How David Beckham redefined Masculinity

I just finished the Netflix documentary ‘Beckham’ and it reminded me how 20-something David Beckham boldly and bravely used personal style and self-expression in his elevation from national treasure midfielder to the world’s first sports superstar brand. So let’s talk ‘the Beckham affect’ and it’s impact on men’s beauty standards, style, and masculinity.

I hadn’t heard the term metrosexual’ until it was used to describe Becks, because it was so much created in his honour.

Search metrosexual on Wikipedia, and you’ll even see his photograph.

‘Metrosexual’ entered our vocabulary in 1994 due to an article by British journalist Mark Simpson. Simpson crowned David Beckham the leader of the phenomenon.

Simpson’s article created commentary on men’s new-found ‘vanity’. Touching on how before this 90s phenomenon there was a dredging stereotype that only gay men and women cared about their appearance. An insight into how, at that moment in time, men’s self-care and beauty standards were treacherously wrapped up with connotations of narcissism, femininity, homophobia, and very macho ideals of masculinity.

Simpson’s article observed how a new wave of men had begun grooming and flaunting themselves with a pride the world had rarely seen. It highlighted increased spending on clothes, beauty products, and treatments. 

A beautiful young footballer would be a poster boy. His face and body would be plastered to bombardment, not only in the back sports pages of the newspapers but also in gossip sections and the front page. On billboards, designer brands, and our TV screens.

Simpson accurately prophesied the impending boom metrosexuality would create in consumerism. Sales of men’s grooming products have increasingly soared since the nineties. In 2023, approximately 84.7 billion USD were spent on men’s grooming globally, with a predicted 115.3 billion by 2028.

Metrosexuality is characterised by men embracing grooming, fashion, and self-care and defying traditional gender norms—a trend not embraced or even really socially allowed before. Becks had predecessors , David Bowie, Dennis Rodman to name a couple. But they seemed to be outliers.

As well as being a cleverer brand man than he’s given credit for, Becks has the undeniable sporting skill to carry this movement, and he was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. The generation before his was brought up by parents who actually lived through war.

20-something men of that age generation had a legal obligation to join the military; there was rationing and scarcity and this included a scarcity of self-expression; a woman’s place in society was fairly subservient; and members of the LGBTQ+ community were criminalised until the 1950s. Post-war hyper-masculinity was the way.

Children of the war generation, aka ‘the boomers’, had the’stiff upper lip’ uncompromising upbringing.

The beauty industry had been obsolete of men. Women did a lot of their husbands shopping, but the 90s and David’s Gen X generation would bring tides of change. I believe they were the first generation with political freedom and financial abundance to perpetuate a more relaxed, flamboyant style of masculinity.

Men were relentlessly recruited. This time by capitalism.

They were finally permitted more self-expression, retail therapy, and to connect with their feminine side.

Metrosexuality doesn’t define sexuality; it’s more definitive of lifestyle. Ditching many masculine expectations that society has put on men over the decades.

Beckham paved the way for this revolution with an ever-evolving, maverick style. Before him, most sports stars were careful and traditional, unwilling to risk their image being seen as much more than masculine role models.

To the contrary, young Becks regularly defied convention. Without fear of being seen as effeminate or showy.

Football was the ultimate lads sport. Violence and hooliganism had a disappointing prevalence, and stadiums and pitches could be a daunting and dangerous place if you didn’t exude machismo and heterosexuality. Chanting footie fans were and still are unparalleled hecklers. Becks’ life and style were incessantly offered up to the public’s judgement, but on the pitch, he over-delivered every week. Ignoring jeers and tabloid obsession, and that took strong nerve.

He entertained the public regularly on the pitch with peroxide tips, a hairband, ponytails, and a man bun. While we’re on man-bun, the proliferation of man + noun started in the 90s and is still done today. Branding that says “it’s made for men, so it’s ok!” highlights the need for social acceptance when bringing anything seen as feminine into male consumption.

But are there times when appearance needs to be socially agreed upon? Becks wore cornrows to meet legendary South African activist and politician Nelson Mandela.

A Mohawk. He has more than 70 tattoos. Tattoo of Jesus, cherubs and crosses. Proverbs in chinese characters and a misspelt Victoria tribute in Sanskrit. All of these style choices sparked debates and divided opinions, gaining him column inches. 

In today’s ‘woke world’ Beckham would be cancelled faster than one of his free kicks hits the back of the net. I’m sure there are a few men out there regretting collecting cultures in their Becks-inspired body art. Back then cultural appropriation was hardly considered. It was a very different world.

Beckham’s physique and our exposure to it added to culture and capitalism dictating mens new body ideal. Until this point, men had been viewers rather than viewed. Now Beckham was being objectified and self-objectified. His athleticism and the heavy retouching of the time gave men a sky new bar to reach.

Men’s Health magazine even overtook FHM as the best-selling men’s mag as men were dealt a piece of the unattainable beauty standards that had been reserved for women. 

Becks’ fashion choices included wearing matching purple wedding suits and leather outfits with Posh. He still gets hate for “wearing a skirt,” or more accurately, sarong, 25 years ago.

He proudly had his equally press-hounded and wonderfully filterless partner cheering “golden balls” from the stand. The Power couple were unashamedly everywhere and had a mutual love affair with the spotlight. Their partnership was a press-exhausted commodity in itself.

Tabloid stars of the 90s feel like stepping stones into the reality TV era as the world’s gossip columns detailed their every breath. The Beckhams public image showed solidarity and equal partnership and roles.

David’s public expressions of love and admiration for his partner and family marked a departure from detached, emotionless perceptions of masculinity in the world of sports and gained him further adoration as a father figure as he raised the stakes of ‘dad bod’. I think his good dad image, charitable work and philanthropy cemented him into hearts and fantasies winning him sexiest man in the world titles. 

According to studies, a little over 3 of the 4 women surveyed said they preferred a feminine man to settle down with as opposed to a “masculine” man. 76% of women preferred to date or settle down with a guy more in touch with his feminine side.

Ironically, if Becks were a free man at only 5 feet 11, many women on online dating may have filtered him out of their matches as he is below the idolised 6 foot bar.

Was his phenomenon premeditated?

In the documentary, Garry Neville memorably says, “It wasn’t enough for him; he wanted to be more than just a footballer!” I think that’s very evident and clearly achieved. He’s one of the most influential sportsmen of all time.

Let’s not underestimate or overlook the risk, drive, and perseverance, navigated criticism, and sacrificed anonymity it took to create a multimillion-pound personal brand and global icon status. I think Beckham realised he could create value with his image, and in his day, image rights and endorsements made him the world’s highest-paid footballer.

At retirement, he’d made more money than any other athlete in the world at the time, excluding Michael Jordan.

His legacy goes beyond his football achievements, illustrating that men can be confident, stylish, and in touch with their individuality. The metrosexual revolution, largely led by Beckham, continues to shape the way we view masculinity. Masculinity can change, adapt, and embrace individuality, moving away from rigid expectations of the past. Men are as vain as women, and why should they shouldn’t hide it.

Looking back to Beck’s time now really highlights how rigid and high the pressures of masculinity had been up to that point.

Metrosexual was actually a bit of an insult back in the 90s and early 2000s, but hopefully today, as society has evolved, we can see there is nothing there to insult.

The metrosexual revolution was more than skin deep; it’s quite profound.

Beckham still has incredible influence, with 85 million followers on Instagram. I think Becks walked so Cristian Ronaldo could run, being the most followed person on social media in the world with 607 million Instagram followers.

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