With great grooming products comes great insecurity.
If womankind’s historically fraught relationship with their faces and bodies teaches us anything, it is surely that.
So, while the Co-operative Pharmacy report which revealed that more than half of UK men aged 18-55 are happy to declare themselves ‘metrosexual’ is a gigantic and not wholly unwelcome leap forward in the evolution of the modern man, it also marks time for a sombre evaluation of the situation at hand.
Male grooming is now big business. Whilst fifty years ago any man who went beyond a routine of a simple shower and shave was considered unusually effeminate, in 2013 there’s a whole host of male-specific products lining our shelves. From hair gels to moisturisers, fake tans and makeup ranges, men now have access to a whole world of beauty which was traditionally closed-off to them.
Whilst the guyliner fan in me shouts ‘hurrah!’ there’s another part that desperately wants to urge men to proceed with caution and learn from their female counterparts. Men have spent years telling us ladies they were rather we were happy, confident and smiling than anatomically ‘perfect’ and we’ve staunchly refused to listen, instead constructing an arbitrary beauty paradigm based on a combination of what beauty advertisers and other women tell us to be true and then using it as a stick to beat ourselves with. It’s time for men to heed their own advice or reconcile themselves to all the things they abhor in us. Self-criticism is now so normalised in the female of the species it’s become part of accepted conversational convention. Women who don’t partake in the body hatred frenzy are considered either arrogant or odd.
Cue years spent using more and more extreme and bonkers measures to make ourselves look younger, brighter, tighter, thinner and generally more Barbie-like than before. Taking health risks to achieve a certain aesthetic would once have been looked upon by the majority as ridiculous. Now everyone is at it, having poison injected into their faces by non-medically trained professionals, having bits sucked out and others plumped up, cutting out whole food groups and slavishly subjecting their joints to a pounding on treadmills in windowless germ-ridden cells otherwise known as gyms up and down the country. As Susie Orbach, author of Fat is a Feminist Issue, leading Psychologist in her field and all-round legend of a person says, the behaviours she would have considered to constitute a serious eating disorder when she first began practising in the 1970s are utterly normalised in today’s western world.
Sure enough, the Co-operative survey revealed that the increase in the uptake of male grooming products is directly proportional to a surge in men taking illegal steroids and un-prescribed diet pills. A study of four hundred British GP practices a fortnight ago saw a 16 per cent increase in diagnoses of eating disorders amongst men. Beauty is no longer just the remit of women, but neither is cripplingly low self-esteem.
As someone who works with teenagers in the field of body image, none of this came as a surprise. In fact, if the Co-operative had focussed on the lower end of the study’s demographic and surveyed 18-25 year olds I believe the figures would have been a lot closer to 100 per cent.
I work with young men too self-conscious to partake in schools sports on the football field but who’ll happily subject themselves to hours weight lifting in a gym. Young men who tell me that yes, they know the front covers of male ‘health’ magazines are airbrushed beyond recognition, but that won’t stop them aspiring to a cartoon-like idea of ‘perfection’ anyway. Young men whose eating disorders are going unrecognised because all the diagnostic criteria used by the medical profession were written with the assumption that the sufferer will be a woman (lack of menstrual cycle being one of the biggest indicators of anorexia, aside from the woefully antiquated BMI, used by the NHS).
I work with teenage boys who tell me ‘girls only like six packs’, who are photo-shopping their Facebook profile pictures to make themselves more tanned and more ‘buff’ and who are as likely to access illegal steroids online each time they check their accounts.
Yet, there is hope. Because there’s a whole Army of women who are coming out the other side of the whacking great vortex of confusion and despair that is beauty inadequacy. We’re still using beauty products, but we’re doing so with unencumbered joy, in celebration of our faces and bodies, rather than in apology. We’re making a statement and that statement is ‘if I want to paint a Ziggy Stardust-esque stripe of glitter down my face and wear six inch platforms I will but not because it’s in fashion this season or because you’ll tell me I’m not entitled to call myself a woman if I don’t. It’s because I sodding-well want to”.
As I tell all my students, regardless of gender, once you’ve reached a point where you can leave the house without makeup, that’s when it becomes okay to do it. Fashion, beauty and grooming should be fun, a way to express ourselves and to make a statement about the kind of person we are and the kind of mood we’re in today.
As Caryn Franklin, co-Founder of the brilliant campaign All Walks Beyond the Catwalk said at a meeting of the All Parties Parliamentary Group on Body Image I attended last week “men and women are under beauty pressure, but women are on the front line”.
In our young people that trend is reversing. We’re levelling the playing field, but entirely the wrong way, with marketers endeavouring to make men as insecure as women have been in recent history. I just hope that British men can find a way to groom in the spirit it was intended, celebrate their individuality, bypass the years of torture and to not have to fight the battle in the first place.
As one of a new wave of women who was once fashion and beauty victim and is now fashion and beauty veteran, I intend to help them do that.