Analysing men, makeup, and masculinity

Beauty correspondent Beth Brand investigates the outdated stigma surrounding the male beauty industry

Young Portrait

In recent years, there seems to have been a noticeable shift in attitude towards male grooming. While once, a simple bar of soap would suffice, now many men boast skincare routines to rival the average woman. Encompassing nails, skincare, and hair removal, the male grooming market is growing rapidly, with sales worldwide predicted to top £15 billion this year. While nowhere near as mainstream, even cosmetics are slowly being incorporated into some men’s grooming routines, especially in emerging markets as disposable incomes rise. Celebrities such as Johnny Depp and Bradley Cooper have been photographed at premieres wearing definite traces of makeup.  However, this trend is not just reserved for stars, as Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs have both launched new male cosmetics ranges in recent years.

The now commonly used term ‘metrosexual male’, describing a man who devotes time and money to his appearance, was first coined in 1994 by the journalist Mark Simpson. In an Independent article, Simpson drew attention to how the taboo around men caring about how they looked was finally changing. Over 20 years later, being well presented is certainly considered a desirable trait, with an almost competitive edge. Well groomed men are thought to give a far better impression, both socially and professionally, than those who don’t make the effort. But where has this confidence to delve into those areas of beauty traditionally considered feminine come from? And when did male grooming products transition from a frivolity to an essential basic?

With political agendas in the late 20th century breaking boundaries, male and female fashions began to merge for the first time, and the resulting punk movement produced an androgynous generation. Then, with the rise of social media after the turn of the century, along with the influence of the porn and fitness industry, new standards of physical beauty focusing on perfection began to emerge. In a ground-breaking move last year, Covergirl featured James Charles, a YouTuber, as the first man to be the face of any makeup brand; and earlier this year Maybelline followed suit, choosing Manny Gutierrez to front their ‘Big Shot’ mascara advertisement. In a statement, Covergirl said they were aiming to “redefine what it means to be beautiful”, an honourable move showing how global companies are slowly realising the power of diversity.

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However, not all brands are quite as progressive, and the reality is that there is still a long way to go with respect to the advertising approach of most companies. While male grooming no longer has the stigma attached to it of previous years, there’s still a sense that beauty needs to be considered a masculine activity in order for men to buy into the idea. It is interesting to note that male-targeted products are referred to as ‘grooming’, a term usually applied to horses or dogs, whereas women’s are ‘beauty’.

This dichotomy has become critical to the marketing of male products, which are generally covered in dark, ‘masculine’ colours and are always clearly labelled ‘for men’, reminding the customer that their manliness has not been compromised by purchasing a facial cream (despite the high chance that the content is identical to those marketed to women). In fact, for one of the deodorant brand Axe’s more memorable advertising campaigns, they decided on the horrifying tagline ‘if you help her choose the clothes someone else will tear, she’s seeing you with braids’—with the suggestion that the body spray in question would make these poor ‘friendzoned’ specimens into ‘real men’.

Gendered products seem to be a clever way of extracting more cash from consumers, but they also help subtly promote the age-old stereotypes of gender we have been trying to leave behind. Adverts targeting men often tap into the traditional view that masculinity is associated with strength and dominance, promising men that this particular moisturizer will help their sexual prowess and financial prospects. Ironically, this means that an industry giving men access to traditionally ‘female’ products, which surely should be helping to broaden our understanding of masculinity, has ended up in some ways actually reinforcing the idea that men should distance themselves from anything ‘feminine’.

Beauty hasn’t always been considered exclusively feminine property. To the ancient Greeks, appreciating beauty was inherently part of the masculine, and Eros—as the god of desire—embodied this idea. Yet somehow we seem to have largely lost that concept. Understandably, brands are eager to tap into this lucrative growing industry, which for many years was only open to half of the population.

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However, as agents of popular culture, cosmetics companies have a platform, and arguably responsibility, to inspire positive social change. Men are freer now than ever before to transform themselves in whatever way they want, embracing habits once dismissed as strictly female territory. Our understanding of gender is undergoing a renaissance in the 21st century, and perhaps it is about time that companies saw this diversification of masculinity as something to be celebrated.