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What’s the Difference Between a Barber Shop and a Salon ‘for Men’?

A place to be men together versus a space to be a man, alone.

When Kristen Barber’s father, a stunt pilot born in 1925, needed to look good, he’d turn to products marketed at his wife to get the job done, including hair dye and moisturizer. But by 2003, when Barber’s youngest brother was a tween, the landscape of products available to men had evolved so much that her brother could fill a medicine cabinet with his different colognes — and feel no shame about what that said.

How American men’s relationship with beauty products changed so much over the 20th century became a fascination for Barber, who ended up researching the men’s grooming industry for her sociology dissertation, which she then turned into a book. Styling Masculinity is the product of spending time in two different salons “for men” in Los Angeles, talking to the (mostly straight, white) customers about why they go there, and asking the (mostly female) workers what it’s like to make men look good for a living.

What Barber found may not come as a huge surprise: Female workers were expected not just to trim, shampoo and color, but to entertain and empathize, “teach men a new, feminine-free beauty language and show them how to move around the salon with confidence.” Professional men came to fulfill the expectations of their class and status that they’d be stylish and well-kempt, but often kept coming back because of the attractive or talented hairdressers, the pampering (Beers during manicures! Hot towels!), and the clubhouse vibe (Flat-screen TVs! Sports magazines!), which some of them likened to a country club.

But one thing in particular stood out as Barber analyzed these spaces: Unlike country clubs, this new type of salon is not intended to be a space for men to socialize with each other. Rather, salons “for men” present the ideal site for rejuvenating one’s masculinity as an environment in which other men can be mostly ignored.

“From the moment they enter the salons, the men engage almost exclusively with women,” Barber recounts. “Even as they sit facing other men while waiting for their appointments, there are newspapers and magazines to distract them from having to talk with each other… As [men who frequent the salon] suggested, the presence of other well-to-do white men is important to their identities, but they do not need to fraternize with these men to feel masculine.”

The avoidance of guy-to-guy interaction is built into the very layout of these salons, where privacy is crucial. At one of Barber’s sites, the less manly a service is, the deeper into the salon you have to go to access it. Activities like waiting, grabbing a snack or a Red Bull or getting a haircut all happen near the front, but as you move toward the back of the salon you’ll encounter the stations for shampooing followed by the area for hand or foot “detailing” (man-speak for a mani-pedi), followed by a room for spa treatments like a facial or massage in the very back. The idea seems to be that, yes, it’s okay for me, a guy, to do these things, but no, please don’t let anyone know I’m doing this.

It’s a stark contrast from the close quarters and community spirit of a barbershop — historically an important space for social gathering and political conversation, particularly in black and Latino neighborhoods. While these more traditional, cheaper barber shops are disappearing (there were only about 4,000 operating nationwide in 2013, writes Barber, citing census data), newer, more expensive ones are arriving in gentrifying neighborhoods — and bringing with them an ambiguous set of values.

Are the fancy barber shops that have opened in trendy urban neighborhoods spaces to socialize — as the beer on tap at some would indicate — or just to preen? Is Thomas Page Mcbee correct when he argues in Playboy that clients of new-age barber shops “have the opportunity to wrestle with an important question: What does it mean to be a man?” Or are they simply nostalgic for the type of “real masculinity” that’s been lost since the era when the idea of a salon “for men” would have been nothing more than a punchline?

Both Barber and Mcbee seem to give the new breed of barber shops — a mid-oughts trend that epitomizes the white hipster aesthetic of plaid, beards and beer — a bit more credit than they deserve. As Barber herself tells Mcbee in his article, these new arrivals to the grooming landscape can “create space for people to critique traditional notions of masculinity” (even though as agents of gentrification, these shops are enriching, not critiquing, the traditionally masculine real estate developers whose properties they inhabit). While the high-end barber shop is arguably a more noteworthy addition to the urban environment than the salons “for men” under consideration, Barber devotes a mere footnote to questioning the values they embody:

“The new upscale barbershop harks back to a time when wealthy men saw their barbers for a pampering haircut, shave, and manicure, and embraces hipster masculinities that emphasize presumed gender egalitarianism and elaborately designed and confidence-inspiring beards and mustaches.”

While Barber problematizes the gender dynamics of a salon “for men” — where women act as guides, reassuring and supporting men who fear they are risking their own masculinity by entering such a space — it’s not clear how a space where masculinity is transmitted from male barber to male client in pursuit of vintage ideas of what it means to be a man has anything to do with “gender egalitarianism.”

Arguably, the new barber shop is a more exclusive, single-sex space built on ideas of nostalgic masculinity, whereas a salon “for men” is designed to fit men into a traditionally female space, while marketing them traditionally female products. What is striking is that the former can be done in the company of other men, whereas the latter must happen in private.

Zak Stone is MEL’s executive editor

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