Recently we presented a paper entitled “From Masculinity to Masculinities: Rethinking How We Communicate with Men” at the MRS Fashion and Beauty Conference. The report drew on work that Space Doctors have been doing in masculinity and male identity as well as male health and grooming over a number of years. Here’s briefly what we talked about and some other highlights from the event.

The MRS conference was a potentially nerve wracking experience – presenting our work alongside that from other companies, at a lectern in a posh hotel – but no one nodded off, we got a few laughs (in the right places) and – thanks to the notes we had as back up – we avoided the waffle factor and managed to present it all within the time allocated.

The presentation focused on why grooming matters to men, how representations of the body and skin have changed over time, and what that means for brands.  Driven by the pervasive influence of touch screen television, networking and entertainment systems like the Wii, evidence points to a future in which men want skin which acts in a networked way, helping support, maintain – or regulate – what’s going on ‘inside’ the body, as well as acting as a membrane that facilitates a more engaging, sensory experience and connection with what’s going on ‘outside’.   Today, the need for a more intelligent endurance replaces traditional ideas of invulnerability and stoicism. We demonstrated how traditional depictions of skin as being armour-like, tough and not easily penetrable have been replaced by more contemporary representations in which the skin’s role is closer to a communications interface, appropriate for an age in which empathy and information exchange are important attributes we all need.  We also looked at men’s desire to “Man-Up” – merging the idea of metro-sexual and retro-sexual to get to a ‘re-masculinity’ that is not aggressive but subtle and controlled. Exemplified by the re-emergence of beards (Stephen cleverly used his own as an example) as a defining piece of masculinity and self-narrativising.

The final lesson – think about Avatar or Source Code not Rocky or Terminator if you want to get a handle on what the emerging expectations of the male body are.

However – the conference wasn’t all about listening to Space Doctors! Kate Middleton and David Beckham props featured extensively plus there were a lot of opportunities to debate issues as a group and for networking with other attendees. Other issues discussed included the democratisation of fashion brought about by more agile fast fashion brands in tandem with the rise of digital culture and blogging, as well as how the in-store experience needs to evolve to better cater for a more informed male consumer.

A particularly fascinating area for debate was around some data presented by Virtual Surveys, which looked at differences in perceptions of beauty across China, the USA and UK. Intriguingly, the survey found that respondents in the UK and USA were much more self-critical about their appearance, pessimistic and generally stressed out about their lives and the future than in China. Clearly economic factors play a part here. However, a cultural perspective – which Rachel Lawes of Lawes Gadsby Semiotics propounded particularly eloquently – would suggest that the more critical western responses were driven by a different conception and understanding of the body – and specifically a Western tendency to see the body from a rationalist, mechanistic and analytical perspective, which may be behind this apparent increased incidence of stress.  All in all a fascinating example of how cultural insight and semiotics can point to ‘the why’ behind consumer responses.

An interesting day out was had, no one had any issues around ‘what not to wear’ and we went home happy. Thanks go to everyone who helped in creation of the MRS presentation and in particular to Mariah who was able to make it back on an overnight flight from Los Angeles to take part in the day.

To see the presentation document (pdf) visit our Publications section.