Be a male model! Or just look like one.
Not that my success has been overnight, or indeed that my career as an actor/model is so firmly established as to be taken for granted. Still, I have an agent--three in fact--a composite card showing me in various outfits with my "stats" on the back (height, chest, waist, hair color), and a sleek black portfolio (bought from Models' Mart, "the world's largest supplier of portfolios for models") with pictures of a grinning me in a tux, a suit, and a t-shirt, and of a glowering me in a Speedo. When someone, an agent or a client, says, "Let me see your pictures," I hand over this portfolio. When someone says "Let me see your card," I pull out a comp. I have worked my first few jobs, and am assured by my agents that more will follow. The future looks bright.
Most amusing of all for me is the fact that I am almost 47, an age when by rights I should be worrying primarily about heart attacks, root canals, and 401(k)--or at least seriously getting into my midlife crisis. Or is this the form my midlife crisis is taking? After due reflection, I say: no. Becoming a model was for me the all-too logical conclusion of a decades-long process, that of giving myself permission to acknowledge my own body. Now I just have fewer inhibitions. Now that I've shed them, thank goodness I still have something worth looking at.
For I have led what in most ways is an all-too predictable academic life, measured out, like all academic lives, in courses taken and given, papers written and corrected, jobs offered or refused; in fellowships here, sabbaticals there. There was college, graduate school, a Fulbright Scholarship, two years teaching at the University of Freiburg, two years teaching at the National University of Rwanda (this before the civil war), and now fourteen years at the U.S. Naval Academy teaching midshipmen, where I began as an assistant professor. My time here at Annapolis has been marked by promotion, tenure, and full professorship: the usual milestones of academic life. I have published four scholarly books, of course with minimal sales, an avant-garde novel (print run of 2,000), a collection of essays on dance, and many articles, essays, and stories. Two more novels are "in production"; I am working on a second book of literary theory.
During this time too, I have had a rich, if not uniformly rosy personal life: a first, disastrous marriage, my daughter, divorce, a new marriage, domestic happiness. I have learned to sail, though I don't practice the violin and virtually never ride horses any more. I have added at least functional Spanish to the three other languages I speak, but Italian, perhaps as a result, has weakened. Now I have become a model. Who knows what next year will bring?
My newest avocation is possible at all because, as I know, I am one of the lucky ones, having metamorphosed from a pudgy-faced if tall 18-year-old who experimented with funny patterns of facial hair into a ripped and a rather better than average looking man who, by dint of staying out of the sun, working out, and eating right, looks--so my agent tells me--something indeterminate between 25 and 39, the parameters of my model "group." I find I am lucky in other ways as well: over the years, as a result of increasingly serious weight-lifting, my upper body has swelled out and my waist has shrunk back to its teen-aged size, as if the normal coding for the increasing male tendency towards the pear shape had simply been reversed. The "drop" between my chest and waist is now twice the usual six inches for which off-the-rack suits are planned, which makes clothes shopping difficult, though rather gratifying.
Not least of all, I am blessed, at least in a narrow sense, in being male: women do not have the option of becoming models in their mid-40s. Indeed, the bar for female models is being pushed ever lower into the early teens or even single digits. Nowadays pre-pubescent girls are tarred up with makeup and slick hair pouting from the covers of increasingly many fashion magazines. I am told the reason is that the younger they are, the smaller the pores in their skin, and the more silken they can be made to look. The ideal for women is therefore a ten-year-old made up to look 19. Female models do not get much older than 35. Men, by contrast, get more "interesting" as they age, in the words of one of my agents. And, luckily, I am not even at the point of having to look "interesting."
Of course I love the idea that people will pay money to photograph me. Who among the legions of former high school geeks and nerds who populate the groves of academe would not be happy, thirty years later, to find himself having become a plausible sex symbol? What a sweet revenge over the golden boys, the captains of the football team and the student council presidents now gone to seed, but who then garnered all the acclaim, back when we ourselves were gangly and popping with pimples!
So far, to be sure, I have not made a lot of money. Indeed, I have yet to recoup my initial investment in classes and photographs. But very few people become models, actors, or actor/models for the money, at least not if they have any sense. They do it to be noticed, which is to say for valorization of the way they look. In our society, it seems that almost everybody wants to be noticed. Not for us the Victorian prayer to "easy live and quiet die." Noisy live, we say, and die as late as possible and with as many face lifts as necessary. We academics, of course, tend to want to be noticed rather for what we produce or what we know than for our outsides, and are contemptuous, as I once was, of those who have only their looks to peddle. Only dumb people, it seems, are pretty.
But this, as I am increasingly aware, is all sour grapes, the sneaking academic fascination with glamour becoming overt in recent years as the attention of Cultural Studies professors has turned to clothes, dolls, and pop singers. What of the paradox of the Modern Language Association conference, where tens of thousands of fashion-challenged academics swamp a major city each year between Christmas and New Year's, retreating indoors to offer papers, as like as not, on Princess Di or Jackie O? Or the lofty Guggenheim Museum's recent exhibition of Armani?
Though my new career speaks loudly to a part of myself, I would not have had the nerve to seek it out. Instead, it came to me. One day two years ago as I lounged on a bench in front of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, waving at my then six-year-old daughter each time she came around the merry-go-round, a woman who seemed like something out of a modern version of the Brothers Grimm la cigarette crushed between her gnarled fingers, hair a color that did not go with her wrinkled skin/stood abruptly before me. With no introduction, she suddenly began to speak in a raspy voice. "Have you ever thought of modeling? I'm a talent scout."
Who was this creature? It seemed that she had read my innermost desires. Or had she been summoned by them? Not, perhaps, by the particular desires of that day and that place--which were more devoted to hoping my daughter was having fun and wondering if I would have time to take a nap when we got home--but perhaps by those too deep for articulation. "What about your daughter?" the crone added. "She'd be a natural!" Had she been watching us together? Or did she simply know all about us?
I was hooked. My little girl looks, in the words of a friend, like the pictures of children you get in frames at the store, with peach-like skin, strawberry blonde hair, and blue eyes. Yet, though loving and sunny, she has a learning disability that makes it difficult for her to process abstractions or form complex verbal structures. I spend countless hours going over homework slowly, repeating word patterns, and explaining jokes; at school she gets tutoring and speech therapy. I admit to being nervous about her future. Once I thought I'd settle for nothing less than her being a Wellesley valedictorian. For the last few years I had been forced to realize that head cheerleader or yes, model, might not be so bad. Somebody has to check out this modeling business, I had begun to think, for her if not for me.
At least I could use her as an excuse. A modeling school: that sounded good too. As an academic, I believe in schools. They teach you things. With its echoes of the sad advertisements in the backs of a hundred magazines, the idea was intrinsically appealing in a kind of masochistic way. I saw a couple just last week: "Be a Model! Or Just Look Like One!" "Modeling! It's a Man's Job!" (Try typing in "Models" on the Internet to be convinced that most of the world wants this kind of attention: all of the sites open with some variation of "So you want to be a model!") A school, furthermore, was an emotional safety net. If I didn't succeed, I could tell myself I wasn't really interested. And this school, the temptress went on to explain, was connected with an apparently reputable agency that guaranteed representation for the graduates of the program (from what I had understood, getting an agency to take you was the biggest hurdle). At the same time, I was still savvy enough to be suspicious that this was nothing but a scam: at a school, you pay them, not the reverse. The talent scout was out to drum up business.
As it later turned out, I was right to be hesitant. The model school, deemed to be engaged in misleading business practices preying on the delusions of people like me with a craving for attention, was only a short time ago slapped with a federal suit and closed, but not before it had declared bankruptcy and defaulted on many of its bills. The associated agency (which, according to one report, had created the school) promptly disavowed it, and I have heard that it is itself in deservedly dire financial straits.
When my daughter and I went for our interview, however, the company was still riding high, operating from flashy digs in a building near the Tyson's Corner Mall in affluent Northern Virginia. Its lobby and public rooms were outfitted with lots of lights and marble, and staffed with beautiful blonde and black receptionists who looked as if they'd stepped out of Vogue. The young "VP for Talent" (vice president seemed about as low down as people with offices went)--also blonde, also gorgeous--tried to explain things to her. I had purposely said very little about why we were there.
"Do you watch movies with real children?" she asked. "Those children are models." My daughter regarded her With horror.
"I've changed my mind," I said abruptly, hoping I wasn't too late to undo the damage. Time enough later, I thought, for her to be told not only that Barney was an annoying man in a dinosaur suit, but that those even more annoying children who seemed so happy all the time were being paid to appear so.
Then, my heart thumping, I decided I had to take a chance. "What about me?" I asked. Should I despise myself for having asked? The gorgeous VP, who didn't seem to have talked with the talent scout, sat back and considered. I held my breath, telling myself frantically I was here on a whim; acceptance and rejection were one to me.
"I could see that," she said finally. Her tone implied the question was not ridiculous. I exhaled. She paused. "Could you show me your teeth, please?" she said.
There followed a "screen test" for a video camera, and a waiting period of three days at the end of which I was to come in to learn my fate. Even now, I have no idea what percentage were accepted and what percentage rejected. So far as I know, all comers were accepted. Yet, as my particular gorgeous VP reasonably pointed out, the agency had to be willing to represent you once you finished. Perhaps as a stage prop, she had prominently displayed on her desk a pile of papers whose top application was stamped "Rejected" in red ink.
I decided to do it. The lessons weren't cheap, but I told myself it was money I could afford to lose. I knew I'd never have the nerve to do it on my own.
In the ensuing months, I was fussed over for photo shoots, videotaped by the acting teacher, told what products to wash my face with (I'd never heard of "toner"), and, perhaps most amusingly of all, put through my paces in a Fashion Modeling class by a leggy ex-model with a mop of hair and fabulously theatrical attitude. This woman went under the mono-moniker of "Demetria," which may for all I know have been her real name, who also powdered and lipsticked up the models. In the parlance, this made her a "makeup artist." (The aspiring actors and models with me, similarly, were called "the talent," as in the photographer's harried question: "Has the talent arrived?")
The first day of class, Demetria went around the room and asked, "Why are you here?" She started with me. Trying to protect myself, I went for the self-deprecating and said, "For fun." The others, apparently just as nervous, picked up my cue and echoed me.
Demetria was highly displeased, and began flinging her arms around. "You aren't here for FUN!" she yelled. "You have to be here because this MATTERS to you! You gotta want it! Say after me, I want it!"
"I want it," we echoed half-heartedly.
"LOUDER!" she insisted.
"I WANT IT!" we screamed.
"All right," she said, appeased, and leaned back in her chair.
The fashion model's biggest asset is his or her walk. This walk is a learned skill; the men project "male" to the viewer, as the women telegraph "female." One of my fellow students was a gorgeous, pouty Asian girl who barely spoke English but who swung her hips as if to the manner born. This was the key to the women's runway walk, it turned out, a pelvic bone jut and an exaggerated cantilevering motion, along with a tendency to lead with the waist and make the upper torso play catch-up. "Hips!" Demetria screamed, and the aspiring female models would accentuate the tilting up and down to the point I simply waited for Demetria to shake her head in despair. To my great surprise, she was delighted. In this business, more clearly was more.
If girls were all about hips, guys were all about shoulders. The male walk overlaps with normal motion in that it emphasizes perfect uprightness, achieved (so it seemed to me) by tilting slightly backwards at the hips and resisting the impulse to drop the chest to compensate. The sensation I had was that of presenting my pecs on a platter to the sky. Then you drop the face, but without making a double chin. All of this causes a swing in the shoulder yoke, and makes the arms follow along, rather than being the initiators of the swing. It also lengthens the stride, as the legs move more as whole units rather than as bendables. The result is the rolling gait of a John Wayne, with the arms held out slightly from the sides, as if ready to grasp a gun in a holster, or the side-to-side slouch of a young athlete whose wing-like lats push his arms out from his sides.
The major flaw of my walk, it turned out, was holding my chin too high. "Chin D OWN!" Demetria would scream at me as we took turns walking down the "runway" in front of mirrors. Even I could see that I was stiff. Imagine all those people looking at me! Yet why was I here if not for that?
If we guys majored in shoulders, we minored in glowering. Fashion models do not smile. Instead, they suck in their cheeks and look stern. The exception seemed to be what Demetria referred to as "my plus models," the couple of genial large women in the class, who were told to smile as if there was no tomorrow. All of us learned how to take off a coat (let it slide off your shoulders, catch it before it falls). We learned how to turn: right foot over left, pivot, keep going, don't fall down. "Practice your walk!" Demetria would exhort at the end of every lesson.
Demetria herself had had a brief career as a model in Milan. "What happened?" we asked, when after several lessons we had bonded with her. "They couldn't decide whether I was white or black," she told us airily. "Over there that gives them problems."
Not all the women were as gorgeous as the Asian girl. Indeed, a couple of the women were positively mousy; I wondered how they ever hoped to pull off this act. The men were arranged along the same spectrum. I envied one guy in the class for his Arrow-shirt-man looks and his apparent lack of any shred of self-consciousness about what we were doing. He was drop-dead handsome, with a mane of blonde hair and a cherub's skin--reason enough for me to hate him. Worse, he was fabulous at the body games Demetria exhorted us to play with the imaginary audience: running his hands through his hair, "looking" at the crowd, and slinging a coat over his shoulder. Thinking of Kleist's image of the marionettes that danced the most perfect dance because they could not think, I pegged him as a vapid beauty, as well as my most threatening competition, precisely because he was unaware of the intrinsically ridiculous aspect of everything we were doing. But of course this kind of sense of superiority on my part was self-destructive: I could insist on my knowledge, and let it defeat me, or I could go beyond it, and get where others, less self-conscious, had started out. It was a challenge. Keep trying, I told myself: chin up--or rather, chin down.
Sartre has written famously about "bad faith," the wrongheaded self-protecting attempt to identify the fluid always-becoming self with the artificially static roles we play. In Demetria's class, I reflected, we had stamped out bad faith. We had left our roles at the door, become only bodies in motion. I was no longer a professor, my competition no longer--what was he, in "real life?" A student? A waiter? I never learned. Here we were only bodies, two options that could be draped with clothes, two mannequins (the term seemed somehow liberating) that would parade out again and again wearing different outfits, as if stripped naked of titles and societal status before the throne of the god of merchandising.
Acting class was equally challenging. For my first role, I was given a phrase that, I was told, came from TV spots for the chain restaurant Red Lobster, just six words: "For the seafood lover in you." No aspiring Hamlet ever pored longer over his part than I over the subtleties of this phrase. How to deliver it? For the SEAFOOD lover in you (swallowing the final prepositional phrase)? For the seafood lover in YOU? The text held many mysteries.
I wasn't very good at first. In fact, I was horrified when I saw the tapes. Could I really be opening my eyes that wide? Where had those vertical crevasses over my nose come from? Bill, our affable bear of a teacher (who had actually had a real role, albeit a non-speaking one, on the TV show "Homicide"), told me I had to rein it in. "The camera sees everything," he said. "You're using stage eyes." Or a professor's, I thought to myself.
My commercial print class was, it turned out, all about teeth. Thank heavens, I reflected, I always got a clean bill of health from my dentist, and I floss every day. The teacher, an area photographer, reiterated that regardless of what you were shown using, consuming, or doing, you had to look as if you were having the time of your life. And that meant ear-splitting grins, all the time. He leafed through several magazines, stopping at the ads to prove his point. Whatever the product, from wine (the pretty couple clinking glasses in a restaurant) to a drug for seniors that was being sold by a shot of a gray-haired couple frolicking in a field (presumably they were "high on life" as well as the drug, in our teacher's reiterated phrase), the models were a mass of teeth. "You have to smile yourself silly," he insisted.
Some of my problems with these courses, I believe, resulted from the fact that I'm a man. Because being looked at for our physical selves is the ultimate worship of being, as opposed to doing, it is the pole at least traditionally assigned to the female. "Male model" is still a somewhat suspect term in our bluff Anglo-Saxon world, and of course the necessity for the adjective shows just how odd the whole concept is: models are female unless declared otherwise. A recent book entitled The Adonis Complex, written by three medical researchers, suggests that male interest in the male body is intrinsically suspect, leading, in their view, to psychoses such as eating disorders (too much or too little) as well as to rampant and destructive steroid use in the quest of otherwise unattainably muscular physiques--the male equivalent of what women have suffered for decades.
Except for so-called fitness models (the guys with perfect "six-pack" abs on the covers of men's exercise publications) being a model is usually about other things than perfect physique, and certainly it is not about being "huge" or "freaky," the preferred weight-room terms for the grotesque human sculptures of muscle and veins all turned artificially brown by merciless tanning which populate the stages of bodybuilding contests. Indeed, the current New York male fashion ideal is a hollow-cheeked 18-year-old. But all of these at least have in common that they present themselves to the gaze of another, an action (according to theorists of the 70s such as film scholar Laura Mulvey, drawing on Lacan) associated with women. In our world, so the usual wisdom goes, the man looks, the woman is looked at. The man "possesses the gaze," a fact related to the current military rejection of openly homosexual members, as well as to the uncomfortable "don't ask, don't tell" compromise that seems to satisfy no one. What happens when men are themselves fair game for the gaze, in this case of other men? Straight men are worried.
Yet all of us present ourselves to the gaze of others; most men just don't like to admit they're doing it. Indeed, the formerly all-male world of the military has some of the world's most rigid codes for physical presentation of men to men, and of the clothes in which one does it. The Marine Corps manages to have its members look menacing, while equally turned-out male fashion models are somehow suspect. This is so, I think, because for models, the presentation is foregrounded: instead of presenting ourselves, we're just presenting. The result is as empty a signifier as anything theorized by Baudrillard. In contrast to the disapproving authors of The Adonis Complex (who after all are really writing a book about pathological manifestations of this male body interest, not its more normal forms), I think being able to admit it shows a certain degree of liberation.
Indeed, the authors of The Adonis Complex betray nothing so much as their adherence to an old-fashioned gender polarity: any awareness on the part of the man of how he appears to gazers of either sex is for them automatically suspect, and so is any attempt to respond to that gaze. To which I respond: says who? To me, it looks as if men are coming out from under the last vestiges of Victorian black suits and mid-century gray ones, designed to stress functionality rather than appearance (as Anne Hollander has pointed out in Sex and Suits, the garment of her title can be sexy too, but only to the extent that it emphasizes doing rather than being, mimics the nakedness of the male body poised for action). Nineteenth- and twentieth-century Anglo-Saxon insistence that women alone could be the legitimate object of the gaze seems both mendacious and exceptional. After all, Renaissance men wore tights and colored codpieces, and even Louis XIV donned scarlet heels and stockings to show off his shapely legs. Not to speak of the free rein Latin men have to show off.
By now it is widely accepted that men are the visual sex, given to commodifying the body and obsessed with fetishized parts (breasts, legs). It is, after all, men who are the primary consumers for visual porn. Women, by contrast, are said to find more practical attributes sexy in men: power, say, or earning potential. Even the male body parts women find attractive seem incomprehensible to men: eyes, hands, and ears are frequently mentioned. What of biceps and pecs? men plaintively ask. Muscle, it seems clear from The Adonis Complex, is a male obsession. Unwilling to admit the fundamental truth that men work out for other men, gym rats still frequently speak of "curls for girls." What the authors of The Adonis Complex make clear is that the girls couldn't care less. I suggest that the sooner we accept this and get on with things, the better off we will be.
For that matter, it seems likely that there is a connection between the mainstreaming of male homosexual perspectives in the last decades, shown in television series and the billboards of ripped abs that tower over pedestrians in New York's Times Square, and the increasing willingness of all men to admit that they too want to be looked at, and not just by women. What is unclear is whether the more general change is powering the more particular one, or the reverse. Susan Faludi's much-touted recent book Stiffed betrays a similar adherence to gender polarity. Its thesis is that men can no longer find valorization through doing, so they have descended to the second-order masculinity of appearing. But this is begging the question, assuming that appearing masculine is a debased form of the same urge that made men of a previous generation become satisfied welders and car mechanics. I doubt that more men achieved selfhood in the hierarchical, conformist era of the 1940s and 50s, the generation that Faludi seems to idolize, than they do today. As for paying attention to how they look, men today are simply willing to do what they may have wanted to do all along, but weren't allowed, or wouldn't allow themselves, to do.
This is what introspection tells me. I had to work hard at giving in to desires I am unable even now to classify. Narcissistic? Exhibitionistic? Neither? Both? These desires find less agonized expression in young male athletes, full of testosterone and supremely conscious of being at the top of their form. Some of these nowadays effortlessly make the transition to the pages of Vogue as underwear models, plucked from the water polo team of some Midwestern State University as examples of corn-fed sleekness and marketed for a few years until they begin to grow bellies. Those that don't make Vogue hone their mixture of narcissism and exhibitionism on the field, in the locker room, and on the social scene. To be admired by men and desired by women--or even some blurring of these two: what goals could be higher?
I was not, as I say, such a young athlete. Of course my high school, which I despised, idolized the football team, whose annual Thanksgiving Day game against the town's other high school was the highlight of the year, eclipsing even Homecoming in its Byzantine rituals (including what clothes were cool, what kind of flower you were supposed to buy your girlfriend). The few people to whom it was clear that this rotten small town was not the be-all and end-all of existence, in which group I included myself, could feel nothing but alienated.
I expressed my Otherness by reading thick books, playing the violin, and having absolutely nothing to do with sports. Until the tenth grade, I had to take Physical Education three times a week. Predictably, I was terrible. Unlike almost everyone else, I dreaded the first day of spring, when so abruptly after my virtual hibernation we would have to run several times around the track. I knew I would get a stitch in my side and feel nauseated, as I had done every year. As the last days of winter waned, I began to count down to the inevitable with a feeling approaching fear.
And then came college, those physical glory days for so many young men. For me, college brings back the image of sitting all day in the unchanging light of the Haverford College library carrel, a school without a football team, making my way through Plato, Kant, and Wittgenstein, and moving as little as possible. I sympathized completely with the sentiment expressed by Robert Maynard Hutchinson in the early years of the University of Chicago, the first of my graduate schools, also at the time lacking a football team: Whenever he felt the desire to exercise, he is supposed to have said, he lay down until the impulse went away.
One day the summer after I graduated from college, I woke up and realized that I no longer had to prove anything to anybody. Now I was on my own, and could do as I liked. I put on a pair of tennis shoes and decided to see how many times I could circle the soccer field in the park opposite my apartment. I made it two and a half times around before a giant hand reached down out of the sky and yanked my guts out through my throat. The next day was worse, the day after that marginally better. In a matter of months I was running ten miles, from my suburban Maryland apartment down to the U.S. Capitol. Instead of breathing the air, the air breathed me, and my legs moved by themselves.
Suddenly, therefore, in contrast to all prior knowledge of myself, I found I was fit. Buff was something else entirely, and a much more difficult goal--difficult not so much in attaining as in admitting I wanted at all. Intellectuals weren't supposed to. It took me about five years of arguing with myself to be willing to pick up a weight. Finally, one day no different from the previous one except that suddenly I was ready, I went to the biggest mall in Nashville, where no one knew me, and walked out with a beginner's set of barbells, vowing that I would not allow myself to feel ridiculous. It wasn't much, but at least the ice was broken. When I wasn't using them, I stashed the weights in a closet and the bench behind the door. In Germany two years later, I took the further step of forcing myself to seek out a gym. It was another country: anything was permitted.
The two years in Rwanda that followed were in this sense weightless. In a society composed largely of potato farmers, the luxury of an energy expenditure for no reason was unheard of, and there wasn't a gym in the entire country. (In fact, there wasn't a real bookstore either.) As it was, the women tending the sheep by the side of the unpaved road in the foothills of the volcanoes where I ran stood and gaped, and reacted to me as a person only when I greeted them with the all-purpose Kinyarwanda greeting, emphasized on the second syllable, "Yay-go." (It means "yes.")
And then I came to Annapolis. Here no one is ashamed of working out. The midshipmen compete to see who can do more of it, and more effectively. Males here are naked in their desire for "big guns," or biceps. Midshipmen are as acutely aware of the power of the body as they are of that of the uniform, obsessed with pecs, creases and spotlessness, and complimenting each other by saying other midshipmen "look like a stud," which has nothing to do with women. Everyone knows his bodyfat percentage (single digits is beginning to be impressive) and his one-rep max on a bench press.
During my fourteen years at the Naval Academy, bathing in this atmosphere where attention to the body is taken for granted, I have added four inches to my chest and an inch and a half to my neck. I now sport a body that, I say proudly, approaches the Greek ideal of Myron's Discobolus: biceps and neck half the size of the waist.
People around here notice, and give approval. One spring day a couple of years ago, I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and an equally short-sleeved jacket I had found in a cutout bin. In a lull, one student in the back row suddenly raised his hand. I called on him. "Please sir," he said, "roll up your sleeve and flex for us!"
Despite myself, I was startled. "For heaven's sake," I said. Had they been paying any attention at all to Part II of Madame Bovary, that day's text?
"Please, sir!" The chorus became general. Of course, I was not a little flattered. I rolled up my sleeve and flexed.
"Hoo-ya!" they cried. "Huge!" Then: "Double-barreled, sir!"
In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought. For this I had to take off my jacket. The silence was suddenly thick enough to cut. I flexed both arms at once; the room erupted into delighted cat-calls. When they quieted down we returned to the plight of poor Emma. We had bonded, and the discussion went well.
It is the weight room, in fact, that brought me to modeling--and not merely because I look better. A willingness to parade one's physical self, which after all is at the basis of modeling, presupposes a level of comfort with that self. And what greater comfort can we have than knowing that we have constructed who we are, the most primordial gift of the weight room? Knowing this, the gaze of the viewer, or of the camera, seems like a caress: not a definer, as it would be for someone plagued by a sense of his own inadequacy, but an acknowledgement, the slight bow of recognition. The camera gives us no new information, but it does at least confirm what we already know. The weight room, that is, has changed not only my body, but my mind. In fact, it has changed my conception of the relationship between these two.
The basis of the academic lingua franca today is idealism. Objectivity is dead, if it was ever more than a myth. Science, we hear from all sides, is not an objective undertaking at all, but instead a specific scheme of conceptualization based on replaceable paradigms (Kuhn, Feyerabend); morals are the expression of power of the ruling group (Nietzsche and Foucault); everything, including gender, is a construction (try counting the "construction of" titles in your library's search engine: you'll still be at it next week). Facts, among them the reality of the body, are running scared, or have long ago given up.
Yet the weight room has made clear to me that such philosophy is promulgated almost inevitably by those who do not work out. Granted, we might have just come from a classroom where we have taught the disappearance of "reality," insisting on scare quotes around this word so redolent of Phallocentric Authority. Yet if we were forced to go to the gym and exhaust ourselves on the stair climber, or feel our muscles burning from exertion on the squat rack, we would in all likelihood be ready to acknowledge that the physical world exists, and that we are part of it. Mind is resolutely mind, it would certainly seem, and body very much body.
But it is possible to advance even beyond this initial stage where body contrasts so utterly with mind as a recalcitrant entity, that state of half-immersion, half-outsidership where the discipline of the order still seems strange. One may become what I like to think of as a seeker after virtue in the weight room. In this state, to be sure, the boundaries of Cartesian dualism are once again challenged--only this time, the challenge comes from the other direction: a hegemony of the body, not of the mind. The result, at any rate, bears no relationship whatsoever to the idealism of the contemporary academy.
Seekers after virtue in the weight room are those who, instead of dreading their time with the weights as a period of struggle against an external world, accept their burden as we do the weight of our own bodies. For such a person, body expands to fill the void of mind, not the reverse: we become our actions. Now, when I enter the weight room I see, in the racks and pulls shimmering in the oblique light before me, glowing like a beautified version of a Medieval torture chamber--the few people bent over them silhouetted against the morning light--a Mercator projection of myself. These are the scenes and stages on which I define myself, sites of performance that, collectively, leave an imprint of my being.
The rows of bench presses are empty, including the one that (for no particular reason) is my favorite, its plates stripped from its bar, rendered anonymous through emptiness--as meaningless in its desertion as one of hundreds of identical rooms in a chain hotel, each room with its identical flower print over the queen-sized bed. But when I arrange on each end of the bar two slabs of metal with holes in their middles like gigantic versions of Chinese coins, and slide onto the bench, clamping my gloved fingers at the point on the bar where the cross-hatched surface is interrupted by a smooth band of metal, it becomes an expression of me. I will, I know from last week's performance, lift the bar six times with relative ease, falter on the seventh, and probably have to give out on the eighth, relying on my spotter buddy to save me or simply reversing before the bottom. Then another set, where I will falter on the sixth, a third set where I am lucky to get three, all punctuated by the formulaic utterances of the cult from my buddy and spotter: "It's all you," "Push it up," and "Come on, Bruce, EXPLODE." And finally, his closing ritualistic "Good job." Then it is his turn, changing places in a wordless ballet of swipes at sweat with a towel. We leave, pleased with ourselves that we have pushed ourselves up to our limits and beyond, and the weights are rendered anonymous again in their resting position on the bristling rack.
Lifting in such a state requires immersion in the moment, accepting the motion of metal as an expression of one's self. Slow raising, and even slower lowering: constant tension, the delicious feeling of being at every moment at a limit of possibility. And that means, big weights. Three to four sets; eight to twelve repetitions, each time to failure. None of this ridiculous flipping with too-light dumbbells like the pudgy guy in the corner from whom my partner and I turn away in horror: there is no point in criticizing, but he defiles this temple of sweat. So too the cheater on the other side, swinging his body like an eel to get the bar on the lat pulldown machine to his chest. It hurts the eyes to look at him: surely Wiega, the goddess of the weights, is weeping bitter tears as she looks down from Valhalla. For us, by contrast, the slow pushing of the envelope, the fusing of the self with its willingly assumed mantle of iron. No resting at the top, no letting the weight fall. Perfect control, weights lifted according to that exercise's optimum curve. And then another set. And another, until the muscles seem to have vaporized in the body and I cannot even lift a feather.
In Hitchcock's Vertigo the black-gloved Kim Novak, whose role calls for her to play at being a woman inhabited by the spirit of her long-dead ancestress, poses absurdly in her haute-couture gown at the slice of a giant sequoia preserved in the Muir Woods, north of San Francisco. She points at one of the rings in the huge centuries-old tree-trunk. "Here I was born," she says melodramatically ... she pauses: "And here died." In the weight room, in the same way, we become a configuration of the weights: here, I can say, putting the pin in a stack of weights, I begin, and here end. Unlike this tree, however, I am still alive, and can hope to move the position of the pins outwards, adding another ring, and another.
I could imagine a whole weight room arranged just for me: the zigzag E-Z curl bar with a 25 lb. and a 5-lb. ring on each end, one very thick and one absurdly thin; the squat rack with two of the 45-lb. weights (in weightlifter-speak "plates") on each end, the 62.5-lb. dumbbells next to the side of the bench for single arm rows. That would be a kind of Cubist self-portrait, at least at this particular point: in a few weeks I may be able to add 5 lbs. to each side of the curls, ten to each side of the squat. I see myself spattered out across the machines, as fragmented as Duchamps' "Nude Descending the Staircase" in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the celebrated "explosion in a shingle factory" of the Armory Show that introduced Modernism to America.
Still, that would be only the outside, an arrangement of brute metal and not the living action. The true me is not the configuration of still weights, but a pattern of their motions, a pattern that must be realized, achieved, and challenged. It is, moreover, a pattern of my being through the solidity in which I seem to swim, molding the resistance to the contours of my body: it is constantly expanding, and I see it not from the outside, but from within.
In the weight room one comes to feel both the point and the inadequacy of Wittgenstein's drawing in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 5.6331: under a tear-drop shaped balloon seemingly inflated outwards by the smaller circle identified as the eye, the philosopher remarks, "The visual field does not have this form." His point is that we are our perceptual worlds: the visual field is not in the world, any more than death (in a later proposition) is a part of life. (5.63: I am my world.) We push the balloon out from the inside, and so cannot conceptualize it as a balloon from without. All we sense are the expanding limits.
In college I thought it profound. Now it seems merely inadequate. Had Wittgenstein gone to the weight bench, his arms trembling to move the bar to an eighth repetition, his spotter grunting encouragement from behind, protecting the chest from being crushed (the image of Wittgenstein on a weight bench is irresistible), he might well have realized that our perceptual field does have just this form, and we are within it. To be sure, we don't see its limits the way we see the design as a form on the page, but we do sense them (Wittgenstein seems to be arguing that there are no limits at all). We taste the limits of the self when finally we pile on so much weight that we are reduced to quivering impotence. It is failure, but it is at least our own failure, and it is self-induced: something we have sought and, ever so briefly, tasted.
In the weight room, that is, seekers after virtue seek to define that point in the world where our power fails: in that point we taste the limits of our being--not from without, but from within. Failure is our goal. Success is only the necessary but uninteresting means to what we are really seeking: self-induced abnegation, tasting limits that we can, ever so slowly, as if straining against a rock that moves ever so slightly beneath us, expand. All men, I think, want to be bested; some men by the world, some by other men. I find I want to be bested only by myself. Nor is it even necessary to be buff: I would work out even if I never grew. What I am looking for is the moment of impotence that defines the limits of my self.
Knowledge that we have done this is not produced by, nor does it depend on, another's reaction. Neither the mirror, the camera, nor the gaze gives us this knowledge. They only give a tip of the hat to what we know already to be true. Yet this is the place at which a seeker after weight room virtue can once again intersect the world. I mean, of course, the world as an abstraction: all of us intersect the world practically, and with any luck to good effect. I intersect the world with my wife, daughter, and my students; others do so with the definers of their own particular lives. Yet metaphysical intersections are never the same as particular ones. Demetria was right: you have to want it.
In more practical terms, you also have to be willing to spend the money trying to get it. Even those who bypass the model schools and go directly to an agency have to pay for their own promotional materials, photographers' fees, and the like. As I did. After several sessions with a photographer in various get-ups, subsequent discussions of the best poses from many rolls of film, reactions to mock-ups of the cards, and a lengthy wait, I received the sine qua non of commercial promotion as a model: two small packages containing multiple images of myself, a big one on the front and four small ones on the back. By this time the modeling school had folded, and with it the link it had to this now-suspect agency. I mailed the cards out to the half dozen other agencies in the area. Did I have what it took to succeed on my own? Was I right to have listened to the talent scout's siren song making public my hidden desires?
Getting signed is all a matter of having the right "look." One agency liked my "look" but said I was too similar to a model they already represented. Several didn't respond at all. And two invited me in for an "open call," a face-to-face interview, which ended in my signing onto their roster. One of these added me to their list of hand models. (Talk about fetishization of the body!)
The first two agencies were doubtful of my future in fashion modeling. I was, it seemed, too healthy looking. "Look at GQ!" one agent insisted. "They're all underfed!" The agency that has taken me on more recently felt differently, however, and asked me to show them my walk--which I did, remembering Demetria's exhortations. I also remembered the shoulder swing, the slouch and the glower. "Fine," said the woman in charge. "Now this time give me teeth. Flirt with the audience! You want those women to want to take you home!"
Teeth? Demetria would be scandalized. But I did what the boss asked, and she pronounced herself satisfied. And so my full-color photograph joined the dozens of other cards arranged alphabetically on my agents' walls, all the hopeful Bills and Johns and Teds, not to mention Debis, Cindis and Sherris.
And then I waited. Everything in the business depends on personal contact: whom will the agent pick off the wall to send to the client? The client is more likely to pick you if he or she knows you already. Whom will the agent pick if she has a choice? You do a first job, I was told, and that leads to others. These things take time.
Now the phone has begun to ring. (I think of Mahler, who insisted: "My time will come." Is my time about to arrive?) Recently I played the role of "A Pedestrian" in a Hollywood movie starring Morgan Freeman, one of whose scenes was being shot on the street in front of the Watergate in Washington. The thing was, about fifty other people were playing the same role. My job, after waiting around in the extras' "holding room" for four hours, was to cross the street on Virginia Avenue wearing a blue suit and carrying a raincoat (along with twenty-five other people doing roughly the same thing and dressed in roughly the same manner) until the director called "Reset," then to do it again, and again, and yet again. I was impressed by the quality of my colleagues in this odd endeavor: the waiting room was full of union-member actors hired to sit in gridlocked cars outside the hotel, or to cross the street like me.
More typical was the cattle-call audition in a Baltimore suburb for a print ad for a car manufacturer--this from the agency that had connections to the world of film commercials; the one I signed on with more recently specialized in print and fashion. The waiting room was filled with stage mommies with their offspring, most of whom had thick Baltimore accents (all consonants rounded off, "ah" becoming "uh" as in "wudder" and "qudder" for "water" and "quarter"), all clutching professional head shots. Each of us had a photo taken, and told a video camera something about himself. Hundreds of hopefuls tried out for slots in a single fictionally constituted family. I spent the morning on the Baltimore Beltway to get to the place, and of course, heard nothing. I don't think I can conclude they didn't like me, or even that I wasn't the type they were looking for. I think they got tired of looking at the video at a certain point and just picked. Or maybe they ended up with a family of blondes. In the business of selling yourself, you rarely even get the satisfaction of a personal, reasoned rejection. Just the sense that your arrow, shot almost at random into the air, has not hit the target, which probably moves around anyway.
As a mere neophyte actor/model, I am of course a bottom feeder, subject to the agent's whims, grateful for a few hours work, and investing hours in the car to arrive at auditions where dozens of other models, each clutching his or her Model's Mart portfolio and nursing dreams of being nationally distributed (which pays well), read for the same one-line part in an advertisement. Still, I am undeniably part of the system that suggests to starry-eyed readers and viewers that all female bodies are devoid of cellulite and all men sport six-pack abs, that casts clear-skinned 25-year-olds in TV sitcoms about high school students, and makes us think that everyone has gleaming teeth. Must this not, as the authors of The Adonis Complex (and countless books on the same subject for women) charge, lead to psychoses as the average person consumes him- or herself with dissatisfaction and jealousy?
I reflected on this recently after doing a job in a photographer's studio in Northern Virginia. The set was a couple of Ikea shelves against the cinderblock wall; the plants behind me had their bases wrapped in plastic, hidden from the camera; the "family" photographs were of someone else's kids, and the book I was shown reading was a false front taped upside down to the back of another book of the same size ("the manual didn't get here," explained the photographer). Each hair on my head was arranged and re-arranged by the "make-up artist"; the shirt I was wearing bore the logo of a non-existent firm.
In addition I realized, in a kind of epiphany I should probably have had much earlier, my very "look" was by definition just as artificial as everything around me. I was a walking synecdoche, a specific type being presented to the world as representative of the much larger gamut of humans.
When I came in, all of the people in the room were talking about their most recent trip to Milan: the male photographer, the male art director, the female client, the younger woman who was the photographer's assistant. "You must be the model," one of them said, partly by process of exclusion. But it also seemed to me, in retrospect, as I sat grinning at the camera ("a little less smile, please," the photographer said, then: "a fraction up with the chin"), that this was also a result of having identified my type correctly. The photographer, that is, was normal looking--defined, for men, as incipient paunch, not too tall, not handsome, but not bad-looking. The art director (who had set up the shelving and plants) was normal looking; the middle-aged client was normal-looking, the make-up artist was normal looking. Yet toward the end of my session there was rustling in the darkness behind the camera; they were setting up for another shoot. And out of the corner of my eye, I saw another man lounging against a pillar whom I too instantly identified as the model: tall, sharp-featured, shiny teeth. In short, another me. And the beautiful pale black woman exiting from the bathroom when I was on the way in a few minutes later was his female counterpart, all of us members of this race of the non-average who populate the world of products being sold to those who do not fit their type.
All print modeling, it was clear at moments like this, are part of a vast conspiracy, a working out of the economy of desire whereby the iceberg under the surface is made to yearn after its tip, and then transfer that desire onto the product. Of course I knew that it is lifestyle that is being sold in advertisements, or even in non-profit pamphlets such as I was shooting that day: if you buy a BMW, you will get this girl, date this guy. But it was at a moment like this that it was clear that an image is most primordially an image, more like other images than related to any other thing outside of it.
The result is an imaginary world that represents an ideal, but is processed as if it were real: a paradox worthy of Madame Bovary, or Don Quixote. For is the "ideal" not always artificial with respect to the real anyway? This may in fact be the nature of all art, so closely related to artifice. All art, whether from the year 2001, from 1930, or for that matter from the year 1, shows life as more interesting than it really is. In Hollywood movies, those international money-magnets, this is perfectly clear: impossibly pretty people do impossibly interesting, daring, or dangerous things while the music swells. Even art-house movies have to make themselves worth the drive into town and the fight for a parking spot. (As Hitchcock said: art is life with the boring parts cut out.)
I had begun to get an inkling of this during the process of making and constructing my comp cards, had begun to understand the splendor and miseries of the print modeling business--not to mention its best-kept secret. Known to all insiders and practically no outsiders, this secret is that the model provides at most half the finished image. The other half is provided by the photographer, which is to say, his or her knowledge of how the reality of three-dimensional flesh and blood translates to the flat page under certain conditions of lighting and angle. Nor do most outsiders know that each usable photograph is surrounded by a virtual sea of unusable ones, different from the good one in only the tiniest detail: an eye is somewhat too closed, the light makes the nose look too long, the shine on the arm is not intense enough.
We spent the most time on the body shots. I was worried about a pimple on my neck, but it disappeared in a lick of makeup. Brian, the photographer, and his wife Jill, a stylist, picked a box cut swimsuit from those I had brought that de-emphasized my long torso. I was sent away to put the gel on my hair (hair in model photos must show "texture" and "shine," as I learned in my courses), then the oil on my body. In the meantime, Brian rigged up a black backdrop in front of his garage. The light was late morning sun, still sideways but bright, the better (he explained) to cast shadows under the pecs and to differentiate the abs. It was a little cold in just a bathing suit, which was good: "It gets your nipples hard," he said, and grinned. The more varied you can get the torso, the more interesting it is to look at.
He suggested I do some quick pushups and some isometric biceps curls to get the veins popping, after which he sprayed my skin with water from a Windex bottle, which formed droplets on the shiny oil. He arranged the prop goggles around my neck and told me to lift my arms. "Too much," he corrected me. "Your pecs are flattening out." I leaned back at the waist as I had learned to do, trying for what bodybuilding legend Arnold Schwarzenegger calls a "stomach vacuum" (trying to paste your belly onto your backbone) and flexing chest, arms, and abs simultaneously. It hurt. Out of the two rolls that were shot, about half the pictures were usable. It was, therefore, a very good shoot. Both Brian and Jill were pleased.
The splendor of print modeling is the possibility of achieving an image of something close to perfection: the light falls right, all the muscles pop out, the smile (or glower) doesn't look silly. What has to be done in order to achieve that is the misery of the business, at least in philosophical terms, the part that remains unseen to the viewer. For the viewer, the art of the photographer disappears in what I call the Playboy phenomenon, where gullible adolescents are allowed to think that what they see exists outside of the photograph. But the photograph is a hermetically sealed intersection of many factors, most of them unseen: the model's fee that made her strip to begin with, the photographer's professional know-how, the fact that the woman cannot be touched inside the photograph. All this is imagined away in the fantasy that this is part of a larger reality into which the viewer could step. It is a photograph of the woman, but it is equally a photograph of her. Both parts are important, and the result is an amalgam of both.
Novels are the same amalgam of fact and fiction as photographs, of the already-there and the added-to. The difference is that the author of the novel is by default credited with the whole amalgam, whereas in the photograph the photographer tends to be shut out in the cold, relegated to a tiny credit by the side of the picture. Indeed the theoretical default position seems to be that everything in a novel is made up, and readers sometimes have the realization that this is not actually so. In a modeling photograph, by contrast, the default position for the viewer is that everything there is real. More sophisticated viewers realize ultimately that this isn't true either.
In the "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Keats grasped the strange symbiotic relation between reality and such collective dreams of reality. The scenes of endless youth and summer on the urn may show us what we recognize as perfection, but because it is perfection, it is by definition both unattainable and fundamentally alien to our lives. It may be true that the people on the urn never grow old, but neither can they attain any of the human goals that make our lives livable. Still, they are what we desire, and they are what we put on public display. If these images showed life as it really is, we would look away. And looking away is the one response that those who generate pictures using models as props, such as I am learning to become, cannot allow.
A professor of English at the US Naval Academy, BRUCE FLEMING is the author, most recently, of the novel Twilley and of a collection of dance essays, Sex, Art and Audience.