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For Prisoners Masculine Beauty Brings Power

There's something about Australia's prison system that breeds a culture of aesthetic obsession.

by Mahmood Fazal
21 November 2018, 4:02am

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The visitors centre at Port Phillip Prison is sterile. The walls are hung with crude signs illustrating the difference between modest and immodest clothing. The children’s playground is joyless. The passive aggressive demands of the prison officers heighten the tension. Everyone is weathered down by procedure. The colours feel muted.

In the visitors centre, the only life comes from the prisoners. After their mandatory strip search, the door to the cells buzz open and the inmates strut inside to greet friends and family. Every prisoner who enters looks distinct. They wear their personality in the subtle alterations of shoes, haircuts, muscle-mass, and beard styles. And they all shave their legs.

No one knows for sure where the shaved leg aesthetic came from. There's speculation that it started among inmates who were bodybuilding and would shave their bodies for maximum muscle definition. Other inmates say that it’s a sign of cleanliness and started off among skinhead inmates. And others have said it’s a sign of sexual openness on the prison yard. But whatever the original purpose, nowadays it's become a norm embraced by the majority of seasoned convicts.

“When you walk out to the yard, everyone knows you by how you conduct yourself. That's what makes you in here because we’re all in jail, we’re all the same shit,” explains my cousin Abs who's been a Port Philip resident for three years. “I can pick people by their haircuts. Young jailheads rock the ratties, the guys who want to do easy jail have comb-overs, and the seasoned stand-overs have shaved heads. Same with shoes: TNs are for the new guys, Asics are for people who have been around, and Dunlops are for the sad cunts without a clue.”

In prison, beauty is a reflection of discipline. Groomed nails, fresh haircuts and ripped abs are testament to how ordered you are as a person. In prison, your status is designated by your ability to cope. So if you look like you have it all together—by dressing sharp and looking ripped—the perverse masquerade of prison life will let you pass, unacknowledged at best, and cat-called at worst.

Fashion gets subverted in prison because it's such a closed ecosystem. Lacking new influences, inmates generate their own trends and conventions that over decades. And I witnessed the prison make-over first hand when my cousin was incarcerated.

Six months before his stint, he was wearing skin tight jeans, collared shirts from Burberry and Italian leather boots. His hair was tightly brushed into a combover. He wore diamond earrings and spoke loudly. And he never prayed or mentioned his faith. All of this changed within a week. Inside the maximum security his look became aggressive. He started thinking before speaking, and using Arabic slang even though he couldn't speak the language. His time became concentrated on the two things that gave him hope; working out and faith.

On our first visit, his head had been shaved into a sharp crew cut, with a long plaited rat tail that dangled beneath his shoulders. He wore neon Asics Kayanos runners. His beard was neatly trimmed and his moustache was shaved in accordance with Sunnah Islamic principles. His Lynx deodorant was invasive. He walked slowly, sure of himself, and with a gently swaying swagger. It was a distinctively Australian, jail-house look.

But he would never call it male beauty. Instead it’s joked about on the yard as “looking nice,” “dressing sharp,” or “having a mad style.” The “b” word is somehow emasculating, and taboo, in the hyper-alpha playgrounds of the prison system. It’s never spoken about literally and only ever acknowledged in veiled compliments, like “oh you got a haircut aye? Not bad,” or “you look like you’ve stacked on some size, brother.” Everyone puts in maximum effort, but no one acts like they have. No one wants to reveal too much about themselves by speaking direct, so everything is alluded to in half-cooked semiotics that only make sense to insiders.

For prisoners, the foundations of beauty stem from hygiene not seduction. “Cleanliness is half of faith,” my cousin reminds me. Cleanliness is a rule that all inmates religiously abide by—if they’re going to be respected in the mainstream yard or as a safeguard from getting their head kicked in by a disgruntled cellmate. “No one in jail’s going to stand for sharing a cell with someone who doesn’t look after themselves.”

Because prisoners are reduced to CRN numbers, forced to wear recycled green track suits and abide a strict daily regime—the margin for individuality is restricted. But it’s within those restrictions that human differences come to life. And it’s within that glimmer of creativity that prisoners discover the therapeutic merit of self-expression or male beauty.

Abs told me, “When I stand in front of my mirror in the morning and wax my hair, it’s like a ritual from back in the days when I would get ready for school. It connects me to the real world. And for those few minutes it takes to get ready. Or that hour. I feel real again.”

For prisoners, it’s those trivial decisions that create a personal sense of freedom. So I asked a couple of prisoners and one ex-prisoner about how male beauty looks in jail.

Marco / 33 / Commercial Trafficking

VICE: Hey Marco, is bodybuilding a sport or a beauty pageant?
Marco: It’s not a beauty pageant. Uh, maybe. I think what you’re asking is, do I do it for myself or for others, true? I think it’s both. I wasn’t big into bodybuilding before I got lobbed to this prison. It was a different vibe, you know it was more about being competitive but also looking like you got dash and that. Everything in jail is a competition. Or it gets turned into a competition. Cunts will see you with a line of Lynx cans, and the next week they will have double lined up in their cells. Everyone's cooked it because we’re trapped brother...just stare at brick walls and each other. Everyone’s judging how they all look. It’s not normal. So when you’re pumping weights, every tom, dick, and harry has some advice to chop out.

Why did you start bodybuilding in prison?
To be honest I was bored. And look, you notice how everyone treats the bigger blokes. Sucking up to them. Everyone wants to be the man in the unit. So I started hitting the gym and my goal was to get to 100kg but with real low body fat. Goals help you burn time in jail. So I started making a plan, hitting the gym, smashing supersets, high intensity and burpees every morning and night. I spend a lot of time in the mirror, because it’s like sculpting. Bodybuilding is about getting balance in your body. So your shoulders are even, your chest is in balance. Your right bicep isn’t bigger than your left. And most important your legs have to be sizey. You want to look like a wrecking machine. But you asked: is it a beauty pageant? Look, imagine if the judges were all haters looking for reasons to shit on you. So you got to be perfect.

How did you feel when you got to 100kg?
I felt accomplished. Like I had proof of my accomplishment. My body was like a certificate I could show off on the yard. It’s satisfying, when your blood pumps during a workout. And after, you get in front of a mirror and tense the different muscles. You feel powerful because your pushing your body to what it’s capable of. And then when you have a visit on the weekends, and your girl gets surprised when she gives you a hug. It makes you feel good. To us, looking like a machine is beautiful, looking staunch and carrying yourself with respect. Beauty or bodybuilding, it gives you that edge of confidence.

Liam / 29 / Recently Released

Hey Liam, when did you get your first haircut?
I applied to get my haircut within my first two weeks of being in custody in the MAP but it came with a heavy warning from the older more experiences prisoners “ Don’t shave your head or get a number 0 because you might catch something.” This was before I knew that around 50 percent of the people in prison have Hepatitis C. This scared the shit out of me but I was still very keen on getting a haircut.

By this time my already thick curly hair had reached a small white boy afro length and it had to go. I remember the first time I walked into the unit and I was making my bed when my cellmate came into my cell and introduced himself. I remember seeing his fresh fade and within the first 10 minutes of general conversation about the unit I asked him “ Where did you get your haircut around here? “ He went on to tell me that there was guy with name of Browny who was on remand for a long time already who was giving all the haircuts in the unit.

When I first saw Browny I was hesitant to ask him for a haircut he was big, angry and looked pissed off. And when he smiled you could see his gold in his teeth. I was playing pool with my celly one time in the unit, when i saw Browny cutting another guys hair. I knew this was my time to go and ask if I could get my now out-of-control hair cut.

How did your haircut make you feel?
My first haircut in prison took me a couple of months to get and for the first time I felt like I was free again just for a moment. Browny actually did such a professional job, I even remember asking him do you cut hair on the outside and he goes, “Nup just something he started doing in here.” I guess the mundane days of boredom and only so much walking around the yard or gym you can do—evolves into keeping yourself groomed and looking nice. Presentable even. Even though there are no real women around, it’s just a nice feeling having a fresh haircut and rubbing your hands through the fresh shaved sides of your head. It made me feel like a new man.

Junior / 35 / Aggravated Assault

Junior, How do you get ready in the mornings?
I take my time with it, G. I have all my deodorants ready to go, my gel, my Fruits body wash, my shampoo. I got four dri fit caps, with the blacked out logo. They’re becoming rarer because they screws are being tightasses with letting them in. I got the CK undies too. I got rosaries and a gold cross. I got some Nike dri fit socks in here too, with the logo.

Now my big thing is shoes. I got four pairs of TNs. Asics Kayano, Nimbus and the GTs. I even fuck around with Adidas Climacools. I reckon they’re mean and I don’t give a fuck what no cunt says they’re just as comfy as Asics, especially if you got wide feet. But if we’re showing off or if I got my girl visiting, I’m wearing Nikes. A lil pre-workout before the visit. Spray some Africa and we’re on.

I heard you get your eyebrows done in there?
Oh bro, you going to do me like that. I don’t get my eyebrows done, I just get them shaped a little. And we cut lines into the end of them, all us Islanders do. We’re trying to look fresh out here. Same as on the outside. If you look like a gronk, you’ll get treated like one period. No one wants to be boys with a stink cunt, aye? You want to get respect in here, it’s the same on the street. Why you think we all buy clothes as soon as we get our money up outside, because we want to be fresh cunts. It makes us all feel good. And trust me, you’ll take what you can get to feel good in here. Cunts get shit bombed [Tomato sauce bottle filled with shit sprayed on them] because it’s the ultimate disrespect. To make someone feel like shit, you make them look like shit.

And what’s with shaving your legs?
It’s a jail thing. Everyone in jail shaves their legs. Sounds weird but we are in shorts all day and you want to look sharp. You want to feel fresh. You can see the muscles mad defined. And it brings out your shoes, so they pop out. After you shave your legs, it just does your head in having them all hair. I got boob tats [tattoos] all down my leg, and when I shave em they look better, true? It’s got nothing to do with sex trust me. There’s plenty of fucking that goes down but it’s got nothing to do with shaving your legs. We all wax and shave our legs on the outside too.

Do you think beauty is a feeling or a style thing?
Your style is what makes you get noticed in jail. But everyone's got their own style. The Muslims have their own style. The Asians have their own style. The Kooris have their own style. Beauty is an awkward word because it sounds like pussy. Like men aren’t supposed to be beautiful. So when you ask funny shit like that I don’t know if you’re trying to imply that we’re all cats [gay prisoners] or something. Because we’re not. In jail, what you call mens beauty...maybe it is just a feeling. Because even if we are the shit of society, locked up like animals, it makes us feel good to know we look good. Looking good is all we got. Looking good is mean, true?

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