Body Shapers for Men

It seems that Saks Fifth Avenue has started carrying a product called the Equmen, a tight-fitting undershirt made especially for men.  The undershirt apparently trims a few inches from the mid-section and “supports core muscles.”  In this age of the overweight and over-stuffed, the beauty industry has found a new object: middle-aged men.

Not that men have been unnoticed by the industry in the past–no, through the years, men have been encouraged to use some of the very same products as women, to enhance their attractiveness.  First it was the wrist watch.  I’m not sure when men gave up their pocket watches for their Rolexes, but when they did, they were aping women’s fashion, of course. 

The next thing was perfume–men started using scent in shaving products and then began just splashing on cologne.  Cosmetics for men are not as widely used or as widely accepted as cologne, but more and more men are stopping by cosmetic counters in department stores, not to buy products for their wives and sweethearts, but for themselves.  Plastic surgery, long the purview of wealthy women, has made amazing inroads onto the credit cards of middle-class women–and is increasingly popular among men. 

And then, purses are coming into vogue for men.  They are not called purses, of course–they are called “bags” or “satchels” or some other more gender-friendly term.  Recently in Italy, the home of fine leather, I reached for a lovely “bag,” thinking that I might buy it for myself, until the clerk explained to me that it was for men.  It was smaller than most women’s purses that are being shown now, most of which are just short of suitcases in size and weight, so it had an appeal for me.  But I decided against it–I wouldn’t want to be caught with a “male bag.”

I was looking through a clothing catalog last week and noticed that it featured horse-hair bracelets for men.  Men, if you’re going to wear a bracelet, let it be made of some . . . animal matter.  This lets people know that although you want to pretty-up your hairy arm, you are identifying with our Native American tradition and are therefore seen as earthy and masculine and certainly no sissy.

Men, let me just say this about the Equmen undershirt: I wore girdles when I was 18 until I was 30, and I still have the broken veins in my legs to show for it.  Such garments constrain the flesh, and flesh is not meant to be constrained.  If you have too much flesh, or if it wobbles excessively, then you really must–and I know you don’t want to hear this–you really must EXERCISE.  

Women have let advertisers tell us what we must do to be loved and wanted; and men, now they are trying to rope you in, as well.  Isn’t it enough to try to sell you fast, gleaming cars and foaming glasses of beer?  Do they have to enter your toilet, as they have done that of women? 

Hear me now, men–just say no.  Say no before it’s too late, and like your female counterparts, you too begin to believe that your value lies in your figure, your face, your . . .  hair.  Whoops, they’ve already got you there.


Re-Defining Economic Growth

In yesterday’s NY Times (p. B1), we are told that “in a provocative new study, a pair of Nobel prize-winning economists, Joseph E. Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, urge the adoption of new assessment tools that incorporate a broader concern for human welfare than just economic growth.”  Mr. Stiglitz said on Tuesday during an interview with a number of journalists, “What you measure affects what you do.  If you don’t measure the right thing, you don’t do the right thing.”

Excuse me for saying so, but how is this thinking “new and provocative”?  These ideas have been around for over 30 years.  Our problem is not economic analysis: it is a combination of (1) human nature (“coveteousness” and “greed,” speaking theologically); (2) an appalling lack of analysis and leadership in the academy; and (3) ignorance and lack of political will by elected leaders.

Just a short history of some alternative economic thinkers.  In 1972 the Club of Rome study was published, in which limits to growth was questioned.  The study considered the ecological impact of growth and the creation of wealth in relation to non-renewable resources.

In 1978, Hazel Henderson, economist and futurist, published a book entitled Creating Alternative Futures, in which she questions the value of judging human well-being with a measurement of Gross National Product.  Since that time, she has continued to write and speak, developing her theories, encouraging a paradigm shift in economic thinking, and encouraging socially responsible behavior by corporations. 

In 1989, economist Herman Daly and theologian John Cobb co-authored a book on economic theory entitled For the Common Good, challenging the assumptions and theoretical fallacies of contemporary economic scholarship.  They recommended a shift from an economics based on individual self-interest to what they called an “economics for community.”  They said that current models address the acquisition of goods and services, but say nothing about relationships.  (These two dare to believe that the disciplines of economics and theology have anything in common.)  The book is 492 pages of dense but exhilarating reading (in the opinion of one who slugged through it).

I could mention others–Simon Kuznets, creator of the concept Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), which could be used to replace Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as an indicator of economic growth.  The idea is that, for example, just because someone gets cancer from chemical pollution, thus generating wealth for doctors and hospitals–well, that’s not really a sign of human progress and well-being.  So we need to look at both the costs and the benefits of growth.  In current economic models, the costs are called “externalities” and are not considered.

There is the Canadian scientist David Suzuki, who has been speaking internationally for over 15 years about the ecological limits of growth.  He has warned that societies typically can sustain only about 1.5%-3% new growth per year, without overwhelming their ecosystems.

Our Nobel prize winners say that we should not focus on goods and services produced, but on the material well-being of typical people.  We should measure such things as availability of health care and education, their report concludes.  That such statements should be considered “innovative” is a sign of where our society is, in terms of human services. 

It is true, as the article states, that the problem of any new measurement of economic well-being is the “how to” factor–how do we do such measurement?  It’s relatively easy to measure GDP, but how about GPI?  How do we measure, for example, the hours that a parent spends tending to a child’s needs–for no pay at all?  How do we measure the depression and devaluation of self-worth that often comes with unemployment?

The fact is that it is the most important elements of human life that are the most difficult to measure.  (Try measuring love, for example.  Or honor.  Or peace.)  But the difficulty of mathematical measurement does not excuse ignoring the economic realities of our lives and pretending that we are only what we get and spend.  And certainly some of what goes unmeasured is amenable to simple accounting: what does it cost a city to clean up a polluted site, for example.

Progressive economic voices, most outside the mainstream, have been telling us for many, many years that what we’re measuring is an inaccurate reflection of our well-being.  Instead of remaining steeped in the conventional wisdom of their discipline, and composing mathematically verfiable articles for one another, economists should get down on the earth with the rest of us and help us structure an economic theory that corresponds to our existential realties.  Stiglitz and Sen have given encouragement to their colleagues to do just that.  I hope they take up the challenge.



Grieving Ted Kennedy

Last week six days of news coverage were dominated with the death and funeral of Ted Kennedy.  Three of the four living Presidents attended the funeral.  Obama did the eulogy.  But it was not just the politically well-connected who were affected–so many of us seemed to be.  Why would this be so?  I began to wonder.

Of course, liberals were greatful for the lengthy and effective leadership that Kennedy gave to progressive issues during his tenure as a Senator. But there are more subtle, elusive reasons, I think, that so many people–and not just die-hard liberals–were so deeply affected by Kennedy’s death.

We never die alone, we always die in a context.  If this is true of the least of us, how much more this fact resonates with Ted Kennedy.  His death marked the end of an era.  We were reminded of the sacrifices of his amazing family–the oldest brother Joe, Jr., dying in the war, and the martyred brothers, John and Robert.  When an era passes in a kind of sad completeness, as it has just done, we are all reminded of the inevitable passing of time, of the sense that all good things must one day come to an end.

And then the swiftness and sureness of Ted Kennedy’s death after his diagnosis seemed striking.  One looks at those of privilege and begins to believe that everything is possible with them–surely they are not subject to the same natural forces that we commoners must fear, no, they can call in the best doctors, get treatment at the best medical facilities.  And then we are reminded of the brothers lying dead, each falling to an assassin’s bullet.  And Ted, helpless in the face of the recurrence of his brain tumor.  We know once again that they, too, are mortal, that nothing could have saved them, and certainly nothing can save us. 

Third, and perhaps most significant, Ted Kennedy was a man seriously flawed, but a man who redeemed himself in the end.  We read endlessly about his drinking problem, his weight problem, his womanizing problem–and we read always, always about Chappaquiddick.  He knew his imperfections better than anyone, and owned them.  He described the death he caused at Chappaquiddick as “unforgivable.”  And yet he turned his life around.  With the help of his wife Vicki, he stabilized his home ground, and he focused his attention on the problems of the poor and the disenfrancished of this country, working tirelessly to improve their lives.  He was known throughout political circles as the best informed Senator–he wasn’t given to empty polemic, but rather knew the facts surrounding any given issue, was informed about the specifics of the legislation. 

So the youngest son of this formidable family, overweight and rather passive as a child, who his parents thought would never amount to much, outlived them all, and made of his life, one step at a time, a gift to the nation, a voice for those who so often suffer in silence, and a lasting record of accomplishment.

Ted Kennedy’s life and death says, then, to all of us–yes, we are mortal, we will die.  And yes, we are flawed, every one of us.  We hope not to be remembered for the worst thing we ever did.  We can get up and try again.  Redemption is possible.  It was for Ted Kennedy.  And it is for us.