The de-sexing of men in this post-feminist era skips, gambols and minces along apace. According to a disturbing newspaper report headlined “Have men become the new women?”, males everywhere are pampering themselves with beauty treatments.
Boots has opened men’s grooming salons in Bristol and Edinburgh, and Tesco has announced that a beauty consultant is to tour its stores advising men on skin care. Personal observation suggests that his or her advice is likely to be misdirected. It is not the skin condition of male shoppers at Tesco that arouses disquiet; rather it is the baggy, striped linen shorts, pendulous stomachs, bandy legs, and open-toed sandals, which, taken together, are enough to make a dog bark. One can understand, however, that a beauty consultant not wishing to give offence would allow these defects to pass by, preferring to concentrate on clogged pores.
But if men are dabbing stuff behind their ears and gently applying defoliators, the question is: why? Various explanations are advanced. One is that “carefully targeted advertising” is to blame; another is that European integration has made the British more aware of higher standards of personal grooming on the Continent; a third is advanced by the feminist thinker – no jokes about oxymorons – Susan Faludi, who has studied the “crisis in masculinity”.
Of the three theories, this column is most persuaded by Faludi’s. Advertising, no matter how carefully targeted, is incapable of driving a man to the bathroom cabinet in search of passion fruit smoothing gel unless that’s where he wants to be. As for the superior personal hygiene and attention to detail of the continental male, set one of our merchant seamen on shore-leave alongside one from Marseilles, and you’d be hard put to spot the difference.
No, it’s Faludi who unlocks the mystery, in a sweeping historical statement. “There’s been a shift from the Industrial Age to the so-called Information Age, which has crafted this new vision of what it means to be a man.
“Instead of being based on work and brawn, it’s all based on what you can buy and put on your body to improve your manhood. It’s an ornamental vision of masculinity. The men who are most susceptible are the men who feel their work is ephemeral. The more it’s about pleasing other people instead of producing things, the more they buy into it.”
It’s a persuasive argument. In the days when to be a man was to be a sheet metal basher, a riveter, a blacksmith, a miner, or a scaffolder, dirt and sweat were the badges of success. (According to some historians they were also aphrodisiacs; it is said that the women of ancient Rome used to collect the sweat of gladiators, though what they did with it is perhaps best left to the ladies in question.) But today, when to be a man is to toil in public relations, salvation lies in Lancaster’s Oxygen Cream, which is to baggy eyes what dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane is to a bluebottle.
It’s all rather depressing, which is why this column tips its hat to John Phelps, 45, a world champion hairdresser who has been banned from taking part in international competitions for five years after being found to be drunk during a tournament in Berlin.
It’s news like this that opens one’s eyes to a new world. Who would have suspected the existence of hairdressing tournaments? How are they judged? Do contestants compete against the clock? Are points awarded for artistic interpretation and imaginative use of the hairdryer? Are the winners’ anthems played as they mount the podium? Do they take a lap of honour round the chairs, wrapped in the national flag?
At any rate, we should be proud to boast a world champion in John Phelps, a man who has taken on all comers and, through superior skills in highlighting, layering, and the seldom attempted double bouffant, triumphed. Wherever hairdressers are gathered together to ask each other if they are going anywhere nice this year, the name Phelps is honoured.
But if Susan Faludi is to be believed, a hairdresser is exactly the sort of chap who, in the dark night of the soul, might harbour the teeniest suspicion that his work was in some indefinable way – how could one put it? – ephemeral. From that, it is a short step to believing that he might put things on his body to improve his manhood.
It is therefore a great relief to learn that world champion hairdressers are not like that. When they suffer the disappointment of losing, do they creep away quietly and sulk? No, they do not.
“I admit I was drunk and I admit I was obnoxious,” says Mr Phelps. “But a five-year ban is terrible.
“When we won the world championship we got drunk, and that was fine. But when we lose and get drunk they don’t like it. They said the police got involved but I have not had to answer to the police.”
So much for the new vision of what it means to be a man. Given a choice between being a prop forward and a hairdresser, a red-blooded male, of the kind for whom a good night out is incomplete without the police being summoned, could do worse than reach for the curling tongs.