High manxiety! Meet the Fretrosexual

High manxiety! Meet the Fretrosexual

“It started last year, when I did the ‘dad math’,” says Jamie, a property developer from Hammersmith. “I was 35, and I realised that when my dad was my age, I was already 8 years old. It was terrifying, because my partner and I had hardly even talked about having kids. Suddenly I was panicking: for a start I didn’t want to be an “Old Dad”, and I didn’t want to have to be worrying about my sperm count and stuff. That all started me thinking about other things like, how am I going to earn enough and have time for kids? Am I ever actually going get fit? Do I have enough life experience? My girlfriend says I worry about stuff more than she does!”

Jamie says that most of his male friends have similar concerns, usually made worse by the ever-tougher atmosphere of the London workplace (“there’s a cult of youth, and everyone wants to be here, don’t they? Also, younger women are scarily ambitious.”) If you think his worries seem a bit, well, womanly, you’re probably right: a growing body of evidence, backed up by psychologists’ anecdotes, suggest that men are increasingly facing up to a whole range of issues traditionally associated with women and the pages of women’s magazines. The Metrosexual and Retrosexual have given way to the Fret-rosexual, a man with a male take on female preoccupations: manxiety.

Manxiety came out of the closet – or rather changing room – last month when Freddie Flintoff, a man once nicknamed for his similarity to a Flintstone, confessed to feeling intimidated when he ‘was in the dressing room with lads a lot younger than me, and they had abs and muscles and all sorts”.  Noting how fitness and preening has turned many social occasions a source of potential embarrassment (“When I was a young cricketer playing for England,” said Fred, plaintively, “nobody had abs”), he had to “sneak off to get changed so I could get my belly out.”

Such body-awareness, and the consequent boom in grooming, health and fitness, are the best-known signs of this cultural shift, with things are at such a pitch that original lad-mag Loaded recently relaunched with a coverline promising the “diet every man needs”. British men’s gym memberships have risen by ten per cent in the last five years, and slimmed-down, toned-up male celebrities (Chris Moyles, Ricky Gervais, Cristiano, Justin) now make the news just like their female counterparts. It’s not just about less food and and more exercise either: workouts have become more sophisticated, with “a growing interest in pilates and yoga,” according to Gentry Long, the Managing Director of Equinox in Kensington .“So much of our past discussions with male clients was about bigger arms, or a six pack. Now the conversation has shifted to movement, nutrition and regeneration.”

Of course, the manxious generation likes to finish all this off with a beauty treatment or two. Famous men may make news with unusual choices – Prince Harry with his colonics at Grace im Belgavia, a woman’s clinic, and Harry Styles with his sheep placenta facials – but the reality is that for many men, treatments have become pretty routine. At Geneu, the cool, gender-neutral DNA-testing anti-ageing clinic on Bond Street,  Dr Maria Karvela says a third of the clients are men. “They’re really interested in the science behind it all, and in some ways more discerning than women,” she says. “Though they’re also more likely to ask if it hurts.” (It doesn’t).

Beyond the gym and clinic, there are less tangible developments: Kate Taylor, relationships expert and researcher at Match.com, says that as men take a traditionally womanly interest in working on their relationships, male clients are consciously trying to be more emotionally literate, “even reading self-help books on relationships, which they never did before, believe me.” (Daniel Goldman’s Emotional Intelligence tends to be a popular first choice: even Fretro men like a clear, scientific-sounding title).

One American writer has even recognised the male equivalent of that great gender-divider recognized by Jamie, the biological clock. Hannah Seligson, author of Mission: Adulthood: How The 20-somethings Of Today Are Transforming Work, Love and Life, used the term “manxiety” specifically to describe the feelings of Generation Y men who, having pushed the average age for marriage up close to 40, now begin to panic after 35. They won’t necessarily become infertile, wrote Seligson, but there is increasing awareness of deteriorating sperm count, and anyway they don’t want to be still single at 40, nor old dads. It’s not quite a biological imperative, but it may be closest men have come to having one.

As anyone with male friends aged between 18 and 35 knows, you can add to all this more private manxiety about sexual performance (more demanding partners, and at the younger end a bit too much unrealistically proportioned porn, say counsellors) and even a male version of the great career-girl chimera, Having It All.

“There’s more pressure now to be an all-rounder,” says psychologist Dr John McKeown, who works with several Premiership footballers. “It comes mostly from dating, where women now have higher expectations of men, and more competitive workplaces. It’s a lot harder to get by being the bloke who does his job, goes for a drink, and wants a quiet life. More men now feel this pressure to be successful, to be well-read, to know about sport, to have lots of friends.”

Taylor confirms the point about dating. “British women becoming keen on the American idea of “multiple dating”, where they date several men at once,” she says. “And they walk out of bad dates sooner – if it’s not going well, they’ll leave after 90 minutes now. All that creates a sense of competition among men.”

Of course some men have always had some of these worries: in some ways what’s new about the Fretros is their willingness to talk about them. You can find small examples everywhere, from to TV (comedian Russell Kane analysing his relationship with his father, the manxious new dad in hip new HBO TV comedy Togetherness), to pop (Kanye West fretting about Kim in Bound2, Robbie Williams, who made the very Fretro error of overdoing his dad-involvement at the birth of son Charlton last October) and sport (Lewis Hamilton worrying that his split with Nicole Scherzinger would affect his form).

The cricket player Kevin Pietersen struck a radically Fretro note last year when, in what was almost certainly a first for a cricketer, he introduced the subject of work-life balance and parental guilt in his autobiogrpaphy KP. Pietersen explained that he had felt torn between touring and spending time with his wife, the former Liberty X singer Jessica Taylor, and son Dylan. “I begged [coach Andy Flower]. I said: ‘Please can I have my family with me when that Test match starts?’ I was like, if families are a distraction how come we’re allowed our families in England?’

This very modern complaint was a high-profile example of a man with traditionally female work-life balance and familial guilt issues. This is hardly uncommon; McKeown has noticed men beginning to feeling womanly guilt about “meeting their own needs”. (“They feel guilty just watching the football on television. They’ll say, ‘Well, I just watch it on the portable upstairs,’ as if that compensates for it.”)

Childcare is one area in which men’s behaviour has changed because of their anxieties, with unexpected results. One North London psychologist who specialises in relationship counseling for high-powered couples says she has a glut of women with husbands who spend so much affection and energy on their kids they have none left for their partners.  And yes, she says, it is the case that when it comes to sex, the women are frustrated while the men have headaches. To make matters worse, when a wife has a higher-responsibility, better-paying job, her husband can get too deferential. “Women still want to be swept off their feet sometimes, and him fretting about emotional literacy can get in the way,” she says. “It’s complicated.”

It is indeed complicated and – let’s be honest – sometimes easy to laugh at, this redrawing of the gender lines. But surely it is also to be encouraged, because for every superstar yearning to be a renaissance man, there are a hundred ordinary blokes simply trying be a bit more open to life than their dads were allowed to be. We’re slowly beginning to realise that, as London psychologist Dr Like Sullivan observes, men are great at temporarily forgetting their manxieties in the pub with their mates, but really awful at maintaining the sort of emotional support networks that women have. And as we drink less and spend more time with our families, even the relief of the pub can get lost. Perhaps the real challenge for men now facing up to “women’s” issues will be remaking networks and friendships based on honesty about our mangst and manxieties, and on recognising that really, everybody has issues – even James Bond and The Man In Pants.

“I don’t want to just be known,” supermodel David Gandy wailed in a magazine interview earlier this month, “as the man in pants!” David was explaining why he had bought a luxury footwear company. Being so rich and good looking, he said, made people see him as “a brainless idiot”; perhaps if he ran his own business, they would take him seriously, and look beyond his pants to the full, er, package.

Could he not just be satisfied with what he had? He is after all one the world’s best-paid models, former star in a J-Lo video, and designer his own M&S underwear range – must he have his brain lusted over, too? Yes he must, he explained, for otherwise the public would think him a shallow man who was “paid a fortune to do very little”.

Yes, in the recent past, rich and handsome men might have been happy to be envied for their slim hips and fat wallets, but no longer; in the hyper-competitive, self-aware, and perfection-craving 2010s, even the male supermodels want to be loved for their minds. David Gandy is far from alone in having this traditionally female worry about being judged on his looks. Chukka Ummuna, the Labour Party pin-up, recently told the MPs’ magazine The House that he felt awkward being called “gorgeous”, and wanted to be known for his “ideas and beliefs”.

When an MP mooted as a future party leader gets openly manxious, you know things are changing, and one wonders where it all might end: The establishment of Mens’ Institutes, maybe? Luke Sullivan says he’s opening one of those next month. It has been pointed out before that male competitiveness means that if they became pregnant, men would make the size of their bumps, or the extremity of morning sickness, onto badges of macho pride. Perhaps in the future, manxiety will become something to show off with, and pubs will resound with claims of extreme neurosis from the likes of Jamie and his mates. You might want to practicing just in case, lads: just do the dad math and get fretting.

Leave a reply