Representations of Masculinity and the Body among Peruvian Men
By Norma Fuller
During an official meeting the former president of Peru, Ollanta Humala (2011-2016), urged the youngsters gathered there to act as men, and said that “instead of spending their time going to discos and adopting female habits such as dyeing their hair or wearing earrings, you should go to the barracks and serve your country.” This speech epitomizes the representation of the ideal male body among Peruvian men; it should be strong, fit to fight and as opposite from femininity as possible.
Gender studies have weakened the link between biological imperatives and the production of gender identities. Thus, we don’t ask what it means to be male or female, but we look at the way we talk about these biological differences in each particular context (For more on this subject, you can take a look at Teresa De Lauretis’ Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film and Fiction or several of theorist Judith Butler’s excellent books).
We use words to interpret, encode and understand our bodily sensations. Words attach significance to those sensations. Thus, the body is at the same time the locus of pain, pleasure and the person itself and the object of social coercion.
We see (and rank) our bodies and their different anatomical parts and bodily functions through the lens of the society in which we live. For example, in Western cultures the head is not only the seat of intellect but is also identified with command, control, and positions of leadership. As a portrayer of meanings, the body shows us how a social group represents itself. In other words, it can be understood as an allegory of the social order. Therefore, the body is not just the raw material on which the social order is etched, but one of the elements that establishes, expresses and reproduces its hierarchies.
To understand the hierarchies of body and masculinities in Peru, I interviewed a sample of 120 men living in three cities: Lima, Cuzco and Iquitos. The concepts of the masculine body are important because they are a symbolic arena where gender, race and ethnic relations in Peruvian society are expressed, performed and questioned. In this sense the body becomes a powerful tool for legitimizing social and gender orders.
THE MAKEUP OF BODY
The body itself is made up of matter and appearance. The matter of the masculine body has two elements: sex (the sexual organs represented by the penis) and strength (muscles, capacity). Appearance, for its part, is made up of the face and adornments. The face is associated with the expression of inner qualities. The body-appearance is what other people see so it must be presentable and adorned to communicate the male’s social worth. As Lucho, a 40-year-old working-class man from Lima, explains, “The first thing people look at is your face, your expression. Apart from that you have to be well dressed, presentable.” The term “presentable” alludes to “who I am” in social terms, the recognition that one expects from another in order to confirm one’s own sense of masculinity or worth. In sum, there are two bodily dimensions: the body-matter, whose seat is sex/strength, and body-appearance, which emits signals through the face and external bodily adornments.
The most important parts of the body are the face—the seat of moral qualities—and the chest and limbs, the seat of strength. According to Sabio, a 40-year-old, middle-class man from Cuzco, “Years ago the body part I focused most on—apart from my face—was my chest. I was obsessed with being an ‘Atlas.’ I’d even work out and see how my chest grew. But that’s all in the past now. Now I’d say that my face is probably the most important part since that is what people see.”
Strength relates to attractiveness. The men interviewed declared that a muscular body that expresses strength is what arouses female desire. That is why men condition their bodies through sport and physical exercise, which stimulates, builds up and expresses the aspect that makes the male body attractive.
Furthermore, strength, the quality that is the source of masculinity, dramatizes one of the great themes of the male identity: to be or not to be somebody; to achieve or not to achieve. Though supposedly anchored in matter, strength must be gained, improved and communicated. One is not born with strength, but must acquire it. Therefore, what is apparently the most natural trait at the heart of male superiority is also the one that is most artificial and most closely associated with social qualities.
Appearance is also an area through which gender differences are enacted and materialized and where the rigid gender boundaries found in Peruvian society are often validated or questioned. Care of the male appearance focuses on presentation but never on the production of beauty, the latter being a female activity and therefore taboo for males. According to the men interviewed, a male should not wear any adornments that look feminine. Therefore, makeup is out of the question for males because it feminizes them. As Lucas, a 52-year-old, middle-class man from Cuzco, says, “I think it’s shocking. I can’t fathom why a man would want to use make-up. He’d have to have semi-female tendencies. I’m still a bit conservative in that respect; I suppose it’s a machismo thing. As for a woman to use makeup on herself, she has every right. And anyway it’s a token of female beauty.”
This claim turns on the association of the masculine with everything that is hard and strong, and the feminine with all that is soft and weak.. Beauty is associated with softness while handsomeness is associated with strength. It is for women to be beautiful, soft, and delicate.
Beauty in the strictly corporal sense covers both the esthetically beautiful and the attractive. Aesthetic beauty is associated with delicacy, softness, and fine features. Women possess beauty—softness/delicacy, while men are handsome— attractiveness/strength. Male beauty is called attractiveness and is directly associated with the strength expressed in a hard, muscular body, in firm thighs and buttocks. As Julio, a 30-year-old, working-class man from Iquitos, says, “They look at your body to see if you are well built. It doesn’t matter how ugly you are, you’ll still be a real man. You hear that a lot: ‘What a body!’”
Attractive faces are associated with a display of security and authority both toward other males to command respect, and toward women to denote authority and firmness of character. This is what is referred to as self-confidence. In this way, attractiveness is directly associated with the capacity for control and domination.
Seen from another perspective, beauty is associated with typical Caucasian looks, underlining the racial and class differences that pervade Peruvian society. A handsome man has white skin, blond hair and blue eyes. However, this beauty emanates from the face, not from the attractiveness of a strong body. As Ruso, a 23-year-old, working-class man from Lima, says, “A handsome man is man who is attractive, who takes care of his appearance, who looks after his body. He’d be a man who is handsome and has bearing. But a man cannot be good-looking. That’s absurd. Only gringos [Caucasian men] are good-looking.” By attributing this quality to light-skinned men, working-class men recognize the existence of racial hierarchies but invert them by claiming the virile attributes for themselves. The working-class man can claim to be more masculine than the men of the dominant racial or ethnic groups. His attractiveness lies in his body, in the very essence of his masculinity, while the attractiveness of the men of other races resides in their beauty, a quality symbolically associated with the feminine. Oscar, a 42-year-old, working-class man from Lima, puts it this way: “A woman would say that a good-looking man is tall, white, with light-colored eyes and blond because here [in Peru] we are racist.”
Working-class males acknowledge that women are drawn to a beautiful face and that men with white phenotypical features have a greater likelihood of attracting women. To quote El Ruso once more, “A good-looking man? That’s absurd. But they say that a gringo, a white guy has a better chance of wooing or chatting up girls.” Thus, what people think about beauty enables us to reconstruct the layout of the gender and race orders that prevail in Peruvian society.
In short, beauty is associated with femininity and the Caucasian biotype. The representation of beauty by the groups studied contains an unerring perception of the prevailing racism and of the sexual and marital agenda that leads women (and men) to seek out partners who will boost their social status. On the one hand, through attribution of aesthetic superiority to the dominant race, racism is registered and internalized, while on the other, the subordinate position of Peruvian males is symbolically reversed by attributing masculinity to themselves and subordination to femininity or to the foreigner.
Male beauty resides in the attractiveness of bodily strength and even features. In fact, that is true for all males, regardless of race. In that way, masculinity unites the male category and becomes one of the most highly valued qualities in intellectual and moral terms. In other words, the attractiveness of a man resides in a strong body and a handsome face that displays a capacity for control and authority. Power is incarnated in men’s bodies and expressed in their faces.
Beauty, one of the most highly valued bodily attributes, dramatizes the gender, racial and ethnic relations that divide Peruvian society. On the one hand, through attribution of aesthetic superiority to the dominant race, racism is registered and internalized, while on the other, the subordinate position of Peruvian males is symbolically reversed by attributing that subordination to femininity or to the foreigner.
We found in our study that what constitutes the essential male body is not a neutral construction of what was already there, but an allegory of social and gender orders. In this sense the body becomes the most powerful tool for legitimizing those orders. In the end, the remarks of former president Ollanta Humala, which I quoted at the beginning of this article, vividly expresses the ethnic and class tensions that permeate Peruvian society. The debate about male beauty is an arena where men of different social and ethnic background question, redefine and reaffirm their identities.
Norma Fuller is a professor of Anthropology of the Department of Social Sciences of the Catholic University of Peru. She holds a Ph.D in cultural anthropology from the University of Florida Gainesville.