Elegância: Many men have an uncomfortable relationship with beauty

I had a difficult time writing this.

I wanted to give equal time to male attitudes about beauty in this series of columns, and frankly, I was embarrassed to talk to other men about it. During my childhood in the wilds of Eastern Oregon in the 1970’s, the men I knew mostly talked about guns, horses, and pickup trucks. Beauty was not considered a manly topic, although we were surrounded by natural grandeur.

The beauty in our lives was provided by women, both in their persons and in the home life that they provided. This was sexist, of course, but ask yourself; has this really changed that much?

In my childhood, elegance was so tied to the feminine ideal that men displaying too keen an interest could be suspected of homosexuality. Homosexuality was considered so frightening it could not be spoken of openly, not even to criticize it. I was in college before I really understood what homosexuality meant.

This is why I was uncomfortable talking about beauty to men I did not know. I am very glad to report that attitudes are very different in 21st century Bellevue. Beauty belongs to all of us. Men and women, we all need it.

When I asked men what life would be like without beauty, they were generally taken aback by the question. One man said that we would be like a bunch of robots. Another said that we would call the ugly beautiful, finding beautiful details in refuse.

Do we merely observe the beauty inherent in nature, or does the structure of our brains demand it and create it, imposing our meaning on the universe? I don’t know, but it is interesting to me that objects that are newly observable in the modern world, such as galaxies, pollen grains, and fractal patterns, are widely considered beautiful.

I met Vladimir Mkrtumyan at the piano in the Student Union building. He likes to play his improvisations there. His favorite song to improvise on is the theme from the movie Titanic. At first, he said he learned to play the song to impress girls. Then, he admitted this was not the whole story.

“Maybe the reason I taught myself Titanic wasn’t because of chicks – maybe I told myself that,” Mkrtumyan said. The real reason, he admits, is that he heard someone play the Titanic theme, early one morning, when he was really tired. It was beautiful, and he felt he had to learn to play the song.

The most beautiful thing in the world is music, Mkrtumyan said, and what he loves about music is emotion. “It can make you feel better, it can help you release stress, it can connect with you,” he said. “You don’t have to say words, you can connect with someone. You don’t even have to speak the same language, but you can speak through music.”

Can men be beautiful? Of course they can. Is this beauty, of necessity, a sexual beauty?

I’m not sure that it is possible to distill beauty out into its component parts, and perhaps in this case we should not try, because anxiety about sexual roles drives this question. If a ‘straight’ man notices himself admiring another man, he instantly has two thoughts: Am I gay? Will other men think that I am gay?

It doesn’t matter. Researchers consistently find that sexual orientation is a spectrum, not a set of two or three categories that everyone has to fit into. So, lighten up, fellow straight guys. It’s not that big a deal.

Andrew Eschen is the man in the tank top pictured below. He studies acting at Bellevue College, and is beginning a career as a professional model.

Eschen looks good, in a way that might make straight guys ask themselves a few hard questions. He possesses an undeniable sexual appeal, in person as well as in his photos.

He knows how to use this, too. No one could cast that smoldering gaze at a camera lens by accident. No one could maintain almost constant eye contact with a stranger, as he did with me during our interview, by accident.

He isn’t wrong to use his natural beauty, by the way. Smoldering gazes are part of his job. As for our interview, subjects often try to control an interview. It’s understandable that he would choose a method of control that he is good at. I think that Eschen is adept at using his beauty as a tool, the way I use this computer to write my stories.

“I see beauty as being yourself, really,” he said. On the other hand, he also said, “I like to present myself in a nice fashion. I don’t like to go overboard and try to impress people, but I like to look good myself.” Beauty, to him, is inherent, but also studied. This is an apparent contradiction that came up several times in our talk.

When I asked Eschen about natural, as opposed to human, beauty, he came around, once again, to art. “Art is art, and beauty is art,” he said. I don’t agree. It makes sense for him, I think, because performers take nature and apply artifice to it, creating beauty.

To me, the most fascinating thing about beauty is that it does occur both in nature and in the products of out hands. Perhaps beauty really does make its home in the mind.

Are men supposed to primp? Are we supposed to shave our chests, to wear makeup and perfume, to wax our backs? Generations of men in this country would have recoiled in horror at this prospect. Manly men looked like men, and weren’t expected to preen. I have to admit I am not entirely comfortable with the idea myself.

However, I have been tempted by a few of the items that I am newly licensed, as a liberated man, to possess. I have been known, on occasion, to frequent Lush, that fantastic purveyor of fragrant soaps. I don’t do this for my adorable wife, but for myself.

Now, no one will look at me and mistake me for Andrew Eschen. I look a lot more the ‘before’ picture on the makeover show than the ‘after’ picture.

I shop at Lush because it has seduced me. Lush smells good. When you walk into the store, it inundates your sense of smell like a solid wall of delicious aroma. I love it, even though it makes me sneeze. So, I find the most ‘manly’ scented soap I can find there and I buy it, so I can enjoy it at home.

I like living in a place and time where nobody cares too much about that. Tolerance isn’t just a politically correct buzzword. It benefits all of us.