The Man’s Guide to Being A ‘Real Man’

You probably read a few news stories over the past couple weeks about the rising popularity of beard implants, specifically the $3,000 to $8,000 ones offered by a plastic surgeon in midtown Manhattan.

If you missed it, here’s a link to one story, and here’s a screenshot of the best comment that came from it.

best comment ever

It’s a funny time to be a man, especially if you read magazines (or just magazine covers) or things on the Internet. You can find out stuff like which body hair you should trim and which you should let grow wild, how to get a six-pack, how to buy a suit, how to get a six-pack, how to talk to women, and how to get a six-pack.

Men used to chop wood because they had to to keep a fire going. Now we just want to know which beautifully handcrafted axe we need to buy. Or plunger, if that’s more your thing.

I used to help lead backpacking trips for inner-city kids, and every night after dinner, we’d have a conversation around the fire, a couple of adults and five young men ages 15 to 17. Every night was a different topic. One of my favorite things to use to start discussions was the question, “What is a man?” And they all had different answers: a man takes care of his responsibilities. A man respects women. A man stands up for what he believes in. Honorable stuff, not superficial stuff. Nobody said “a man knows which type of underwear he should be wearing, according to Website XYZ,” or “a man knows which beard trimmer is the best.”

A few weeks ago, while flipping through a magazine containing some blurb about How To Sound Like You Know What The Hell You’re Talking About When You Talk About Bourbon or something like that, I said to my friend, Jeez, they’re just preying on guys’ insecurities about masculinity and telling them they’re not men, aren’t they? She said,

Welcome to being a woman.

Ahem, yes. I flipped back through the magazine. So, the female reader who needs to be told her thigh gap isn’t big enough and her hairstyle isn’t right for her face shape and her pubic hair isn’t trimmed correctly now has a counterpart: the man who needs to be told his abs aren’t defined enough and his stubble is the wrong length and his … pubic hair isn’t … trimmed … correctly?

Maybe we should all have a talk with Ernest Hemingway, or Tyler Durden. Or my dad.

Hey Dad, do you think women would be more interested in me if I had the correct jeans or cologne or motorcycle or jacket?

My dad: Women? Try listening to them, meathead.

You know, it was 49 years ago when Mick Jagger was watching his TV and a man came on to tell him how white his shirts could be, and Mick decided, “He can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as me.” Are we any closer to knowing what a man is?



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  • This is such an interesting topic – I feel like this marketing toward men has actually been going on for quite a long time, only it used to be more of an emotional presence thing – men were supposed to be the strong, silent type – unfeeling, unmoving, unemotional rocks that disappeared for 40 hours a week to make money and support wives and children. That, of course, came with its own set of problems (there’s a great documentary coming out this year called The Mask You Live In that’s all about how much that’s messed up our kids –

    But now that marketing departments realized you can take regular Dial soap and put it in a navy-colored, bullet-shaped bottle and add the phrase “FOR MEN” on it to increase sales to male demos in key markets, that messaging is indeed becoming more appearance-based and pervasive. If you took out the gender pronouns in GQ and Cosmo today you probably wouldn’t even be able to tell the which magazine you were reading.

    People of every gender could benefit by simply trying to be who THEY want to be instead of chasing the manufactured quick-fixes of the 24-hour B-S factory that is the American Advertising Industry.

    • Don’t forget the entire hipster outdoors segment now. (Brandon touched on it with ReMade.) You live in a city but outdoorsy is hip now so here’s a $95 plaid shirt and a sleeping bag that you can wear around your apartment. It won’t keep you warm but you’ll look ridiculous. And that is hip.

  • Great post. I will have my husband, who doesn’t look at guy magazines etc, read it and he’ll be so confused. So funny 😉

  • I think there’s a strange dichotomy in being a man these days. On one hand, maybe you have an individual that follows all the grooming/fashion/lifestyle/sensitivity advice given in these magazines (whether he does it naturally or after reading the articles) but is a “great man”. He’s loyal to his wife or gf. He provides for dependents. And he has a healthy relationship with all of his friends around him. Does the fact that he manscapes or is in touch with pop culture make him less of a man? — Note: Beard implants is far too far.

    On the other hand, you have the man’s man – the guy that is criticizing the dude I described above. He has a beard. He dresses as he wants regardless of trends. Has a giant man-bush. And chops wood to stay warm in the winter. Meanwhile, he’s single, unhappy, and has a hard time interacting with peers because he’s so out of touch.

    So like you said, are we any closer to defining what it means to “be a man”? I’d say no. But I wouldn’t say we’re getting further away from it, I’d just say we’re making it more confusing. Instead of defining what it is to be a man, we should probably worry about “what it means to be a good human being.”

  • I love your blog and especially love this post. I’m so relieved that other men are out there wondering about this. I’ve been for a while; at what point did the switch from Marlboro Man to six-packs and body hair waxing happen? Hard to say, but we’re absolutely bombarded now.

    My eight-year-old boy — EIGHT — who is lean as a whippet and twice as fast is worried that he is fat. Or will be fat. Or that we, his parents, will be. Something is very wrong here. And he didn’t get it from us, because he’s only recently joined our home (we’re fostering him toward adoption).

    All I can think to do is keep talking about it with my family and friends, keep raising consciousness, the way women have tried for 30 or so years. And yes, it starts at home. I tell my boy all the time about the different ways to be a man.

  • Another great post from a great Blog.
    Here is a comparison based on what mainstream marketing dictates a real man is should be, with my opinion of what a man should be like.
    Mainstream: A man should be an expert on bourbon, or scotch, or some other hard liquor that assists in the growing of chest hair.
    Me: A man should enjoy what ever he is drinking and share it with his friends
    Mainstream: A man should be working on his six pack three days a week.
    Me: A man should try to be healthy seven days a week
    Mainstream: A man should know how to talk to women
    Me: A man should know how to talk to everyone.
    Mainstream: A man should grow an epic beard to look outdoorsy.
    Me: A man should go outdoors, I mean come on it’s awesome out there!

  • I like the idea of this post a lot, and agree with what Jeremy says above as well. I work with junior high age kids and it’s wild to hear their various ideas about what it takes to be a “real man.” I ride a bike to work most days instead of driving a big truck; I eat vegetables instead of trying to live off red meat. The general consensus among 13-15 year olds is that these are decidedly un-manly habits.

  • This is an interesting post. The effects of this sort of quest and confusion about what does or does not make a real man is permeating not only adult male society, but also that of kids and teens. I work with jr high kids, and their ideas about “real men” can be troubling. For many of them it seems like a man must drive a big truck or a fast car, watch football, eat red meat, like to fight, chase women, chase money…anything seems (for many if these young men) to be decidedly “un-manly.”

  • Today I read a headline snippet in the NYTimes, “The recent feminization of men’s dressing feels downright manly in its brazen embrace of the softer side.”

    You can spin it any way you’d like, as long as you’re considered a mainstream source, it seems.

  • Ah, the ironic beard. Isn’t it just the modern version of the tribal armband tattoo of the 90s? Anyway…

    I like my beer to taste good. I like my whiskey to taste good. Same with my food. I shave a couple times a week because when I get a beard, it itches like crazy.

    If folks want to dress like hipsters, grow 1880s-style beards, listen to whatever music or drive whatever car, I’m cool with that. I’m no scion of sport, fashion or whatever. Just be comfortable in your own skin. Easier said than done, especially for the younger set and those in midlife crisis. But it’s worth the effort. In other words, “What Brendan’s dad said.”

  • While I definitely enjoyed this post, I also really enjoyed the comments. There are many corners of the internet where the dudebro responses to this would not be nearly as favorable or as thought out and supporting of both genders. Kudos to Semi-Rad for being a rad place!

  • Brendan. Love the story about the reverse-sell at Barnes & Noble. Classic entrepreneurship! Those corporate bastards owe so much to guys like you who sneak their books onto the shelf for free! But well, done. I laughed out loud!

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