In Azerbaijan, there is a saying that men should be "just a bit more handsome than an ape."
But a growing number of Azerbaijani men are challenging that stereotype. By caring for their appearance, working as models or taking part in beauty pageants, these men – Azerbaijan’s first metrosexuals – are seeking to change how their society defines masculinity and male beauty.
Being metrosexual in a masculine, socially conservative society like Azerbaijan is not easy. Men who take care of their appearance, and appreciate stylish haircuts and well-groomed eyebrows, are not generally welcome or understood.
“When you say I’m metrosexual, people laugh. They ask: ‘Is that a word?’," notes 29-year-old male model, Nuru Ahmadov.
"Society has not even accepted the word,” he says with a sigh.
The biggest stereotype in society about metrosexual men is that they are gay because they do not conform to society's definition of a "real man," notes gender expert Gulnara Mehdiyeva.
The Azerbaijani idea of a "real man" is someone who "tries to hide his romantic and sensual traits," she says.
“[A traditional Azerbaijani man] purchases very little for himself [in terms of clothing, personal care]. That's why they are featured less in advertising and magazines. Metrosexuals do not follow that mold. They are not in a hurry to get married, to have children, or to be troubled by domestic concerns. They love to spend time and resources on themselves,” Mehdiyeva says.
These stereotypes create obstacles for anyone who does not fit in, notes Amin Nazarli, a 28-year-old metrosexual.
“Our society is traditionalist; people will criticize things that are different. Why is it bad use a laser to get rid of excess and untidy facial hair? …I do not know a better way than a laser to take care of it. But it is unnatural for our society,” he says.
He adds that metrosexuals are not arguing that men should not be providers for their families.
“A man can look after his family, protect them and work. But at the same time he should be well-groomed. There is nothing wrong with that. But we still hear ‘Don’t you have anything to do? You pay too much attention to your looks, like a girl. A man should not get a laser procedure, a man should not have his hair styled everyday'."
Male model Ahmadov has noting a subtle shift in society, however, especially in the capital, Baku.
For instance, he recalls a time when no one really understood what he was talking about when he spoke about using a laser to remove facial hair. Now that service and other male grooming services – like trimming eyebrows using a thread – are available.
In addition, shops are starting to respond to metrosexuals’ buying power and are stocking beauty products for men. Another niche industry, beauty pageants, is also starting to develop.
Nazarli agrees things are slowly improving.
“All this pressure will disappear over time. Taking care of yourself, being clean are not bad things.”
He argues people have to learn to stop caring so much about the opinion of strangers.
“We should get rid of the thoughts like ‘What will my parents say if I comb my hair like this?’ ‘How will people at the university react to my clothes?’ ‘What will the neighbors say if I wear red?’” he says.
“Never mind. No matter who says what, the main issue is your dream. Later people will grow accustomed to you.”
The advent of Azerbaijani beauty pageants has made it easier for Azerbaijani society to appreciate male beauty and metrosexuals. The first pageants appeared several years ago.
Elkhan Pashayev, the founder of the Miss and Mr. Grand Azerbaijan competition, says interest in the beauty competition was higher than expected.
A former model, Pashayev sees beauty pageants as a way to develop modeling in the country, especially for men.
He notes that public interest in male modeling has been slowly increasing over the years, after some Azerbaijani models gained a degree of popularity and started getting work with local designers. As the industry grows, beauty pageants and modeling have found a new level of acceptance in Azerbaijani society, Pashayev says.
Ahmadov was encouraged by his friends to participate in a pageant about six years ago. After he won first place in that contest, his passion for beauty competitions and modeling grew.
He notes that most of Azerbaijani society does not take male modeling seriously. But he loves his job and he has become so successful that his family has accepted his profession.
“Before, society could not even accept the idea of a male model… Of course, we have something called a national mentality, and it puts unnecessary burdens on men,” Ahmadov says.
He argues that what metrosexuals represent is not very complicated – or even radically different than simple good grooming.
“In my opinion, every man should care about himself, as women do. Once a day, they should take a shower, groom their beards. It is important to look after one’s nails once a week…at least once a month I visit a hair salon. A laser procedure to remove unwanted facial hair is also normal. I exercise every day, I pay attention to what I eat and what I drink,” he says.
“In fact, these are not unusual things. Everyone needs to do them.”
Pashayev is optimistic that Azerbaijan’s metrosexuals are already chipping away at the society’s stereotypes about male beauty.
“In the past, parents were not receptive to their children becoming models,” he says. Pashayev notes that while a degree of criticism will always exist, “now they support their children.”