Here Come the Metrosexuals

My boyfriend is stylish to a fault. He knows what works for him (merino wool sweaters) and what does not. No tones of camel or toffee, please! He is familiar with my Kiehl's skincare regimen and has a penchant for the natural skincare line Zia. He washes his hair with Biolage and carefully combs conditioner through it. He won't settle for anything other than Calvin Klein when it comes to his bed sheets, and shops at the only Banana Republic outlet in California (I didn't even know one existed).

When your man one-ups you in shopping, you know you're in trouble. Yes, I confess. I'm in love with a metrosexual. That's the term for a new generation of hip, urban men who can shotgun their beers and tell the difference between Levi's and Diesel. You can see them in your beauty salon getting their facials and pedicures. They compliment you on your shoes because they actually like your shoes. They're like my brother who says stuff like, "No carbs after 8 PM," and lets me know that tennis skirts are the latest summer rage in New York. These are straight men who appreciate the value of looking good and don't need an army of gay men to help them do it.

What in the hell is going on? Are straight men turning gay?

The most-commonly used label to describe this trend is "metrosexual," a term defined as straight men living in urban, metropolitan settings who are embracing their feminine sides. Once the preserve of urban twenty-something hipsters, it's a term that has gained so much mainstream cred that New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd recently decided to ask none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger if he was that kind of guy. Dowd claims her question was inspired by Arnie's appearance: "In person, he looks a little unreal, like a top-of-the-line Madame Tussaud figure: taut skin, buffed nails, designer shades." And it is a credit to our metrosexual times that the king of macho was not in the least bit insulted, but instead launched into an elaborate description of his shopping skills: "(My wife) always says, 'Why don't you go over in the men's section?' and I say: 'No, no. I want to stay here and I want to help you because you'll find something great.'"

The heterosexual American male is without a doubt making inroads into territory that has long been the preserve of women and gay men. Conde Nast, the magazine publishing powerhouse, has now created a male version of the very popular women's consumer magazine, Lucky, called Cargo, which is reportedly set to launch in 2004. Men are no longer considered an afterthought when it comes to new grooming product lines. But, of course, to preserve the straight male ego, companies make sure they serve up the most feminine of products with a healthy dose of macho. Take, for example, the skincare lines Jack Black and Heavy Duty. Jack Black is a skincare label that dates back to the Civil War, when they provided soldiers with shaving and grooming kits. (Guess a man couldn't shoot a gun with a five o'clock shadow.) Heavy Duty packages some of its products to look like motor oil and then dresses them with a graphic of a woman jacking up her car -- and is reportedly a hit with Aerosmith lead crooner Steven Tyler.

Axe's body deodorant is gaining a new following with its cheeky television campaign, which speaks to the age-old preoccupation of straight men with hooking up with more than one woman at the same time. In one commercial, when a man is caught staring at another woman at the bar, his girlfriend murmurs understandingly, "Beautiful isn't she?" Another features a woman asking a man, "Do you mind if my best friend joins us?" Lest we forget: Men may be getting cleaned up on the outside, but that doesn't mean the primary message about what it means to be a man has changed.

Gay writers such as Mark Simpson also use "metrosexual" to satirize consumerism's toll on men. As Simpson wrote in a now infamous Salon article, capitalism needed a new "It" boy -- not a hetero schlep who didn't spend enough money, but "a new kind of man, one less certain of his identity and much more interested in his image." A man, Simpson writes, "who is an advertiser's walking wet dream." Traditional masculinity meant providing for the wife so she had money to burn. Today, beaten down by Madison Avenue's assault on his ego, men are being pushed to do just as much of the spending themselves. There's nothing better for the corporate bottom line than to have both husband and wife haunting the corridors of the local mall.

The trend may be Madison Avenue's dream, but it also has to do with changing expectations of the 21st century woman. What modern-day woman doesn't appreciate a man who loves his mama, works out, makes a mean rack of lamb, has patience while shopping, can take in a play, exhibit fashion sense and trim his nose hairs? That's nearly a golden ticket to the bedroom and a lottery ticket for a promising future. Didn't everyone see what happened when Kate Hudson fell for Matthew McConaughey's metrosexual shtick in "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days?" She didn't just fall; she crashed into his arms. But at the end, Kate got the very best version of Matthew, the kind she probably envisioned falling for: a pretty boy with the most earnest heart of gold.

It's the reason why a show like Bravo's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" is such a megahit with women. Despite their affection for ghastly color-blocked polos and polyester pants, these men let the Fab Five make them better not to get the hottie in the bar, but for the wife that wants his eyebrows waxed or the girlfriend who wants him to throw her a nice party. It's clear that these "Queer" candidates genuinely want to impress the women in their life. To do so, these men shed not only their nasty grooming habits and that dastardly pair of high-waist jeans, but also some of their manly pride. The message is not, "I love Prada," but, "I love you, honey."

Not all women are impressed with this new-found feminine side. Salon writer Sheerly Avni wrote about an old boyfriend who made her dinner several nights a week, putting to shame her poor, if any, culinary talents. "At the time I was touched, but little did I realize that intentionally or not, he was refining and perfecting a strategy for future domination by homing in on my neglected domestic sphere." He may be the one who will want to shop till he drops, tag along with your girly gang of Sunday brunchers and book both your hair appointments. By the time he finishes reading this article, he may have already picked out your living room furniture from Pottery Barn. Most women, however, are not as worried as Avni -- perhaps because their men are so far from the metrosexual ideal, any change seems like a god-send.

Besides, the encroachment of men into female territory is an encouraging sign of progress. The greater willingness to accept homosexuality indicates not just a broader definition of sexuality but also of gender roles. The walls of gender identity aren't necessarily being knocked down, but rather rearranged. Let's face it! If women start kicking butt a la Jackie Chan, there's no reason why a man can't have eyebrows that rival Catherine Zeta Jones.

Genevieve Roja is a freelance writer living in the Bay Area.

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