What a time to be a man. No matter what lifestyle a guy wants to publicly embrace - rugged or dandyish - he can. Military men and firefighters are in vogue, thanks to the war on terror, but all the talk about metrosexuals in recent months is adding another dimension to masculinity in American culture.
The idea of straight urbanites who like to moisturize and wear designer clothes, à la TV's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," is spreading beyond cities like New York and Seattle to the plains of Oklahoma, where designer jeans are rivaling trucker hats as a fashion accessory for guys on college campuses.
The metrosexual trend is one of a number of current cultural changes that are prompting views of masculinity to evolve. These changes are also heating up the debate over what "being a man" should entail. Issues such as greater acceptance of gay culture and more focus on men's bodies (think facials for men) are converging with existing cultural changes such as more equality between the sexes. The result is more choices - and confusion - for men.
"The definition within the mainstream of what is normal and assumed to be true is changing," says Michael Goldberg, associate professor of American studies at the University of Washington at Bothell.
Last month, for instance, Stuff, a men's magazine, reported that more straight guys are dancing together when they go out to clubs in Manhattan. And the metrosexual trend is being used to sell men everything from grooming products to jewelry. (A new magazine, Cargo, was launched last month, targeting men who like to spend.)
Some men think metrosexuality has little to do with masculinity - only capitalism. For others, especially some heterosexual men whose interest in their appearance often has made people wonder if they are gay, it's a chance to fit in more.
It was consumerism that prompted British writer Mark Simpson to first suggest the word "metrosexual" back in 1994. Last year, it was resurrected, and used so much that the American Dialect Society voted it word of the year.
"It's double-edged," says Michael Kimmel, a professor of sociology at State University of New York at Stonybrook. "On the one hand, [the metrosexual trend] sort of promotes the idea of a new masculinity based on consumerism. On the other hand, it promotes an idea of masculinity that's premised on the collapse of homophobia among straight men. So it's bad and good."
Masculinity is more complex - and less well- defined - than is often assumed, researchers say. For example, when boys are growing up, often the guidance they get about how to be masculine comes from their peers and society telling them simply not to look or act feminine or gay.
Still, society differs over how masculinity should look today, with a tug of war going on between those who want to keep it narrowly defined and those who support the idea of multiple "masculinities" that give men more choices.
"The masculine is always sort of vicariously constructed and held," says Jay Mechling, a professor of American studies at the University of California, Davis, and author of "On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth." "Masculinity may be a much more fragile construction, which is always in need of support, always in need of repair, always in need of performance."
The arrival of metrosexuals prompts more discussion of men expressing themselves not only by wearing Prada, but through their emotions as well. For some advocates, especially in the feminist community, showing their emotions benefits men by letting them become "whole" people. As Professor Kimmel puts it, it's not about trying to turn men into women, but allowing men to be more human - something that advocates say will help not only men, but women and children.
But men are still learning to deal with the changing attitudes about masculinity, which at times can seem more conflicting than liberating.
"Tons of my clients struggle with, 'Well, I finally learned how to control my emotions, and now to be successful in this team-oriented job, or with my family, they all want me to be more egalitarian and more transparent, and how do I do that?' " says Glenn Good, an associate professor of counseling psychology at the University of Missouri Columbia.
In Dr. Good's part of the country, he's not sure the metrosexual trend has caught on by name, but he says men there do struggle with how to show warmth toward their good male friends without acting in a way that would appear odd. "How masculinity is enacted is constantly changing," he says.
In a survey last November of more than 1,000 men and women by dating website Match.com, a majority of the men - 66 percent - said they would not call themselves metrosexuals (which, for the purposes of the survey, was defined as a straight man who likes designer clothes, art, fashion, home décor, and shopping). Only 20 percent of those asked identified themselves that way.
One place that all the masculinity choices can take a toll is in the world of relationships.
Ken, a 40-something man who owns a small business in the Atlanta area (and asks that his last name not be used) says he's more of an emotional guy; he also drives a nice car and wears stylish clothes. But in his case that doesn't seem to be what women want, he says. For him, masculinity is all about women.
"Masculinity has nothing to do with men," he says. "The whole issue of masculinity rests entirely with women. It is not, per se, a male issue. Men spend most of their time in relationships in trying to be what the woman perceives as masculine."
That's problematic if you think women have the wrong view of masculinity. In her latest book, "The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands," radio host Dr. Laura Schlessinger chronicles her efforts to get the listeners who call into her radio show to think more about appreciating the qualities of men that are traditionally male - stoicism, bravery, strength - rather than expecting them to exhibit more emotional behavior like that of their female friends.
"We have a generation ... of women who don't understand nor do they appreciate men or masculinity," she says in a recent phone interview. To her, the metrosexual trend is society's "attempt to finally emasculate men. Give me a Marlboro man any day."
Some American women agree with her. In the Match.com survey, for example, 44 percent of single women said a metrosexual man isn't their type. Far fewer - 20 percent - said a guy who's into clothes and decorating is their type.
A lightning rod for debate about traditional values, Dr. Laura blames the women's movement for chipping away at masculinity. "Tell me one thing that looks positively at men or masculinity in our culture," she argues.
Others say is that it's not examples of a particular kind of man people should look for - an age-old concern - but for those of "good men" as measured by their integrity.
That's the approach Dr. Mechling takes. He's a fan of the FOX prime-time cartoon "King of the Hill" for the way it deals with issues of fatherhood and masculinity.
"The notion that somehow something has happened to masculinity and that we may not have a lot of models, whereas we used to, the answer is, well, we didn't really used to," he suggests.
In the past, just as today, he says, "it's always been a much more complex story about kinds of masculinity and what counts as a real man."