Are we becoming a society that wants our most fashionable women to look like boys and our men to look like women?” to be very problematic.

    This tone is alarming. I think our men and boys should come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, etc. We shouldn’t reject the fashion industry because they are giving us a new type of male/female image.

    I find this blog’s gender prescription to be disturbing. Darwinian manly men and curvy women. That’s the status quo. While, I don’t agree with the societal pressure of unhealthy weight promotion to developing young women done through the fashion industry, I also don’t have a problem with an industry based around ARTISTIC EXPRESSION to express a diversity of genders.

    I think just as women feel pressure to be thin, men feel pressure to be muscular/manly/masculine. I for one am grateful men now have more choices for their personal beauty ideals. And, at least if women in the fashion industry are feeling the pressure to lose weight, this trend is at least is spreading the pressure around a bit.

  21. #21 Megan
    February 8, 2008

    Thanks Interrobang!

  22. #22 Jennifer Ouellette
    February 8, 2008

    I think we’re moving towards images of adults that look like children/early adolescents — hence the androgyny. The US, a nation of closet pedophiles?

  23. #23 Fred
    February 8, 2008

    I always figured the appeal of skinny was so that you would focus on the clothes, not the model. I’m sure the fashion industry would send hat racks down the runway if they could get them to walk.

  24. #24 Tony Jeremiah
    February 8, 2008

    Yeah. I’ve covered this topic in my psych classes quite a few times in the context of the relationship between culture, media, and eating disorders.

    Conventional wisdom holds that eating disorders such as anorexia (which looks pretty close to the body characteristics of the indicated models) and bulimia, are a consequence of media influence. However, it’s also important to note (as suggested by agnostic) that ethnic/subcultural influences also play a role. As an example, anorexia is less prevalent among non-white populations for which the anorexic-like body structure that appears to be a preference for whites, is not a preference for many non-whites. So the ideal body type that the fashion industry promotes is not by any means a universal standard among the general population. The anorexia standard probably just happens to be a standard among persons who base a significant aspect of their identity on physical appearance, or, whose livelihood significantly depends on standards setup by the fashion industry, or any other industry (such as Hollywood) where that particular body type is a standard. Perhaps it’s related to the cliche about the camera adding 10-20 pounds, and that people who spend a lot of time viewing others through secondary images (e.g., camera, film) have developed distorted perceptions of body size (consistent with what is known about the cognitive processes of anorexics).

    At any rate, that anorexic-look doesn’t seem to have any (obvious) impact on a good percentage of the population, given that in many parts of the world, obesity rates (especially in children) have been steadily increasing for the past decade or so.

  25. #25 Philip H.
    February 8, 2008

    “This tone is alarming. I think our men and boys should come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, etc. We shouldn’t reject the fashion industry because they are giving us a new type of male/female image. ”

    Yes, I agree we should have a variety of images, but the oft heard criticism of the fashion industry over the years is that, once they settle on the year’s preferred look, that’s all you see. If you want diverse images, you need diverse models. This isn’t showing diverse models. That’s the problem. I don’t want either of my Tween-aged daughters looking at all these uniform shapes and thinking they have to starve themselves to achieve this look. I want them to be happy in the body shapes they are growing in to, while making healthy eating and exercise choices. I want them to celebrate the diversity of all human forms and pigment tones. This latest “fashion” image doesn’t help me help them do that. Is that plain enough?

  26. #26 HP
    February 8, 2008

    Land sakes! It all started when the Gibson girls loosened their corsets and dandies wore plaid three-button sack suits. Next thing you know the flappers are bobbing their hair and drinking bathtub gin, and the college boys are dripping macassar oil from their short-back-and-sides!

    And that music they listen to! I never!

  27. #27 Sheril R. Kirshenbaum
    February 8, 2008

    Philip’s got it. Our men, boys, girls, women–everyone–should feel comfortable in whatever shape and size is healthy and natural for them.

    I also like Marla’s point that it would be nice if our nation’s role models were more visibly celebrated for accomplishments in art, writing, math, politics, and beyond.

    This is a very complex subject and many interesting points have been made in the thread. It’s clear there’s a heck of a lot of pressure in the world of fashion–an industry who’s influence does ripple out to permeate our cultural perceptions–to achieve an often unhealthy and unrealistic ideal.

    And back to Philip, as for your tween-aged daughters, I somehow suspect they have a very good role model in their lives.

  28. #28 Grant Canyon
    February 8, 2008

    “…if I may interject without starting WWIII, as a professional in the fashion industry, clothing hangs better on skinny models.” Seriously??? You’re actually making an appeal to authority in a wholly subjective matter???

    How about this one: as someone with the ability to see and to form aesthic judgments, you’re wrong.

  29. #29 D
    February 8, 2008

    Yes, that guy is way skinnier and more androgynous than the average male. Yes, not everyone can (or wants to) look like that. Yes it isn’t healthy for someone who has a naturally large body to try and look like him.

    That said,
    1. I wish you hadn’t done the whole “sexual confusion” thing. The androgynous look isn’t any more or less “confused” than the macho-man look. There isn’t a moral imperative here; modulo health, whether a guy looks like John Wayne or like Leonardo dicaprio is no-one’s business but his and who he sleeps with. Some people like the bulky, built look, while others prefer the pouty lips look. You ought to have left the girly man thing to the Governator.

    (And what’s wrong with sexual confusion anyway? Can it be you’ve secretly bought into society’s patriarchal – heteronormative – oppressive message just a bit? Wait till Zuska hears about this 😉 )

    2. Let me remind you that the chiseled, hunky physique you seem to prefer is just as unattainable for the average male as this one. It also has its own share of health risks, from muscle tearing and joint wear-and-tear to steroid abuse.

    Me, personally, I like how that guy looks. He’s hot.

  30. #30 Science Avenger
    February 8, 2008

    Fashion? Three words:

    “Star Bellied Sneeches”

    Oh, and pull those damned pants up. You don’t look cool, you look like an idiot.

  31. #31 David Marjanović
    February 8, 2008

    The US is very obese country. I am a visitor from Europe. There is nothing wrong with the models pictured.

    I live in Europe, too; I have under 60 kg at a height of one seventy-five; and I’ve often noticed that the average US weight is, shall we say, elevated. Still, the woman looks scarily ill — and ugly, BTW.

  32. #32 Barn Owl
    February 8, 2008

    Speaking of “androgynous” and “fashion”….a little David Bowie flashback:

    The androgynous look almost certainly preceded Bowie, but *damn* he made it so sexy (in my humble and not-sexually-confused opinion).

    In some of the earliest Bowie videos (e.g. “Life on Mars” and “Space Oddity”), he was projecting more of an, I dunno, alien image, but as of this 1977 “Heroes” video, he’d perfected the smooth, lean, androgynous look:

    Off-topic: My parents’ favourite comment on my teenage fetish for British rockers = “They all have such horrible teeth. Aren’t there any dentists in the UK?”

  33. #33 usagi
    February 8, 2008

    He can’t pull the pants up.

    1) There’s no hips to hold them there.

    2) He’s selling the underwear, which I’m sure is readable in a higher res image.

    If you want another example of changing body images, look at Star Wars toys. In the original issue figures, Luke looks like–well, Mark Hamill. In the current line, Luke looks like the illegitimate love child of Marc Singer and The Hulk.

    It may be worth remembering that male fashion models have never been the subject of imitation the way females have been. (Can anyone name a single male supermodel from the Cindy/Naomi/Christy era? Didn’t think so. Are there any current male supermodels except Tyson Beckford?)

    Athletes, along with leading actors and some musicians (although there’s still the widest range of body types in music so long as the performer has a reasonably good-looking face and can pull off whatever look he’s styled with), are in the hype-masculine, steroid-induced buff niche.

    I’d suggest the male waif trend is more about exploiting a look that’s not being used somewhere else right now. If Shia LaBeouf and Zac Efron stay mostly unbuffed for their next few projects, look for the niche to shift. The urchins will move on to entertainment while the ‘roid puppies will be back on the catwalk.

    Oh, and there’s probably a some cherry-picking going on too. Catwalk shows have at least a dozen models. If there’s a range of body-types in a single show, it could just be what you’re seeing are the same super-waifs with a good agent. The real ratio of waifs to non-waifs may not be what’s represented in the show reviews.

  34. #34 steppen wolf
    February 8, 2008

    I do not think that there is anything inherently wrong with skinny models.

    The problem is the fact that they are either extremely skinny, or extremely buffed up.

    So they are not very good “models” in a sense, because they only represent the extremes on both sides of the curve (at least for males – females do not even have such privilege).

    Just to give a hint to why this is happening: think of Michelangelo’s paintings. Now, think of women’s bodies in those paintings. They look extremely masculine. Not that there aren’t women that stocky around – again, they are at one extreme of the spectrum.

    Michelangelo was quite obviously homosexual, and so are most of the fashion stylists nowadays. This might explain why female models with hardly any breasts and hips, and with hardly an ounce of fat on their body are so in vogue. The perception of beauty has changed with time, but ultimately we are looking at a more masculine (actually, androgynous) model of female beauty emanating from the fashion environment, probably impacted by the sexual orientation of the artists/designers.

    And something seems to be stirring on the guys’ side too…not very good, especially as it seems that cases of anorexia (and use of steroids) among men are actually going up.

    But of course, this possible explanation for the current trends is nothing more than my humble opinion.

    P.S. I am not trying to promote gay-bashing in any way, nor do I think that fashion designers are “sexually confused”. But we are probably simply witnessing the fact that the sexual preferences (and beauty ideals) of a minority of people is being imposed on the rest of the world.

  35. #35 steppen wolf
    February 8, 2008

    And by the way, John:

    I am from Europe too, and those body images are wrong, because they are unrealistic for the majority of people. Maybe not guys – but definitely women. I do not know where in Europe you are from (may I assume Great Britain?), but believe me, European women (at least in the East and the South) have got quite a sizable chest and waist.

    Which makes it hard for me to find decent blazers for me here in Canada, where the majority of the population (East Asian and Caucasian of Anglo-Saxon origins) has got a significantly smaller breast size – unless they are severely overweight.

  36. #36 Peggy
    February 8, 2008

    This post was forwarded to me and if I may interject without starting WWIII, as a professional in the fashion industry, clothing hangs better on skinny models.

    I suspect that the designers’ clothing hangs better on skinny models because it is designed for skinny models. I can’t imagine why clothing would’t hang well on fleshier models if it was cut that way. I wonder, though, if part of the reason why skinny is preferred is that it makes the models more of a blank slate. The designers can always add padding to increase the size of hips or breasts or shoulders if their design requires that.

  37. #37 Narc
    February 8, 2008

    Let me remind you that the chiseled, hunky physique you seem to prefer is just as unattainable for the average male as this one.

    That, I think is the key. By picking models that have what are essentially unobtainable physiques (whether skinny or muscular), they create anxiety in the viewer. Basically, they make the viewer think he or she is not thin or buff enough. That creates a desire to buy the product the model is advertising. And that’s the whole point of advertising, isn’t it?

  38. #38 Balima
    February 9, 2008


  39. #39 XXX
    February 9, 2008

    I think Narc have a valid point …

    would be the same way if models were fat?

    I can expect that from the fahsion bussines…

  40. #40 MH
    February 9, 2008

    As a naturally slim guy, I’m somewhat offended at your insinuation that there is something wrong with looking like the male model in question.

  41. #41 Sadie Morrison
    February 9, 2008

    All I know is that I’ve always been more attracted to “girly” men. Big guys with large muscles and deep voices don’t do it for me. Make of that what you will.

  42. #42 gwen
    February 9, 2008

    “clothing hangs better on skinny models.”

    As a chronically underweight female, I can tell you fashion peeps that the clothes I buy in the store *do not* hang well on skinny people in real life.

  43. #43 jockyoung
    February 9, 2008

    The fashion industry always takes trends to the extreme (the “supernormal stimulis” principle). But they seem to miss the point that the real attraction about slender, smooth men is for youth, not malnutrition. And one of the main attractions about youth is health and strength. As a gay and rather scrawny man, I can tell you that we still like a guy to have muscles.

  44. #44 Left_Wing_Fox
    February 11, 2008

    usagi; bodies maybe, but the design of the heads as improved tremendously. I have an original Han Solo, and he looks more like the illegitimate child of Charlie Brown and Mrs. Potato Head.

    Sorry for the threadjack; carry on.

  45. #45 guthrie
    February 11, 2008

    Apologies if anyone has asked this before:

    So, if clothes hang better on skinny models, what is the point of fashion, given that you’d have to make up completely different clothes to look good on your average shoppers?

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