The Death of The Barber, The Rebirth of Manliness

“So why do you think there aren’t so many barbers anymore?” I asked the barber I’ve been going to since the summer.

I’m paraphrasing his explanation.

In New Jersey, where he’s from, you used to be able to get a barber’s license. But now the state makes no difference between barbers and beauticians, so if you’re a young man who just wants to cut hair you have to take all these other courses for things you’re probably not interested in; perms, manicures, things like this. Barbering is a small segment of the schooling. So who would put themselves through that?

“We fought it.” he said, ‘we’, I assume, meaning him, other barbers and maybe a trade association. “They wanted us all to go back to school and get re-certified, but they had to grandfather us in.”

“Shows you what lobbying is capable of.”

Seems like barbering will be dead within the next 50 years, if not sooner. But maybe that’s just New Jersey.

The Cumberland Times:

Barber shops once seemed to be as numerous as taverns and churches, and Cumberland was home to its share. Although there may be more, our phone book yellow pages contain listings for only five. Many men have their hair cut today at what commonly are referred to as “beauty shops,” places where they wouldn’t have been caught dead a generation ago.

…The number of barbers may be dwindling in part, says Kenney, because licensing regulations and other factors make it harder for younger people to pursue the career. Rather than go to barber school, young men once learned on-the-job from older hands who already were proficient at the job. One prominent area physician who is now deceased earned his college money by working part-time at a barber shop in his home town.

This is the only barber in the area where I live, yet there are maybe four or five salons. He’s been around since the mid-1980s, but I didn’t go to him until this past summer. As kids my mom took me and my brother to unisex salons staffed by women. Today they are all still staffed by women.

In college I continued going to salons, but next door to one of them was a barbershop. I walked by without ever going in, dismissing the idea of getting a haircut there because it was filled with old men…so it must be old-fashioned, maybe even skeevy.

Ever since I started going to this new guy I don’t dread getting a haircut. I don’t fear the salon gossip – conversations I don’t want with people I don’t know about people and things I don’t care about or would rather not discuss with someone I barely know. It doesn’t exist there. Some of these places feel like interrogation rooms, but not the barbershop. It’s too easy to chalk this up as a difference between men and women – I know someone who gets her hair done in another town to avoid the salon gossip.

Reflecting on this I think of the revived interest among young men trying to learn more about what’s expected of them as they grow up. I can’t think of a better example of this than the amount of shaving videos on Youtube; men recording themselves and providing step-by-step instructions on what some would consider a simple daily ritual. Who’s searching for these videos? Adolescent boys and men who never learned how to shave properly.

Men’s style blogs are getting attention, I believe, because there are men who didn’t learn things like how a belt should roughly match your shoes, or how a single piece of denim at a time is enough1. Even caring about these kinds of things has been demonized with words like metrosexuality, as if giving a shit about your appearance shouldn’t be a part of manhood. It’s something else, either because we want our men to look like slobs, or because a lot of us are apathetic, or both2.

Where publications like GQ are associated with identifying and setting mainstream trends, sites like The Art of Manliness try to reclaim some of these ideas as a part of traditional gentlemanliness (their tagline is “reviving the lost art of manliness”). Where GQ journalism may cover the style of Hollywood’s latest leading man, the Art Of Manliness steps in with how to winterize your home and car, or what it’s like to be a product manager for a line of bicycles. But when GQ at times (ok, most times) feels like it’s for yuppies The Art Of Manliness at times feels like it’s for my grandfather (the John L. Sullivan styled pics will do that). I think for today’s young men the sweet spot is probably somewhere in the middle: the principles of what we consider manly applied to the world of the 21st century.

But what is manliness? I have some reservations with calling this development the “rebirth of manliness” because I’m not sure manliness is really a lost art, just an under-appreciated one. I sometimes think that the Manliness Camp longs for days that didn’t actually exist. The Art of Manliness appears to eulogize the time between 1890 and 1963 as if that was the golden age of manliness. But is that really true, or is the way things are today actually very similar to what they were 50 or 100 years ago? Those times had troubles that tested the character and resilience of men, of men and women really, but the present day has had those moments, too. Nor do I believe that there are any innocent times devoid of deadbeat dads, abusive family members, or man-children. Mad Men pays tribute to the Don Drapers of the world – handsome, confident fellows who are flawed just like the rest of us. Mad Men also argues that man-children like Pete Campbell haven’t just popped up out of the blue in the past 10 years3.

I was lucky to learn important life lessons from my father, but even he’s missed a few spots. That’s fine. Nobody’s perfect. I suspect he didn’t learn them from his father either. That’s still a lot better than not learning anything at all, which is what a lot of boys go through. Antwone Fisher wrote his book A Boy Should Know How To Tie A Tie for young men in these situations4.

Yet there’s a disconnect between these ideas of what a grown-up man should be and what’s actually valued in real life. In black communities there’s controversy about how academic achievement makes youths outcasts because they’re “acting white”5. There are young women who say they want romantic involvement with men in their lives, but they spend their 20s on man-children who aren’t ready for it6, or they spend their 20s acting just as immature as the male counterparts they claim to despise. (Perhaps in some cases these two really are made for each other, and in other cases they’re dating men who are twice their age – I guess that’s good news for nice guys. Maybe they’ll finish last, but the finish line is someone who still has her youthfulness.)

Besides their own sense of character, the desire to do the right thing, and admiration for the role models in their lives, there appears to be little incentive for young men to become gentlemen in the same way that there’s little incentive for them to become barbers.

But some do it anyway because that’s what they want to be.

  1. Put This On is an excellent show and blog about “dressing like a grown-up.”

  2. I don’t advocate getting a professional pedicure every week and drinking Shiraz, but I don’t see the harm in wearing a shirt and tie once in a while and getting a nose hair trimmer.

  3. Although much has been written about this Peter Pan syndrome among men and women twentysomethings. And to Pete Campbell’s credit he’s come a long way in the past few seasons.

  4. Yes, that Antwone Fisher.

  5. Rich, Black, Flunking is a controversial look at one community’s academic struggles among black youth.

  6. Comedienne Julie Klausner spent her 20s doing this. She writes about her mistakes in her dating life like she’s offering lessons for younger women, but the message is “do what makes you feel good, because in your 20s that is what it is really all about” like she’d do it all over again the same way. In one of his stand-up specials comedian Dave Chapelle says “Chivalry is dead and women killed it.” Articles like this one tell us what we’ve known all along: chicks dig jerks. And some would argue that Klausner is no different.