How Male Grooming Is “Ruining” Men

Photographed by M Studio.

When I was little, I used to go to
the makeup counter with my mother. Early on in her marriage, when the money was
good and her body was slim, mom loved fashion. She was a size 6 in Christian
Dior, and she even has one of the line’s famous little black dresses tucked
away in our attic to prove it. (She has a matching Dior mink, too, which she’s
mostly embarrassed about now.) But, after a couple of economic challenges and
five (yes, five) Caesarean sections, dressing her body became more of a
challenge, and less of a joy. So, she turned to makeup.      

Mom always loved cosmetics and skin
care. But, after five children and 40 years, her God-given beauty became her
last line of defense — a Great Wall that required constant upkeep and
maintenance. She was too chicken for plastics, she reasoned, so why not invest
in a great serum? I’d go from counter to counter — Sisley to Trish McEvoy to
Chanel — and listen to her learn about her face (and, in the spirit of the
great Nora Ephron, her neck). The makeup artists would teach her never to leave
the house without concealer (she has dark circles), and the aestheticians would
lecture her about daily SPF.

We were often late to school because
she couldn’t get ready in time. My father would scream in frustration at the
bathroom door as she applied her foundation, preciously, in silence. I
sometimes worry she may have spent much of her life in fear of her face — that,
one day, she’d lose it. For the record, she still hasn’t. But, if I told you her
age in this column, I’d for sure be a dead man.      

As a male beauty editor, I’m in the
unique and privileged position of writing for mostly women. My mother informs
most of my writing, as does having worked at salons, spas, and in the perfume
world. I’ve met a lot of women and heard a lot of stories — from the mom who
got her daughter’s beautiful, kinky curls blowdried biweekly because the kids
at her private school made fun of her texture, to the housewife who surgically
lifted the folds above her knees (and a few other things) after she discovered
her husband was having an affair with his secretary. A lot of people point
fingers at these women, claiming they’re “vain.” A lot of men shake their heads
in confusion, saying they’ll never understand. They are my father, yelling at
my mother, refusing to get how hair color could cost $150, or how a face cream
could be as much money as a television. 

That’s probably why I was so goddamn irked when I read Vanity Clause, the latest from T: The New York Times Style Magazine. In the piece, Andrew O’Hagan writes, “something
in masculine solidity is lost with the enforcement of beauty regimens…
[meaning] the suavity that comes as if by accident, without noticeable effort.
Simple as that.” 

There are a couple of frustrating points about his statement. “The enforcement of beauty regimens” is something that most women — not men — are taught from a young age. The message from most beauty companies (and, to be fair, most beauty editors) is that if you don’t preserve it, you’ll lose it. Women’s beauty is ephemeral, unless they work for it, the message goes. Famous women like Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren are praised for “aging gracefully,” while if someone appears to look “done” (in the surgical sense), they come under fire. (Enter: Renée Zellweger, Uma Thurman.) Aging, like love, is a battlefield. Men don’t have to worry about such things, though. Daniel Craig is in his 40s and filming his fourth James Bond movie. He's a man who’s meant to appeal sexually to women of all ages and be admired by men everywhere for his — O’Hagan’s word — suavity. Does such a role exist for female actresses? When Madonna reinvents herself yet again, baring butt cheeks on the red carpet, she’s considered indecent. When Jennifer Lopez bares her legs or shows too much cleavage, social media reminds us that she has children. (Women seem not to like it when you’re a "MILF.")
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Photographed by M Studio.
So, what happens when CrossFit, paleo, and the alleged grooming boom enter the world? Men like O’Hagan, who have been told their entire lives that they don’t need meticulous upkeep, have crises. They even get to write about it in publications like T, telling other men that it’s simply not masculine to try and keep up. “Over-grooming is now a mode of hysteria common to every other man I know, and it isn’t attractive,” he writes. “I believe it feeds off a larger anxiety in the culture, the obligation to self-invent, the demand for constant increase, and it has made the men of my generation into emotional shadows of their former selves.” Perhaps most revealingly, he writes: “There is now an explicit pressure on men to impersonate the women in their lives.”  In other words, Mr. O’Hagan, welcome to what life feels like for women. The pressure to look young, be constantly fit, and be postpartum thin — all while looking effortless — is something women have been going through for ages, perhaps more so now than ever. But, now that the boys are just starting to feel that anxiety, it’s cause for alarm and a two-page article in the nation's most prominent publication. “I don’t care if you think it’s sexist: It’s not a man’s job to pluck his eyebrows or plump his lips,” he says. But, then, confusingly, he switches to the gender neutral, saying, “People must do as they wish, of course, but to my mind...” Then, he switches back to speaking specifically about men: “[M]ale beauty loses its essence with premeditation.”  In conclusion, guys shouldn’t have to work hard for their looks. But, women should still be dedicated to their beauty routines, and continue the often archaic upkeep standards imposed on them by society. Also, FYI, he doesn’t care if you think this is sexist. So there. O’Hagan mistakenly thinks that there’s only one type of masculine beauty. He also thinks he can dictate what that looks like. But, beauty is entirely subjective. Some women (and men, because Refinery29, unlike the writer, does not prescribe to the heteronormative) prefer their men preened, six-packed, and waxed. Others like them tatted and bearded.  But, if all of this obsession with appearances — undoubtedly brought on by our society’s current wellness kick (and, of course, documenting it religiously on Instagram) — makes some men a little uncomfortable, that’s not a bad thing. O’Hagan, and a lot of men, could use a lesson in what it feels like to be critical of one’s appearance; to be judged by your body and age. Maybe then, they’ll be able to better understand the women in their lives, and maybe even apologize for unwittingly fueling the fire that’s burned so many. 


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