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Makeup and Men

Men wearing makeup isn't exactly a new thing. In fact, they've been wearing makeup for a long time. Back in 3000 B.C., men in Egypt wore black kohl on their eyes to shield them from the "evil eye".

Photo Credit: George Pimente

Men wearing makeup isn't exactly a new thing. In fact, they've been wearing makeup for a long time. Back in 3000 B.C., men in Egypt wore black kohl on their eyes to shield them from the "evil eye". Also, in the fifteenth century, King Edward IV and his male courtiers were said to have worn red rouge on their lips. Elvis Presley and David Bowie rocked makeup and were proud of it, and let’s not forget about Johnny Depp. That man still wears more black eyeliner than a goth teen.

Men are no strangers to makeup. Wigs and beauty spots were popular in the court of Louis XIII. But somewhere in the 1800s, someone decided that real men don't wear makeup and, after that, when they did, it was in a spirit of transgression. Bowie, Prince, and Johnny Depp weren't just trying to make themselves look good, they were challenging everything we knew about gender, sex, and society. During the Victorian era, makeup was considered an abomination by both the crown and the Church of England. As religious values continued to permeate cultures around the world, mainstream definitions of masculinity narrowed. By the twentieth century, makeup was seen as a girl only pursuit.

“Applying makeup feels liberating and helps boost my confidence,” says Joseph Madan, a third-year college student who studies at NIFT, Delhi. This shift comes at a time when gender fluidity is picking up pace, particularly among millennials. And from judging its new customers, the cosmetics industry is soon to catch up with the revived trend of men wearing makeup. “I do not urge others to wear makeup but those who do should not be judged.” Says Madan. Attitude towards male fashion bloggers ranges from genuine curiosity to downright trolling. Madan says he has received both uplifting and negative comments on his posts. But he shrugs off the criticism by simply saying “If women can shave their heads then why can’t men wear makeup? Why the fuss about the gender norms?”

India’s male grooming market is worth over Rs 5000 crore and it is growing rapidly because Indian men now want to scrub up, not to impress females but to earn brownie points at work, a 2017 Nielsen report stated. “This surge in the adoption of male grooming product points to two key drivers- confidence and an urge to achieve a competitive edge over other males in career growth rather than to attract females,” Nielsen said in the research note on India’s beauty market. Men in India, with their growing disposable income and awareness of the latest trends, and concerns around appearances are spending some serious money on beauty products.

This marks a significant shift from the days when Indian men used women’s products for the lack of better substitutes and stuck to a very basic grooming routine. Over the last decade, demand for male grooming companies has pushed companies beyond selling shaving gels, deodorants, and razors. There are now made-for-men shampoos, fairness creams, and beard balms on the shelves.

Studies have shown that men like to look at themselves in the mirror more than women. Why, then, are we so defensive about mainstream ‘beauty’? What is wrong with the concept of a man wanting flawless skin, clear skin, and great hair just like most men want a great physique? The answer is ‘nothing’.

“I think makeup is just makeup. It's just something you put on your face. Why do we need to add a specific gender to it?” says Madan. “Whether I put on highlighter or a kajal, that doesn’t and shouldn’t define my masculinity or femininity. I fail to understand how wearing makeup makes anyone less of a man.” He continues.

The concept of male beauty is foreign and skewed in our society, not just because of social factors but economic ones as well. Only now are we seeing the attention given to male grooming products, otherwise, all such products were targeted towards women. That is one major reason why men believe that makeup was and is strictly meant for women.

“With all said and done I think Indian men have become more open to the idea of makeup, thanks to digital media and a camera in their hands, most men want to look picture perfect.” Says Madan. But this doesn’t take away from the fact that men are still resilient to the very thought of them applying makeup. Despite claims on increasing metro-sexuality, gender norms for men are still strong. Take, for example, toys marketed to boys, show that messages are still to be strong, brave, and uninvested in your appearance. But, for girl’s beauty is key.

LGBT activist Jeffrey Ingold says “Masculinity is still such a fragile concept. Suicide rates among young men are alarmingly high and part of the reason is the culture of toxic masculinity that restricts what’s acceptable for men to do. Not feeling you can be yourself is incredibly damaging to a person’s mental well-being.”

Seeing more men experiment with appearance using makeup would be a sign we’re expanding to the idea of “what it means to be a man”. Madan agrees: “while gender fluidity is in the spotlight, we’re still predominantly a patriarchal society.”

According to a survey from the grooming brand Wahl, one in five men use makeup. Millennials aged 25-34 are the age group that tends to use it most, with 39 percent saying they use makeup. A debate on what this means for masculinity is expected. This is not exactly revolutionary, or feminization went berserk. Makeup always existed, for men and women equally. The revolution here was the unexpected increase in gender norms and the lack of gender fluidity over each passing century. The unrealistic concept of who a “man” is supposed to be has labeled makeup as strictly a woman’s product.

As the “rules” of gender presentation have become more and more flexible, makeup continues to infiltrate some men’s everyday routine- not necessarily in the larger than life fashion of YouTube gurus like James Charles, but in much subtler ways.

Right from their childhood, men are taught to be ‘tough’, to hide their emotions, to suppress their vulnerability. Children who are born purely of heart, get vigorously molded according to gender stereotypes- sometimes before they even learn to speak. We assign the color blue to boys and pink to girls. We automatically assume that boys will enjoy playing action figures and monster trucks, just like every girl will enjoy playing with Barbies. Never once did we question this iron-clad thought process. If we did we’d recognize the horror patriarchy is perpetrating through toxic masculinity- the real victims of which are men themselves.

We as a society have let ourselves be governed by a mindset so narrow that we have successfully managed to compartmentalize a concept such as ‘beauty’. When men object to being called ‘beautiful’, the statement that almost invariably accompanies that grievance is: “Women are beautiful, not men.” The sad part is they have actually grown to believe this, with an alarming degree of unwavering faith. The fact that a concept so pure and free like beauty has been put into the same golden cage as something which is ‘beneath men’ but is desirable at the same time in the popular narrative, is the biggest indicator of our failure in terms of inculcating wisdom in our children.

If men want to put on makeup, they should be able to do that without having to face the jibes from society. This has to be the first step towards creating a world without toxic masculinity, and ultimately, sexism. It’s 2020 and the last thing a “woke” man should be afraid of is makeup.

Some may argue that its empowering to embrace one’s physical flaws rather than hiding them under layers of makeup (which we agree with), it may be equally empowering for some to look the exact way they want to- be it applying makeup or wearing outfits of their or even both. If a man wants to step out with flawless skin, why should he be judged? Because that doesn’t look “manly” enough? “Men look good only when they look rough and tough. Mindsets such as this must be wiped out immediately if we want a future with a sound sense of morality.” Says Madan. Although male makeup may represent a way in which men are breaking out of gender norms, it also results in added pressure for men to look “perfect”- to have flawless skin, strong eyebrows, and defined cheekbones. And as many women know, makeup has a dark side: the more you wear it, the more you think you can never look good without it.

It is possible though that male makeup may erase gender norms, it would also in effect create a double standard of appearance with the notion that men now not only have to be muscular, tall and have a head full of hair but also should have flawless skin, defined cheekbones, and a strong jawline.

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