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December 30, 2018


The narrative of beauty is predominantly female. Occasionally, we get a glimpse into the parallel narrative of male beauty when Yusuf, Adonis, Romeo or the Chaiwala become adjectives to describe attractive or romantic men.

Male self-adornment has a long history. The Egyptian kings painted their nails red, used lip colour and elaborate eye make-up; Roman centurions bleached their hair and used facial paint; and Roman and Greek military leaders used nail varnish and lip colours to match.

The exquisite bejewelled clothing of Mughal kings and nobility is legendary and, even today, men wear finely embroidered Lucknawi angarkhas. Japanese aristocrats of the past shaved their eyebrows, repainting them into elegant arches. The Samurai dress was a part of their code. European men of the 1700s used beauty patches, wigs and face paint, reaching excess in the next century with the dandies and macaronis.

Body paint in the tribal Americas, Africa and Australia enhanced spiritual or military strength. The exquisite body art of tribes such as the Maasai in Kenya takes hours of grooming. The Wodaabe of Niger hold the only male beauty contest which is judged by women.

Along with ornaments, the male body itself has gone through many standards of beauty in the West, from the full belly representing wealth and plenty at the Fat Man’s Clubs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to the gym junkies of today. The 16th-century discovery of the Greco Roman sculpture the ‘Faranese Hercules’ introduced the ideal of the muscular body to Europe. The Greek perfection of the male body, with golden ratio proportions of shoulder to waist and the abdominal muscle, Apollo’s belt, continue to be a symbol of the perfect male body.

The first bodybuilding contest was held in 1901 by German strongman Sandow. Charles Atlas introduced physical fitness in the 1930s which inspired post-depression America — “To be bigger than everybody else. Then nobody would mess with you.” The suits and coats with padded shoulders of the 1950s’ executive look were replaced in the 1960s by the suave elegance of Sean Connery as agent 007 James Bond.

The muscular and fit body was not just a symbol of aggression but also one of resistance. The Native American trained “to build a body both symmetrical and enduring — a house for the soul to live in — a sturdy house, defying the elements.”

Bollywood, like Hollywood, shaped the ideal images of both men and women.

Wei Jie, famous in medieval China for his beauty, was described as pretty, soft and frail. Softer icons continued to define the gentleman, where elegance and not muscles were seen as strength. The power of the Northern Indian man lay in turn of phrase and manners rather than brute power.

Bollywood, like Hollywood, shaped the ideal images of both men and women. The mild-mannered heroes became fighting machines. Jamal Shaikh’s Men’s Health magazine, launched in 2006, stated, “Indians can have abs too!” Shahrukh Khan became the first Indian star to sport six-pack abs in Om Shanti Om in 2007. The traditional akhara (wrestling ring) gave way to the gym.

Beards and moustaches, quintessential symbols of masculinity, were adopted and rejected throughout history. Once symbolising the peasant class, they were adopted by officials in colonial Europe as a show of power. Alexander the Great established the eternally youthful clean-shaven warrior. The clean-shaven DIG Salim Vahidy and his men were unusual in the Pakistani police force. In a pack of cards, the king of hearts has no beard. However, beards sculpted and fashioned in complex permutations, have made a comeback across the world. Self-image continues to occupy men and, according to a study, 80.7 percent of men express anxiety about their appearance.

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 30th, 2018