On a July afternoon a couple years ago, an odd headline from the Daily News popped up on my news feed: “Manhattan art gallery puts photo of man’s private parts in front window, draws ire of neighbors.” Intrigued, I read on. “Women walking outside Rivington Design House Gallery seemed not to mind, while some men were outraged.” That certainly was the opposite of what I expected. The controversy was especially surprising to me because the gallery was in Soho, with its dense concentration of cool, bohemian sophisticates. Curious to see what the ruckus was all about, I dropped by the gallery a couple days later.
On my way downtown, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I could understand how parents might object to their children being exposed to a photograph of a man sporting a full monty in a storefront. But on the other hand, it was practically impossible to walk down any street in New York without witnessing a dude in his skivvies on a bus stop one sheet. The ads left little to the imagination. Did three inches of cotton fabric stretching like a supersized bow across a model’s package really make that big a difference? It seemed strange to me that anyone would object, especially since the photographs are works of art.
What I discovered at the gallery, however, only baffled me further. The exhibition, “CFNM” (clothed female/naked male) , was more low-key and modest than I had expected. It consisted of eight fresh, full-length portraits by Bek Andersen of men hanging around the house. The images were disarming, as if the photographer, perhaps a buddy, had taken some candids before the guys could react. The men were casual, relaxed, natural, hardly even posing. So different from most male nudes in which men project virility and strength, contort their bodies to highlight a portion of the male anatomy, or make highly charged statements about their sexuality.
By contrast, in Andersen’s portraits, the personality of the subject splashes out effervescently, as if Andersen had merely uncorked their essence, and the body was but a transparent pipe or bottle from which life force flowed. The pictures had the same energy, spontaneity, and joy as the late Bill Cunningham’s work. It was as if Bill had run around town making portraits of naked men, instead of recording weddings, social events, and the latest fashion trend for the New York Times. The pictures were hugs, smiles, and winks — an unfiltered insider’s guide to the male species.
The photographs struck a chord with me. A child who came of age in the mid-‘70s, I witnessed the sexual revolutions of the ‘60s and ‘70s that gave rise to a new awareness of the body, and the permission to enjoy it freely. As a 20-something, I exercised my biological imperatives before the virulent prevalence of STDs and the fear of AIDS that made people start to think twice in the mid ‘80s. I hopped on the fitness craze when Bruce Weber photographed Tom Hintnaus, the “Boycott Olympics” pole-vaulter, in his iconic briefs. Like many other guys eager to get laid, I bought my Calvins, and the idea that I need be fit to be sexually attractive.
But my explorations charting new territory were not always smooth sailing. In fact, it had been a very rough passage from the beginning. Growing up in Texas, I was constantly reminded that there was an unambiguous set of rules for how a man is supposed to behave, and a set of armor that I must wear to do battle. I resisted that mindset. Thankfully, a series of women — my mom, grandmothers, and a family friend, former Governor Ann Richards — challenged the prevailing male models back then. It’s thrilling to see some of the next generation of men so comfortably making space for women to move into positions traditionally held by men, at home and at work. And it’s even more inspiring to watch millennials stake out a totally new frontier, accepting the diversity of male sexual behavior that has always existed, but was seldom openly acknowledged. Orientation is a non-issue to many of them, and a new level of transparency among young men exists as a result.
Despite these advances, many crosscurrents still rage underneath the general bonhomie of the present era. Anxious parents and policy makers have exhorted the younger generation of men and women to check their sexual drives, and show more maturity and judgment than my generation was able to muster. (The recent avalanche of allegations regarding sexual assault and harassment in the workplace is embarrassing and heartbreaking. Haven’t we progressed beyond all this? Apparently not, with chilling consequences.) Tumbling in the rip tides and high winds swirling with conflicting expectations and desires, men and women — of all ages — are faced with a difficult situation: do we squash our sexuality, or express it? Can we possibly celebrate it?
On behalf of guys who are feeling whipsawed back and forth, Bek’s work seemed to say: “Enough. Let’s unleash and unmask men, put them on display, and honor their complexities and unique gifts. Let’s acknowledge what it means to be a ‘guy’ and encourage men to engage their masculinity in an honest, responsible way.” Finally, someone was speaking my language, using a camera. I wanted to see myself in that emerging world through Bek’s lens. I contacted the gallery and asked to be put in touch.
A couple weeks later I stood outside Puck Fair, a loud, crowded pub in Soho. It was a lazy, end-of-summer day during Fashion Week, as I soon learned. IZOD was staging a shoot, and a dozen young people in various stages of undress and makeup in rainbow colors stood in an alley at the end of the block. Two tall, lithe women with lime-green and lipstick-red hair were topless, their nipples bedazzled with glitter in the dappled, afternoon sun. A blond college hunk was shirtless, and was evidently going commando under his flimsy, yellow running shorts. His spread-eagled legs revealed his manhood for the enthusiastic cameras. He proudly leaned back, adjusted himself, and spread his legs wider, as a barrage of clicks exploded around him. It was hard not to stare. I admired how easy and comfortable he was in his body. Could I possibly do the same?
I went inside, texted Bek that I was at the bar, and waited anxiously. Why, I kept asking myself, would a man on the downward slope of life subject himself to this level of exposure?
My motivation for approaching Bek seemed logical enough to me: it was a bold next step in my lifelong adventure participating in the ongoing rewrite of the social norms regarding what it means to be male, and a celebration of the man I have become.
So despite some misgivings, here I was, basking in the amber sunlight spilling through the front door of a pub, a man in his prime savoring the enormous strides forward that some men have taken. Luxuriating in my ability to experience and appreciate the blinding kaleidoscope of my manhood in all its many amazing, authentic colors, I felt inspired to take another step forward on my own journey. Not unlike the young IZOD stud, I too wanted a photographer to capture my moment.
A young woman stepped up to the bar and said, “Are you Mark?” I froze. Given the “no-big-deal” attitude of the portraits, I had assumed that “Bek” would be male. The slight choking sensation at the back of my throat betrayed my lingering social inhibitions, and innate modesty. Was I really going to pose nude for a…woman? It was fine to undress, and even strut a bit, in front of another guy. That would be like taking a shower at the gym. This was going to be different. To back down now, however, would be a betrayal of the hard fought gains that I sought to commemorate. It would mean that the soaring, swelling pride that I felt in the new male normal was all hot air, and worse, that I was just another one of the guys whose macho, swaggering behavior I abhorred. All hat, no cattle.
Swallowing hard, I squawked, “Yes.”
We stepped across Lafayette Street to a quiet wine bar, and talked for a couple hours. Bek told me about her work, and shared much of her life story, growing up as a Mormon in Oklahoma City, not fitting in, discovering and pursuing her talent in Boston, then New York. As I listened, it became apparent that the themes that she explored in her art were very much those that I had been working through in my own life. She shared that she had observed a deep sense of shame within men, underneath varying degrees of bravado. As a feminist, she wanted to photograph men who were willing to power down, open up, and be vulnerable, dropping their defenses. Between the shame and the posturing, she was finding it difficult to rally “regular Joes” to pose for her, and after photographing several friends, she had posted an ad on Craigslist to find others. She had received a few responses, but she worried that this approach might be compromising her work, introducing a bias towards exhibitionism among the men. That made me pause. Was I simply another male show-off? I needed a second round for this discussion.
The more we talked, the more I relaxed and opened up. Eventually we talked about her process for helping men feel comfortable revealing themselves to the camera. Reading my mind, she brought up several delicate subjects that we would have to negotiate between us during the shoot, if I posed nude for her, putting me at ease. (“I’m sure you are wondering we will do if you get hard? Don’t worry. That’s a normal physiological response. I have five brothers, I know.” I laughed).
Towards the end of our conversation, I heard myself offer to help her explore the idea that vulnerability does not disempower, but actually completes and strengthens men, helping them move beyond their social conditioning to access the full spectrum of the human experience that is available, an essential next step in order to achieve a better balance among the genders.
“So what do you think? Do you want to participate in the project?”
“What’s on your mind?”
“How uncomfortable I will be as the object of your lens. It’s not unlike what men do to women.”
“My work is not really a reversal of the male gaze, but a disarming.”
Disarming. Exactly what the world needs.
I took a deep breath. I have always been an experiential learner. “Yes, Bek, I will pose for you.”
For an instant, I wished that I could retract my words, but I knew that posing naked was a test of what kind of man I was, after all these years. Was I a guy who embodied the new normal and had the courage to let his body make that statement, a guy who might be able to enter into an honest exchange with a woman about his own desires and ability to respond to hers, or was I a conventional guy who still played it safe, and blustered his way through his insecurities about his own body? No. I resolved to step outside my comfort zone for art, and do whatever she requested, based on principle.
When the day of our shoot arrived, Bek scoped out our house for various locations that might be visually interesting while revealing character at the same time. An unusually serene, Indian summer day was fading into the dulcet yellow tones that the camera loves.
Bek was relaxed, I was nervous as hell, but I was committed and going to give it my all. She tested me from the very beginning, determined to see how far I would go, asking me to pose on the threshold of our black front door. Our driveway slightly curves up the hill to a gap in the woods opposite the entrance to our house. I blushed, wondering if an innocent passerby on our town-designated “scenic road” might get an unexpected view. I pretended to not care, dropped my robe, and leaned up against the frame nonchalantly, as if I answering the door in my altogether was an everyday occurrence.
Bek was obviously pleased that I had kept my promise, and so was I. We laughed, and then spent the afternoon experimenting with my body in various positions and locations around the house. Within minutes, I abandoned my red velour robe, and stalked around as only a man newly released from the prison of his own self-imposed limitations can. I stretched, poised like a jaguar, ready to pounce at a moment’s notice. I was free, free at last.
Eventually, Bek decided she had what she needed for her project (which later became part of the work she submitted to gain entry to the legendary MFA program at Yale). I thanked her for the gift of releasing me from the shame, my inhibitions, and the self-incrimination within which I had shackled my own body, and laughed nervously at the thought that someday her picture, my portrait, could end up in a book or an exhibition of her study of the American male.
It was several weeks before Bek and I had a chance to look at the photographs together. I was astounded, barely able to contain my amazement at what she had discovered about me as a common carrier of the Y chromosome. Somehow she had transformed a regular looking guy into a timeless, prime example of the male form. It was all there on display, perfectly natural, nothing hidden.
In that moment I realized that there is a beauty and grace in being male at any age that should be more appreciated, even loved, actually. Finally, all the messages about having to have washboard abs on a six-foot frame, or being unemotional and stoic, didn’t have any meaning to me. I could accept who I was, and enjoy it, revel in it.
In an era that justifiably takes umbrage with patriarchal social structures, my portrait, in fact the whole experience with Bek, was liberating, a confirmation that there is a way to express and enjoy your masculinity without being threatening or ashamed.
They say that there is no zealot like the newly converted. Wanting to give others the liberation I had felt through Bek’s photographic genius, I offered to recruit some buddies for the cause. I was careful whom I chose to approach, knowing full well that asking a friend to pose nude for a female photographer was likely to invite all sorts of reactions, from ridicule to bafflement to scorn. This wasn’t just a test of the measure of the man. It was also a reflection upon my own masculinity, a fun house mirror that could permanently distort impressions.
I rounded up a squad of men who were excited about the idea of shedding one’s clothes and inhibitions to fully own their body. I was thrilled. But then, usually after a partner or spouse expressed concern, each of the men backtracked, quietly boxing himself up, disavowing his inner Adonis.
We may think that we are liberated, indeed even sophisticated, in our attitudes towards nudity, and the new male paradigms that we embody, but have we not, each and everyone of us, built a little box for ourselves within which it’s safe, because we are afraid to embrace the body and new models that gives such glorious form to our being?
I’m glad I took one for the team on this issue. The urgent reconsideration of gender and power dynamics during the #MeToo moment is challenging men of all ages to rethink their relationship to their own body and engage openly and honestly with their own conceptions of masculinity, expressing them responsibly. What we all need is a new set of rules regarding the use (and appreciation) of the male body that enables a revised norm to emerge, one that encourages men to open up, be vulnerable, and embrace their own bodies, in order to erase the toxic version of masculinity that has contaminated our culture. It will take courage. But we must, we simply must be bold, and “get naked.” Surely that is within every man’s personal definition of bravery.