(FORTUNE Magazine) – Saddam Hussein has a HAIRY BACK," reads an ad for depilatories in Muscle & Fitness magazine, "but you don't have to!" Indeed not. No man need suffer any longer the indignities inflicted on him by a whimsical creator: furry back, nose hair, ear hair, gray hair, thinning hair, no hair; big gut; little weenie; raccoon eyes. Science has joined hands with cosmetology to give men new and potent weapons against ugliness. An older generation had styptic pencils and elevator shoes, and counted itself lucky. Today's men have lasers and alpha-hydroxy acid. With these they are blasting every wad of gum and speck of lint off the alabaster loveliness of Self--some men purely out of vanity, others to hang on to marriages and jobs.

Chris Reitano, 45, a customer service executive with Siemens, spent around $4,000 in December to have his eyelids lifted by Dr. Richard Dolsky, a Philadelphia plastic surgeon. Why? Reitano felt his droopy lids sent co-workers the wrong message: "I looked tired, puffy--not very alert." So pleased is he with the change that he says he'd now consider getting a face-lift.

Gary Tombs, 41, a Manhattan commodities trader, periodically drops in at the beauty parlor to get himself a facial. Why? It's pleasant. "They clean your face really well with exfoliants. Then they massage it, dig out the blackheads, put on different creams. First time I ever had one I was on a golf outing at La Costa with a bunch of other guys. I said, 'Hey, I'm getting a facial.' It was no big deal." (Maybe so, but like several other men quoted in this story, he asked that his name be changed.)

Gary gets pedicures. He gets his back waxed to remove fur. Doesn't that hurt? "Only a little less than being hit with a cane." For a long time he wondered if he'd keep getting it waxed once he got married. "Then one day I realized, I'm doing this for me."

Vain males aren't confined to the Atlantic or Pacific coasts. Nor do all of them conform to stereotype.

Peter Farnham (no relation to your author), a salesman in Dallas, says he met a UPS driver who'd had implants to improve the contour of his butt. "I said to him, 'You've got to be kidding.' He was serious. Then he says, 'And for Christmas, my parents are giving me the money to have my smile lines removed.' The guy's a UPS driver, for God's sake. In Texas!"

The circulation of Men's Health magazine, a kind of male Cosmo, has since 1986 rocketed from zero to 1.3 million. Sneak a peek inside the medicine chest of just about any guy you know, and you'll find exotic unguents he'd be delighted you didn't find. So many rare-earth masks, eye creams, and miscellaneous goos did FORTUNE find with a little snooping that we put together a composite Vain Man's Chest (see box). Male grooming products, depending on how that category is defined, now rake in as much as $3.3 billion in sales. Conservative estimates call for spending to grow 11% in three years.

If retailers are upbeat, surgeons are actually doing a little jig. Men now account for almost one in four cosmetic surgeries. In 1994 (the last year for which statistics are available), men had nips, tucks, and other procedures in the following numbers: hair transplants and/or restorations, 197,276; liposuctions, 37,743; chemical peels (e.g., of the face), 36,290; rhinoplasties, 22,204; and eyelifts, 18,350. That's according to the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery. (The hair jobs alone amount to $789 million.) Another 12,318 men had their own fat reinjected into them (for instance, had their thigh fat injected into their cheeks). Of that subject, more later.

Nonsurgical hair replacement is booming. There are an estimated 40 million bald men in the U.S., and they don't take their light-hairedness lightly. Pharmacia & Upjohn, maker of Rogaine, estimates that U.S. men are spending over $67 million a year on minoxidil (the hair-growing ingredient in Rogaine), $400 million on wigs and toupees, and another $100 million on what the company is too polite to call quack remedies (elixirs, teas, horse-hoof ointments, etc.).

Sales of men's hair dye have tripled in the past ten years, according to Jim Kelly, director of marketing for Combe Inc., makers of Grecian Formula and Just for Men. He estimates annual sales of all men's hair colorings at about $100 million.

Then there's girdles.



Last year a company called Bodyslimmers introduced three new foundation garments for men: the AbFab Cincher tank top, the Double Agent boxer (which flattens the gut and hips), and the Man Band (which constrains love handles). These garments, says company founder Nancy Ganz, "will be very liberating for men. They will no longer have to pretend they don't care about vanity." Thanks, Nancy.

Another company, Rush Industries, has introduced Super Shaper briefs that "give you eye-catching buttocks instantly!" Rush's marketing director, Barbara Baron, cites surveys showing that many women (and men) quickly zero in on the butt when assessing a man's attractiveness. Cost: $24.95. For $5 more the customer gets an "endowment pad" up front. How are sales? "We're a private company, but I can tell you this: We're running the factory on two shifts."

Marketers, a-drool, ask themselves: What won't these vain guys buy? A few limits do constrain the market, but these, as we'll discover, are far from obvious. On the surface men seem willing to try any gimmick, pay any price. Ike Wilkins, 31, a vitamin salesman, estimates that his custom-made toupee set him back $5,000. "It's not a matter of money," he says. "If this hair had cost me three times that amount, I'd gladly have paid it."

How come?

Whatever a man's cosmetic shortcoming, it's apt to be a career liability. The business world is prejudiced against the ugly. True, you can be a burn victim and do just fine (Sumner Redstone did). You can have a ruined arm and run for President. But there's no denying one's upward path is more likely to be lily strewn if one is pretty. Recent studies (see next story) suggest that even the most successful men might be more so, were they better buffed.

We had trouble thinking of any line of work where being pretty holds you back. Cowhand, maybe? We asked cowboy-poet Waddie Mitchell to play around with the idea of a cowboy who flirts with cosmetic surgery (see poem, "The Cowboy Who Got His Face Lifted"). Mitchell's opinion? A man's good looks are largely wasted on cattle.

In other vocations, however, being handsome has become a near requirement. A businesswoman who'd prefer to remain nameless says, "Any guy who goes into consulting has to be attractive. It struck me one day: Every time I met a good-looking guy and asked him, 'So, little boy, what do you do?' he was a consultant. The ugly ones are all accountants."

Too many employers think old faces mean old ideas. In a time of wholesale layoffs, a man is a fool not to pinch his cheeks to make himself look livelier.

Dress-down Fridays have exposed things that might better have been left covered up. "You know," says a female executive cattily, "those Brooks Brothers suits you men wore really hid a lot."

Remember the Arrow Shirt man? The message of his ads was clear: A guy could meet 90% of his obligation to be beautiful just by going out and buying an Arrow Shirt. Did the Shirt man have great pecs? Who knew? Who cared? He was wearing a shirt. Now comes Marky Mark--chiseled, protuberant, pretty much buck-naked--leering out from ads as if to taunt men, "Hey, pal--buy this." A man has to do more than buy new undies to look like Marky Mark. He has to do 200,000 sit-ups.

Back when bad bodies were the norm, money distinguished male from male. Now muscles have devalued money. "Any woman with a job can take herself out to dinner," says Edward Jackowski, founder of Exude, a New York City company providing personal trainers. "They don't need to be wined and dined." A faraway look comes into Jackowski's eyes. "It used to be two dates at Lutece, and she'd give herself up." Five years ago males represented only 20% of Jackowski's clientele. Now: 50%.

There's divorce. Plastic surgeon Robert Cattani, who operates on a lot of ex-husbands, says, "Men who divorce in their late 40s do a lot of things when they start dating again. Right off, they lose 15 pounds. They stop drinking half a quart of vodka a day and switch to Evian." If Cattani's lucky, they also get a face-lift.

Are you a man curious to know where your own vanity puts you in this new pantheon? Begin by taking this simple word-association test: When I say "free radicals," is your first thought "Eugene Debs"? If so, your vanity likely falls below today's norm. Being a somewhat older man, you probably made peace years ago with your big gut and luxuriant nasal hair. Vanity appears to diminish with age. Scientists call this the "Ah, to hell with it" effect.

Film producer David Brown, 80, says that for a while, earlier in life, he flirted with using hair dye. Then one day he gave it up. "I didn't like the way I looked," he says. Plastic surgery? Brown wouldn't dream of having it now: "I don't want to look like a mummy." (His 1987 book on aging, Brown's Guide to Growing Gray, is a masterpiece of wit, restraint, and elegance.)

FORTUNE does not mean to belittle, of course, the older man's cosmetic afflictions. Enlarged breasts, for example, are now a common enough problem in older (and some younger) men that an episode of Seinfeld was devoted to dreaming up an undergarment to keep these breasts in check--the "mansiere." According to the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery, 5,654 men had breast reduction surgery in 1994, compared with 8,527 women.

Today's vainest are not the old-old. They're men on the cusp of middle age--men still fairly young. And dammit, they mean to stay so. Their patron saint is Clarence Bass, an Albuquerque lawyer who started bodybuilding at the age of 40 and now, at 58, looks great in his bikini posing briefs. He's not just muscular, he's "ripped" (a term Bass popularized, meaning chiseled). His series of three instructional books (Ripped, Ripped 2, and Ripped 3) describes him as "the ageless master of perpetual leanness." The ageless part is true. "I actually am younger," he says. Tests show Bass has the heart rate of a 30-year-old. He's predominantly bald (you can't have everything), but his remaining hair contains no gray. "It's the 40-year-old guy," says Bass, "who's the guy most interested in me."

Aren't there holdouts against perpetual leanness? Sure. It's still possible, here and there, to find men who clench unmanicured fingers into fists of defiance. But in a day when UPS drivers are getting butt implants, you've got to wonder how many there really are.

I put the question to a roomful of female executives: Of all the men currently in their lives--husbands, fathers, sons, boyfriends--how many men had what we might term the John Wayne attitude? How many men felt proud to bear the marks of life--the scars and bumps and little dings and leathery skin that show a man has been around? How many men put "moisturizing" at the low end of their priority list? The ladies thought this over, and their answer was, "Not one." No man of their acquaintance had this attitude.

I asked them how they'd felt on occasions when they had caught their men being vain. "Amused" was the consensus. One woman, speaking anonymously about her boss, said, "All of a sudden one day, he came in and his hair was black. It had been gray. He'd gotten some of that Grecian Formula. I was amused. I still think very highly of him, but I was amused."

"Gloating" is more like it. Women, having suffered the torments of vanity for centuries, are delighted to see men coloring their hair, struggling into girdles, and getting fur waxed painfully off their backs. It's nice to see men suffer. It strikes women as the height of fair play.

Men aren't any too eager to discuss their beauty regimens, fearing (correctly) that exposure will make them look ludicrous and vulnerable. Even while doing 50 extra pushups, men feign nonchalance. Press them, however, and the truth leaks out, one detail at a time:

"Me? Oh, I don't do anything at all, really. Shave, of course. After that--just good old soap and water." Really, Jim? That's remarkable. You look great. You don't use anything else? "Oh, at the beach, I guess, I use a moisturizer." Un-hunh. Ever had a facial? "A facial? As a matter of fact, I did. Buddy of mine recommended it, and now I find I like them quite a lot." What else do you get done when you get the facial? "Every other Thursday, I get a pedicure. I get waxed sometimes. Say, have you ever had that thing where they use live steam and a loofa bat and they reach up under your...?"

Viewed up close, male vanity appears to be an individual thing--a matter of Jim's getting his steam, Gary his wax, Chris his eyelift--or of a muscular 58-year-old, late at night, hand-washing his posing briefs. But step back, and a wider tableau opens up, something out of Bosch, or from the movie Network: a huge edifice crammed with some 93 million adult males, all yelling--as lightning flashes overhead--"I'm pretty as hell, and I'm not going to wrinkle anymore!" as they hurl tubes of Sensidyne and bottles of Mylanta II onto the street below.

Let's step inside that edifice right now. Let's visit Vain's World.

Our first stop, a classic: the face-lift. We shall see it performed for us today not in some fancy-schmancy Fifth Avenue salon but in digs far homier and intimate: the Pavilion for Cosmetic Surgery on Staten Island. The Pavilion is a converted one-family, Colonial-style residence. Trans Ams and Crown Victorias fill adjacent driveways.

The Pavilion's founder and only physician, Dr. Robert Cattani, greets us, resplendent in black Armani suit and pocket handkerchief. He is a board-certified cosmetic surgeon, a member of the American Society of Liposuction Surgery, vice chairman of the American Society of Hair Restoration Surgery--and himself a patient, having had both liposuction and a hair transplant.

Cattani, who divides his practice between the Pavilion and an office in Manhattan, says about 30% of his patients are men, and the percentage is rising: "Excess skin over the eyes or a saggy neck makes a man look less energetic. It's a competitive market, with people changing positions. People are taking better care of themselves now."

His first patient today is not Ron Perelman. It's Don Perelman, 42, a supervisor for the transit authority and something of an exercise fanatic. Don has already had one face-lift, but since having it he lost considerable weight. Now he's back for a slack-reducing yank. This will cost him about $8,000. As is the case with most cosmetic procedures, insurance picks up none of it. Don also will be having liposuction of his belly today, at an additional cost of $3,000.

Surgery starts at 9:13. Before it's over, Don's head will have been peeled like a grape.

"This is very, very invasive surgery," says Dr. Cattani, making an incision forward of the right ear, cauterizing as he goes. The skin is peeled toward the face, the flap held open by a rake retractor. Skin aft of the ear is peeled toward the back of the head. Soon, only the ear itself is left unskinned--a white island in a red lake.

Watching Don be skinned, I find I have involuntarily drawn my hand up to my breast, the way heroines in cheap novels do when shocked. To see a man's face cut is painful--perhaps because the face is such a scrapbook of emotion. That spot, there, behind Don's ear--might not some granny once have planted a kiss on it to heal a boo-boo? Oh, if she could see it now!

Dr. Cattani snips off a band of skin about three-fourths of an inch wide, then sutures the incisions shut. As he switches over to begin work on Don's left side, I attempt a conversational gambit: "So...ever find anything you didn't expect to, under a patient's skin?"

Yes, he says, he did find something once: a rear-view mirror. The patient had been in a terrible auto accident, her head thrown forward through a windshield. A hunk of the mirror had somehow become lodged so deeply in her face that it went undetected until Dr. Cattani was called in to perform plastic reconstruction. Human skin, he notes, is wonderfully forgiving--stronger and more elastic than we imagine.

He finishes Don's face 40 minutes after starting, then moves on down the hall to see his next patient.

This is James, 39, in for a hair transplant. En route, Dr. Cattani warns that James is very nervous: Hair is just a damn strange thing. It exerts a power over baldies far in excess of what the hirsute might suppose. Men feel about hair the way women feel about their breasts--touchy. They will go to almost any lengths to get it back. "I have to be careful what postoperative instructions I give them," he says. "If I told them to stand on their heads every other hour, they'd do it."

James is to have micrografts of hair (each graft containing three or four hair follicles) planted on his thinning pate. Where to get them?

Dr. Cattani picks up what looks to be a tiny, sharp, three-disk rototiller and runs it laterally across the back of James's head, slicing off two strips of hairy scalp. These, when minced, will provide better than a hundred grafts. The wound is sutured shut.

Now for the holes in which to plant the grafts. Asks James, kidding gamely: "If you finish on me early, Doc, can you maybe do under my eyes?" Then plaintively: "Next time I get married, I'm going to marry an older woman instead of one who's ten years younger. Let her worry about this."

Dr. Cattani starts drilling holes in James's head. Each time the drill goes in, out comes a spiral whorl--exactly as if Edgar Bergen were drilling holes in Charlie. James's whorls, of course, are flesh, not wood. An assistant keeps track of how many have been drilled by clicking off each one with a ticket-taker's counter. "This drilling part I like," says James, exuding false good humor.

Nibs of flesh go flying. When the head looks like a bloody pincushion and the counter reads 103, the doctor stops. He will return to finish James's transplant later, once his assistant has minced 103 grafts.

Now, back to Don.

Liposuction is a wonderful thing. So tiny are the incisions required that the procedure, after a man heals, usually goes undetected. In the case of Don's belly, just two incisions need be made--one on each side of the abdomen--each no longer than a quarter of an inch.

Into first one, then the other, Dr. Cattani sticks a long, thin, wandlike nozzle called a cannula. Through it, he sucks out fat. That's it. There's not a lot more to it. The noise made is like custard being sucked off a plate.

"You see the tedium involved?" asks Dr. Cattani, moving the cannula back and forth, in a motion that suggests chipping paint with an ice pick. Bored, he lapses briefly into history: Fat removal was pioneered with great success by a Frenchman in the 1920s. One day his instrument slipped, and the patient--a prima ballerina--was left crippled. "That set liposuction back 50 years," he says gravely. Now the bugs have been worked out, and liposuction ranks next to hair transplantation as men's favorite cosmetic procedure.

How much fat can be removed at one time? "We've had cases where we've filled up five of those," he says, gesturing toward the ultimate repository of Don's fat--a cylindrical two-quart canister connected to the cannula by a long hose.

We have now witnessed three procedures that have been, to say the least, invasive. Feeling queasy? Tired? More resigned than ever to growing fat, wrinkled, and bald? Don't be. There are remedies more modest. Let's go peeling!

Dr. Lewis Feder, whose Fifth Avenue office fronts on Central Park, says he counts seven billionaires among his clients. Seeing his office, one can believe it. Modern art covers walls that are themselves padded in light blue silk. On one hangs a life-size portrait of Dr. Feder. Behind the receptionist's counter, watching every move, sits Dr. Feder's mother.

The doctor's long-running cable TV show, Here's Looking at You!, airs twice weekly in Manhattan. He sells his own line of cosmetic products, which includes (but is by no means limited to) Dr. Feder's Natural Repair Complex, Dr. Feder's Glycoderm With Glycolic, Dr. Feder's Cleansing Emulsion, Dr. Feder's Retinoid Facial Therapy, Dr. Feder's Thigh Toning and Firming Cream, Dr. Feder's Super Peel, Dr. Feder's Dual Action Blem Erase, and Dr. Feder's Fadeaway (recommended for old soldiers).

And now, without further ado, Dr. Feder:

"I think I'd like for you to quote me here: You must look at the face as if it were a balloon." When a balloon loses air and sags, do you stretch it? No. You reinflate it. And so with Dr. Feder's patients, into whose faces he injects their own fat. "I have more than 800 patients' fat in my freezer now," he says.

Fat stored by just anybody would quickly die. But Dr. Feder has figured out a way to keep it living longer by giving it "a little picnic basket" of nourishment. He defrosts the fat, then uses it for "liposculpture" touchups, injecting it beneath wrinkles and lines, then molding it by hand into permanent position.

I was not surprised to learn he had reinflated his own features. His cheeks seem eager to meet you. The overall impression conveyed by his face is of a man whose tire pressure is perhaps a pound or two higher than the one the factory recommends.

"There are," he says, "so many ways I can rejuvenate you without cutting you." Ever game, I decide to try one: a mild, mild, mild as springtime "luncheon peel"--so called because although it removes several layers of aging skin, the result is so unobtrusive that a man can have it done on his lunch hour and return immediately to work, good as new. Such peels have become the third-most-popular cosmetic procedure for men, after transplants and liposuction.

Mine began with a thorough cleansing, followed by an up-close inspection by Dr. Feder. "Did you have acne?" (Once, for about 12 years.) Surveying my skin, he claims to see broken capillaries, irregular coloration, and enlarged pores. There follows, in quick succession, the application of two acids, the first milder than the second. This phase of the procedure takes less than three minutes. Afterwards, my face feels as if it had spent a day at the beach--prickly, windburned.

Cost: $405. I had been peeled indeed.

Strolling back to work, I noticed I was getting looks from passers-by. A momentary fear passed through my mind: Had my peel dislodged my hairpiece?

Did I mention I was wearing a hairpiece? Sorry, it must have slipped my mind. A few days before visiting Dr. Feder, I had had $2,500 worth of hair glued to my predominantly bald head. This step I took as an experiment on behalf of bald men everywhere, and in the best tradition of participatory journalism: With hair, would I get kissed more by my wife? Would I get a raise? And would it all be worth it, considering the grief I'd probably get from friends and colleagues?

This particular adventure began by my visiting a clinic called MHN, a Manhattan clinic that makes what owner Michelle Cipriano calls a "hair-replacement system." The system combines real human hair (picked to match the owner's own in color and texture) with a skullcap of fine synthetic mesh, to which the hair is rooted. The perimeter of the cap then is glued to the client's bald spot with surgical adhesive. MHN can remove it; the customer cannot--at least not easily. You shower with it, sleep in it, rumba in it. As a different company's ads used to say, "You can be towed underwater by it!"

I wasn't sure I wanted to be towed underwater. But I was curious to know why--in a day of minoxidil and transplant surgery--men are spending $400 million a year on hair prostheses.

The answer? Simple: Minoxidil does not grow hair on everybody, and what hair it does produce is often thin and wispy. Surgery, on the other hand, scares a lot of men. They want hair; they just don't want to be cut to get it. Solution: the prosthesis, or wig, which gives plenty of hair with lots of body.

Inauthentic hair carries with it, however, a terrifying possibility: detection. Were its fakeness to be discovered, two awful secrets would be exposed at once: The man is vain; worse, he's deceitful. That hair's not really his!

Women, long inured to such flimflammery, may laugh, but with men the fear is absolute and electric. To display false goods is to have broken an 11th commandment. To be exposed as a wearer of Super Shaper briefs is to have one's entire credibility as a man called into question (and that's without the enhancement pad). Truth in advertising should apply: Buffing and tweaking what God gave you is okay. Outright fraud is not.

MHN and companies like it easily can charge $2,500 and up for persuasive hair. And then there's upkeep. Wearers who want to keep their fake hair credible must bring it in for periodic maintenance (a trim of their remaining real hair, plus a refitting of their piece)--every six weeks, say, at $65 a pop, in perpetuity.

Further, to escape detection men may wear a piece with a receding hairline. Sound incongruous? Think about it: How convincing would an 18-year-old's hairline look on a 50-year-old guy? Marketers take note: Fear of detection constitutes the single strongest restraint on the male vanity market--not just on hairpieces but on the whole testicular enchilada. So significant are its commercial implications that this fear perhaps deserves a little further inquiry. For starters:

Detection by whom?

Not women. The vain heterosexual man takes a gamble: He risks a highly uncertain upside (women's finding him more attractive) against a downside both sure and terrible: Other guys will poke fun at him if they discover what he's up to. For whatever reason, guys just love to stick their fingers into other guys' sorest spots.

The only thing worse, probably, than getting caught wearing fake hair is getting caught wearing "bad" cosmetics. I say "bad" because some cosmetics fall within parameters that render them acceptable to men. Understanding these parameters is Job One for the cosmetics industry, which now looks to men for its sales growth.

The men's market now is only two-thirds the size of the women's. But while the women's market is mature, men's spending should grow 11% in the next three years, according to Packaged Facts. Tom Bonoma, CEO of Renaissance Cosmetics, points out that male customers are more loyal to brands than females: Hook 'em once, and you have them for life.

How to hook them into buying $3 billion more? The following strategies all work:

--Describe the new dingus as an extension (however tenuous) of the one cosmetic ritual familiar to all men: shaving. Aramis did this with an alpha-hydroxy cream, Lift Off!, introduced in 1994. (Such creams offer an over-the-counter version of the peel I got from Dr. Feder.) Aramis told men that by exfoliating regularly with the product, they could reduce their shaving time by one-third. Men have bought it eagerly ever since.

--Stress the product's indetectability. Hair colorings have made great strides in just the past few years. As Bobby Ray Mastrangelo, manager of the Ray Beauty Supply company in midtown Manhattan, explains: "Years ago, there was only one shoe-polish shade: black. Now there are gradations of color." Example: Just for Men, a coloring for sideburns and beards, comes in eight shades, including Natural Ash Brown and Natural Sandy Blond ($5.99 each).

--Get a female to give him the product as a gift. Tom Bonoma says that more than 80% of males attribute their first use of a fragrance to their being given it as a gift from a mother, sister, or some other female.

As plenty of disgruntled women can attest, men don't always wait to get a gift: They filch cosmetics from wives and girlfriends. BeautiControl, a Texas direct-sales company, heard in 1993 from female customers that men were filching one of its products--Regeneration (an alpha-hydroxy cream). The company capitalized on its discovery, repackaging the cream in a dignified gray box. Dubbed Regeneration for Men, it has sold briskly ever since.

Prospects for selling men "serious" makeup--liquid or powder concealers to hide, say, dark circles under the eyes--look, for now, dim. You won't be seeing a combination Skoal-and-mascara compact anytime soon. Again, discovery is the issue. If truly undetectable makeup ever did become available, Mike Lafavore, editor of Men's Health magazine, thinks men would buy it. "There's a tremendous opportunity there--millions to be made--if it were impossible to detect." At the moment, bronzers are about as far as most men will go.

But not, of course, me.

After being made up in $180 worth of cosmetics by professional makeup artist Alexis Kelley, I decided to go in and show the boss--fake tan, fake hair, and all.

The boss seemed less than entirely comfortable having me in his office--not exactly as if I'd had the flu, but something like that. I asked him to critique my look. "Dead," was his first reaction. "Nobody has that smooth a skin." Then he seemed to warm a little. "You look as if you're from the leisure class--you look rich, like a rich playboy." (This didn't seem to augur well for my getting a raise.)

If makeup represents the worst possible cosmetic combo (fake and detectable), muscles represent the best (obvious and real). So compulsory a fashion accessory have muscles become that writer Sam Fussell calls them "a dress code made flesh." Fussell, in a 1991 book about his bodybuilding career, Muscle (sort of a roman a cleft), and in a subsequent essay, describes the advent of a new male subspecies: the muscle fop.

Until quite recently, a demonstrated affection for one's musculature was the surest way to lose an election for scoutmaster. Yet in a few short years muscles have become a kind of public holy grail. "From totally geek to totally chic--and in one decade!" marvels Fussell. In suburbia, he says, leather weightlifting belts have become as ubiquitous a weekend fashion accessory as the pager.

For the fop too lazy to lift weights, there's the California Muscle Machine ($325) and devices like it. These do for the stomach what the state of New Jersey did so memorably to Bruno Richard Hauptmann in 1936. The user attaches electrodes from the Machine to his abdomen (or to any other muscle group he wishes to exercise), throws a switch, and--voila!--he twitches away involuntarily, able to watch movies (or shake martinis) at the same time.

With such tools at his disposal, is it any wonder modern man is overreaching? And isn't overreaching at the very heart of vanity? So, at least, thinks Mike Lafavore of Men's Health. "Vanity," he says, "is when you try too hard and it looks unnatural." His poster boy? "Burt Reynolds."

Yet men insist on rushing in even where better-looking angels might fear to tread.

Wouldn't you have thought, for instance, that John Wayne Bobbitt would have been happy just to have all his genitalia back safely in one place? No. A year or so ago he asked a Southern California plastic surgeon, Dr. Melvyn Rosenstein, to enlarge his member. This Dr. Rosenstein did--sort of. You can judge for yourself how successful the procedure was, since Bobbitt's enlarged organ has a starring role (and Dr. Rosenstein a cameo) in Bobbitt's new adult video, Frankenpenis, in stores now.

Nationwide, an estimated 10,000 enlargements have been performed. Typically, shaft length is increased by cutting ligaments inside the groin, allowing the shaft to extend farther from the body. To increase girth, fat is injected. (Paging Dr. Feder!) The fat can migrate, forming lumps. Patients have reported mixed results. So mixed, in fact, that Dr. Rosenstein has been asked by his medical brethren in California to knock it off. With their wish he has complied, there being some 100 malpractice suits outstanding against him already.

We may be witnessing the birth of a new thing: the Silly Putty self--a self so bent on being bigger, stronger, hairier (or less hairy) that it will push and pull its poor old flesh through just about any wringer.

But though the flesh is willing--eager, even--the wringer still is weak. Today's beautifying gizmos, however much they'd dazzle Grandpa, still can't deliver what the vain man really wants: perfection. Oh, it's coming--via genetic engineering--but not in time to do any ugly man alive much good.

For now, the vain hang suspended somewhere in between John Wayne and John Wayne Bobbitt. They've completely repudiated stoicism, but they haven't yet found a technology that can bring them total satisfaction. Halfway measures are their bane. Figuratively, they are stuck wearing a penis hat.

The hat is my name for a serious product, called by its Canadian manufacturer the Manhood--a genital beanie worn by men unhappy to have been circumcised. It evokes, as nothing else quite does, the plight of Vainus americanus, circa 1996: He's fighting his cosmetic battle on all fronts, with every weapon at his disposal, however blunt, whatever the cost to his own dignity.

Maybe it's not a bad thing men can't yet win total victory--that they can't, by throwing a single switch, remake themselves entirely. For when they can do that, how will they know where to stop? Freed of all his physical moorings, a man might have a little trouble remembering who he is. Or as Saint Mark might have asked, on visiting Dr. Feder: What profiteth it a man to gain smaller pores but lose his soul?

I thought about this the day Alexis Kelley put makeup on me. "If you put enough on," she said, not kidding, "you can disappear." When the hubbub of the workday had subsided and I knew I wouldn't be discovered, I strolled into an empty men's room, leaned on the sink, and for the first time surveyed myself carefully: makeup, fake tan, facial peel, someone else's hair--the works. You know, I really did look good. I exuded a kind of Cary Grant bonhomie. Then the words of a friend came back to me--a colleague who had seen me both before makeup and after: "It looks nice, Alan," she said. "But I miss you."

REPORTER ASSOCIATES Henry Goldblatt, Sheree R. Curry