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Venus de Me

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.

“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.

 

Sex in the ‘90s, agrees Susan Faludi in her 1999 book Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, “became a weapon in a new kind of power play . . . in which men were trying to reclaim ground they feared they were losing to women in an ornamental age.” A 1998 Harris Poll in USA Today revealed that a central reason behind men’s increased “vanity” was not “romantic interest” but their jobs. A similar poll conducted by the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery also indicated that employment was the number-one motivator for men seeking cosmetic surgery.

I began to wonder if I could “borrow” some of the qualities I admired in some women -- the power of beauty, the self-satisfaction of being seen -- for myself. For the first time in my 34 years, I didn‘t just want to be with women -- I wanted to be them. Well, not the first time. Like Adam Sandler’s painfully awkward Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk Love, I grew up among a platoon of older sisters. After they infested the house for the holidays, they‘d return to college, leaving me with a bureau full of their leave-behind clothes -- namely, piles of neatly folded, sleek and cool silk panties adorned with crocuses and orchids. Why did I have these shapeless, off-white Jockey shorts that my sisters dubbed “Baby Hueys” while they had underwear that looked like individual works of art, tributes to the nether regions of the wearer? So yes, for a brief but important period, I wore my sisters’ underwear. I was proud of it. I wore them to school and sat in class, smiling secretly at the girls, Now I know what you know.

And now, standing next-to-naked in Pink Cheeks, I‘m about to know more. Dana knocks once, opens the door, and looks disappointed when she sees me in my underwear. “Take those off, too.”

I meekly pull off my boxer briefs and feel everything below my waist come into full contact with the cool public air. “Do you get a lotta guys doing this?” I ask, eyeing her as she stirs the wax.

“Yeah, it’s become very popular with men.” She seems slightly hurried and impatient. “Just get on the table and lay flat, butt down. Do you want everything off or do you want the landing strip?”

This is a day of firsts; I revert to years of experience in restaurants. “What do you recommend?”

She looks down at the relief map of my belly, groin and legs. “Most guys take all of it off.”

“All of it?”

How did we get to this point? Our idealused to be encompassed in celebrities like Burt Lancaster, Clark Gable, Steve McQueen and Burt Reynolds; now we have the “skinny go-go boy look” with endomorphs like Brad Pitt, Jude Law and Leo DiCaprio. In the mid-‘90s, even Playgirl began noticing that women wanted to see more men without body hair. Today, modern men have begun seeing it as the monkey on their backs. A recent magazine ad says it all: “Guys, when a girl says she wants to rub her fingers through your hair she doesn’t mean the stuff on your back.” Another one says it even better: “Saddam Hussein has a hairy back . . . but you don‘t have to!”

Before I took the plunge, I wanted some hard info on hairlessness. “Michael,” a prop and set designer from the Valley, traces his anti-love affair with his own Neanderthal fur to age 15, when he sneaked into a movie theater showing Little Darlings. “There was young, hairless Matt Dillon and older, hairier Armand Assante,” he recalls. “I saw how Matt Dillon was treated [by girls] in the film, and it stuck in my head.” Eventually he graduated to waxing every single follicle on his body. “I feel better knowing it’s not there -- it‘s kind of feminine. I feel more sexualized, energized, younger, sensitive. Even sex is better -- my nerve endings seem more aware because nothing comes between you and your partner.” Mike claims he never met a woman who didn’t like it. “Some girls I‘ve been with don’t shave under their armpits, and I found it kind of exhilarating. I actually find myself turned on by women who have more hair than me.”

 

Vanessa and Pete are young married professionals also living in the Valley -- she designs electronic graphics for CBS and he works as a business-systems analyst. “We‘re a bit opposite: I’m a couch potato and he works out four times a week,” says Vanessa. “There‘s definitely a female quality in his love of shopping, smelling good, showering twice a day, shaving his chest and pubic hair. I have this backwards notion that that stuff is for girls. In a weird way it makes me feel like I’m not doing enough -- like I‘m being out-beautied!” Pete says that his obsessive grooming is an inherited trait. “My dad was the CFO type: He had manicures and expensive haircuts. I remember seeing him shave his underarms, and that’s when I started doing it.” Then there was the first time Pete shaved his balls -- and found that he wasn‘t alone. “It is so common now; I’ll talk to my friends and we‘ll all joke, ’Yeah, man, you should try it!‘ We’re really open about it.”

With the increasing (and some would say morbid) attention men are paying to their bodies, the bleed-over from the gay-liberation and feminist movements from the ‘60s and ’70s into the heterosexual world of the ‘90s is not so much a “feminization” of male culture as it is a blurring of gender lines. The cosmetics company Tigi features the slogan “One World” and doesn’t specify sexual orientation on its Web site, where images of Ben Affleck, the Backstreet Boys, Linkin Park and Aerosmith are interspersed with those of Britney Spears, Carmen Electra and the Gilmore Girls. The L.A.-based Dermologica makes unisex items like “Total Eye Care,” which technically is skin care (it reduces dark circles and perks up one‘s skin) but also veers into “makeup” because it contains a tint. Check out the Web site Underworks.com (“girdles for men and women”) to see how most of the clothing could apply to eitheror.

This gender chimera may be due to the advent of what Harvard fellow Katherine Stern calls the “feminine postmodern,” explaining in a 1996 talk “Men in Makeup” that feminine characteristics are now accepted as “universally human.” As if to underscore this point, the ACLU recently intervened on behalf of Peter Oiler, a 47-year-old heterosexual truck driver who was fired by grocery-store giant Winn Dixie for wearing women’s clothing during a his off-hours to, as he told the press, “express my feminine identity.” Concludes Stern rather pointedly, “The image of a man in drag is, in a way, an image of the future of masculinity.”

At present, however, modern advertising still dances around the semantics of “beauty” -- instead playing up words like “grooming” and “health.” “We don‘t mention ’makeup‘ or what we call ’The M Word,‘” says Hollywood makeup artist Michele Probst, who started a male-cosmetics line called Menaji in 1998. “We advertise ’skin care that looks good on you.‘ American men are vain, they just don’t want anyone to know about it. We occasionally get the paranoid person who calls up and says, ‘It doesn’t say ”makeup“ on the box, does it? I‘m having it shipped to my office and I’m nervous!‘” Probst says that most of her sales come after midnight from the anonymous environs of the Internet -- where many shopping sites soothe consumers with assurances like “We do not offer a catalog by mail!” In 2001, a significant 23 percent of visitors to retail cosmetic sites were male, the largest share not teens but men ages 35 to 54. “This is a global market,” marvels Probst, who ships products to everyone from pro athletes to sailors on the USS Kittyhawk. “The Internet has allowed us to ship out to countries I’ve never heard of. We ship products to Afghanistan, for God‘s sake!”

“I think it’ll be fine to just leave the patch up here.” Dana drops her fingers into my rat‘s nest of pubic hair as if showing off the contours of a new car.

I’m fighting hard to maintain eye contact. “Okay, fine, just leave that part.”

“Then pull your leg up towards me.” I move my leg slightly. She takes it like a lamb shank and yanks it so my right leg is spread-eagled. “Now I‘m gonna have you hold right here.” She places my hand on my scrotum. “Pull your skin up as tight as you can.” I gather my sac in my hand like folds of rubber and pull it to the left. She starts clipping with a tiny scissors. I begin to speak, but it comes out too fast and high, and she needs me to repeat myself.

 

“When did you start noticing more guys coming in for this?”

“That’s just become popular this year,” she replies, snip-snipping. “A lot of places won‘t do guys.”

“Why not?”

Snip snip. “Just not comfortable with it, I guess. You could really hurt a person.” Snip snip. “That’s why we get a lot of referrals from other salons. Okay, it‘s gonna feel a little warm.” She spreads the hot paraffin over my thigh and crotch in little rectangular strips. The wax starts to cool, grabbing on to my flesh like a tightening hand. She lays down a soothing piece of gauze, presumably to help the wax cool and make me feel more comfor -- RRRIIIP!!

“Careful. Remember to breathe.”

“. . . . . .”

“Yeah, if you hold your breath, it intensifies the pain.” RIP! “This is about as bad as it gets.”

“Are you, you gonna do . . .” RIP! “. . . ah, my, my balls too?”

“A little bit, we don’t go all the way up . . .” RIP. “‘Cause there’s nothing really to hold on to.” RIP. “And nine times out of 10, skin comes off.” RIP RIP. “Okay, breathe a bit.” I suck in mouthfuls of tangerine-flavored air. “Okay, now put your hand here.” She indicates the bottom of my scrotum. “Now pull it all the way up because I‘m gonna do the part underneath now. No, all the way over.”

RIP!

“Oh! Mama!”

“Yeah, it’s not fun. This area, it‘s very thin and tender. I have guys who come in, they’re like, ‘Heyyyy, take off everything!’ but when I start they‘re like, ’Stop! Stop it now!‘” She laughs sunnily. RIP. She spreads talcum powder on my legs as I ask her what kind of guys come in for this kind of treatment. “I get a lot of actors,” she says. “I have a few clients who are firemen. Couple bodybuilders. Just regular guys. When women see this on a man they say, ’Are they gay?‘ and I have to say no. Ninety-five percent of them that come in are straight and usually come in because women send them in: ’Well, we‘re doing it, so you have to do it!’ Okay, switch legs.” My shorn hair tumbles to the floor like glitter. “Okay, hold this to the side . . .” RIP RIP RIP RIP. “My boyfriend, he shaves everything off, but he won‘t let me wax him. He’s too chicken; he thinks it‘ll hurt too bad.”

Then she tells me to turn over. On my knees. With my elbows on the paper. “Try to arch your back a little bit, c’mon, pick it up, don‘t be shy.” I feel the viscous heat on the inner crescent of my behind, dripping down in a single marching line. Then the gauze. Then . . .

“Ohh! Oh, God!” I exclaim.

“Just relax.” RIP! For some reason, I start laughing. RIP! The pain is ludicrous, so abrupt it makes me giddy. “By the way, if you see a little blood, don’t worry, it‘s totally normal.” RRIIIPP! “Okay, you’re done.”

It has taken a lot less time than I thought it would. At the same time, it has lasted years. As I walk back out to Ventura Boulevard, I affect a “prison-rape walk”: slightly bowlegged, carefully making sure nothing bangs into my legs. At home I pull down my pants to study my privates in the mirror. They look so naked and vulnerable, even more breakable than before, as if the monk‘s ring of hair protected them as well as demarcated their specialness from the rest of my body. It isn’t the wax job that makes me look ridiculous, or offends the rest of my body -- quite the opposite. My body is an insult to the wax‘s deftness. I’m glad I haven‘t taken it all off -- the delicate hairline from the whorls of fur on my chest down to the hair on my belly and below is like a lifeline I suddenly did not want cut.

 

In the days after, I suffer “phantom wax” sensations where I flinch as if expecting to have hair ripped off by some unseen hand. I walk down Sunset or shop at Ralphs only to look down and find my hand unconsciously buried in the material of my crotch -- especially embarrassing in the checkout line. Gradually I begin to feel a certain hot shame for the vanity that led me to this point -- similar to an orgasm you waited for all week and then, seconds after, think, That’s it? I feel foolish to have thought it would make me feel transformed or changed. Ultimately, I realize, the true blending of the sexes is that both of us are prey to the same image-conscious skullduggery, the same metrosexual fantasy that sells us our outer shells at the expense of what‘s inside -- which, since we cannot see it tangibly, we devalue to our own detriment: eating disorders, body obsessions, exercise addiction, low physical self-esteem.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, arguably the world’s most famous parable of vanity gone awry, Oscar Wilde quotes a line from Shakespeare: “Like the painting of a sorrowA face without a heart.” I think of this as I stand in a club and wait to be approached by a woman undoubtedly as self-conscious about her looks as I am -- both of us part of the same deception and paying for it through the nose to boot.

As you can probably guess, I‘m still waiting.

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