Teenage boys are the new beauty fanatics
How to be a Man: The male grooming industry is expanding at a rate of knots
Hair care is the biggest growth category, closely followed by shaving. Photograph: iStock
How to be a Man is a series exploring masculinity and the challenges facing men in Ireland today
The local barber, an affable man with an occasionally ferocious beard, has expanded his premises. He moved his shop down the block a couple of weeks ago and now occupies a corner site. He needed more floor space to house his multiplying swivel chairs, and more wall space for the glittering mirrors that reflect and fascinate the swarm of teenage boys who gather outside his door on a Saturday morning, eager to relieve themselves of their locks.
I’d frequent him myself if I had the courage to let my yellow-grey roots see the light. I like the efficiency of the premises, the machinery, the artistry of his craft, the buzz of the clipper, the blades used to etch decorative lines on the sides of his customers’ ice-white skulls; lines that read like hieroglyphics, an ornamental code indicating membership of the tribe. I like the snap of the cut-throat razor, the brisk sweep of the neck brush, the speed of transformation. I’ve never once heard him ask his clients where they went on their holidays.
In my neck of the suburban woods, there is a whole generation of teenage boys whose dedication to their appearance seems to border on fanaticism. I watch them, unnoticed. (A handy tip, by the way: if you’re over 50 and carry a plastic shopping bag, you are entirely invisible to teenage boys. You could stand right behind them, belting out the national anthem, with a cerise-pink tutu decorating your expanding rear but you will remain utterly imperceptible to them as they check their reflections in shop windows, flick their quiffs and suck in their cheekbones.)
In the eye of the teenage-boy beholder, there is only the burgeoning self – and footwear. Imelda Marcos had nothing on the young males of my acquaintance: man alive, how many pairs of trainers can two sodding feet wear?
And clothes! The lads bunging up the self-service supermarket checkout lines at lunchtime, clutching their isotonic drinks and chicken fillet rolls, probably have more unwashed designer leisurewear under their beds than an Olympics ticket tout.
I grew up with teenage boys who washed in Swarfega, had one pair of runners, one crew-neck sweater, two cheesecloth shirts, one faded Wrangler jacket and, if they were really on trend, a pair of washed-out corduroy flares.
I assume the cheesecloth shirts were washed occasionally. Hard to tell: slow sets at the Friday-night school disco were an olfactory battle between your Charlie and his Brut. Brut won every round.
Now, to become a man, to leave the chrysalis of boyhood behind, it seems you have to go all the way with grooming.
The male grooming industry is expanding across the globe. In 2015, a quarter of all salon customers were men. Gone are the days of comb-over daddy waiting outside in a humming Cortina while mammy roosts underneath a helmet-shaped hairdryer, chewing her chocolate eclairs and waiting for her perm to set. The revenue from male grooming worldwide this year is projected to be €19 billion.
Hair care is the biggest growth category, apparently, closely followed by shaving. Now, alongside “maintenance treatments” such as head massages, waxing and laser hair removal, industry experts say that men are actively looking for products to take home after their appointments, bottles of elixirs to quiff their trims and trim their quiffs.
I read the product names on our barber’s newly stocked shelves – actually, if I spend any more time in there, he’s going to hand me a sweeping brush: Moulding Clay, Defining Paste, Pomade, Curl Construct, Boost Cream, Superglue Gel (for extreme hold), Pliable Fiber (for high hold, low shine) and Alternator (which I could have sworn was something you put in the car). There’s also an anti-gravity cream that adds shine, controls frizz and is especially useful if you’re planning on orbiting Jupiter. It’s the poetry of male beauty. Adonis should have been a hairdresser.
No wonder male grooming is booming, what with the unstoppable plague of celebrity culture and boyband pollination. It feels like every bus that rolls past (when it does roll past) is adorned with David Beckham, or one of his dribbling ilk, plastered on its side, flogging moisturising razorblades while dressed in nothing much more than tattoos, Spandex and a look of well-tailored hauteur.
What kind of man this serum-enriched century will produce is a mystery. Will the firming gel hold a generation steady? Will the moulding paste allow for breakages?
Certainly in my stretch of pomade-land, I doubt you’ll ever again see mothers dragging unwilling kids to barbershops by their reddening ears, for a short-back-and-sides. And amen to that.
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