In mid-May, the British makeup company War Paint went viral for a social media rollout that promised makeup “specifically formulated for men.” The brand, which produces concealer, bronzer, and tinted moisturizer, sells their products packaged in slick, black boxes and photographed in the hands of buff, tattooed male models, explicitly targeted men. War Paint’s moment of viral fame earned them brutal rebuke as they quickly became the fleeting face of “toxic masculinity.” Some outlets argued that the “violent branding” preyed on men’s insecurities, while others said War Paint’s campaign was indicative of “fragile masculinity.” All agreed that War Paint was emblematic of everything that was wrong with products marketed to men who wouldn’t dare touch anything marketed to women.
In an interview with Jezebel, War Paint founder Daniel Gray says that he started the brand after suffering from body dysmorphia as a young man. Gray says that he discovered that his sister’s makeup could help cover up his acne, a new confidence-booster he wouldn’t have sought out himself. (War Paint donates a portion of its profits to a charity that touts makeup as a potential antidote to low self-esteem in men.) In response to the criticism, Gray repeatedly stressed that men simply do not have the “confidence” to wear makeup, despite the large, existing market already selling concealers and bronzers.
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“I was just hoping that it would appeal to men who might not have the confidence to buy makeup to try for the first time,” he says. Mental health, he adds, is in part the reason men don’t want to buy products marketed to women. When I asked him if he thinks that men gravitate towards products specifically “for men” because they don’t want to buy something associated with women, Gray says that he doesn’t disagree, but adds that “everyone has their own opinions and options.”
There are indeed many options men could turn to if they’d like to buy concealer—beauty is a nearly $500 billion industry—but many wouldn’t deign to purchase a product that has long been associated with women. What Gray describes as a “lack of confidence” among men may instead be a simple refusal to buy products or partake in grooming rituals because they have long been coded as feminine.
From Dove “for men” shower products that share little difference in ingredient makeup from their assumedly “female” counterparts to hair dye that advertises its colors as “camo,” the men’s grooming industry has long traded in ideas about masculinity and machismo, as well as anxieties plaguing modern, particularly straight white men. Somehow, even as younger consumers’ identities shift away from a traditional gender binary, easily arranged in pink and blue, floral and musk boxes, the industry for products blatantly “for men” persists.
The birth of men-specific branding came shortly after the beginning of the commercial, industrialized women’s beauty and bath industry. In her book Styling Masculinity, sociologist Kristen Barber writes that “early twentieth-century marketing research suggested men might purchase cosmetics if they saw them as something that enhanced rather than detracted from masculinity.”
In an effort to grab this untapped group of male consumers, companies began delicately creating and marketing newly-masculine beauty products. A 1928 survey of men employed by New York advertising agency J. Walter Thompson Company concerning their opinions on deodorants included one respondent who said that he found “body deodorant for masculine use to be sissified.” (J. Walter Thompson was employed at the time to market deodorant, a relatively new product, to Americans.) According to Smithsonian, talcum powder was sold to women as a necessity to combat body odor, but companies, though they advertised the same product to men, “stopped short of claiming that men should be without body odor, a state which was perceived as feminine.” Meanwhile, soaps like Pears’, explicitly marketed to white consumers using racist imagery of black children scrubbing away skin color to reveal whiteness, underlined the fact that the commercial beauty industry served—and largely continues to still serve—white, straight consumers, regardless of gender.
During World War II, as more women moved into industries once occupied by men to fill the vacuum in American production, the commercial cosmetics industry grew as using beauty products became branded as a patriotic duty for women. “They knew that they would remain women even though they were doing hard labor by applying lipstick and doing their hair,” Barber tells Jezebel. “Hair beauty, is a duty too!” an ad for Evan Williams Shampoo cheerily proclaimed in 1939. At the same time, men were expected to look clean-cut on the battlefield and companies capitalized on images of soldiers to sell cologne, aftershave, and razors: it was just the beginning of this industry. “After World War II it became even more difficult to sell products to men because they became so attached to women during the war,” Barber says.
That men would turn away from buying grooming products because of their perceived attachment to femininity is well-studied. The phenomenon is what Harvard Business School senior lecturer Jill J. Avery has termed “gender contamination,” or “when one gender is using a brand as a symbol of their masculinity or femininity, and the incursion of the other gender into the brand threatens that.” Essentially, men don’t want to use the products women use. But there are starker boundaries drawn between feminine versus masculine products in grooming (as opposed to men not wanting to eat yogurt because it’s advertised to women) because stereotypes conflate grooming with vanity, a silly women’s concern.
“The answer to the question of how hygiene got feminized is the same as to how makeup got feminized—because it is fundamentally about self-involvement,” says Michael J. Murphy, an associate professor of gender and sexuality studies at The University of Illinois Springfield. “It’s paying attention to how you look, at how you smell, and how you act, and self-consciousness,” he adds. “For a very long time now, that has been coded feminine.”
“When the first scholarship on [masculinity] started emerging, people started trying to define what masculinity is and it turns out it’s really hard,” says sociologist Tristan Bridges. “It was psychologists who first found that there was a strong relationship to feminine avoidance. It’s almost easier to say what masculinity isn’t rather than what it is. You like the context of avoiding certain things more than you like demonstrating certain things.”
To order to sell men beauty products, companies have long told men these products aren’t actually appearance enhancing. “Women’s lipstick might be sold to women in terms of the color or the long-lasting nature of the product, but men’s beauty products tend to be marketed in terms of a goal of marketing something else,” Murphy says. “Axe is a really good example of this, the entire brand is all about getting women, none of it is about making men smell better, or look better, or feel better.”
Whether it’s patriotic duty during World War II, solidifying white-collar corporate success into the ’50s and ’60s (“a 1950s ad for a Cyclax shave stick you can keep in your desk reminds readers it’s “MAINLY FOR MEN”), or to bolster the appeal of a burly chick magnet in the ’70s and ’80s, products for men often spoke to an ideal of masculinity, especially by brands eager to grab the cash of male demographics. When Old Spice rebranded in 2010 with their funny, retro “Smell Like a Man, Man” campaign, the ad featured bare-chested actor Isaiah Mustafa actually calling on women customers to stop buying their men “ladies scented” body wash. That’s because Old Spice found via market research that women were buying 70 percent of shower gel for the men in their families, so plenty of men were using regular body wash until Old Spice came along and told them it was feminine.
If messaging isn’t enough, men’s products have historically also emphasized masculinity in their design. Products are packaged in gray and black, are stressed as withstanding rough and tough conditions, and use terminology that often evokes violence or machinery instead of nature. Redken hair-dye is “camo” and “brews”; Kiehl’s moisturizer is“facial fuel”; makeup is “warpaint.” On their website, Clinique displays its men’s product line on a desk among glasses and a notepad, as though a businessman has casually arranged his moisturizers as accessories in his corner office.
“Men won’t buy an exfoliant, but they’ll buy a face-scrub. Men are supposed to believe that if they buy a scrub, they’re not buying the same thing as their wives and their girlfriends do,” Barber says. “Products might look like a rocket-ship or a canteen. “Diesel [sells] their cologne in a package that looks like a canteen—like if you got lost in the desert and you were so thirsty you could drink your cologne.”
But selling enhanced masculinity through them doesn’t always strike the same tone. Old Spice once satirized traditional markers of masculinity in their ads while still reaping the benefits, while Axe and Gillette sold teenagers on the idea that their body sprays would have them mobbed by hot goddesses. But in recent years those same brands have opted to showcase softer masculinity in their advertisements or tackle the sexism they once benefited from directly.
Earlier this year a Gillette ad asked men to confront bullying and sexual harassment in light of the MeToo movement. In 2017, an Axe ad questioned what guys “aren’t allowed” to wear pink or be gay, while Dove for Men showcased fathers and teachers who are “there to care.” Just as War Paint emphasizes that their products are to help young men with their “mental health” and boost confidence, many brands have similarly adopted the rhetoric of self-care to sell these products to men. “Feeling the pressure to get noticed? Liking every picture. Flexing those muscles,” reads copy for the Axe fragrance “Chill.” “No need to overdo it. Being you works.”
Where once this better man tried to bag babes, now he’s trying tenderly to take care of himself and his family, to chill out and use concealer like a self-help book. But this new advertising is just another side of the same coin. “How much of a different conversation about masculinity can you have if you’re still reinforcing the idea that men need different products because they’re different from women?” Barber says.
Even if these brands begin to display softer depictions of what it means to be a man (accountable, fathering, not straight, white, etc.) they are still building an ideal vision of masculinity to sell back to consumers; one which inevitably imbues these products with a new sense of purpose. The product’s actual use—to moisturize or to cleanse—is still overshadowed by a bigger, better goal: to make a customer a “better man”; an old idea of masculinity repackaged in camo or industrial gray. It still suggests that products need to do something more important, more momentous than beautifying, because that’s still a frivolous concern of women.