It was in May this year that we perhaps reached peak himbo. Standing around a map of the UK, England midfielder Jordan Henderson beckoned over his teammate Jack Grealish to reveal the answer to a challenge he’d taken part in. “I had to guess where you’re from,” said Henderson. “I want you to put where you’re from on this map.”
Grealish had strolled over with a puppyish grin, but it soon became clear that locating Birmingham, where he was born, was beyond him. The host of the quiz tried to help him out: “Originally,” she said, as if speaking to someone hard of hearing from the local nursing home, “where you’re originally from.” But Grealish remained dumbstruck. Then he gestured towards the map and uttered the immortal line “Is that England?” while everyone around him collapsed in hysterics.
He might be pretty stupid, but Grealish is also stupidly pretty. This combination has always been what makes the archetypal himbo – a word coined by a Washington Post journalist in 1988 to refer to a male version of the bimbo (albeit with less of the sexist baggage attached). Back then, Arnold Schwarzenegger or the model Fabio would have been your classic himbos, but these days the term has evolved. To be a himbo in 2022, having a great tan and a low IQ is not enough – you must be entirely lacking in guile, free from jealousy and immune to bad vibes.
When Grealish was caught out with the UK map, he didn’t sulk or get defensive – he merely laughed along. He’s happy because his mates are happy. He doesn’t care about being made to look silly because he’s confident enough in the skills he does possess: a) being one of the country’s most skilful footballers, for whose services Premier League champions Manchester City recently paid £100m; and b) being able to post topless shots of himself in a hot tub to his 5.2m followers on Instagram.
“A himbo is a guy that is handsome, muscular and – crucially – not smart enough to manipulate or gaslight the people around him,” says Ashley Ogawa Clarke, the deputy editor of men’s style and grooming bible Mr Porter. “Essentially, it’s an ideal of masculinity without the threatening toxicity: a hunk with a heart, or a Love Island contestant with fewer red flags.”
Right now, himbos are having a moment. Or a himbo-ment, to use the kind of laboured portmanteau that no self-respecting himbo would ever claim to understand. A few weeks after the Grealish clip went viral, the world was treated to its first glimpse of Ryan Gosling as the ultimate himbo: Ken from Barbie, complete with double denim, customised Calvin Klein boxers and bleached blond hair.
What the Ken shots drove home is that himbos are not afraid to look camp. In fact, looking camp – neon, bumbags, Rollerblades, bum-length shorts – is part of what makes himbos so lovable: they like to have fun and would never let uptight notions around their masculinity get in the way of that.
The original version of the himbo got rewired when it bumped into metrosexuality around the turn of the millennium, when David Beckham was wearing sarongs. Nineties icons such as Friends’ Joey Tribbiani had already showcased a kinder side to the male heart-throb by this point. But if you needed to pinpoint the moment when modern-day himboism was born, it’s hard not to look at the phenomenon that is Joey Essex: an almost preternaturally beautiful head that houses a brain that once confidently claimed a square has six sides.
Pop culture has been awash with himbos ever since. The website Vulture recently ranked all of Channing Tatum’s himbo roles (his stripper Mike Lane from Magic Mike won), but the himbo does not need to be fictional or famous. Last year, a burly bearded guy called Thoren Bradley kept going viral for chopping logs in a way that led women to post things on social media such as “Lord have mercy on my ovaries.” He caused further excitement in June by releasing a firm statement against the overturning of Roe v Wade in the US – although maybe that dampened his himbo status somewhat (a proper himbo would, like Bradley, instinctively support a woman’s right to choose, but they would also think the supreme court is somewhere you go to shop).
On a recent easyJet flight to Spain, I had the pleasure of sitting next to a bona fide himbo – about 8ft tall, with bright white hair, he looked like a more handsome version of the footballer Erling Haaland. He engaged me in a series of questions about my tantruming two-year-old that should have been exasperating (“Bloody hell, he’s a screamer … Why’s he so loud?”) but were delivered with such charming innocence they somehow soothed the fraught situation.
I would have liked to have absorbed some of his happy-go-lucky energy but – and prepare yourselves for a shock here readers – I am not a himbo. While I like to think this is only because I can pinpoint my place of birth on a map of the UK, it is likely there are other factors at play. My skin is pale, my posture crooked, and as for my abs … well I genuinely couldn’t pinpoint those on a map of my body. I do not catch women turning their gaze towards me as I walk down the street, and if I do then it’s because I’ve put my T-shirt on inside out. Whereas life for a himbo is blissfully simple, mine seems to involve nursing constantly sick children and endlessly searching for my house keys.
All of which gave some bright spark at the Guardian an idea: wouldn’t it be funny, sorry, informative, if I could – to paraphrase David Bowie – be a himbo, just for one day.
“It can be quite subtle,” assured my editor. “Jean shorts, a few buttons undone, we may need a bit of a tan.” That sounded easy enough. But, like a true himbo, I had been easily duped and by the time I had a full cast of wardrobe and makeup in my kitchen, handing me neon bootie-huggers, sun visors and a set of sodding rollerblades, it was far too late to pull out.
Which is how my day as a himbo begins: in the local supermarket, not so much shopping as trying not to kill myself on eight wheels. In fact, so precarious is my grip on the trolley that I barely have time to feel self-conscious in front of the bemused shoppers navigating their way around me. I’m sure I look the part, but clutching a Sainsbury’s bag for life with white knuckles is not the carefree existence I’d envisaged. I need something that is both manly and joyous – and so we pack up and hit the local carwash so I can jet clean my Skoda. As I unleash a cavalcade of suds down the windscreen, a group of curious men walk past and, for a second, I genuinely forget that I am wearing a hot-pink vest with multicoloured Kurt Geiger sliders. More impressively: when I do remember, I’m not sure I care. This is who I am now.
It takes a few outfit changes, but after a while I start to get it. Spending a day where I don’t have to think about anything beyond what I’m wearing and how much top-up my tan needs is actually fun. The ridiculous outfits, intimidating at first, start to feel adventurous and freeing.
But the true test comes when it’s time to do the school run and I am forced to interact with parents I see every day. Normally, I look like a scruff who never recovered from the great lockdown fashion crisis; today, I am luminous orange with a fully open, retina-scarring shirt. Nobody seems quite sure whether to avert their gaze politely or laugh directly in my face. My daughter’s teacher opts for the former as they send her out into the protection of this glowing freakshow of a man. But as I chat to other parents, and one mum gives me an impromptu hug (a sign of my sudden sexual magnetism, or sympathy for my plight?), I realise that my outstretched hand has not been met by my daughter’s. Glancing up, I see her searching the playground for her father. My own child does not recognise me.
“Why are you dressed like this!” she screams at long last. “WHAT ARE THOSE SHOES?!” She does not approve, but soon gets over her embarrassment enough to be photographed with me walking down the street as her friends all run alongside me screaming: “We’re famous!” Famous because they’re being photographed? Or famous because they’re hanging out with Lewisham’s leading himbo? I’ll pretend it’s the latter, a triumphant end to my day as a wannabe hunk. Later on, changing back into my everyday clothes, it’s startling how drab and lifeless they seem. I ask if I can keep hold of the pastel-coloured tie-dye crocs. And I wonder to myself, which is the real me? My identity as a man has been challenged.
‘The lines of what constitutes masculinity have become blurred; or rather the barriers of masculinity have loosened,” says Emilio Quezada, one half of Dewy Dudes, which uses memes and an amusing podcast to recommend skincare products to young men. In the past, men have regularly been boxed in as certain “types”: be it sad lads, metrosexuals or “fuccbois”. The himbo is interesting in that he’s yet another type, but he also seems so comfortable in his role that he rises above such categorisation. “There’s less emphasis on defining masculinity nowadays,” adds Quezada, “more of a carefree approach that very much fits into the himbo’s whole ethos; he’s simply existing.”
His partner in crime, Evan Shinn, believes himbos might be in the spotlight because “we all live in such a surveilled world now. Men are starting to experience an uptick in reminders of how their looks may stack up against emerging standards, so I think they’re more concerned with their appearance than ever and are curious to see where they can improve. And that curiosity naturally metamorphoses some dudes into himbos.” But he offers caution: “I think you’re seeing the term apply to a wide array of men who might fall under different categories if you were to look under the hood. You could be a hot, bro-y idiot with severely douche-y traits and, to me, that isn’t a himbo.”
This seems to me the key to what makes a proper himbo in 2022. There have been some huge cultural shifts around toxic masculinity that have meant the time is right to rewrite the rules on what makes for a decent bloke. For decades, films and TV shows portrayed the archetypal nerd as heroic, a kind of safe space for women who were being treated badly by jocks. But these days nerds – with their “incel” message boards and mansplaining tendencies – are at least as toxic as any other guy, if not more so. The himbo acts as a counterpoint – a return to traditional masculine sexiness (muscles, tan), but with the more problematic aspects stripped out. Himbos are an oasis of kindness in an era where cruelty is at a premium.
Himbos’ moment on the sunbed might also come from the way nerds have seized the mechanisms of power and made the world so unfathomably complex that its workings can seem beyond the grasp of us mere mortals these days. Rather than try to solve impossible riddles such as climate change and housing bubbles, himbos seem to have got it figured out by simply living in the moment, blissful in their ignorance of the world’s many woes.
And besides, even the himboest of himbos can sometimes surprise you. Just take Grealish who, for all the mocking of his mental prowess, was said by his former Aston Villa manager Dean Smith to be an “encyclopedia of football”. When this was put to him during an interview, Grealish blinked at the journalist from beneath his hairband and said: “A what? I don’t know what that means.”