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Venus de Me 

The waxing of male beauty

Thursday, Jan 9 2003
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You are a beautiful, loving and creative being. Buy some stuff!

I’m reading this off the ceiling as I lie on my back on a padded table with a strip of butcher-block paper down the middle. The radio is playing a tune from Guys and Dolls. On a nearby tray, a Crock-Pot of wax sits bubbling next to bottles of talcum powder and lotion. I am at a salon in the San Fernando Valley called Pink Cheeks (“Home of the Original Playboy Bikini Wax!”), named in honor of onetime Playboy centerfold Pamela Anderson, who first requested the waxing of her labia and buttocks.

Before I even set foot on these premises, I‘ve already gone through a queen’s ransom of body treatments, my face having been shined like a waxed Gala apple, flushed from an intense microdermabrasion treatment ($140); my mouth laminated in lip gel ($14); my manicured nails glinted with nail polish ($7). Pink Cheeks seemed to be the logical denouement. Appropriately, then, my aesthetician, an efficient young woman with olive skin and her hair pulled back into a tight ponytail, is called Dana.

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“Are we doin‘ a Playboy today?” she asks.

“Yeah, yes. This is my first time . . . ”

“Just strip from the waist down and get up on the paper, and I’ll be right back.” After she leaves, I slide off my pants but can‘t seem to get past my underwear. I stand in shirt and black socks (why did I wear these?), pensively crossing my arms in front of my chest. I don’t seem to know how to stand. I lean against the table to look casual, then slip on the paper and fall awkwardly to the floor.

Welcome to the brave new world of male beauty. In a 2001 study by the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, 83 percent of men say they follow some sort of beauty regimen. A similar poll by the marketing research firm NPD found that men now spend an average of 51 minutes daily to groom themselves, compared to 55 minutes for women. In increasing numbers, heterosexual men of all types -- executives, laborers, the perennially unemployed -- are undergoing tweezing, tinting, facials, massages, electrolysis for hairy hands, and (urp!) genital and buttocks waxing. “They‘re realizing that these things aren’t just for women anymore,” says Dolly Norris, an electrologist who owns a Tarzana-based wellness spa. “Men used to be referred by a spouse or girlfriend -- now they‘re seeking out the treatments themselves.”

If this surprises you, you’re probably not in the male-beauty business. In 2001, men surpassed women as the biggest buyers of hair gel, and men‘s toiletry sales are growing at a rate of 11 percent per year, twice the rate for women’s products. Sales of men‘s fragrance and skin-care products in department stores like Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom reached $382 million in the first half of 2002. Clairol and L‘Oreal, previously feminine domains, have introduced beauty products for men. Sales of Orly’s Nails for Males, on the market since 1987, have increased 65 percent in the last three years. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons reports that in 2000 more than 1 million men had cosmetic surgery -- in 1992, that number was only 54,845.

Lynne Luciano, author of the 2001 book Looking Good: Male Body Image in Modern America, notes that while male adornment is on the rise, there is no corresponding decline in female adornment. “Most men probably wouldn‘t come out and say it, but they don’t see [beauty] as so exclusively feminine or gay anymore,” she says. “Women have gained enough economic power and self-confidence that they are making the same demands of men, and the men know it.”

Mary Jaye Simms, an aesthetician at Silver Lake‘s Modem Salon who first noticed more straight men coming in for waxing in the mid-’90s, sees the trend as one more step on the road to equal status. “Women had to hold themselves up to this ideal generated by male fantasy,” she says. “Now men are realizing they can‘t sit on the couch and drink beer and still be desirable to the women who are doing all the work in maintaining their beauty. We have a lot of yummy secrets, it’s about time you men started listening to us.”

Actually, I have been listening. After I moved here in 1994, I began to wonder: At what point does one become a true Angeleno? I got my answer when I realized my looks could become a way to preserve a career or social acceptability. I found I wasn‘t so much competing with other men, but with women themselves. It was something I could corroborate with a lot of my (straight) male friends -- a sensation that had its beginnings during that awkward phase in every adolescent boy’s life when he notices that girls are developing and maturing on roller skates while his body is still spinning its Big Wheels. It wasn‘t until college that I finally got the courage to buy a bottle of women’s body spray -- dubbed “Escape” -- which I would anoint every morning after I showered. It was a healthy, in-your-nose, garden-fresh scent that counteracted my own sour-smelling endorphins. Body spray was not enough to combat the ruthlessness of L.A. body culture, of course. As I was surrounded by lithe, sexy young goddesses at work, which was like being dropped full force into a virtual-reality version of Vogue magazine, my professional sense of inferiority and my personal sense of physical non-beauty crashed like two oncoming trains. I found myself thinking with a growing panic: They just keep getting younger, hotter, more confident and aggressive; we keep getting older, hairier and more vulnerable.

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