October 07, 2016

Book explores rise of ‘grooming environments’ for men

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- The barbershop is in decline. From 1992 to 2012, barbershops have fallen off by 23 percent. During that same time period, a new, descriptive word has appeared: metrosexual. Coincidence? Not at all, according to Kristen Barber, assistant professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. 

Barber’s new book, “Styling Masculinity: Gender, Class, and Inequality in the Men’s Grooming Industry,” examines the rise of the professional men’s “grooming environment,” the men who use them and the (mostly) women who work at them to determine how this shift away from barbershop to upscale salon reflects changing attitudes about masculinity, physical appearance and class distinctions. 

For her study, Barber focused on two upscale men’s salons in Southern California. In the process of observing and compiling data, she realized that one of the most crucial factors for her research was the salon employee. While her study incorporated interviews with the clientele, many of her interviews were with the stylists, manicurists and other employees, most of whom are women. 

“There are plenty of studies about women’s beauty experiences and how those experiences may be oppressive or liberating, but I found there were almost no systematic studies of men’s grooming habits,” Barber said. “Yet $6.3 billion were spent on men’s grooming supplies in 2014. Men’s grooming needs have changed over the past 10 years – what is different now and why is it different?” 

Her study reveals that men’s grooming habits are symptomatic of larger concepts in society: perceived distinctions between age groups, ethnic groups, and working class and white collar, shifting perceptions of masculinity and the persistent role of women as experts in and validators of male grooming habits. 

The men who frequented the salons Barber studied were mostly white and well-to-do. They eschewed the traditional barbershop as antiquated in style and limited in perceptions of manhood. But what do men get at a salon – or, as one preferred to be called, a grooming environment -- they don’t get from a barbershop? According to the men, they get the style and the image they believe they need to compete in a professional, white-collar workplace. What they don’t get is camaraderie, at least not with other men. And that’s key. 

“The grooming environments are set up to be discreet,” Barber said. “The grooming stations are almost in cubicles and the chairs face different ways. Interaction between clients is not really encouraged.” Men do notice other men who patronize the salon, though. Barber said one man confided that he “looks for Rolexes,” to assure himself he’s in the “right place.” 

It’s the stylists, though, who make the whole thing work. Their role is advising about image and appearance and grooming products -- but they are also there to assure the men who patronize the establishments that indeed it is manly to care about one’s appearance and even to do such things as get a manicure. They sell the men on extras -- manicures, pedicures, waxing and other services -- by establishing that the results are attractive to women and indicative of professional, white collar standing. 

Most of the stylists are women. They jokingly refer to themselves as “the other woman” in their lives because of the relationships they build. And just as the salons are designed with an upscale, masculine look, with leather and chrome and flat-screen TVs tuned to sports broadcasts, the stylists often have a particular look. They are meant to come across as modern women, hip and sexy, maybe edgy, Barber said. 

“The women are part of the experience,” Barber said. “It helps the men to establish that they are straight, which is important to some of them. They are there to pamper, emotionally and physically, and to build up the men’s egos so that they feel good about spending $50 on a haircut.” 

Barber is available for interview on topics pertaining to barbershop decline; men’s salons or grooming environments rise; the social factors contributing to this shift; and what this shift says about perceptions of masculinity and beauty. She can be reached at 618/453-2494, or barber@siu.edu. 

“Styling Masculinity” is available from Rutgers University Press.