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Introducing the Lumbersexual

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Many doctoral dissertations languish in libraries – their subject matter of little interest to the general public, but the work of UVA history student Willa Brown has caught the attention of men everywhere. 

Willa Brown has spent months in the North Woods, talking with lumberjacks about their lives and 

  attitudes.  She’s read countless letters and diaries written by men who felled trees for a living – from the southern pine forests to the Pacific Northwest, from Maine to Minnesota.  Her research led to a recent essay in The Atlantic called Lumbersexuality and its Discontents.  Staffers at the Canadian Broadcasting Company were intrigued; borrowed text from a website called Gear Junkie and created this explanation.

“Yesterday’s urban male wore a slim cut pair of pants, perhaps a button-down shirt with a narrow tie.  He kept a clean shave and generally looked tidy.  His look was coined Metrosexual.  Today, the metrosexual is a disappearing breed, being quickly replaced by men more concerned with existing in the outdoors, or the pseudo outdoors, than meticulous grooming habits.   He is bar-hopping, but he looks like he could fell a Norway Pine.  He is the lumbersexual.”

Willa Brown has seen this man with his bulging biceps, tattoos and flannel work shirts.

“Plaid is deeply important.  Beards are very strongly encouraged , but I think what really differentiates a lumbersexual from someone who’s say, actually a woodsman, is that he doesn’t actually have any need for wearing flannel or work boots.”

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Willa Brown

She believes this iconic figure is popular because American men are struggling to redefine themselves.

“In the Great Recession, more men lost jobs than women.  More women are getting college degrees than men, so they have more opportunities, and we’ve gotten to this point where the idea of a single income family is really lost and gone forever. It’s out of reach for most of us, and so is the idea of a male breadwinner, so if men and women are going to be working the same hours to make two incomes, we have to re-imagine domestic arrangements in a way that very much changes the role of men.”

In the 20th century, many men found fashion inspiration in the cowboy, but Brown says that image has been changing.

“You have Calvin Coolidge, president of the United States, not exactly a manly man, taking all these pictures of himself in white leather chaps that say ‘Cal’ in spangles down the side.  It got to be really costumey really quick, and then from the 1960’s on with the Village People and Midnight Cowboy and Brokeback Mountain, the cowboy also takes on this gay subtext, and to be fair the lumberjack has been a really popular image in gay culture for a while, but that hasn’t become as mainstream, and so now if an urban dude pulls on a pair of cowboy boots, it’s hard to even know what he’s trying to conjure up.”

The lumberjack is less complex, combining strength with a love of the outdoors.  Literature portrayed him as an easy going guy who could wield an ax, roll a log and down a beer with grace.  In fact, Brown says, our modern-day notions of what it meant to be a woodsmen are quite different from the reality.

“Because if you read actual lumberjack letters, they’re mostly concerned about bed lice and the quality of the beans they’re eating.”

And they worried a good deal about being maimed or killed in what was dirty, dangerous work.

Willa Brown is enjoying her celebrity after penning the Atlantic article, but she’ll set the record straight in detail next year when she wraps up her dissertation:  Gentlemen of the Woods:  Manhood, Myth and the American Lumberjack from 1850-1920.  

You can read Willa's essay in The Atlantic Monthly here

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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