[Originally posted on Forbes.com.]
It’s hard to believe it’s been more than 10 years since The New York Times’ Sunday Styles section ran its era-defining feature on the “coming out” of the metrosexual. In early 2004, the American Dialect Society named metrosexual its word of the year for 2003, but now the term is hardly noteworthy: It’s part of the fabric of conversation, partly because it so neatly addressed what was changing with men and women.
Now it’s ubiquitous shorthand for everything from a man with decent shoes to Buzz Bissinger (whose confession last year of his Gucci addiction led the coiner of metrosexual to call his problem “metrosexy” on the Huffington Post). But in the early aughts, before “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” Johnny Depp’s embrace of pirate eyeliner, and the mainstream appeal of soccer star and underwear icon David Beckham, the term—and the significance of this emerging demographic—had to be explained.
I was chief strategy officer of Euro RSCG (which later became Havas, where I now work again) when the agency adapted and popularized the term (which was devised, satirically, in the mid-’90s by gay writer Mark Simpson) and convened focus groups of what the Times article called these “open-minded young men.” I told the reporter: “Their heightened sense of aesthetics is very, very pronounced. They’re the style makers. It doesn’t mean your average Joe American is going to copy everything they do. But unless you study these guys you don’t know where Joe American is heading.”
At the time, it was an exotic phenomenon: straight men who groom their cuticles, like wine bars and enjoy shopping with their gal pals. It was brave and cutting-edge to deviate from traditional manly-man definitions of masculinity. In the early 2000s, this didn’t commonly exist, at least not between the coasts. But the trend was burgeoning, and the article—and the concept—struck a chord. (And “metrosexual” will probably always come up when you Google me.)
It was amazing how quickly this leading edge went mainstream. By the end of the aughts, it wasn’t a big deal for a man to have a manicure or buy an expensive face cream. Marketers came to embrace the term metrosexual, seeing a whole new group who would buy magazines and spend freely to improve their personal appearance. “[W]hat began as a fashion and marketing phenomenon became an oddly powerful and subversive force that may even mark a permanent change in the way we treat and view male sexuality and identity,” wrote Margaret C. Ervin in the 2011 book Performing American Masculinities: The 21st-Century Man in Popular Culture.
In many precincts, it hardly even seems subversive. Many men around the world got over their resistance to seeming too emotionally expressive or too interested in fashion. Even athletes did, with Beckham leading the way. Shortly after that New York Times article broke, I wrote a brief bio of Beckham for the 2004 Time 100: “… Beckham, 29, is an icon of modern masculinity at a time gender roles are changing faster than runway styles. He has been known to don sarongs and even his wife’s panties, the better to set of his pink nail polish. It ain’t easy being the metrosexual pinup boy, but Beckham doesn’t flinch from the term. With seemingly a different hairstyle each week—he has gone from skinhead to fauxhawk to dreads to a ponytail—he keeps hair salons worldwide flooded with followers eager to mimic his style.”
For 10 years Beckham influenced global fashion trends, and when he retired last year, there was a spate of commentary about how he had redefined masculinity. Ellis Cashmore, a British professor of culture, media and sports, put it nicely on CNN.com:
In the late 1990s, when he first surfaced, only Beckham could get away with it.… Today, cultural history is unimaginable without Beckham—because he helped change that history. He slew the image of the unrelentingly macho sport hero and emerged heroically as the world’s first all-purpose celebrity athlete. A symbol of a new masculinity.
Of course, one of the factors leading this change was shifting views toward homosexuality. A rapidly growing number of states and countries recognize gay marriage, and President Obama expressed his support in his 2013 inaugural address. For millennials, sexual orientation is increasingly a non-issue. Less worried about being perceived as gay, straight men could embrace their softer side. Meanwhile, men have been expected to take an active role in parenting, and it’s much more accepted for them to stay home as the primary caregiver. Men in general are more used to seeing women in positions of power and having to embody many roles in their professional and private lives (as women have long had to do).
Ten years after metrosexuality began its ascendance, what it means to be a man has evolved. It’s not worthy of commentary if a man has groomed nails or well-tailored clothes. But the pendulum might be swinging back, or else tracing a circle in which there’s room for more manifestations of masculinity. In hip sections of Brooklyn and Portland, Ore., among many other places in between, the male uniform has become ironic facial hair, vintage work boots and plaid flannel shirts—a look Henry Alford satirized in The Times as “homespun and slightly raffish, a country-store clerk who has lost his spectacles in the barley.” Butchers are the new rock stars. Companies like Wilderness Collective put on luxury camping trips for affluent men who want to play Eagle Scout. Men are now much freer to express themselves without worrying about getting pigeonholed, whatever their style choices. (Also, they can cry; just ask the past three U.S. presidents or John Boehner or Jack Bauer.)
Even with those big-tent trends, metrosexuality is having a lasting, most likely permanent, impact on our culture. Today’s men are valuing self-care; a study by the NPD Group found that nine out of 10 American men are using products such as facial and body skin care, shaving, hair care and fragrance. They’ve become bigger marketing targets, as marketers have started appealing to more aspects of life, including personal care, outer looks and inner health, topics that used to be taboo or not manly enough. The ways marketers talk to men and women have changed, too; now they poke fun at “manly men” à la Dos Equis’ Hemingway-esque Most Interesting Man in the World and Old Spice’s “Smell like a man, man” ads.
For all the equality, though, there is a scary underbelly that I and my co-authors of The Future of Men predicted: Men are falling behind women, at least in school. In the United States, 1 million more women than men hold at least a bachelor’s degree (and the gap is growing among young people), and women account for more than half of Americans with a postgraduate degree. Plus, many universities, both public and private, and some of the very best, are now enrolling majority-female student bodies.
There’s room now to poke fun at stereotypes. And to poke fun at ourselves while embracing everything masculinity can embody in 2014. There isn’t just one masculine brand but a whole range, and it’s not inborn but develops and changes over time. The word metrosexual has outgrown Simpson’s narcissistic depiction and now transcends narrow stereotypes to describe a whole range of traits. And the metrosexuals themselves are now men who don’t unquestioningly assume that there’s just one way of being a man.