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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, June 4, 2002

Men's magazines jump on the bandwagon of superficiality

By Keiko Ohnuma
Advertiser Copy Editor

Add an inch to your chest!" "Lose your belly: The 5 best exercises." "Look like a cover model!" The usual supermarket checkout chorus.

"Your prostate protection plan."

... What?

For years, women's magazines' blatant playing to our secret fears and desires has been an in-joke among women. But now that we are wiser and more "over it," the magazines we really get off on spying at the newsstand are those addressed to men.

The silly macho posing of Maxim. The barely disguised neurosis of Men's Health. Even the sophisticated GQ for May was devoted to "The Male Species" and had a buff naked guy on the cover, while the toney Esquire pondered "How a man ages: The survival guide."

After decades of fretting over Visible Panty Lines, our first response as women was relief when Calvin Klein started making men self-conscious about their underwear. The tables were turned: Now we got to be the ones sizing guys up against some impossibly hunky standard of perfection.

But paging through a stack of men's magazines recently sent me beyond amusement to a kind of existential nausea.

It would be comforting to think that women's independence and assertiveness was responsible for making the sexes more equal — men developing their feminine side just as women take on roles that used to be limited to men. The new sensitivity on the covers of men's magazines would simply be a reflection of that.

But there is something else at work when Esquire charts what men should wear, drive and desire in their 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond.

If reading women's magazines leaves me feeling inadequate and depressed, I can't help but think the men's version has the same effect on guys.

Something, at any rate, is making the men at work munch carrot sticks and sneak glances at each other's guts. It is no longer enough to be the biggest boss in the office if you are, in fact, the biggest boss in the office. No success is completely convincing unless attended by a knowingly styled, sculpted physique.

As the magazines reflect, aspirations of men and women have now been reduced to the same songs with the same intonations — and the same solution, of course: Acquire more stuff.

It is no longer a question of being kind, or reflective, or spiritually evolved — although those needs can be addressed too, by ads for yoga videos and books by Deepak Chopra. What truly matters, however, is how it all looks.

In retrospect, I guess there was something OK about the female anxiety laid bare in women's magazines, because it still had an opposite: We could lie around Sundays pondering how to build better buns, knowing that come Monday, we would file all that neurosis and put on our suits with the big shoulder pads and become like men– focused on power more than appearance.

There was a comforting refuge in the men's freedom to be cute slobs and (publicly anyway) hardly be aware of it.

Today it seems the sexes are, in fact, more equal than that: We've reached parity in the bedroom (closet), and achieved what we could not in the boardroom — an end to envy.

Reach Keiko Ohnuma at kohnuma@honoluluadvertiser.com.