The Beauty Myth

Posted: September 10, 2011 in Masculinities, metrosexuality, Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

This is not an article about Naomi Wolf’s feminist tome, The Beauty Myth. Rather it is a discussion of the myth of ‘beauty’,  in particular the myth that ‘beauty’ is a solely feminine preserve, and that the words ‘beauty’ or ‘beautiful’ can only apply to women, never men.

The photo above features Andrej Pejic, a ‘male model’ who is actually very beautiful.

In a New Yorker Profile on Pejic recently, a journalist was overwhelmed by the model’s beauty, but could not name it for what it is:

‘For even a moderately vain female, spending time with Pejic is like losing a race to someone who’s not even running: If he were not a man, he would be the most beautiful woman I have ever seen in the flesh’.

As I said at the time:

Can’t he be the most beautiful man s/he has ever seen in the flesh?

Apparently not. For ‘beauty’ and ‘masculinity’ are still not allowed to meet and merge in our culture. Except of course they do. All the time. Everywhere we look. Because culture, now, especially the culture of masculinity, is metrosexy.

As [redacted] studying men studying themselves in the mirror for two decades has tried to explain over and over again, men’s obsession with being ‘beautiful’, though they dare not use the b-word, goes much further than skin deep.

‘But anyway metrosexuality isn’t about male beauty products per se, or manbags, or spas, it’s about the male’s desire to be desired in an increasingly mediated world. And there’s no sign that that is going away. Instead it has become increasingly ‘normal’, especially amongst young men, many of whom take a great deal of care over their bodies and their appearance – and the pictures of themselves they post on their Facebook profile’.

So ‘the beauty myth’ as I see it is a stark contradiction, an irony if you will. It is a situation whereby men are becoming more and more accustomed to seeking out ‘beauty’ and seeking the admiration that beauty attracts, just like women do. But they are also, maybe increasingly even (though I have not measured this trajectory), denying any association with the concept of beauty, and the feminine connotations that go with it.

The clearest indicator of this contradiction is the ‘male grooming’ industry.  This is the commercial end of metrosexuality – well, one of them. Sporno, Pornography, Tumblr, Youtube, Facebook, they are all doing their bit for the commodification of men’s desire to be desired. But ‘male grooming’, as the very basic way in which it has become acceptable and ‘normal’ for men to buy and use cosmetics and beauty products, and to ‘love their bodies’, I think, is one of the most important aspects of metrosexual masculinity. Nivea for men, Chanel Pour Homme, L’Oreal for men, Face Lube(!!), Sure for men, they are all telling us it is ok or indeed necessary to care for your appearance if you are a man, and, with the help of these manly products, you can make sure it doesn’t turn you gay, or maybe even worse, into a woman.

As Simpson wrote in the introduction to his latest book, Metrosexy:

‘Yes, I agree, “metrosexual” is a terrible, ridiculous, annoying word. But then, so is “homosexual.” Or “heterosexual.” Though none of them are quite as awful as the creepy suits-you-sir! euphemism “male grooming.” Too many men’s magazines still seem to be terrified of putting the word “male” next to “beauty” in case someone thinks (or realizes) they’re gay. Or, even more pathetically, afraid their readers will think the magazine thinks they’re gay. Based on my own observations from the front-line of male aesthetics in rural England, I suspect most of their younger readers are already way ahead of these metropolitan sissies, and regard that kind of anxiety as, well,… gay.’

‘Male Grooming’ is not just limited to magazine columns. The term is used by professionals who run websites, make and sell products, deliver ‘grooming services’ such as spas and manicures etc. ‘Male Grooming’ is big business, and it is in the business of reminding us that men are men.

I asked Lee Kynaston, a fairly well-known and very well-established ‘male grooming’ expert, why he separates the terms ‘beauty’ and ‘male grooming’.

I asked on his blog: ‘when you say ‘beauty’ and ‘male grooming’ do you mean female beauty and male grooming?’

And Lee replied: ‘of course. You know how old fashioned I am…’

But metrosexuality is far from old-fashioned. It is the post-modern ‘epoch’ as Simpson has said, of masculinity and men’s expression. And ‘grooming experts’ such as Kynaston are very much leading the way in determining how that expression is, well, expressed.

Mark Simpson has spelled it out just how ‘self-defeating’ these ‘manly strap-ons’ like male grooming, manbags, murses, and the latest one, ‘mewellery’ are. Because far from making the man who has embraced these accoutrements sound more manly, they have just made him sound very faggy.

He came up with an idea which I later termed the ‘Fag UP!’ project:

‘So here’s a red-blooded idea.  From now on, whenever you hear ‘man’ or ‘he’ strapped onto the front of something in a desperate attempt to try and butch it up and banish the inner sissy, just replace it with ‘fag’.

Fagbags.  Fagscara.  Fagvans.  Fagliner.  Fagdate.  Fagmance.  Fagfood.  Fagly fag.  Faggans.

You know it makes sense.’

So male grooming would become ‘fag grooming’ and ‘mewellery’ would become ‘fagellery’.

Much as I love to laugh at the term ‘faggellery’, there is a serious point here about gendered language.

I use the term ‘gender neutrality’ to explain the point. Gender neutrality refers to how we use certain phrases as if they were ‘gender neutral’ and could apply to a man or woman, when really they are highly gendered and only refer to one or the other.

So words like ‘nurse’ or ‘model’ or ‘cheerleader’ or ‘hairdresser’, whilst not containing a gender signifier, are associated in our minds with women. And in order to indicate they refer to a man we’d have to ‘strap-on’ a masculine signifier – ‘male nurse’, ‘male model’ ‘male cheerleader’ (I’d say hairdressing has become more genuinely gender -neutral actually).

With ‘male grooming’ the term is particularly camp and ‘faggy’ because it straps on ‘male’ to a word that though seemingly neutral, already signifies men. ‘Male’ plus ‘Grooming’ = Gay.

It works the other way of course, and some terms that seem gender neutral but actually apply to men, are ones I would not want associated with ‘the masculine’ – like ‘rapist’ or ‘creep’ or ‘sex offender’ or ‘chav’ or ‘thug’. And here lies a clue as to why feminists, who are normally down like a ton of bricks on anything that suggests ‘gender essentialism’ do not challenge gender neutrality. Because they rely on it to pursue their misandrist aims. If we point out how ‘rapist’, a seemingly neutral term, assumes a man, then we are pointing out how feminists deride men by using such terms. And by saying we all live in rape culture. Also feminists use ‘female’ strap-ons, like ‘female artists’ and ‘female engineers’ to suggest that women are especially discriminated against in certain industries. The ‘biological essentialism’ is a problem, aswell, here, because it relies on the ‘gender binary’. If feminists focus on the need for more ‘female engineers’ they are ignoring other groups who may well be under-represented in the industry such as trans people, people from ethnic minorities and people with diverse sexual identities. Inequality does not travel cleanly down the (socially constructed) line between ‘male’ and ‘female’.

Language only changes with use. So I am very careful with gendered terms. I avoid where possible phrases like ‘male model’ as they emphasise how we assume most models are women. I also avoid ‘male grooming’ except to criticise the concept. And I am happy to refer to men as beautiful, no matter how ‘masculine’ they like to appear.

Mark Simpson has suggested the ‘manly strap-on’ is mainly an American problem. But I don’t see it that way. British men are as attached to the idea that even though they pluck and preen they are still ‘men’. As Shane Warne (an Aussie living in the UK) said when he was ‘outed’ as a metrosexual: ‘I am still a man’. It is this need to assert masculinity that indicates anxiety on the part of men.

I think that when, as Simpson has suggested, men can no longer reassure themselves of their manliness by being economic providers or doing manly jobs, or by being very different from women in their behaviours, they try to find and assert their ‘masculinity’ in what they do most, and what they do best: beautifying themselves.

In a discussion about Hugh Laurie and his ‘masculine decision’ to be the new face for L’Oreal for Men, Simpson commented:

‘How very 21st Century that he pretends to be a doctor and gets paid to use cosmetics.’

So if Laurie is getting paid to use cosmetics, and cannot be a real doctor, he is determined to prove how using cosmetics is ‘masculine’.


Will ferrell a ‘grooming expert’ revealed some of this ‘masculinity’  anxiety when he said to Lee Grooming Guru Kynaston:

‘David Beckham may sound like Minnie Mouse but I admire him for helping men appreciate you could look good, retain your masculinity and still be good at playing with balls.’

This suggests masculinity is something that can be lost, and that men can lose it by behaving in certain ways, or maybe even using certain words. As a woman, I have no ‘masculinity’ to lose, (though I am called ‘a man’ quite regularly so maybe I do have some somewhere). So I don’t give a stuff whether manicures and body massages are girly or even ‘gay’.

But most people do. And the term ‘male grooming’ highlights that most eloquently. What are you scared of boys? Being beautiful? Being women? Being gay? Some of the most beautiful people I know are women or gay. It really isn’t such a bad thing to be.

  1. Jude says:

    I agree with don’t feel comfortable being called beautiful, which is a shame. I have met many men I would call beautiful- not in a pretty or girl way, but manly-beautiful. The symmetry of their face, their eyes, a seductive voice..I have told men in private that they are beautiful & so far it has always pleased them. One replied, “No, I’m not.” I answered him “you’re beautiful to me, and that’s what counts.” Beauty is certainly subjective, what pleases me may not please others..but it’s more than simply physical attractiveness. It can comprise body, eyes, manner, voice, and personality. I find kindness and compassion make a man beautiful as well.

  2. I find this to be really interesting as I’m surprised that a) men and beautiful can’t exist in the same sentence for a lot of people and b) that we do participate in the strap on thing! I mean, I’ve heard it before but it never registered. Now I’ll be way more attuned to it in the future. Because that is sad: male nurse, or if you’re a nurse and a man, then you’re gay, because the qualities needed to be a nurse are stereotypical female traits. Disregarding the fact that many female nurses can be (and are) just as cruel and callous as men are often portrayed.

    Even though I ID as a lesbian, I love boys that resemble women – like in that photo you posted above. In anime, this is known as “bishie” – a pretty boy. A pretty boy is often one who gets mistaken for a girl because he has long hair, big beautiful eyes, etc etc. But I enjoy that gender androgynous look – including when women dress like men (in the sense that we maintain the gender binary you’ve spoken about).

    This is part of the reason why I like certain asian male idols – as I listen to a lot of asian pop music.

    Though, I’m not sure if you consider “pretty boy” a type of gendered strap-on, but to me, not all girls are pretty either. And being a girl doesn’t automatically endow you with good looks. So I mostly use “pretty” as something that’s pleasing to the eye, since animals are often pretty, cars, clothes, etc. Whereas the other words you used “like male nurse” is narrowed to human constructs (ie: professions).

    But since I agree with you, I’m having a hard time understanding why there’s problem with men being beautiful or why beauty is regulated to the realm of women. Or why there’s such a foray to keep men masculine at all times, which seems to be the rejection of the feminine (men’s fear of being gay, since a gay men is often conflated with being a woman, and this idea that men don’t want to be women, men want to be men – whatever that means!).

    Anyway – great post. I loved this.

    • and I loved your comment. Lots to think about I will go away and think about it!

      ‘why there’s such a foray to keep men masculine at all times, which seems to be the rejection of the feminine (men’s fear of being gay, since a gay men is often conflated with being a woman, and this idea that men don’t want to be women, men want to be men – whatever that means’

      – yes, finding out why that is takes a lifetime’s work. It is what Mark Simpson spends a lot of time doing: But I will return to your comment and give my own perspective!

  3. Much to think about, indeed. Here’s perhaps some more, QRG.

    Is the concept of “beauty” stigmatised by being feminine?

    Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. I can’t control the eye of the beholder. I can’t punch out the eye of the beholder and make it do what I want it to do. The eye of the beholder is an arrogant son of a bitch, and it doesn’t understand who’s boss around here. The eye of the beholder can suck my dick. I’m beautiful because I say so, motherfucker.

    (Funny how some of the most contemptuous ways to describe a man involve mothers. But that’s another issue.)

    Beauty implies surrender. The admirer is the active one, the admired the passive one. The less enlightened among us might see a masculine-feminine dichotomy.

    Will more men embrace being beautiful if they believe (as some women do) that being beautiful puts them in a powerful position?

    Men balk at the beautiful for the same reasons feminists, traditionally, have done so. If beauty is a virtue, then it’s a virtue we can’t acquire though strength of character. We can’t decide to be beautiful and make ourselves so.

    We try. Both men and women, we try. Through punishing gym routines, expensive cosmetics, toxic hair chemistry and preposterous surgical or dental work. And they all succeed. Up to a point.

    But at the end of the day, we’ll never be in absolute control of our own beauty. (Duchess of Alba, anyone?) Time, genetics, and the life we lead get in the way. But more important, that damn eye of the beholder does, too.

    This might be why any suggestion of beauty as an inherently good thing sends men into fits of man-prefixes and feminists into fits of righteous anger. It signals surrender. Powerlessness. Weakness.

    Which, for some reason, is bad. Many a man reaches an early, stress-induced grave because he never balances his compulsively-asserted authority with a smart surrender to forces he has no power over. It would make them into girls, right?

    And Pejic isn’t weak or powerless. He’s a man, goddamit! He’s powerful. Why is he pretending he’s not?

    As Keats asked, is beauty, truth? If so, how can beauty be a falsehood, as Pejic seems to proclaim? But is Pejic a falsehood? A liar? A female impersonator?

    Most certainly not. Even on the woman’s wear catwalk, he’s still exactly who he is.

    Maybe Pejic shows that beauty isn’t truth. That’s either a great insult to an ideal of femininity, or a great relief to females. Depends on your point of view.

    • Brilliant comments HH! ‘beauty signals surrender’ is a very good point. I am going to think about that for a while.

      Yes you allude to the ‘passivity’ of being ‘looked at’ as Mr S has talked about. But to relate it to ‘beauty’ itself is very interesting.

  4. Maybe when Keats said ‘beauty is truth’ he meant to say ‘beauty is youth, and youth, beauty’.

  5. Elise says:

    What I’m struggling with as I compose a post on androgyny is whether male beauty (which does have a long pedigree in art history, whether you want to hear that term or not) is always conceived of in feminine terms. That is, when we consider a man “beautiful” or “pretty,” do we always mean “pretty/beautiful like a woman” (even if the man is not androgynous, but clearly masculine)? Is there a way to conceive male beauty in its own right?

    • It’s ok Elise I am nearly over the trauma of studying art history. Just don’t say the word ‘Gombrich’ to me.

      As I said in my previous Pejic post, I do not think the term ‘androgyny’ is relevant anymore, if it ever was. Because the concept of ‘clearly masculine’ just does not wash. Who in this age of Big Tits and abs and waxes and manicures is ‘clearly masculine’?

      As I have said attaching the term ‘male’ to beauty is just drawing attention to how ‘beauty’ is conceptualised as feminine. The only way we can appreciate men’s beauty without gendering it as feminine, is for us to let go of this gendering altogether. To think of ‘beauty’ as well, truly androgynous.

  6. paul says:

    This is a brilliant article and all really well-said.

    On “pretty” and “beautiful”: I don’t think I ever use the former word–for anything–because it’s acquired such tweeness over the years. And especially when applied to people. Over here in the States “pretty” or “pretty boy” is the term guys use to try and indicate beauty in a man while at the same time letting you know beauty in a man needs to be regarded as highly distasteful–since only women can be beautiful or the whole paradigm wobbles… More to the point, it is their way of expressing and denying attraction in one highly economical word…

    • That’s interesting Paul I didn’t know ‘pretty’ was so acceptable for men to use for other men in America (or the UK). I only tend to use ‘pretty’ to emphasise how *tarty* an uber-metrosexual man is.

  7. redpesto says:

    ‘So here’s a red-blooded idea. From now on, whenever you hear ‘man’ or ‘he’ strapped onto the front of something in a desperate attempt to try and butch it up and banish the inner sissy, just replace it with ‘fag’.

    Combine that with this post you end up with the marketing of (ahem) ‘fag beauty products’ instead of mal– sorry, fag grooming items (and perhaps ‘fagtician’ instead of ‘beautician’?).

  8. redpesto says:

    Oops, no close tag after (ahem) ‘ahem’ – apologies.

  9. Fagtician is very funny! I thing ‘fag beauty’ is good to though maybe I prefer ‘gay grooming’

  10. Gender has been coopted by commercialism. It’s taken a long time for marketing to target men in such a hugely lucrative area as beauty/grooming. But it’s here. I think particularly polished figures, like David Beckham and Brad Pitt, who are clearly well into their looks but manage to maintain a ‘masculine’ ie non-gay persona, have a lot to do with society being willing to accept and internalize the same beauty myth women have been feeding on for decades.

    Beautifully written.

    • Thanks Victoria. Yes Beckham and Brad have been instrumental in making a certain version of ‘metrosexuality’ acceptable.

    • elissa says:

      Brad Pitt is an interesting case. He built himself up enough sexiness to sport an ugly beard – both truly ugly and ugly in the way that it covers that stunning face. I don’t think Beckam has ever worn an ugly scruffy, scraggly beard like the Pitt. Not really sure – though I’m not sure it would matter anyway. Pitt would do it better, anyway, Pitt has a stunning face.

  11. […] of reassuring men that they can still care about how they look, and buy lots of product, but still retain their masculinity (so long as they also rock a fagly […]

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