When I was about five years old, my mother took me to a party. She worked part-time at a jewelry shop and the owner had invited the employees to his home for a barbecue.
I’m sure I’d have forgotten the whole affair decades ago, except for one small detail: a man at the bar, probably between 25 and 30 years old. As I stood alongside him, I was mesmerized by the sight of the sideburn on the left side of his head. I don’t remember him as a person or even as a whole body. But I can still conjure the image of that sideburn today, discrete and disconnected from the person it belonged to.
Now I know that sounds just bit sociopathic. But wait: it gets worse.
That sideburn may not belong to anyone too particular in my memory, but it does belong to a host of emotional responses I felt at the time and (in more subtle ways) still feel today. My idea of the masculine body — ok, of masculinity in general — is built from a collection of these disparate parts like Frankenstein’s monster: a sideburn, the size and shape of a hand, the hair on a forearm, the length and breadth of a foot, the delineation of a chest muscle and the hair that covers it.
Sure, my response to these pieces of the masculine body is sexual. But it’s not just that simple stirring in the loins, the blood rushing to my cock, the rise in my predatory instincts. These things have an effect on me that’s less localized or specific: I sense a reaction at the back of my head, as if someone were stroking my neck or holding me in an embrace; I feel a softness, a longing deep inside.
These pieces of the body become fetishes — and I mean that as much in the religious sense of the word as in the sexual sense — and my focus on any one of them blocks the rest of the picture from my senses. Like prehistoric artists did with the genitalia on their Venuses and fertility idols, my brain inflates the importance of these objects of my affection out of all proportion to what’s around them.
More important is everything I came to associate with those body pieces. In my mind — at age five and ever after — those characteristics were only the outward and physical expression of something harder to pin down and describe, something deep inside each of the men who displayed them. “Strength.” “Power.” “Self-sufficiency.” “Virility.”
Nuts? Maybe. But if assigning so much emotional power to disconnected body parts were peculiar to the wiring in my brain alone, why would there be such general interest in porn that focuses completely on close-ups of a particular body part? Why would there be groups on Flickr devoted only to very specific pieces of anatomy? For that matter, why would there be advertising on bus shelters that shows us only a pair of perfectly plumped and rouged lips measuring in at four and a half feet? There’s got to be some more universal pay-off here to keep people buying expensive adult DVDs, clicking through pages of posted images, or paying for over-priced lipstick.
I mentioned in an earlier post that I have lots (and lots) of vintage erotica. At first, my interest was simply to collect examples of what I found hot back in the late 70s.
And as I scoured eBay for prime examples, I did find those images to be a turn-on. But soon, I found I was putting them away in binders and boxes, looking at them only rarely. They stopped being the stuff I pulled out for an afternoon of self-abuse, and became something I “collected”; something I filed and cataloged and … well, cherished.
And I kept buying more.
Then one day friends gave me a book on vintage beefcake photography. I was fascinated: here were images that toyed with the same fetish-y display of all those body parts, but submerged that overt imperative to Masturbate Now! And the sensations they produced felt even more complicated: I was aroused both emotionally and physically. I saw an object of my desire outside of myself and a magic-mirror image of what I wished I could become.
This was the image [at left] that captured my imagination: Richard Reagan in a photo taken by Bob Mizer of Athletic Model Guild.† His apparent comfort with his own body and the physical world around him; the sturdiness of his build; the pose and the sledge hammer that suggest he’s able to mold his reality, rather than suffer through what life hands him. And then there’s the powerful arms, the beautiful chest hair, those strong legs and that cleft chin.
All of this is fine and fun and interesting to consider. But, over time, it begins to lock out the possibility of any substantial connection with real people. Oh, I found my share of men who exhibited the requisite collection of body parts. But like the obsessive Frankenstein with his monster, I wasn’t prepared to engage with the whole person inside the pieces I’d put together.
The journey toward a reconciliation of these two halves of my inner life has been a gradual one: this longing for a fantasy assemblage of iconic physical pieces (and all they represent) with a connection to a whole person. And it’s been only partly deliberate. [I just haven't evolved enough as a person that I would know how to plot that course all by myself.]
But maybe I’m over-thinking this. Maybe it’s not so strange to have a template in one’s mind for what’s attractive. And maybe it’s not so strange that any candidate for more interaction — a date, a quick one-nighter, going steady, or taking a chance on the long term — has to pass that first test, however arbitrary and formulaic it may seem. Lots of people are naturally attracted to partners younger than themselves, for example. And what registers in their minds as “appealing” may be as much the promise of “youth” and “optimism” and “innocence” as it is “smooth skin” and “robust health” and “staying power.”
And maybe it’s not so strange that we continue to see in our chosen partner that assemblage of characteristics that made our eyes widen and our pulse quicken at that first encounter. In fact, it might be an awful shame to lose sight of that first, primal reaction.
I’m married now. I was somehow lucky enough to find a man who displays all the physical stuff that continues to arouse me sexually and to recreate that deeper emotional response, that fetish-induced tingling at the back of my head and deep in my heart. He’s also very tolerant about the boxes and binders full of porn and erotica.
But most remarkably of all, he’s able to make me see him as a complete person, a synthesis of those things I associate with their outward expressions on his body, as well as the contradiction of each and every one of them. When I look at him, I’m able to see this man I love and still learning to understand. But I also see the strong hands, the broad shoulders, the beautiful eyes, the perfect feet and legs and backside. And that dimple in his chin and on his left cheek [all the more adorable because it has no match on the right side].
That vibration in my head between the pieces, individual and discrete, and the whole man — that quivering in my mind, that frisson — is disorienting and exciting. I don’t know if I would have gotten to know a man who didn’t fit that specific template of desired physical traits I keep filed in my brain; so I don’t know if I would have had the chance to fall in love with someone who wasn’t as physically beautiful as he is. But I do know that I couldn’t have given myself to someone who wasn’t (in many significant ways) both the embodiment of what those physical traits represent and their contradiction: someone who’s at home in the physical world and is comfortable acting upon it, but someone who’s also as plagued with doubts and insecurities as I am.
In the future of my fantasies, my brain will continue to quiver in just the same way well into our old age, vibrating between images of the individual pieces and a grasp of the whole man.
As for Mr. Reagan: I still cherish his images and everything they represent. But it’s kind of like the torch I carry for that statue of Mercury on top of Grand Central Station: I like to look and even to dream. But he’s not the guy you want to marry.
And just in case you want to form your own opinions about the image that first captured my attention, here are more of Richard Reagan (sometimes identified as Richard — or Dick — Reagen) from Athletic Model Guild (and one of my many binders of photos).
[Just click on a thumbnail to launch the overlay.]
† An issue of Physique Pictorial (July, 1962, vol. 12, no. 1, page 13) which features another image from the same Athletic Model Guild session identifies him as Dick Reagen, 21, of Santa Monica who left his native Newark to become an actor. Giving him a name and a story, fixing him at a particular place and time, somehow increased the romance of this person who (for all practical purposes) is a complete fabrication, who’s never existed for me as any more than the image reproduced as Ben-Day dots in a magazine or as the fixed grains of silver nitrate on a photo print.