I walked into a bar simply expecting a drink, but got a sociology lesson on the house.
This was one of those newfangled places mistakenly called a “dive” because they’ve been carefully weathered to appear more like an old man bar from the ‘70s than a hip craft brew joint from 2013. The decor was something out of a Ron Swanson wet dream—all wood paneling and taxidermied animals and mid-century furniture. I turned to order a drink and nearly spit out my PBR upon noticing the pair of bartenders. Both were nearly identical in appearance: red plaid shirts with sleeves rolled up to reveal forearm tattoos, dark denim jeans, the closely cropped “Hitler Youth”-style haircut and big bushy beards. I suddenly felt like I was in a reverse Hooters for women who fantasize about the Brawny paper towel guy. But no, these weren’t outdoorsmen whose broken compasses got them lost on the way to the forest. Just two dudes who double as poster children for a rising trend in urban men’s fashion.
Enter the lumbersexual. Some form of this wave of faux Paul Bunyans have existed for half a decade in cities like New York and Los Angeles (trendspotting New York Magazine deemed them “Urban Woodsmen” back in 2010), but they didn’t truly enter the zeitgeist until late last year, when a writer at an outdoorsy website called GearJunkie wrote a sardonic ode to their growing ranks and offered the catchy nickname. The term lumbersexual intentionally evokes the metrosexual—the early 2000s term describing meticulously groomed men who favored expensive designer clothes. The metro, as the story goes, is disappearing; casting off his Armani suits and face razors for flannel shirts, Carhartt work boots and a beard of Grizzly Adams proportions. The slightly cleaner, more polished version—think the scruffy, laid back aesthetic of Ryan Gosling—also earned a cute moniker: the MetroJack.
There’s something off-putting about appropriating the look of the rural working class of yore while maintaining the soft lifestyle of the city-dwelling hipster. Why dress like you’re about to wield a tree saw when your tools of the trade are an espresso machine and a panini press?
The question remains: Is this evolution (arguably a de-evolution) of the stylish man necessarily a bad thing? Is this woodsy fellow all that he’s chopped up to be? It depends on whom you ask. In many ways, it’s easy to hold up the lumbersexual as an object of derision. In GearJunkie’s initial post, they point out the inherent contradictions of the type. “He is bar-hopping, but he looks like he could fell a Norway Pine. He looks like a man of the woods, but works at The Nerdery, programming for a healthy salary and benefits. His backpack carries a MacBook Air, but looks like it should carry a lumberjack’s axe.”
In other words, there’s something off-putting about appropriating the look of the rural working class of yore while maintaining the soft lifestyle of the city-dwelling hipster. Why dress like you’re about to wield a tree saw when your tools of the trade are an espresso machine and a panini press? It’s like buying jeans that come with holes in the knees—intentionally cultivating your sense of rugged authenticity is an essentially inauthentic activity. There’s also the irony of romanticizing a profession like the lumberjack, literally backbreaking labor that would make most of us want to toss down our axes in retirement after a few short hours.
Then again, the city man who yearns for the authenticity that comes with communion with nature is not a new trend. Ask Henry David Thoreau, or the original creator of Paul Bunyan—a writer who dreamed up the mythical stud as part of an ad campaign for an actual lumber company. The suburban men of the post-World War II era had their own symbol of gritty manliness: the cowboy. Riding horses, tending the land, shooting wolves—this is what real men did for a living. (One could reasonably argue that Ronald Reagan’s entire career owed itself to embodying a symbol of masculinity.)
Perhaps then the emergence of the lumbersexual is just a natural and instinctual reaction to living in a time when the idea of masculinity itself threatens to feel nostalgic. Stereotypical manly men are perceived as less essential than ever in modern cities dominated by knowledge economies and white collars. They increasingly push words or GIFs around on a screen instead of heavy things in a factory. Meanwhile, gender roles themselves grow ever more slippery. Urban men are co-parenting, taking yoga classes, and attending farmer’s markets together with their partners. There’s something about lumbersexuals that suggests a real attempt to reconcile the idea of manliness in 2015 in a way that’s not just confined to their abundance of facial hair. Many woodsy types are taking butchery or woodworking classes, brewing their own beer and embracing a DIY philosophy that serves as a corrective of sorts to the preening, hyper-consuming metrosexual. There’s a value in putting a hammer in your hand and making something, the thinking goes, not just mindlessly consuming media on an iPhone.
But maybe I’m overthinking it. It’s entirely possible that lumbersexualis can be explained by a force slightly less obtuse than the emasculating forces of technocracy: Women. Browse the online dating profiles of hipster Millennial types and you’re sure to find Instagrammed loving ladies who liberally use phrases like “I love beards” or “a man that looks good in a tool belt,” code for lumbersexuals. Consciously or subconsciously, many men simply change their appearance to whatever it is that suits the whimsy of desirable young women. There’s a good chance that bearded bros just want to lay with a woman, not actually lay trees to the ground with an axe.
Can you blame them? Timber!