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.