By Erynn Masi de Casanova
Try engaging in a conversation about the meaning of the term “metrosexual” without smiling. It’s impossible. The word and the concept just seem a bit silly. In my interviews with 71 U.S. corporate men on the topic of work dress for my book, Buttoned Up: Clothing, Conformity, and White-Collar Masculinity, mentions of metrosexuality usually involved laughter and joking. Yet I would argue that the hubbub around the figure of the metrosexual is rooted in something real. Men’s bodies, grooming, and dress are subject to ever greater scrutiny, as scholars, GQ, and maybe even your dad have noticed and commented on. Due to the heightened surveillance of their looks, some men are taking greater care in their appearance-related decisions and behavior. Focusing on men’s work lives allows us to examine an everyday, but high-stakes, setting for self-presentation.
British journalist Mark Simpson coined the term metrosexual in the 1990s, but I am less interested in tracing its genealogy and public use than in ascertaining what it means to men in their daily lives. How do white-collar guys define this term? Interviewing corporate men in New York City, Cincinnati, and San Francisco, I uncovered a range of opinions on whether people still use the word “metrosexual” (turns out they do it more in SF), and whether it is a positive, affirming label or an insult. Dave, a white 24-year-old finance professional in Cincinnati, said that a metrosexual was “always a hundred percent concerned with [his] appearance all the time.” Other negative definitions of metrosexual included someone who “spends far too much time in front of the mirror,” who takes two hours “putting down [his] hair every morning,” and the gym-tanning-laundry proponents of MTV’s Jersey Shore. Luke, a white man in his thirties who works in Manhattan, described the negative image memorably: being a metrosexual implied “an obsessive concern with appearance… to the point where it was almost like annoying. It’s like, come on. Be a man.” Some of this resistance to the aesthetic aspects of metrosexuality comes from the idea that part of the privilege of being a man in U.S. society lies in not being judged on appearance in the way that women are. Voluntarily giving up that privilege can cause a man to be looked down on by other men.
Some of the men who recognized and articulated negative definitions of metrosexuality also saw a bright side. Graham, a British expat working in advertising who didn’t identify as a metrosexual, told me that the rise of the term indicated “how men were changing” in a good way, “that jeans and t-shirts were no longer good enough, and to celebrate a sense of style is a good thing.” Claude, a black 40-year-old with a military background, also embraced the label of metrosexual, though it apparently took some time for him to arrive at such a position. He told me, “[being called a metrosexual] don’t bother me now. At first I used to be really offended, [but now] I even refer to myself sometimes, you know, as a metrosexual, because I do probably take care of myself more… than the average guy.” But he was not completely comfortable proclaiming this, as he then said, “um…,” paused for a good two seconds, and then qualified his statement: “at times, I guess.”
The men I interviewed expressed a variety of opinions about the possible links between metrosexuality and sexual orientation. In the white-collar workplace, it is more acceptable to call someone a metrosexual than to label him gay. Jacob, a young gay man from New York, told me: “My boss calls me a metrosexual. That’s funny because he doesn’t know that I’m gay. It’s like, you know, if you could put two and two together, you would probably figure it out.” His boss wants to point out that Jacob performs masculinity differently, but doesn’t want to get reported to HR.
To the men in my study, the most important thing about metrosexuality as a set of body practices and ideals is that it has become normalized. Those who argued that the term is now passé did so by explaining that activities previously called “metro” among white-collar men—discussing dress at work, or using beauty products—are now the norm. We are all metrosexuals nowadays, in their view (“we” meaning white-collar men in U.S. cities). So while the label may be increasingly endangered, the varieties of masculinity tagged as metrosexual are alive and kicking.
Erynn Masi de Casanova, PhD, is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Cincinnati. She conducts research on the intersection of gender, work, and identity and is author of the award-winning book Making Up the Difference: Women, Beauty, and Direct Selling in Ecuador among many other publications. Her new book on men’s work dress in corporate America, titled Buttoned Up: Clothing, Conformity, and White-Collar Masculinity, was published by ILR/Cornell University Press in December 2015. She is also an editorial board member for Gender & Society.