Male Beauty: Fantasy, Ethics, and Transcendence

“Women like ‘bad boys’.” One hears this statement fairly frequently as an explanation of why some or other relationship didn’t work out — and you hear it from women, probably more often than you do from men.

Demonstrating that there may be more than a grain of truth to the assertion, a mugshot of “Hot Convict” Jeremy Meeks went viral last week, with women across the Western world lusting after the shaven-headed man with a black teardrop tattoo.

Nor is it just male convicts that get attention, as the 2013 mugshot of Meagan Mccullough, arrested for DUI proved. Within 24 hours it had gone viral, along with slogans such as “Miss Demeanor” and “Guilty — of taking my breath away.”

male beauty, ethics, and transcendence

Is there a link between ethics and physical beauty? I don’t mean should we see more beautiful people as more ethical? but, rather, should we regard these qualities as things that should both be cultivated, as far as is possible, if not interrelated?

The Male Beauty Quandary

According to at least one study, women taking birth control pills prefer less masculine features when it comes to men’s faces. But it’s not just faces, it seems. Male role models, on television and in the movies, are far less masculine than those of a few decades ago.

As a culture, the West is uncomfortable with the idea of male beauty. Yet — as the meltdowns of movie stars, the lyrics of much popular music, the enormous bonuses of failed business leaders, and, of course, the fetishizing of convicts suggests — we seem to be remarkably tolerant of male vanity.

But that vanity, we believe, shouldn’t extent to men really thinking about their  looks. Lines of skin care products for men have appeared in some pharmacies, though these tend to be tucked away in some corner, the way pornographic magazines used to be.

And the expense of these products, in comparison to their female counterparts, tells us that it’s a niche market that appeals largely to the more affluent “metrosexuals.”

Beauty and Transcendence:

Yet, there a classical ideals of male beauty. We might even more correctly speak of male Beauty, with a capitalized ‘b’, to indicate its connection to the transcendent, just as we might speak of the Beauty of the goddess Kali, Tara, or with the Virgin Mary, etc.

Beauty “is not just a matter of taste, […] it is connected with the noble, the aspirational, and the holy in our feelings,” as philosopher Roger Scruton argued some time ago. I sense that the West might be slowly beginning to grasp this again, now that brutalist architecture has become a relic of 1960s history, and that we recognize that ugly art fails to uplift, and is often merely self indulgent, and not even a commentary on social problems. As a culture, we want people to turn ugliness into beauty, not the other way around, as the spreading via social media of an image of Klimt’s Kiss superimposed on a war-torn building in Syria, during 2013, showed.

Male Beauty And Spirituality:

“We are training to bring our bodies to a point at which they rival the ancient Greek sculptures — the images of the Greek gods,” says Tyler English in Men’s Health Natural Bodybuilding Bible. The idea that physical excellence can in some way be related tot he Divine is almost anathema to modern society, perhaps in part because it rests on largely on the Christian assumptions that went before it. (Jesus’s gift to mankind, according to the Gospel, was his voluntary self-sacrifice, in the form of a very brutal death on the cross.)

But male physical excellence — as an embodiment of the transcendental — was a Greek ideal. And it was an ideal of other cultures, from the Buddhist (during and after his life, in India, the Buddha was said to be handsome, physically very strong, and good in various martial arts) and Hindu to the ancient Norse, where the gods were supposed to finally engage in a great battle at the end of time (and where actual battle of Norse warriors was seen to be intimately tied to the gods).

Classically, male Beauty was associated with valor, justice, war, and the notion of the “beautiful death” — to die in battle, for a noble cause, but thus evading sickness and old age. Male Beauty was dependent on, not only the physical, but on the ethical, the spirit of the man, and his ability to overcome his self. The physical, in a sense, embodied the higher values.

The modern world is often afraid of the body — at least of physical excellence. It can celebrate it, to some degree, in sport, though body building and weight lifting remain marginal, as, to some degree, does martial arts. Those who dislike “traditional” masculinity (which really means 1950s or “conservative” conceptions of manhood) will often attack the muscular body as somehow useless.

Author, playwright, and bodybuilder Yukio Mishima saw things differently. The fact that muscles are unnecessary for modern — and we might say, consumerist — life is what elevates them above it:

The groups of muscles that have become virtually unnecessary in modern life, though still a vital element of a man’s body, are obviously pointless from a practical point of view, and bulging muscles are as unnecessary as a classical education is to the majority of practical men. Muscles have gradually become something akin to classical Greek. (Mishima, Sun and Steel, p. 26.)

Still, most women still want men to be physically strong, and to be able to defend them if necessary. Muscle development is necessary (for men and women) for the practice of martial arts, sport, dance, and so on. However, we need not think of muscles as either purely practical or purely aesthetic, but — if cultivated in conjunction with growth in self-knowledge, morals, ethics, philosophy, and an understanding of heaven and earth — as something that leads men, especially, toward a particular type of transcendental knowledge.

Angel MillarAngel Millar is an author, blogger, and the editor of People of Shambhala.