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An illustration of a man wearing bright red lipstick Javier Zarracina/Vox

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What the rise of men’s makeup means for masculinity

As cosmetics for men become more mainstream, they could give men more opportunities for self-expression — and more pressure to live up to unrealistic beauty standards.

Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

“Beauty is about style. It knows no gender.”

So proclaims the press release announcing Chanel’s first line of makeup for men, Boy de Chanel. Named for Coco Chanel’s lover Boy Capel, the line launched in September in South Korea and comes to stores in the US in 2019.

The line may be capitalizing on a growing trend. Some believe that makeup for men is becoming more and more mainstream, buoyed by makeovers on Queer Eye and an expansive attitude toward masculinity among American youth. Makeup and skincare for men are now not just accepted, but seen as tools men should use “to practice self-care, but also just to look and feel better,” David Yi, founder of the men’s beauty site Very Good Light, told Vox.

Men’s makeup is far from a new phenomenon. Male courtiers in 18th-century Europe wore it, and as Yi points out, cosmetics are already popular among men in South Korea. But in the US, men have traditionally shunned makeup.

If that’s changing, makeup could help men break down restrictive gender norms and express themselves more fully. But it could also force them to face something that has, until now, been mostly the province of women: the pressure to live up to unrealistic beauty standards by spending ever more of their income on lipsticks, powders, and creams.

Historically, American men haven’t worn makeup. That might be changing.

Men have been decorating their faces for millennia. Ancient Egyptian men, as well as women, wore kohl around their eyes, which research suggests may have had antibacterial as well as decorative properties. In 18th-century England and France, men and women wore lead-based white and red makeup on their faces.

But makeup did not become mainstream for anyone in the US until the 1920s, Lisa Wade, a sociology professor at Occidental College and the author of the textbook Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, told Vox. As more Americans moved to cities, courtship moved from the home to establishments that cost money, like cabarets and nickelodeons. Men were the ones with money, and women “had to start appealing to men to get men to pick them” for dates. So women began wearing makeup.

“Companies that sell makeup could make twice as much money if they could sell to men,” Wade said. But that didn’t happen: “Somehow gender ideology beat capitalism in this competition.”

“Gender is all about maintaining the idea that men and women are different,” Wade explained. “Anything that we do that undermines distinction is a real threat to male superiority.”

She’s not convinced that men’s makeup will become truly mainstream, noting that celebrities like Boy George wore makeup in the 1980s. “There have always been men who poked and prodded at these boundaries,” she said.

Boy George wearing makeup in concert in 1987
Boy George in concert in 1987.
Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

But others believe that when it comes to painting our faces, the boundaries between men and women are coming down. Worldwide, sales of men’s beauty and fashion products have been growing faster than women’s sales since 2010, according to CNN. A 2016 survey found that almost half of British men used skin care products daily, and 59 percent said appearance was very important.

Meanwhile, brands like Cover Girl and Maybelline have featured men in their ads. And the popularity of Netflix’s Queer Eye has helped demystify cosmetics for men. Yi pointed to an episode that aired earlier this year, in which the show’s grooming expert (and breakout star) Jonathan Van Ness showed contestant Tom Jackson how to use a color corrector to tone down the redness of his face.

“Even a lot of women who are into beauty don’t use color correcting,” Yi said. “That was such a moment in the beauty sphere for guys.”

There’s an increased pressure in recent years “for men to maintain youthfulness, and so it does seem that they’re increasingly seeking out aesthetic treatments,” said Jules Lipoff, MD, an assistant professor of clinical dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania. He has noticed an increased interest among men in skincare, though not in makeup specifically.

But “it’s a chicken-and-egg thing,” he said. “Is it that men started to get more interested in it, and then they started marketing and pushing it more, or did they start marketing and pushing it more, and then there was more interest?”

Yi believes the ascendance of Generation Z — people younger than millennials, born from the mid-90s to the early 2000s — is ushering in a more accepting attitude toward men’s makeup in American society.

“Generation Z is now at the forefront of culture,” he says, citing Jaden Smith and Lil Uzi Vert, male celebrities who sometimes wear skirts or blouses. “They’re so much more progressive and open, sexually fluid and gender fluid than millennials are.”

“They’re now rethinking what masculinity means, what it means to be a guy, and painting your face or using skincare doesn’t make you any less men,” he said.

Jaden Smith performing onstage in a skirt in 2015
Jaden Smith performing in 2015.
Jason Merritt/Getty Images for Universal Music

While several brands have embraced gender fluidity in their marketing — Milk, for instance, partnered with Very Good Light on a video showing people of a variety of gender identities and presentations wearing Milk makeup — fewer sell products aimed specifically at men.

In addition to the new Boy de Chanel line, Tom Ford makes concealer, bronzer, and brow gel for men. The company Fluide launched earlier this year to offer “makeup for all gender expressions, gender identities and skin tones.”

“I wouldn’t say that there’s any strong men-specific brands,” Yi said. “In American culture we kind of need to develop makeup for the everyday guy.”

Makeup for men could encourage self-expression — or self-doubt

Although research is limited, men’s skin appears to differ from women’s in certain ways, Lipoff said. A 1975 study, the most up-to-date on the topic, found that men’s skin tended to be thicker than women’s, but that it lost more collagen with time. Men also tend to have different complaints about their skin than women, Lipoff said, often focusing around the hairline or eyes.

But men and women don’t really have different product needs from a dermatological perspective, Lipoff said. Most people can benefit from sunscreen, and a moisturizer if they have dry skin. Beyond that, there’s not much data to support the need for additional products, although some can reduce the appearance of fine lines.

Of course, feminists have long debated the politics of makeup for women, weighing the opportunities for experimentation and self-expression against the pressure to conform to a certain standard of beauty. At least since the second wave, feminist critics have taken aim at the expectation that women must modify their appearances to be attractive to men and acceptable in society. When singer-songwriter Alicia Keys began appearing in public without makeup in 2016, it was, in part, an effort to push back against such expectations.

“In the morning from the minute that I wake up,” she wrote in the song “Girl Can’t Be Herself,” “What if I don’t want to put on all that makeup? Who says I must conceal what I’m made of? Maybe all this Maybelline is covering my self-esteem.”

Alicia Keys without makeup at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2016
Alicia Keys at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2016.
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

Others, meanwhile, have seen makeup as a way to assert their identities in a world that devalues them. The writer and activist Janet Mock, for instance, has written about how a makeover from a friend helped her come into her own as a young trans girl.

Historically, few men have had to concern themselves with the politics of makeup. But if men’s makeup becomes mainstream, they may find themselves facing some of the same pressures women feel — and, perhaps, gaining some of the same opportunities for expression.

While men still face far less judgment about their appearance than women do, Lipoff said, increased focus on men’s looks could have an impact on their mental health. “I wouldn’t be surprised if with time, you start to see more body dysmorphic disorder, more eating disorders and other things increasing in men,” he said. In the UK, the number of men hospitalized for eating disorders rose by 70 percent between 2010 and 2016, the same rate of increase as among women, as Sarah Marsh reports in the Guardian.

“For me, this becomes not a question about gender but a question about capitalism,” said Wade. Contemporary capitalism “thrives on making us feel like we’re not good enough,” she said. If makeup for men became widespread, would that mean “more people would feel better about themselves because they could buy the products that make them look less like themselves,” she asks. “I don’t think that would be a good thing.”

But Yi argues that men already have a lot of the same insecurities as women, “it’s just that they have been conditioned not to talk about it.”

Women “have been able to identify the issues that they go through, and they are able to find ways to get over that stuff, whereas guys, they have all of these issues, but they’ve been bottled up,” he said.

By talking openly about men’s beauty along with other issues at Very Good Light, he said, he hopes to counteract the “toxic masculinity” that leads men to keep their problems to themselves.

Yi, whose typical daily beauty routine includes a 10-step Korean skincare regimen, eyebrow makeup, and BB cream, launched the site in 2016 because he saw an unmet need for beauty writing for men, by men. “There had to be other guys like me in the world,” he thought.

By now, it’s clear that there’s plenty of interest in men’s makeup — Very Good Light, for its part, has gotten coverage in the New York Times and CNN. Whether that will translate into more cosmetics marketed exclusively to men, and all of the opportunities and pressures that might come with that, remains to be seen.

Boy de Chanel will be available online in November and in American stores in January. As with so many things, a lot will depend on whether it sells.

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