Why Are Bishonen More Popular Than Beefy Guys?

by Justin Sevakis,

James asks:

The character archetype of the bishōnen, a male who is smooth, graceful, and elegant, while lacking "rough" features, such as facial hair or oversized muscles, is popular in Japan, but less so in the western world. In fact, most westerners use the phrase "pretty boy" (a close English equivalent of bishonen) as an insult, implying that the target of the insult is somehow less masculine or less of a man than a "traditional" man. Why is that? Are western perceptions of masculinity different from eastern perceptions? Will the bishonen archetype ever become more popular in the west, or are westerners simply too fond of "rugged" men to ever embrace such a different type of man?

Both Japan and the West have a number of different body types that people find attractive. What people find attractive is often a reflection of the media of the times, and in the case of guys, just how much grooming is considered to be socially acceptable. For this article we'll be talking about stereotypical looks as typified in the media we consume, and in that regard the tastes of both countries have changed quite a lot over the last 20 or 30 years, and in some surprising ways. It used to be that Japanese women seemed to like their guys thin and boyish, while in the West guys were supposed to be rugged and manly -- Don Draper types -- but nowadays the waters are a lot muddier, and it's a lot harder to stereotype.

When it comes to body types, it's immediately obvious to anyone visiting Japan just how much different everybody looks than even in heavily Asian American areas of the United States. The Japanese diet is much different, and there's something of a cultural tradition of only eating until you're 80% full. While all-you-can-eat buffets are indeed a thing in Japan (they're known as vikings -- it's a long story), they're nowhere near as common as they are in the US. Most people are pretty skinny by American standards.

The vast majority of anime and manga are about Japanese teenagers, and the majority of Japanese teenagers are REALLY skinny. Athletic young people in Japan tend to be so skinny that you can see a lot of muscle on them even when they don't have much muscle mass -- their body fat is just that low. It's to that aesthetic that most anime is tuned. Even "normal guys" in anime seem to have a well-defined inner pectoral line, or even visible abs.

Add to that, most Asian guys don't get much body or facial hair, and suddenly the whole ideal shifts. So if few people can get as buff as a bodybuilder, the ideal instead becomes about being slender. Nobody can grow a rugged 5 O'Clock Shadow (or even a bad teenage dirt lip), so the ideal becomes about flawless, alabaster skin. Suddenly it's acceptable for guys to take care of their skin, wear make-up (to a point) and carry a man-purse. And Japan has a TON of men's beauty products for sale. Korea, with their legion of beautiful and dapper K-pop idols with skin care lines, also pushed hard in this direction, and nowadays so is China.

While it's easy to point to Japan's idea of masculine beauty and make fun of it for being feminized, our own idea of masculinity is shifting in a similar direction. If you look at American men's clothing ads from the past, you'll see a huge change in the body types that we select to be our "best foot forward" visually. In the 1960s guys were skinny and hairy. By the 80s they looked like Ron Swanson: burly and a little bit hairy, with a little extra in the middle. In the 90s there started being something of a duality between the Mark Wahlberg gym rat look and the "heroin chic" models that looked outright emaciated. I'm not convinced that many guys actually wanted to look like a heroin chic model, but Marky Mark released an exercise video. (I own it. Stop laughing. It was $3.)

Nowadays Western male models are either ripped or thin, but they all have very low body fat, and nearly all of them shave their body hair. Man purses are a thing. It's normal (and recommended) for guys to use moisturizer and hair product. The most successful male model currently is Sean O'Pry (best known for his terrible acting in the Taylor Swift video "Blank Space"), and the most successful cross-over model is Justin Bieber. Both are known for prominent cheekbones and a somewhat feminine beauty. Americans are beefier, but the current American media ideal seems to be "muscle twink" or "twunk." ("Twink" being gay slang for skinny, youthful and hairless.)

Interestingly, recent trends in fujoshi manga and anime are also adding some muscle onto their male figure drawings. Starting with Free!, and continuing with the forthcoming Cheer Boys!! and the rugby anime All Out!!, male musculature is starting to become more and more fashionable. Bizarrely, it almost seems as if the two countries are starting to be on the same page, roughly. (The West will always have more body hair, of course.)

And outside of the adolescent world of anime, Japan does have at least a SLIGHTLY more diverse appreciation of body types. Many adult women like more robust guys, according to recent surveys, and even look to Western guys as a way to sate that appetite. Japanese LGBT people, as shown by bara manga artists, have also embraced the truly strapping, huge and hairy types to varying degrees.

I would be remiss if I didn't say that these beauty standards are kind of a bummer. I'm all for people getting exercise and being healthy, but the constant ability to compare yourself with the Photoshopped Gods of the world is dispiriting at best, and dysmorphia-causing at worst. I say that from experience, as someone who works out 12 hours per week. I can't help but wonder if over-exposure to shoujo anime as a teenager may have warped my expectations of both myself and the world around me to a degree. And of course, women have to deal with these beauty standards way more than we do.

As people get older they do tend to put on some weight, and indeed, Japan is starting to see expanding waist lines in middle age as a health problem. But not everybody will look like the ideal, and even those that do usually only look like that for a few years. We should all be healthy and be our best selves, but that's going to look different for everybody. We should be happy with who we are. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.

So if you're like me, and a little bitter about not looking like you want to, just remember that male models don't make much money (avg salary is US$28k), and while they get to travel all over the world, they fly coach, can't eat anything (imagine spending months in Paris and not being able to eat any bread or cheese), get sexually harassed all the time, and find themselves at the end of their careers at age 35 with no useful work experience. And THEN you'll feel better.

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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