American Posers

American Posers

At the risk of overgeneralizing, once upon a time in America, there were four types of men who shaved their body hair: men who, for whatever reason, wanted to feel or appear less overtly masculine; swimmers, for whom body hair causes frictional drag in the pool; cyclists, who shave for much the same reason as swimmers (i.e. wind drag); and bodybuilders, who know that hairless, tanned, and oiled bodies enhance the appearance of muscular definition, especially under the bright lights of the competition stage.

Over the past quarter-century or so this general rule has changed.  A considerable number of men – mostly young, but some not so young – have begun shaving their legs, backs, chests, arms, whatever.  And they’re not doing so because they want to be more aerodynamic.  They’re doing so, in large part, because they have learned the lessons taught to them by bodybuilders.  Young men learned that body hair does, indeed, obscure the “lines” of muscular definition.  They learned that it is possible to look more muscular without actually being more muscular, just by making a few swipes with a razor.  To one cohort of young men, “strength” looked like the massive, thick (and hairy) Bill Kazmaier, who was, in fact, the world’s strongest man.  To the next, by contrast, strength looked like the bald-as-a-baby’s-backside “barbarian” who quit competing but never quit shaving and had the world’s most aesthetically symmetrical and pleasing physique.


As you may have seen, the other day, Robert Kennedy Jr., the longtime anti-vaxxer and current presidential candidate, showed up at Muscle Beach in Venice, California (the barbarian’s former hangout), where he stripped his shirt off and began flexing for the crowd.  While many of the commenters on social (and even some traditional) media prattled on about steroids or Human Growth Hormone or…whatever, we were struck by a handful of other things.  First, for a 69-year-old, RFK Jr. is in pretty good shape.  He looks good.  He looks strong.  Second, he is not, however, as strong as he looks.  Third, while not freshly shaven, Kennedy’s torso is nevertheless almost entirely hairless.  Fourth, 1, 2, and 3 are inarguably connected.  And fifth, this isn’t just about Kennedy.

Regular readers may note that we have long argued that resilience (or even anti-fragility as Nassem Taleb would call it) is critical, not just for institutions and organizations but for individuals as well.  Whether that resilience is measured in physical strength, hand-to-hand combat skills, weapons proficiency, mental sturdiness, or just all-around toughness, we believe that it is one of the keys to surviving and even thriving, especially in a world of constant institutional failure.  Strength – however one defines it in his/her specific circumstances – is a precondition for survival.

In this sense, then, we applaud RFK Jr. for his attempts to be strong.  Good for him.  And good for us to have someone running for higher office who believes that “strength” matters.

At the same time, however, we can’t but think that Kennedy’s “appearance” of strength – and his willingness to strip down for the cameras in order to demonstrate that appearance – says something profoundly unflattering about our nation and its ethos at the moment.

Not quite a year ago, The Wall Street Journal noticed that Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, is looking rather buff these days.  Further, the paper noticed that Bezos isn’t the only bigshot CEO who is going around posing shirtless for the cameras:

The shirtless CEO will see you now.

The era of the buff business leader has arrived (usually after a 5 a.m. workout and a breakfast of water and black coffee to maintain an intermittent fast).

Recently, Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos flashed biceps that stretched his T-shirt. Celebrity talent agent Ari Emanuel romped on Elon Musk’s yacht with ripped abs in full view. On Instagram, video gaming executive Strauss Zelnick posed in skin-tight purple spandex, talent executive Scooter Braun tended to his muscles in an ice tub and Telegram chief executive Pavel Durov stood bare chested in an infinity pool next to the caption, “Should I start posting photos here more often?”…

It used to be that men were judged by their shoes and their watches. But old assumptions that men could look like trolls as long as they were rich shifted when professional women began to wield their own financial power. The picture of success is not necessarily a CEO at a desk, but a boss who likes to post burpee videos.

Again, we’re all for strength and fitness and all that they imply.  Good for these guys that they take this stuff seriously.

But do they?  Do they really take it seriously?

Look at the pictures.  (Here, and here, for example.)  They’re (almost) all shirtless and they’re ALL hairless.  Why does that matter?  Well, in some ways, it doesn’t.  In other ways, however….

Think about what we noted above.  The hairless male is (in most cases) a direct descendant of the bodybuilder – who prefers to be hairless when he gets on stage and (literally) poses.  It is hardly inaccurate, therefore, to label these buff (but bald) business leaders “posers” – because that’s (literally) what they’re doing, imitating bodybuilding posing.

To be clear, that’s all well and good, and it’s their prerogative, but let’s not confuse their obsession with looking strong with actually being strong.  That obsession is, more accurately, vanity.  Contra the Journal, we are not in the midst of a spate of financially powerful men making themselves physically powerful as well.  We are, rather, experiencing an epidemic of vanity, a spate of powerful men who are fixated on looking like they’re in better shape than you are.

Earlier this week, Matt Lewis penned a column for The Daily Beast in which he too lamented what RFK Jr.’s trip to “Muscle Beach” says about American society:

Believe it or not, though, I think this moment tells us a lot about the state of politics and celebrity culture in 2024 America. This is a commentary on modern America.

Let’s start with politics. For a while now, there has been a sense that America was devolving to a primitive state that prizes machismo over intellect….

You’d be hard pressed to look at the last few years of American politics—particularly on the right—and not get a strong sense that displays of physical masculinity have become more overt….

With these videos, RFK Jr. is ostensibly attempting to do to doddering ol’ Joe Biden what Putin stans did to Obama—which is to emasculate him (or, at least, out-manly him).

If you’re anything like us, then your first question in response to this column is, “huh?”  In what world is the problem in this country that its politics and culture are too obsessed with manliness?  Yes, we know that Trump’s great appeal to many voters is that he is not intellectual and that “he fights,” but that’s what makes him an anomaly, that’s why he’s appealing, because machismo (or…whatever) is so out of character in this day and age.

But you know what’s interesting? There are no pictures of Trump out posing, shirtless, hairless, trying to look tough.

The bottom line here is that American society is suffering from a massive identity crisis.  Rather notoriously, no one in a position of power knows what a woman is.  Less notoriously, no one knows what a man is either.  Is he a shaved mole rat with a 6-pack.  Is he an obstreperous old man who shouts at audiences about how he will “be their vengeance?”  Is he someone who is strong?  Or does he just need to look strong?  And if he is strong, does that mean that he is, by definition, trying to intimidate those who are weaker than he is, like Matt Lewis believes?

Honestly, we don’t want to go all Wall-E on you, but we do think that there is something to be said for the idea that Americans have too much time on their hands and don’t use that time productively.  Instead, they use it to overthink everything and to worry more about how things look than how things function.  We have become a vane, appearance-obsessed society.

With a handful of notable exceptions (Franco Columbu, Ronnie Colman) bodybuilders aren’t known for being especially strong (relative to powerlifters or Olympic lifters, at least).  But they sure look great!  Just like RFK Jr.  And Jeff Bezos.  And a whole bunch of other guys with fabulous abs who still can’t bench press what George W. Bush did when he was president.

Stephen Soukup
Stephen Soukup
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Steve Soukup is the Vice President and Publisher of The Political Forum, an “independent research provider” that delivers research and consulting services to the institutional investment community, with an emphasis on economic, social, political, and geopolitical events that are likely to have an impact on the financial markets in the United States and abroad.