When my middle-school son came home with a can of AXE body spray he bought at the bodega with his snack money, it felt like a familiar, if odiferous, stage of tweendom– one that’s stayed charmingly consistent since the boys drenched themselves in Drakkar Noir before my own junior high dances thirty years ago. But when my husband – who once had to be convinced that my separate shampoo and conditioner was not a sign of extreme vanity – started using a $29 moisturizer that had “IMPERIAL” stamped across the tube, I felt like a shift was afoot. Sure enough, his aftershave also likened facial care to a military operation carried out by the “close-shavers’ squadron.” Selling skin care with macho messaging isn’t only evidenced in our household’s medicine cabinets: men can now achieve a virile glow by applying a “bro mask,” remove manly “grime” with a vigorous volcanic ash scrub, conjure wise-guy toughness with a suite of “MadeMan” products launched by a crypto investor, and feel secure using Bro-To products, launched in gray bottles as a Father’s Day joke to appeal to men surreptitiously “borrowing” creams and salves from women in their lives, but embarrassed by their peach packaging.
Convincing dudes that fancy face products are de rigueur is the latest stage in a kind of aesthetic creep: the slow but certain trend of selling men on the idea that how one’s body appears – a concern once considered the purview of women – is actually something Real Men should very much worry about– and spend on. It’s a timeworn tradition but also an uphill battle that explains decades of over-the-top images of adoring women, sports and stock market metaphors, and even an unsubtle phallus-shaped package deployed to close the deal on a VERY MASCULINE fragrance, at-home ab machine, or healthy food like yogurt or diet soda.
If it sounds strange that wanting to smell good or have a six-pack could call one’s masculinity into question, here’s the story: for much of American history, taking care of your body, even for health but especially for beauty, was considered suspiciously effete. “Normal” men, the logic went, are appropriately concerned with cerebral matters, and any time spent beautifying – or even caring for – the body was not just a distraction, but a sign of deviance. Strongmen who posed onstage in the early 20th century were literally circus attractions, curiosities as much for the fact that they could hoist hundreds of pounds overhead as that they elected to spend so much of their time training to do so, and standing around seminude showing off the results. Well into the 1950s, the bodybuilders who lifted at Muscle Beach were relentlessly mocked as “dumbbell boys of the beach” and seen as imprisoned by their physicality: literally “musclebound.” These were dead-end pretty boys with “tremendous muscles, wavy hair, and no job,” a characteristically savage Los Angeles Times piece declared, also contrasting the attention one man paid to shaving his chest with his apparent disregard for finding a career.
Ironically, some of these same men went on to launch the gym chains, host the workout tv shows, and play the onscreen superheroes that mainstreamed fitness for men (and women), but they never succeeded at entirely dispelling the idea that attention to physical appearance was inversely correlated to masculinity. When Charles Atlas ran ads in the back of comic books for an at-home system intended to make “a perfect man” out of a “97-pound weakling,” he made clear a main benefit was to look less like your slender girlfriend and more like you could beat up the strapping guy eyeballing her. (He buried tips about how exercise helped clear up acne in the fine print.) In Good Housekeeping in 1971, one “remade man” recounted his new aesthetic routine that included not only exercise, but facials and massage, and felt the need to defensively announce, “before you get some idea that this is a little strange, let me tell you I’m not one bit ashamed of it, and I don’t feel effeminate either.” Arnold Schwarzenegger, by 1977 America’s most famous muscleman, made the point more directly: “Men shouldn’t feel like fags because they want to have nice-looking bodies.”
All this anxiety, of course, was rooted in a whole lot of homophobia. Gay men didn’t and don’t intrinsically tend to their appearance more attentively than straight men do, but their exclusion from many aspects of public life meant that gyms and physique magazines often did provide cover for men discreetly seeking each other out. Gay liberation and feminism served to open up these spaces and challenge such narrow stereotypes, and because capitalism, a market for products that encouraged straight men they could want – and work to obtain – physical beauty and keep their manhood intact emerged: by the 1990s, mainstream men’s magazines published tips for shredded abs alongside low-fat grilling recipes, and “metrosexual,” denoting a man with a refined aesthetic sensibility, became a neutral descriptor rather than a slur. A longtime activewear designer told me that the most unexpected development in his career is that men now regularly buy tight, expensive spandex to exercise, sometimes alongside their wives in group fitness classes.
Interestingly, a whole new wave of male bodily care products deliberately sends up the macho framing others perpetuate: Hims and Hers subtly use pink and blue packaging counterintuitively, Asystem elected a gender-neutral green for products that swing both ways, and the MadeMan founder told Maxim magazine that his mission is to use men’s cosmetics to explode the “laughable” but all-too-common idea that “taking care of your face is girly.”
All of the above reflects an evolution in dominant ideas about masculinity and its marketing, and the brands trying to sell more men ever pricier accouterments for their ablutions would call this progress. To be sure, the ability for men to express themselves in a broader range of registers is a meaningful step forward, and we still have a long way to go on that front (google “boy in a skirt” if you think face wash is the last frontier). But is it a positive development that straight men can no longer count among the privileges of dominant masculinity indifference to the texture of their face and the thickness of their waist, and freedom from constant pressure to invest in and obsess over improving them? While I am not above a twinge of retributive glee in subjecting straight men to the kind of unremitting self-scrutiny and sales pitches that women and gay men have long had little choice but to endure, I am far from sure that encompassing more men in this disempowering dynamic is the progress it might appear to be through your extremely manly eye gel mask.