Laugh at Scott Hanson all you want. Tease him about getting pedicures once a month for more than eight years. He really doesn't care."I know some men are funny about it. I just laugh at them," he says. "I'm secure in my manhood."
For the less-enlightened, pedicures are a check mark on the list of things "real men" don't do. It's a list that, depending on the person, can include knitting or crocheting, Pilates, professional housekeeping or babysitting, sewing, crying in public, and loving rom-coms more than superheroes or crashing cars.
But there's a knuckle-dragging troglodyte aroma around those perceptions. These days, real men do pretty much as they darn well please, and to heck with what anybody else thinks. Though, women may actually be quick to embrace some of those "unmanly" behaviors.
In a 2017 study by the London-based DrEd, a health-oriented website now called Zava, 1,000 American and European women were asked what they find sexy in men. Fifty percent said they love a man who cries in front of them because it makes them feel "trusted" and "honored." About 60 percent of American women said dancing is hot, 55 percent said painting is sexy, and 70 percent were hot for bakers.
At Ready Set Sew in East Ridge, owner Steve Coakley says men attend classes on sewing, quilting and embroidery.
"They're very talented and very creative and they don't let the stigma of being a man in 'woman's' world affect them. It doesn't bother them at all," he says.
Michelle McDougal, who teaches Pilates at the downtown YMCA, says the number of men in her classes has grown "exponentially" in the last eight years or so and there's now about a 50/50 split between men and women.
As the owner of Hanson Cabinetry & Remodeling, Hanson is on his feet almost all day, and heads to the salon for some relief. A pedicure at Southside Salon on Market Street, where he's been going for almost a decade to let Nikki Davenport treat his feet, includes a nice hot water soak in a jetted basin, and a foot rub. Both are a little piece of heaven, he says.
"My feet get sore and I get callouses in places on the bottom of my feet. It's medicinal, not necessarily for pretty toes — although I'm alright if they look good," he says with a boisterous laugh, something he does frequently. "It's being pampered and I like being pampered. And I don't have to bend over to cut my toenails."
Here, others share their stories of what real men do.
Stretching your funny bone
"Make your belly kiss your spine; you're wearing a thong on the beach and it's your 40th college reunion." As the sky turns from pink to blue about 7:30 in the morning, Michelle McDougal fires off that instruction in a downtown YMCA exercise studio. Spread across the studio's wooden floor are 19 early risers who come in twice a week for her Pilates class. On this particular day, six are men, although McDougal says four of the regular guys are AWOL.
But the guys who are here are more than enough.
After McDougal talks about beaches and thongs and reunions, the bag of jokes rips open wide.
"I think Fred is the only one here wearing a thong."
A metal Thermos clangs to the floor as someone going through the Pilates motions knocks it over.
"Someone's drunk and knocked over the ashtray."
As Bill Wetzel, former CEO of the Chattanooga YMCA, talks about why he's been practicing Pilates for about 15 years, someone says, "Tell him how Pilates brings out your feminine side."
Close your eyes and, except for the deeper voices, you might think you're in a middle-school boys' locker room.
"They were out of control in here today," McDougal says after the class. "It was like a substitute teacher was in here."
Fred Decosimo — the Fred who's "wearing a thong" — admits that "there's a lot of regular banter in here among several of us. I'm hoping to get a check one day for entertainment."
A financial advisor at Elliott Davis, Decosimo is part of the Decosimo family that's been a pillar of the Chattanooga financial community for decades. He started Pilates about three years ago to relieve the pain of herniated discs in his spine.
"Of all the things I've done, this has had the most relief in terms of preventing or lessening problems," the 66-year-old says.
It's a statement that several of the men in McDougal's class repeat. Lower back pain. Deteriorating discs. Sciatica. All get relief from Pilates. McDougal says the number of males in her classes grew "after doctors started referring men with bad backs."
At 69, Wetzel — who mentions nothing about his feminine side — says he has a bad back, too, but he plays golf and also likes the way the stretching in Pilates has helped with his flexibility.
Has it helped with his golf game?
"Not really," Wetzel says.
With his hair in a tight bun and beard scruff on his face, Ben Johnson is the youngest man in the class at 41. He works out regularly at the Y and says he started Pilates about a month ago "to try something different." Although he acknowledges that some see Pilates as part of a woman's world, those judgments are irrelevant to him.
"If you hear 'Pilates,' what do you think? Women, right? It's just not something [men would] normally be doing like lifting weights," he says. "But athletes do ballet and Pilates and yoga and all this other stuff.
"Pilates has an application to every other thing in your life, from sitting in a chair to bending down and picking things up differently. It creates a synergistic effect in your musculature and skeletal system. It kind of brings everything together."
But, as a young(er) guy, has he gotten any flak from his friends about a man doing a woman's exercise?
"Not really, but that doesn't really bother me," Johnson says. "If someone says something and it gets your goat, they're just going to keep pouring it on."
Knitting it forward
Dante Galindo Cruz was in a restaurant recently, eating dinner with friends. As he does almost everywhere, he had his knitting needles out, yarn attached, working on a piece.
The waitress approached and asked, "What are you doing?"
"I said, 'I'm knitting.' She said, 'Isn't that for girls?'" he recounts.
In general, Cruz's personality seems mellow and engaging, a people person. But when recalling this particular encounter — one he's had with others — his voice hardens a bit.
"I said, 'First of all, it's not for women; it's for everybody. And men were doing it before women.'"
History backs him up. Men were knitting fishing nets about 2,000 years ago. Knitting guilds in the Middle Ages were all men. In World Wars I and II, school-age children in Britain — boys and girls — were asked to knit socks and gloves and bandages for the troops.
Cruz now practices both knitting and crocheting. For the uninitiated, knitting employs two needles while crocheting only has one, and knitting uses two types of stitches while crocheting uses several.
He was introduced to the crafts about 13 years ago, as a 17-year-old who was "kind of pretty much homeless." One night he entered the Waffle House on Brainerd Road and asked if, since it was late, he could sit in one of the booths for the night. The staff said OK, as long as he didn't fall asleep.
While sitting there, he noticed a woman in another booth. Her name was Melanie Dobbs Gibbs and she was crocheting.
"I thought, 'That looks so cool,'" Cruz recalls. "She saw me staring at her and said, 'Come over here and have a seat.'"
Gibbs bought him breakfast and, as he ate, she asked if he would like to try crocheting. "I said, 'That looks like it's super-hard and I don't know what I'm doing,'" he says.
She assured him that she would walk him through the steps. Within a few minutes, he had made his first chain stitch and was on his way.
"She made me feel so good because she was so proud of me," Cruz says.
That same night, Gibbs took him to Wal-Mart and bought him yarn and needles, which he still has. "They're my favorite needles," he says.
"I told her, 'I don't have any way of paying you back.' And she said, 'Promise me that you'll never stop crocheting.'"
Gibbs, whose father loved to sew, says Cruz "has the biggest heart of anyone I know" and she admits that his skills in both technique and creativity have "far surpassed mine."
The idea that Cruz — or any man — should stay away from knitting or crocheting, or baking, or any so-called "women's work" is ridiculous to her. "Men do it out of love and creativity," she says. "Women do it because they have to."
Cruz has honored her request that he never stop crocheting, but he's paying her back in another way, too, he says. When he makes a piece, he often gives it away.
"I love to see the look on people's face when I give them something and they end up loving it and keeping it," says Cruz.
Along with that sense of joy, knitting and crocheting offer Cruz a special value.
"It's peace and really calming. And it reminds me of being that 17-year-old kid again in Waffle House."
As a guy working in a store that sells sewing equipment, Jared Hire hasn't found men making fun of him. Instead, he's found women are less than enthusiastic about him.
They don't laugh or tease, he says, but he feels their reverse sexism just the same as they enter Ready Set Sew.
"I've had women customers come in and I'll introduce myself and say, 'Hi, can I help you?' and they say, 'No.' Then they'll walk over to Jordan, my wife, and ask her for something. They completely ignore me because I'm a man and they just assume that I don't know what I'm talking about," he says.
With a thick, well-manicured beard that descends several inches below his chin, the 27-year-old Jared doesn't look like the prototypical person who sews, quilts or embroiders — if that prototypical person actually exists. He's worked at Ready Set Sew in East Ridge for about five months; his wife Jordan has been there for years.
He admits he was on a pretty steep learning curve when he first joined the store, which sells machines and offers classes and repairs on sewing, quilting and embroidery machines. Now, though, he's interested in embroidery and has already made a "terrible stick man" on one of the store's machines.
"I think everybody needs to have a creative outlet. Society has lost that by and large," he says.
"The kind of manly creative outlets tend to have things like a woodworking shop or something, and that's unrealistic to start into."
Sewing, too, involves some tinkering these days. Ready Set Sew owner Steve Coakley, who has been in the business for more than 30 years, says technology has taken over the market. Needles and thread are still the foundation, he says, but some of the machines have multiple needles and spools of different colored thread.
"When people think of sewing, they think back to their mom sitting in her chair with a needle and thread and they don't really understand that there are $25,000 machines out there on the floor," Coakley says.
Hired a couple of weeks ago at Ready Set Sew, Sam Anderson is another newcomer to sewing. With a large tattoo of a cross on the inside of his right forearm and another peeking out from the edge of his short-sleeve shirt, he's not exactly the kind of guy who screams "I love sewing."
But he's getting there.
On his second day at the store, a class on the history of fabric was held. Anderson has a degree in digital media from Lee University and was captivated by a seminar on the technology and innovation now involved with digitally printing in the quilting world.
"So I ended up buying two bolts of fabric because, if I'm going to be here, I want to learn how to sew," he says.
What is he going to do with the fabric? "I guess I'm going to make a quilt," Anderson shrugs.
Although he hasn't received any serious scorn from co-workers at his other job as a production assistant at WRCB-TV/Channel 3, he has gotten some questions.
"They're just kind of wondering: Where's the connection there? How did that come about? How did you even get that job?" he says.
Other friends have been a bit more blunt.
"I told them I'm working in a sewing store and they said, 'Are you joking?'"