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What It Means to Smell Like a Man

Beer soap, bacon beard oil and the marketing of fragrant masculinity

Brian Foster needed a manly name for his new line of masculine grooming products. Without one, he was worried that men would be less likely to buy the small-batch pomades he had developed with his wife. Luckily, the thunderbolt struck with macho force — it would be undeniable that his hair styling product was for anyone other than dudes (and the most manly among them at that).

“I was covered in sawdust and drinking whiskey in my woodshop at the end of the day,” he remembers. “The name just came to me: Whiskey and Sawdust. I hoped it captured the essence of a man reaching for a glass of whiskey after he chops down a tree.”

To further clarify to men that his pomade was cool for them to use, Foster built a display case for it that resembled an old-timey tool box. Archetypal, hyper-masculine iconography adorned the lids of each variation on styling and hold: The “Gentleman’s Blend” featured a pair of corncob pipes; the “Anchor” a sailor’s tattoo; the “Woodsman” an axe; and so on.

Foster is hardly alone in adopting the manliest, booziest motif possible to offset the implicit femininity of beauty products — sorry, grooming products. “Women buy beauty products, men buy grooming products,” notes Kristen Barber, an assistant professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. “But the truth is, these products aren’t that different.”

Here are the results of a quick Google search for “masculine grooming products”: Beard Bourbon (“brewed for you by beard enthusiasts”); Whisky & Water Hand Lotion (“a rich fragrance redolent of the finest oak-aged single malt and skin-calming extract of Scottish malted barley”); Coffee & Stout Beer Soap (“beer yeast can help strengthen skin elasticity”); Corktown Beard Oil (“from a time when a man knew how to kick his feet up when he got home to relax with the smell of sweet tobacco in his pipe”); Beardilizer beard oils #12 Dirty South Bacon (“preferred by the man who loves to warm himself by a hickory log campfire”) and #17 Ol’ Cowboy Leather (“for guys who need to gear up for a long day in the saddle, wherever that may be…”).

There must be a reason why all these products are marketed to men with such stereotypically masculine (and insultingly basic) fragrances, right? Do we have some sort of Pavlovian response to things that smell like bourbon and bacon? Or is this, like so many other things, Darwinian and related to mating? Might these scents be loaded with hidden pheromones that make them irresistible to the people we hope to have sex with?

“Absolutely not,” writes George Preti, an adjunct professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania with a doctorate in organic chemistry. I had emailed to ask him whether the scent of oak-aged Scottish malted barley was a turn-on biologically.

“I study the nature, abundance and biogenesis of human odors, not trends in men’s fragrances,” he adds. “There are no ‘pheromones’ in any of the scents you described or any others because we don’t know what the chemical nature and structures of human primer or modulator pheromones even are.”

Tristan Bridges, an assistant professor of sociology at SUNY Brockport who studies how American men resist changes in gender relations, agrees: “I’d be suspicious of anyone claiming a biological reasoning for this trend. If the scent of whiskey, leather and freshly mowed grass has been historically shown to be biologically attractive throughout history, why has it only come into style in the last 10 years?”

It’s actually more like 15 years. In 2002, personal-care marketers chose the grooming and fashion-obsessed American man as their new frontier, dubbing him “the metrosexual,” a term first coined in the mid-1990s. The metrosexual was totally straight, they insisted — just more aware of his feminine side. He color-coordinated, he exfoliated, he manscaped. “America may be on the verge of a metrosexual moment,” The New York Times proclaimed in June 2003, writing about Bravo series called Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, in which “a team of five gay men transform a style-deficient and culture-deprived straight man from drab to fab.”

Marketing to the metrosexual meant conveying (in packaging, in commercials and in scent) that he was purchasing something totally different from what his female partner used: His lotion was not her moisturizer; his pomade was not her “styling wax”; their eye creams were nothing alike. And just like that, a dual market was born, whose very existence depended on adherence to one simple, manly rule: There’s absolutely no sharing allowed in the bathroom.

It proved to be a lucrative rule, too, and one that brands had little trouble following. Degree, for example, developed his and her antiperspirant lines in 2003 (previously it sold just one version); the men’s offering became the fastest-growing antiperspirant in the U.S. in 2004, doubling profits and attaining nearly 12 percent market share, according to Information Resources Inc.

“One of the men in my book talks about feeling insecure about getting his hair dyed,” says Barber, author of Styling Masculinity: Gender, Class, and Inequality in the Men’s Grooming Industry. “He didn’t want to go gray, but he was hesitant to use hair dye — until his stylist told him it was ‘pH-balanced for a man.’ All of a sudden he thought, That makes sense. Let’s try it.”

Of course, all of these new masculine versions of the same products needed to smell like something (as long as they smelled nothing like her products). So grooming companies landed on a dozen or so olfactory representations of various forms of aspirational masculinity. “I call it Vintage Masculinity,” Bridges says. “Lots of men today, particularly young, middle- and upper-class white men, are very interested in cultivating vintage masculine practices — things that might have passed for a trade a generation ago but today are taken on as hobbies or casual interests. Men are asking themselves what it means to be a man anymore, and this is a way for them to symbolically lay claim to manhood in a cultural moment when American manhood might be less meaningful than it used to be.”

Vintage masculinity isn’t complicated — most connotations come from fathers and grandfathers who may have enjoyed a Cubano with their nightly Old Fashioned. “The classic archetype of the 1960s is all about tobacco and booze,” says Dave Johnson, who reviews men’s colognes at “Just look at Don Draper. Just about everyone would agree he’s a masculine guy. What does Draper smell like? Tobacco and booze. And women.”

Many of the trademarks of the vintage-masculinity trend — doing things the old-fashioned way because goddammit that’s how we used to do them, and pining for the heyday of white masculinity in America — are positively Trump-ian, or what the Los Angeles Times recently called a parody of American manhood. “Men used to feel masculine by being breadwinners, but that breadwinning role is dissolving because women are moving into the workforce and sharing household responsibilities,” Barber says. “If she can feel more like a woman when she buys and applies lipstick, why can’t he feel more like a man when he buys and applies beard oil or pomade?”

Just as cosmetics companies were able to redefine femininity during World War II, when American women stepped into factories to replace American men fighting overseas, they’re now redefining masculinity — and American men are eating it up. Even if he’s not a breadwinner, a husband can still feel like a man with a dab of Lip Whiskey. It also reinforces a straight man’s masculinity — he’s assured he won’t be considered gay because there’s an axe on the front of his bottle of body wash.

It’s not just about being a straight man; it’s about being a grown straight man, says Beardbro Mike Brunett. “You’re an adult and you’re finally drinking alcohol and can tell your friends you have bourbon in your beard, which contributes to an idea of coming of age, of no longer being a boy.”

Then again, it might not actually be men buying these products. A whopping 96 percent of women in a recent survey said they purchased grooming or personal care products for one or more men in their household, and 36 percent purchased them for men outside of their household. “A big percentage of our buyers are women,” Brunett notes. “Women were really responding to the scents of bourbon, whiskey and cigars, so we switched to more of a boozy lineup.”

Wieden+Kennedy, Old Spice’s ad agency, was among the first marketers to speak directly to the female consumer in a wildly successful 2010 campaign called “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like,” featuring a towel-clad human six-pack named Isaiah Mustafa who asks, “Hey ladies, does your man look like me? No, but he can smell like me.” He’s riding a white horse in one commercial; row-boating with a couple of glasses of champagne in another. (No one else in the rowboat, so women can imagine themselves there with him.) “Women have traditionally been the ones associated with consumerism,” Bridges explains. “So even though men are buying more and their dollars are becoming more powerful, women remain the primary consumers for families.” The idea is that because Mustafa is speaking directly to women, the men watching with them will assume their wives or girlfriends will find them attractive, too — if they buy the products.

This isn’t the first time American men have questioned their masculinity. At the turn of the 20th century, fearing the transition from vigorous physical labor to corporate work would erode the foundations of masculine identity, men developed new ideals that emphasized strenuous exercise, outdoor activity and the romantic ruggedness of nature. By 1910, for instance, physical education was being taught in every public school and the Boy Scouts of America had been established to “revitalize American manhood in response to immigration and urbanization.”

Nor can the trend be attributed to all men; many gay men would certainly scoff at the notion, myself included. Similarly, black Americans have a long tradition of wearing their Sunday best to church, which hasn’t typically included bacon-or whiskey-scented beard oil, cologne or body wash. “African Americans presented themselves in their finest and connected themselves to the divine,” says Anthony Pinn, author of the book Black Religion and Aesthetics and professor of religious studies at Rice University. “The suits and the dresses and scents became statements similar to ‘God made me, and God doesn’t make junk.’”

Finally, it should be noted that men don’t actually have to drink whiskey — or be a carpenter or a sailor or even like bacon — for these products to appeal to them. After all, they don’t really want to head out on Saturday night smelling like Sunday brunch. (Does anyone?) They do, however, want to attract potential mates. (Doesn’t everyone?) What they’re purchasing is a whiff of the cultural association between bacon and masculinity — or at least the essence of a man reaching for a glass of whiskey after he chops down a tree.