The first time I used moisturizer was a little over a year ago when my friend smuggled me a palm-size tub of Fresh from her beauty internship in exchange for help with her homework. Before that, I would pump puddles of Nivea body lotion into my hands, slather it on my arms and legs, and use the excess, of which there was usually a lot, to moisturize my face.
As someone who’s now committed to a multistep skin-care routine (that even includes oils!) and takes great pride in the stack of sheet masks stashed at the bottom of my pantry, I look back at that time in horror—both because of my clogged pores and because of how easily influenced I was by fragile masculinity.
Growing up, I always considered myself on the progressive end of the spectrum when it came to grooming. I used the same shampoo and conditioner as my mom. I often bought women’s razors and shaving cream because they were cheaper and softer on the skin. I tried to stay away from men’s deodorants that were too musky or pine-scented, mainly because they smelled weird. As a gay man, I tried to be conscious of the toxicity of gendered products and was careful not to fall for the ad industry’s effort to market products exclusively “for men” or “for women,” as if those categories are important and those products aren’t interchangeable. But looking back, I realize I was as vulnerable to gender norms as everyone else.
A few months ago, I asked my friend if any of his 40-plus fraternity brothers used skin-care products. Other than the standard acne-specific face wash, he said no. A couple months later, I asked another male friend if he had ever shopped at Lush. He told me that the store was “too expensive and too gay” for him. Soon after, when I brought a clay mask to my friend’s house to try, her dad asked me why I had so many skin-care products, telling me that they were “for girls.”
From a young age, men are conditioned to be seen as masculine, rugged, and strong, especially if they want to be viewed as attractive to the opposite sex. It’s what affects our every move, from the clothes we wear (never too pretty) and the movies we watch (mostly actions) to the products we buy at the drugstore. Putting effort into your appearance was fine, but caring too much about it was mocked, often by other men, and seen as a threat to your manhood—a.k.a. fragile masculinity.
For decades, the advertising industry has been a “major vehicle” in creating and perpetuating gender stereotypes, according to Elza Ibroscheva, PhD, a professor at Webster University who specializes in media stereotypes. Cosmetics, which is one of the most powerful divisions of the advertising industry, began as a way to sell a “softer, feminine image” for female consumers, based on the former stereotype that women were “preoccupied with self-care and domestic duties,” Ibroscheva explains. As society changed, so did the beauty industry, which later pivoted its marketing strategy as a way for women to attract the opposite sex, leading to the birth of beauty products for men, specifically in skin care.
However, advertisers had to be careful in how they marketed skin care for men. Maureen Hupfer, a gender and advertising professor at McMaster University, cites Nivea as one of the first skin-care companies to cater to men, with royal-blue packaging, athletic celebrity endorsers, and the proposal that skin care was less cosmetic and more a part of a man’s daily shaving ritual.
Soon to follow were companies such as Dove (whose gray-and-black packaging is intended to suggest a sense of power), Kiehl’s (which markets its men’s moisturizers as “facial fuels”), and Axe (known for its hyper-masculine, sweat-dripping commercials). “Advertisers are walking a very fine line in their verbal and visual choices, encouraging men to be consumers of feminine-style products while also allowing them to maintain the qualities that have traditionally been gendered as masculine,” says Ibroscheva, noting that cosmetic bags for men are usually branded as “grooming kits.”
But is the distinction necessary? If skin care is for skin, which every person has, shouldn’t the products have the same effect, regardless of gender? The skin of men isn’t more or less dry, oily, or acne-prone than women. And even if men aren’t using skin care for reasons of vanity (although who wouldn’t want to look glowy instead of ashy?), they still reap plenty of health benefits from it, including sun protection, wrinkle prevention, and skin strength.
Even other divisions of the beauty industry, such as makeup, fragrances, and hair, are open to men (despite female-centric marketing). In truth, there’s no distinction—only the one made by society and the advertising industry, which draws a line between men’s and women’s interests where there doesn’t need to be one.
Though more and more men are becoming comfortable with skin-care products, Ibroscheva explains that these routines are often done in private and not daily. It’s a practice that I’ve found myself adopting, too. A few months ago, when I visited my parents’ house, I found myself sneaking into the bathroom with a stash of skin-care products and sneaking them out when I was finished, embarrassed by what they might think of my extensive multistep routine.
Masculinity as a construct and gender norms are still things that I and many men, no matter how progressive or “woke” we are, struggle with. And the gendering of products doesn’t help. Whether it’s cosmetics, skin care, or toys, gendered products suggest that there’s something wrong if you use those of the opposite gender. The words masculine and feminine don’t hold as much weight as you think they do.
This Father’s Day (and beyond), I urge shoppers to look beyond the bold block letters and blue packaging of men’s products and buy something that their dads would truly love, whether or not they’re infused with manly-smelling pine needles and marketed “for men.” The next generation of boys—and their glowing skin—will thank you.