The New York Times ran an article the other day about the surprise retail triumph of shapewear for men. Spanx, the shapewear brand now ubiquitous for sucking in the tummies and thighs of even the skinniest celebrities, has introduced a line of undershirts meant to smooth out a man’s belly. According to the Times, the shirts are a huge hit.
When I first read the article, I was a bit bewildered by the concept. Why should men feel the need to suck and tuck? Aren’t women the only ones who have to care about unsightly bulging? That’s what the majority of women’s magazines say. Remember, this is the time of third wave feminism, where women can – and should, if convention be taken – be intelligent, accomplished and fabulous, all at the same time.
History has seen women in many contraptions meant to mold them into the desired shape: hoop skirts, panniers, corsets, bustles, girdles, push-up bras and hobble skirts, which tapered so sharply below the knee that women had to shuffle their feet in order to move around. Waists were cinched, and some women even had their lower ribs removed to attain a smaller circumference. Today, the phrase “beauty is pain” seems cliche, but only because it’s been true for so long.
Sure, men do feel pressure to have a six-pack and designer jeans. They are also susceptible to eating disorders, just like women. And history has seen men in hose and pointy-toed, heeled shoes. But it seemed strange to me that men – for who culture does not mandate perfection at all costs – would turn to shapewear. If pop culture and men’s magazines are to be believed, the only way for a man to attain the muscular ideal is to spend plenty of time pumping iron in the gym. The interviews and evidence presented in the Times article (Rob Lowe on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” for example) suggest that shapewear for men is emasculating. It takes effort and testosterone to build muscle; it’s no effort to slip on a compression undershirt.
However, upon further thought, I realized that there is a double standard when it comes to men, women and body shape/body image. Women are expected to use whatever means necessary to achieve that perfect figure. At this point, Spanx is an accepted part of the process, especially when there is a dress and fancy event involved. Men are expected to work out. Any extra help would mean that they are no longer masculine. Women have more freedom, in a strange sense, when it comes to body-shaping options.
In order to truly level the field, men need to be ‘allowed,’ so to speak, to unabashedly wear shapewear. And if shapewear helps men feel more confident, so much the better. There is no reason why women can wear Spanx and men can’t. Since our society loves aesthetics, then the look should be what’s important, and the macho posturing (which isn’t attractive anyway) can be left at home.
One exception: According to the Times, shapewear also includes “enhancing” underwear for men. This just seems uncomfortable and much more embarrassing if found out than a compression undershirt. So say yes to Spanx, no to push-up briefs. Your date will thank you.