Via Financial Times

Here follows an account of this columnist’s outward appearance, more than two weeks into the lockdown.

Starting at the top, wilderness has overrun the once-august hair, just as Rome turns to bush in Thomas Cole’s quintet of paintings “The Course of Empire”. Acquaintances profess not to register the difference.

Panning down, we observe a blooming of stubble, from the Bachelor Minimum to what must seem from afar a conscientious if incomplete face mask. The haziness of eye and speech owes less to Washington’s lax cannabis laws than a sleep rhythm that now syncs with that of — dark irony — the common bat. The loss of hard-won muscle tone around the obliques is mourned with infinite bitterness. As small consolation, the scales record no weight gain.

In my bodily paranoia, I am at least part of a brotherhood. Of all the people in my life, it is the men who most resent the cosmetic effects of a prolonged lockdown. The mothballing of the gym is ruinous. The nearness of the fridge does not help. And compounding these things is something less tangible: the loss of all incentive to groom ourselves in the morning.

Crises don’t just change the way we live. They expose the way we have been living. The rise of male vanity has been documented well enough but it has taken the lockdown to show how central it has become to our habits, our thought patterns, our egos.

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Had social distancing happened a generation ago, there would have been the same pining for nightlife and the same ravenousness for sport. What there would have been much less of is this masculine neurosis about going to seed. It is all over my WhatsApp. It is the subtext of video calls. What starts as strained ribbing about each other’s supplementary chins sharpens into a serious comparing of notes. Which Freeletics routine to adopt? Which dietary gambits? To wear nice clothes out of personal pride, or not?

The movies tell us how far we have travelled. Forty years have passed since Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo. At the time, the most subversive scene was not the gay nightclub, or the gum-numbing cocaine, or even the “rough trick” out Palm Springs way. It was the bit where Richard Gere coos over his shirts as he dresses. In the gendered language of the era, leading men were not meant to make such a ladylike fuss of themselves. That he works out a lot — at home, an eerie portent — is also shown to us as some kind of pathology.

To watch it back now, the character is just a slightly stylised version of modern urban man. In 1980, the audience would have expected attitudes to sex work to become less prurient over time. They haven’t. They might have assumed a softening of prohibition on hard drugs by now. There has been little of the kind. No, the grand social change has been the normalisation of male narcissism.

My life has played out to that trend (I was born two years after the film), and been shaped by it. It just took the lockdown to see it. The phenomenon intensifies by the year, so that the generation below mine, with their abstemiousness, their sartorial daring, strike even me as preeners. What a feat it is to persuade them that David Beckham once scandalised the tabloids by wearing a sarong. (“The finest crosser in world football”, wrote one, not sparing the innuendo.)

The thing is, for all that I am a prisoner of this stuff, I would not change it. The common mistake is to interpret male vanity as superficial. Speaking only for those I know, it is actually about vigilance against a much deeper change. Our calculation is this: where the body goes, the soul follows. That is, let yourself slacken, and yours will be a life of Netflix-watching, of mid-life resignation to career stasis, of awful domestic banter about being under the thumb.

Hillary Clinton once caused a fuss when she disparaged women who stay at home and bake cookies. But there are faultlines within masculinity too. Staying on the “right” side, as we would see it, starts with keeping up appearances. Call us ridiculous. Just don’t call us shallow.

Email Janan at janan.ganesh@ft.com

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