Lumbersexuality in Saskatoon? Oh – and a Bit About Psychiatry

First David Beckham brought us the metrosexual look and now we have witnessed the rise of the “lumbersexual.” In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary just named it one of the most important words of 2015. (Emoji won. But “lumbersexuality” was in the mix.)

In Saskatoon, SK, you will see these particular bearded, booted, manly-men in specialty coffee shops on 20th Street as well as Broadway Avenue. They frequent the Farmer’s Market and craft breweries. Back in October, these hirsute individuals were given the label “lumbersexual” by the website GearJunkie.  And since then, popular culture has taken this term and run with it.

download lumbersexual look

While the U.K.’s Daily Mail has showcased Ben Affleck and Kanye West in flannel and denim, Cosmopolitan asked its readers, “Are you Dating a Lumbersexual?” Here at home, the CBC got it all wrong. It suggested in November, 2014 that the lumbersexual tends to reside in urban centres like New York, Los Angeles, and Toronto.

Of course, this is not entirely accurate.  Anyone who has visited the University of Saskatchewan campus recently can attest that we have real, live lumbersexuals in Saskatoon as well. This is not just a “big” city phenomenon.

However, it is a men’s fashion trend with a long history and it’s wrapped up in the history of psychiatry. At the turn of the 20th century, men trapped in cities began suffering from neurasthnenia, a new disease that skyrocketed to near epidemic proportions in 1880-1890s. There was a concern that middle-class white men were growing more anxious, tired, and depressed.

George Beard, M.D, came up with the term in 1881 and believed that the fast-paced lifestyle and modern industrial economy caused disruptions in man’s “nervous energy.” The way to balance this energy was not simply with drugs. Beard’s answer was to withdraw from the pressures of urban life and get active.

For him, neurasthenia was a catchall term for a broad set of symptoms. And whereas women were ordered to bed for hysteria (or prescribed other unmentionable treatments), men were instructed to get back to nature, find their primitive side, and be masculine. That is, be wild. Outdoorsy. Think Thoreau.

In an effort to capitalize on this diagnosis, the lumberjack image – a rugged, axe-wielding, naturalist – was created to serve as a model of manliness. He was a cure for the chronic neurasthenics and was also a tool of journalists and advertisers. This archetype came to life in magazines and newspapers and was used to sell all manner of goods.

University of Virginia
This chart from American Nervousness, Its Causes and Consequences by George M. Beard (1881) illustrates the progression of symptoms attributed to neurasthenia.

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Are we seeing something similar now in the use of the lumberjack motif?  In an age of increased awareness about Depression and other mental health issues, are we seeing the cyclical return of a 135-year old fashion trend?

Of course, this is what happened with metrosexuality. And the broader lumbersexual phenomenon, according to Tim Teeman, is just straight culture’s latest attempt to theatricalize masculinity – decades after gays got there first.

In Teeman’s view, lumbersexuality is the “latest pasteurizing of sexuality…” It is, he writes (half-seriously) just another way that straights have stolen from gay culture. First it was design expertise, gym dedication, and gift-buying acumen. Now this. “What else can we give you?” jokes Teeman.

In other words, that fellow working in the coffee shop or strolling through the mall is helping reinvent a century-old fashion trend. And his long but well-maintained beard, polished leather boots, tattoos, and dark jeans – let’s be honest, the great style – has a history stretching back over a hundred years.

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