Q1. Congratulations on your new book! Perhaps the central tension you explore is the notion of the “beautiful man”: beautifying body projects and masculinity seem fundamentally at odds with one another. And yet, as you demonstrate clearly in your book, men use beautifying body projects to establish their positions in hierarchies of race, class, sexuality, and gender. What drew you to researching this topic? Were you surprised by your findings?
Kristen Barber: When I first started asking questions about gender and beauty, I was interested in women. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as a woman I take beauty and bodies seriously as sites of scholarly investigation. This is very much related to feminist assertions that researchers’ biographies shape the questions they ask. And since women have been historically dubbed gendered bodies before rational beings, the cultivation of embodiment is a clear avenue for understanding the operations of gendered power. But there is already a proliferation of great work on the racialized and classed politics of women’s beauty regimes, and so I quickly realized men’s aesthetic-enhancing practices was an empirical gap that needed filling.
Much masculinities scholarship focuses on men in what we might consider to be predictable sites and practices: body-building, blue-collar work, fathering, etc. I wanted to know more about what it takes for men to negotiate and successfully cross gender-boundaries that might compromise their access to heteromasculine entitlements. What I found was that these men don’t actually risk much at all. Instead, the white men who spend money to have their hair styled, their nails buffed, or their backs waxed at the men’s salons in my study do so as a reflection of their race and class privilege. And these salons are organized in ways that provide clients the resources to in-turn project, at least momentarily, culturally rewarded masculine identities. They can drink imported beer while they wait for their haircut, for example. They can thumb through a copy of Golf Magazine and watch the news while their heads hang in shampoo bowls. But most important in helping these men feel like class-privileged straight men--while they enjoy a complimentary scalp massage--is the expansive labor performed by women salon employees.
Q2. In your book, you outline several fascinating examples of how cultural artifacts are remade in order to sell beauty to economically-advantaged men. For example, you mention that “hair dye” is called “color camo” and a manicure is a MANicure. There’s been some attention recently on social media to #masculinitysofragile and the gendered marketing of beauty products to men. In what ways does selling manly beauty products demonstrate the fragility of masculinity, and in what ways does it demonstrate the dominance of masculinity?
Kristen Barber: The men’s grooming industry sells men beauty by not calling it beauty. This is evidence that masculinity requires ongoing collective efforts; that it is a fragile concept rather than a biological trait. At any given time, men’s associations with idealized masculinity may be called into question, and so there are cultural rules for men to follow if they want to avoid feeling, or having friends and family accuse them of being, effeminate or gay. And rule number one is still: repudiate the “feminine.” “Beauty” is a feminized term associated with vanity, and if a Cartesian mind-body dualism continues to shape our understanding of who men are supposed to be (rational minds, not emotional or decorative bodies), then they can’t legitimately participate in beauty or be “beautiful.” It is conceptually impossible. This is why the owner of The Executive refers to her salon as a “men’s grooming environment.” This phrase is stamped across the glass front door of the salon. And the women working at The Executive told me that they aren’t supposed to use the term, “salon.” After all, women go to salons. Salons are popularly presumed to be places of vanity and gossip. Men go to barbershops. So, how do Adonis and The Executive sell men a third place that provides the pampering experience of the “women’s” salon but the masculinizing experience of the barbershop? The spaces, products, services, and practices are re-coded both linguistically and symbolically.
The salons’ clients pick up on these distinguishing efforts and use the new rhetoric to frame their understandings of the salons; so that they might convince themselves and others that what they do at Adonis or The Executive is unlike what their wives do. One client explained he became a loyal client when he realized that “women’s” hair dye is not “pH-balanced” for a man. Instead, the “hair camo” stylists use at The Executive is made for men. And so he belongs at The Executive; he has to go there to get the appropriate product. Popular notions of biological maleness become key strategies for re-coding beauty practices and products as “for men.” Men can become men when they go to a “grooming environment” to camouflage their grey hairs. This rejection of femininity reveals the value we give to masculinity and the everyday rewards and structural power that come with men’s accomplishments of a certain masculinity.
Q3. One of the aspects of your analysis that I found most fascinating is your focus on the labor performed by the mostly women salon employees at your two field sites. You argue that these employees engage in heterosexual aesthetic labor to in order to sell beauty products and services to men. In addition to the emotional labor required of intimate service work, women also socialize men on how to use these products and services, while also themselves performing an embodied form of heterosexual femininity to reassure their clients that beauty is for straight men. In what ways do these insights challenge existing scholarship on embodied emotional labor? Is this a phenomenon particular to these kinds of upper middle class white men’s spaces, or are there other examples? How does this expanded theorizing of labor in service work help scholars to make sense of late modern consumerism and its attendant body projects?
Kristen Barber: Styling Masculinity contributes to the scholarship on embodied emotional labor by moving beyond the smile. Providing good customer service in the beauty industry requires ongoing, intimate contact. Hairstylists massage men’s scalps and ruffle their fingers through men’s hair. Nail technicians rub men’s hands and calves. Bodies collide in unique ways in the grooming industry. It is therefore an excellent site for studying emotions and bodies in both service work and consumption.
My work focuses on the ways this intimacy is sold as pampering but organizationally interpreted as potentially emasculating for men. In this case, bodily labor actually begets emotional labor and so I theorize “the labor of consumption” in a way that reveals the symbiotic relationship between emotions and touch. For example, women beauty providers told me that they have to mitigate men’s unfamiliarity and discomfort with pampering to assure them they are still men when they get a facial. And when women rip the hair from men’s backs, they assure clients that they are no less masculine for feeling and expressing pain. The women do masculinizing emotional labor because of the gendered meaning of particular touch in a particular space.
Yet men working at these salons operate by what I refer to as different “touching rules.” They touch less and touch their clients in different ways--avoiding the facial, shortening the scalp massage, and welcoming their clients with a high-five rather than a hug and kiss on the cheek. I discuss the importance these touching rules play in relieving men of commodified bodily labor and the extra emotional labor required from women. This sort of bodily and emotional labor is specific to white middle and upper-middle class places that emphasize leisure and luxury. But it would be interesting to see how these processes play out in the gay spaces of West Hollywood or in salons that attract more men of color. I would expect sexuality and race to intersect with gender and class in different ways, so as to mollify the social injuries these men experience.
Expanding theories on labor as embodied reminds us of sociologist Carol Wolkowitz’s warning not to think that in a deindustrializing society we use our hands any less. In service work, hands are still the tools of production and so scholars should center bodies in their theorization of labor. By theorizing “touching rules” and masculinizing emotional labor as part of larger “heterofeminine care work,” my work emphasizes the fully embodied work that goes into creating the consumer, and by extension the worker.
Q4. You detail the challenges of “studying up” as a woman looking at men’s beautifying body projects. What advice do you have for other scholars on how to research men’s body projects? Gender certainly impacted your rapport with the men who frequented your field sites, but what aspects of race, class, and sexuality also shaped your research? Did conducting the research influence your own beautifying body projects in any way, either to help you gather the data or otherwise?
Kristen Barber: Every time I teach Qualitative Methodology, graduate students dig into debates about who can study whom, under what circumstances, and whether it’s better for researchers to study people “like them.” Indeed, there is something to be said for more easily accessing and building rapport with participants who might assume you both see the world in the same way. Being a woman helped and hindered me in interviews with women beauty providers. They were open with me about their unflattering opinions of their clients, and I doubt they would tell a male researcher that men are suckers for buying product and “think” more with their penises than with their brains. On the other hand, they often proclaimed: “You know men!” This assumed shared understanding of men made it difficult at times for me to get detailed descriptions of how workers felt about their clients.
But I am absolutely sure that being cisgender, straight, associated with an elite-private university, and white helped me to fit in at these high-service salons. My own embodiment, or habitus, helped me to blend in. I belonged. However, as a woman who doesn’t spend a lot of time, money, or effort on cultivating a careful aesthetic, I did worry I wasn’t quite hip enough to spend time in these salons. I found myself paying a lot of attention to my hair and clothes and relating to my body in new ways. I suppose you could say I became more acutely aware of my cisgender appearance, as well as of how this appearance allows me access to well protected sites and privileged people. I believe it is important for researchers to be aware of these things to better understand how they are never not embodied, and how their social status and relationship to power affects their data.
Q5. In what ways does your work help us as scholars of the body and embodiment think about the body as both a surface for expressing status differences and as a vehicle for experiencing the world through privilege and inequality?
Kristen Barber: In Styling Masculinity I emphasize the ways organizations discipline bodies, but in ways that create both powerful consumers and opportunities for commodified workers to find job satisfaction. The creation of bodies and identities is enabled and constrained within organizations drawing from and reimagining popular tropes of masculinity and femininity. Adonis and The Executive do not just shore-up men’s bodies but allow for particular masculine and feminine bodies to be simultaneously created, so that women become embodied sites of tertiary consumption at the same time men engage class-privileged, exclusionary practices. This simultaneity is a core focus in my book for understanding the dynamic relationship between embodied privileges and inequality.
You can find out more about Styling Masculinity and purchase a copy at Rutgers University Press.