More than the global scale of competition, the sheer athletics, and the team dramas, I’ve mostly tuned in to the World Cup for the hair. Never in my life has a sporting event been made so compelling by the extravagant ambition of its players’ heads. For every country represented, at least ten kinds of color (ombre, platinum), cut (sides shaved, long and gladiator-esque), and style (dreads, fros, more dreads) appear in every lineup. So remarkable is this display of sports and style that The Beheld, The New Inquiry’s beauty blog, has renamed it “The World Hair Cup”, turning Cup coverage into a Top-Model-esque competition in realtime.
But as Sophie Gilbert explained in The Atlantic, radical hair has a deep history in soccer. With players taking on insect proportions as one of almost two dozen players on the field, and uniforms that restrict individual expression to the hands and feet, soccer is especially accomodating. Hair allows an identity so that even from the TV camera’s vantage point, I can (could) always pick out Neymar’s hawkish crop, or the bouncing dyed-blond braid’s of France’s Bacary Sagna.
It’s tempting to pin this mark of outlandish styling on the notoriously large egos of professional athletes, and slot it in among decades of players exhibiting their field-sized vanity. I don’t believe that it’s not; yet, the scale of the games makes it possible to see their stylish extravagance, in relation to other team sports, as a phenomenon somewhat atypical, even transgressive. As Gilbert states, “the most interesting thing about the prevalence of eccentric hairstyles in soccer is how openly the players defy heteronormative standards of masculinity.”
I’ve been preoccupied with the idea of male beauty and adornment ever since Jared Leto made a sweep of this year’s awards-show season, where the praise for his controversial performance of a transgendered woman in Dallas Buyer’s Club barely won out against admiration for his hair. Like Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt in the 90s, Leto’s hair earned him the particular spot in between a sex symbol and beauty icon, embodying a mix of masculine and feminine appeal, with hair as long and bounteous as a Disney mermaid’s. It’s worth noting that people like Leto, who may in one manner appear feminine though not androgynous, are successful sex symbols because they push a boundary of heteronormativity without actually threatening masculine ideals. “He’s secure with himself,” women will say in regards to men who display a singular feminine trait — long hair or jewelry or pink dress shirts — because the baseline must remain identifiably male. Cultural preference has always pointed toward “natural” looking men. If Leto had slipped and revealed the effort that had gone into his hair or any vain attachment he has to it, we’d judge his image differently.
Rarely do we consider the implications of male attractiveness. “Beauty is often treated as an essentially feminine subject,” writes Adelle Waldman, “something trivial and frivolous that women are excessively concerned with. Men, meanwhile, are typically seen as having a straightforward and uncomplicated relationship with it: they are drawn to it.” In other words, beauty requires the type of nit-pickiness that only women and perhaps gay men can tolerate, while men have their hands free to reap the rewards. Women produce beauty, embody beauty; men consume it. In maintaining beauty as a “feminine” trait, men position the ultimate power play: they’re allowed to both dismiss it for themselves and yet demand it of the women who surround them. The skewed economics of beauty is a system that profits mostly men at the expense of all women and the benefit of only a select few. Even Beyonce, perhaps the most famous beneficiary of this system, has scoffed at it, saying, “…money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define value. They define what’s sexy. And men define what’s feminine. It’s ridiculous.”
What if men’s beauty were made as important as women’s? It’s not a realistic question, but the stakes make me think it’s one that is worth asking. Waldman specifically writes about the problem of female beauty in literature; a writer never quite knows how to handle themselves around it, making beauty “ a convenient afterthought,” when in life, we know it as both cause and effect of nearly every life aspect, from a woman’s decision whether and who she marries, to what profession she pursues and how much money she’ll make in her lifetime. Waldman is correct, of course, but then another problem remains. That in real life, male beauty is as women’s beauty in literature: exhibited without consequence, “a convenient afterthought,” if any thought at all.
I know beauty as a different kind of problem than the one Waldman writes of, one that begins and childhood and continues even after the relative security of adulthood settles in. The problem presents itself in various forms: constant male (and female) surveillance, periodic discrimination, and fraught consumerism, just to name a few. And I see the problem among my writing peers as well. Our’s is a culture unable to discuss any artistic contribution by a female without a parallel investigation into her looks. If she’s attractive, her success is tainted. If she’s unattractive, her success is unfounded. I know beauty is a problem; and I want it to be everyone’s problem. Or better yet, nobody’s problem.
In the vein of the Jared Letos and pro soccer players of the world, the man I’m dating is someone who, by most considerations, could be called a beautiful man. He’s got deep-set hazel eyes, a strong nose whose angular tip points to a roundly defined mouth, all set against a clear, dusky complexion that offers the effect of looking, always, just a few minutes fresh from a vigorous jog. The crowning feature of his beauty is his hair, a miraculously untamed pile that he wears either in a bun at the nape of his neck or in loose, natural waves that extend past his nipples.
This might seem odd but I’ve always imagined men — heterosexual white men, in particular — to be invisible. In some ways, they are. Their bodies don’t provoke fear, anger, or desire; they are coded as neutral. But Jacob’s hair proves that men are not as neutral as I once thought. Before growing his hair out, he may have been noticed; but with long hair, he’s called “beautiful.” And as his hair reached past his shoulders, I watched the reactions grow in number and intensity. Now, it’s not uncommon for people to approach him on the street or in crowded bars and inquire as to his hair’s history, compliment it, or even, as was the case on a trip to Seattle earlier this year, to ask him to pose for photographs while I stood nearby dealing with a novel mix of pride and envy.
For an idea of how confused we’re made to feel about beautiful men, look at the language we’ve invented to surround them. Mash-up words like man-purse, man-bun, and bro-smetics underscore a gut discomfort with a man who comes off a little too intentional in his appearance, too crafted or manicured — too much like a woman. If a man demonstrates some awareness of style or experiments, he’s messing with the socio-structural implications for beauty and those who should practice it. Still, the longer I go without seeing the word “metrosexual” — that embarrassingly outdated term first coined in ‘94 but made most famous by a previous World Cup star, David Beckham — I feel like we’re getting somewhere.
The players sporting spectacular hair at this year’s World Cup might be taking style risks, but little more than that. They are representative of an epitomized masculinity (world-class athletes earning top-dollar salaries), and so are exempt from the ridicule or judgment of our cultural notions of beauty and gender. Still, as Autumn Whitefield-Madrono of The Beheld writes, the fact of their boldness shouldn’t be entirely dismissed. “Women’s appearance is more policed than men’s,” she writes, “but when it comes to hair, the range of acceptability is far broader for women than it is for men.” More than a parade of athletic ego, I’ve watched the games with a certain glee, at the novelty of being an observer of male eccentricity that is rarely expressed by the men around me. For once, I am a consumer of beauty. And even though their athletic status places them outside of behavioral norms, they are no doubt useful counterpoints for measuring our conservative definitions of gender and beauty, as well as the heteronormative standards we place on both.
It is not a man’s job to be beautiful as it is a woman’s. Still, more men are participating in beauty, producing, becoming a different kind of consumer. Despite an over-saturated women’s beauty market, cosmetics brands have discovered growth in men’s-only products, which on its own now constitutes a multi-billion dollar industry.
Having seen the kinds of attention Jacob gets — straight men smitten by other straight men — I can’t help but think a man with gorgeous, long hair might be the revolution. Or at least one tiny antidote to the problem of female beauty: the guilt, anxiety, humiliation, and inadequacy it has caused, historically, and individually. I’ve seen men smile, whisper, or declare their appreciation outright. Only once have I noticed someone react aggressively toward Jacob’s hair. Mostly, they seem eager to compliment another man’s appearance, however awkwardly, before inevitably asking the question: Do you think I’d look good with hair like that?