Caleb has learned to read. Generally speaking, this is a great thing. He hasn’t quite crossed the line from reading-as-chore to reading-as-pleasure, but he’s getting there.  And that means he reads the signs–excited by his sense of mastery–as we walk along the street: PIZZA! ICE CREAM! SHOES!

Then we walk past this:


Caleb says: SHOW AND TELL! 

Pause. Then: Why’s he showing us his tummy? Does he have a six-pack?  Liam says I have a four-pack. What’s that? Why does he look so angry?

Okay, so how would you answer those questions, all of which seem eminently reasonable: why is this vaguely sinister, carefully unshaven man showing us his sinewy chest, and what art editor okayed such a heavy-handed use of airbrushing? We can practically see the curve of this guy’s intestines.

I mumbled something about the picture being an ad for a gym and wanting people to exercise, and we walked on; I’m sure Caleb thought nothing of it. But this threatening guy is everywhere, it seems, flashing us his solitary nipple from just about every phone booth in a twenty block radius. Clearly, that’s why phone booths still exist: as sites for advertising. God knows, no one uses them anymore, not even superheroes.

Mr. One-Nipple Six-Pack is not, of course, trying to sell us gym memberships.  He’s selling us “manhunt,” an online chat room designed to let like-minded glowering six-pack owners discuss the finer points of…how to shave until there’s only a rind of stubble, or how to take off an undershirt using only your fist?  What’s he going to show in this chat room? The other nipple? 

This ad disturbs me for lots of the usual reasons: the confusion of sex with love, the commodification of desire, an unreal (and thus unattainable) body portrayed as the object of desire; the list goes on and on.

I’m pretty sure this ad isn’t aimed at my. . . demographic, let’s call it, and that’s fine.  To each his own. I’ve got the World Cup players to look at, and some of the vamps on True Blood–oh, and Husband, of course of course–so I’m all set.

So why does this guy bug me so much? Do I really care if someone wants to “”?  (It’s the manhunt slogan. Truly, it is. I checked. Never let it be said that this blog is not a veritable fountain of information).  Sure, I wish that everyone could find his or her soul mate and enjoy the totally blissful experience of raising kids in Manhattan, but I realize that for some folks, trying to get to the soccer field at 930AM on a Saturday via the 14D bus with two kids and a bag of gear may not be their life goal, and that’s okay.

But this guy and his solitary nipple bug me.  Bugs me for the same reason that I’m bothered by the sprawling oiled lovelies selling Victoria’s Secrets, or just about any other underwear/swimsuit brand, and by the BIG TITS magazines on the newstand… Aren’t we tired, as a society, of looking at yet another almost-naked person? Does a twenty-foot billboard of a man in his underpants really sell more underpants? (And isn’t it curious that for all the hoopla, the word “underpants” is about as sexy as “waffle iron”? )

More and more often I wonder what my kids make of all these hotsy-totsy images. Maybe they don’t see it all yet, but they will, soon enough. How do we help them understand that even though images of sexuality are everywhere, those images have nothing to do with real life–real straight life, real gay life, real whatever kind of life.

Perhaps it’s not a surprise for a writer to say that she wants her kids to be good readers, but I think that’s what I mean. I want them to be good readers–to learn not just the words but the meanings between the words; to learn that the image is not necessarily the reality and that reality is not usually found in an online chat room.


*after I wrote this post, I saw that Forefront Church, in NYC, is talking about this same picture as part of their 1000 words series. Guess Mr. Six Pack is bugging a lot of people this week!