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A brand called War Paint is using toxic masculinity to sell makeup to men

No one asked for this.

A stoic man with tattoos holds up a War Paint concealer packet.
War Paint is for men.
War Paint

Any makeup brand, especially one with only about 500 followers on Twitter, would likely be thrilled to rack up 2.5 million views in a day on an ad for its product. But War Paint — tagline: “Makeup Design By Men, For Men” — likely didn’t expect the reactions it’s been getting since its new clip was released on Wednesday.

The 13-second ad features a heavily tattooed white man using various War Paint products, flexing his pecs, and topping it all off by putting on a large skull ring. One thing it does not show very clearly is how the makeup looks on the guy’s face. But that is not the point of this ad. The point is to show you that this is a thing for men. Like, “real” men. Manly ones.

The comments and retweets have been pretty universal in their mocking tone, mostly calling the brand out for its propagation of toxic masculinity, a theme this week in branding. (Hello, Liquid Death canned water.) It’s tempting to at first assume that this is satire or a clever tongue-in-cheek ad because of how absurd some of the imagery is. Exhibit A:

But the brand seems to be earnest. UK-based founder Daniel Gray says in a video on the brand’s site that he started the brand because he wears makeup and has experienced body dysmorphia after being bullied in middle school.

Makeup for men is not new, and is actually more mainstream than it has ever been, as Vox’s Anna North detailed last September. Tom Ford has offered a line for men since 2014 and Chanel launched a line of men’s makeup last fall. There’s even a website called Very Good Light devoted to beauty and grooming for men.

Thanks to a glut of “beauty boy” Instagram/YouTube influencers, the Bravo show Queer Eye, and, presumably, a more universal recognition that makeup can be fun and also cover stuff up on your face that you don’t want to see, makeup on men is becoming increasingly visible. But the average cisgender heterosexual man still does not feel comfortable buying makeup, for a host of complicated reasons. War Paint attempts to offer a solution, but its methods are questionable at best.

The line, which launched last year, features five products (concealer, powder, foundation, tinted moisturizer, bronzer) and tools like brushes and sponges. Prices range from $23 to $32, which is more expensive than drug store prices but about average for Sephora. The packaging is black with simple white graphics, making it similar to many other popular makeup brands out there, like Nars, MAC, and yes, even Chanel.

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Wicked product shot @lifeoftallon

A post shared by War Paint (@warpaintformen) on

The biggest issue is the name and associated imagery. While you don’t hear it much anymore, women have been calling makeup war paint colloquially for a long time. You put that shit on like armor and go out and face all the indignities of being a woman in the world, with your glow intact. There was even a book-turned-Broadway show of that title that told the story of beauty entrepreneurs Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden.

In this context, though, the brand seems to want the association of traditional warriors, i.e. men. Think Mel Gibson in Braveheart. In a tweet attempting to clarify its positioning, War Paint wrote: “If females can have products just for women, why can’t men? Our aim is to allow makeup to be gender neutral and to do that we must have male specific brands also.”

Achieving the goal of increased gender neutrality by making stuff for the underserved “males” demographic struck many as counterintuitive or even nonsensical. Bitch Media co-founder Andi Zeisler responded on Twitter: “Our aim is to allow makeup to be gender neutral, which is why we used a potent mix of cultural appropriation and militarization to brand our product as expressly for men’s tough skin.” Needless to say, using war imagery and tiptoeing into cultural appropriation of indigenous peoples to sell powder is going to get you some negative attention.

But do men even need their own special makeup? War Paint explains on its site: “Seeing as men have a whole shedload of testosterone, their skin is both thicker and oilier than women’s.” The anonymous beauty call-out collective Estee Laundry points out that this wording seems to be directly lifted from that of a post on skin care consultation site, Skin Nerd. What is not included in War Paint’s explanation of why men need different products, however, is this continuation of the Skin Nerd explanation: “...for the most part, the concerns that women have about their skin and the concerns that men have about their skin are the same and can be treated in the same way.”

I asked Phillip Picardi, a makeup aficionado and the editor-in-chief of Out magazine (and former editorial director of Teen Vogue and Allure, as well as a beauty editor), what he thinks of this brand.

“What exactly is War Paint’s business proposal that they think [we need] a concealer or foundation for men? Is this extra coverage so that I can cover a 5 o’clock shadow or is this lighter coverage so that it doesn’t actually seep into where our 5 o’clock shadow is and look cakey?” he asks.

None of that is clear. What immediately popped out to me is that the foundation’s third listed ingredient is coconut oil, an ingredient that notoriously can exacerbate acne in some people, one of the issues that War Paint calls out as a malady men suffer more because their skin is oilier.

“Men don’t need different formulas. They need to be educated on what it takes for a makeup product to deliver desired results,” says Bart Kaczanowicz, a beauty blogger with 32,000 Instagram followers. (Like shade matching? See below.)

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Some wicked shots before application by @maxclaude

A post shared by War Paint (@warpaintformen) on

Kaczanowicz points out that most men’s lines are seriously lacking in shades and a range of formulas that cater to different skin types. War Paint has definitely been called out for this. It uses imagery of primarily light-skinned men and only offers three concealer shades and five foundation shades.

Most makeup brands offer more than 30 foundation shades, and in this era of Fenty Beauty and a rightful demand for inclusivity, many have 50 and beyond. MAC was founded in the 1990s with the tagline “All Ages, All Races, All Genders.” There are products on the market that are better, with years of formulation experience behind them. (Many even come in plain black packaging.)

Kaczanowicz liked War Paint’s packaging and says he would try the brand, but had mixed feelings about the marketing. “What I find a bit harder to relate to are the visuals of six-pack abs and full sleeve tattoos. If I had a jawline as sharp as a can opener, I’d probably be oblivious to finding a bronzer to help define my features,” he says. “The rather masculine vibe of the brand almost feels too exclusive.”

Picardi had stronger feelings. “When I look at the packaging, it speaks to all of the ills of toxic masculinity,” he says. “All of it is catered to the fragility and sensitivity of the male ego because god forbid you have a tube of black Nars concealer in your dopp kit. It speaks to how little men have evolved.”

The caricature-level masculinity depicted seems purposeful. “I hate that men are still so afraid to appear gay. I’m sorry, but I’m afraid to appear straight,” says Picardi. But he supports normalization of makeup for men. “If this makes men listen up and maybe want to experiment with makeup and this is their gateway, then I’m fine with it.”

War Paint has not responded to the hoopla beyond that comment on Twitter, and it seems to be deleting comments on its Instagram. (I reached out to both the brand and Gray, but they did not respond by publication time.)

The truth is that it probably is still hard for some men to walk into a Sephora and buy makeup. But selling makeup with muscles and war is not going to take away that stigma any time soon.

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