Men Seeking Masculine Features Turn to Cosmetic Surgery

On a Web site advertising the Beverly Hills-based Barron Centers Body Recontouring and Male Enhancement Clinic, a virile-looking man reclines on the grass as he embraces a lovely young woman. The site is promoting liposuction and penile enlargement surgery. “The positive results are the same for virtually every person: greater self-esteem, a new level of self-confidence, the ability to feel your best,” promises the copy. “This improved self-image is evident not only in your sexual life, but in most other arenas.” Below that, a large banner announces: “New Lower Fees.”

Talk about a hard sell.

Welcome to the macho world of cosmetic surgery. Once the hush-hush domain of aging society women, the fast-growing market for cosmetic procedures now increasingly draws male baby boomers. From 1992 to 1997, the number of men having liposuction has tripled, according to the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons, and the number having face-lifts has doubled. In 1997, men spent almost $130 million on liposuction, face-lifts, nose reshaping, and eyelid surgery combined–up from $88 million in 1992.

“It’s definitely a growing trend,” says San Francisco-based plastic surgeon Corey Maas. “After all these years of guys walking around with big beer bellies and wrinkly faces while women are looking better and better, finally, men are catching on.”

Cosmetic surgery, with ads promising quick and easy high-tech results, is being marketed to men the way sports cars and stereo equipment are sold–as accessories to make them more attractive, powerful, and masculine. “It’s extremely important for the working man or woman to appear energetic and youthful,” says the Palm Beach Plastic Surgery Center’s Web site. “You may feel young and ‘ready to go,’ but your sagging lids, loose neck, or thinning hair may portray a less vibrant impression than you would like.” As one male UC-Berkeley professor who has had plastic surgery puts it, “If it’s available, and it makes me look better, and I have the money, why not? It’s not any stupider than buying a Jaguar.”

Also, women are no longer settling for chubby, balding executives. They don’t have to. “It used to be that men responded to physical beauty and women responded to power and status,” says David Sarwer, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Human Appearance. “Now women have their own power and status, and they’re looking for more attractive men.”

In some ways, this new aesthetic surgery trend among men validates what women have always known: Looking good is hard work. But it’s also ironic. Feminists who once hoped that gaining equality in the workplace would mean they could stop worrying so much about appearance are now finding that men are worrying more about their own looks–and presumably haven’t learned any lessons from their female colleagues’ struggle. Of the millions of people diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and other eating disorders each year, almost 10 percent are men. Silicone calf and pectoral implants–used to beef up the less-than-muscular leg or chest–are becoming more common.

Still, men continue to be far less anxious than women about their looks. “There’s definitely more emphasis on men’s looks, bodies, and weight than in any time in the past, but I don’t think men will ever feel the intense pressure to be trim and attractive that women face every day,” says Debbie Then, a California-based social psychologist who studies appearance. But now that popular men’s magazines are filling up with ads for plastic surgery and ab-tightening machines, it won’t be long before men start taking their physical imperfections to heart.

Psychologists also have identified in men a disorder known as body dysmorphia, which involves extreme, exaggerated dissatisfaction with body parts and appearance. For men that often means body build, hair loss, and genital size.

Whether or not the problem is between men’s ears, cosmetic surgeons are doing their best to help men improve what’s on top of their heads–and between their legs. In 1996 alone, men spent about $12 million on penile enlargements. Privately, many plastic surgeons say the results are rarely impressive–and often dangerous. Martin Resnick, chair of the Department of Urology at Case Western Reserve University and secretary of the American Urological Association, says that “penile enlargement has not been shown to give patients the degree of enlargement they desire. And in some cases, the procedure has led to infection and deformity.”

A more common procedure is liposuction for love handles. While liposuction is promoted as safe, a recent study by doctors in California showed that one patient in 5,000 dies, usually after a surgeon removes a large volume of fat. Robert del Junco, a head and neck surgeon who leads the Medical Board of California’s commission to investigate cosmetic surgery, says some doctors now operate after only a weekend seminar’s worth of training.

Despite the risks, it’s likely that more men will undergo cosmetic surgery in the future, especially as the technology shortens recovery times and the procedures become less intrusive. Some men are even seeking lunchtime fixes: a quick collagen injection to smooth out wrinkles, a speedy dermabrasion to reduce blemishes.

The effort to look young and attractive is going beyond gender, as our culture becomes more androgynous. Obsession with appearance is likely to become less a matter of gender than of class; people, no matter what their sex, are likely to spend whatever they can afford to enhance their looks.

Inevitably, more men will develop the kinds of body and appearance neuroses that many women have suffered for years: eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and general self-loathing for not measuring up to an impossible ideal. It may disappoint women, who have always thought men would be less obsessive about facial flaws and extra pounds–real or imagined. But we’ll be sympathetic. We know how it feels.

From Mother Jones(March/April 1999). Subscriptions: $18/yr. (6 issues) from Box 469024, Escondido, CA 92046-9024.

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