How it became OK for guys to take care of themselves

Sabri Ben-Achour Jan 6, 2016

How it became OK for guys to take care of themselves

Sabri Ben-Achour Jan 6, 2016

In the bathroom of his East Village apartment, Colin Specter happily shares the list of creams and grooming products that are a part of his daily routine. There are the tweezers he uses to shape his eyebrows, the maximum-hydration nourishing lotion for face and body, the body hair shower gel, the deodorant he’s been using for years.

“My shampoo is one bottle among like 30 that belong to my girlfriend,” he points out. 

Is it “girly” to think about your skin and collect lotions and scrubs?

“In this day and age, not at all,” Specter said. Perhaps in the past, he said, but “people thought a lot of crazy things back in the day.”

The men’s personal-care market will reach sales of $4.2 billion in 2015, estimated Margie Nanninga, home and personal care analyst with Mintel. It’s grown 15 percent in the past five years. Just over half of men surveyed by Mintel use specialty skincare products, almost 60 percent use facial skincare products, and 80 percent use hand or body lotion.

The sheer number of personal-grooming products has proliferated as new brands have entered the market.  Items sold by Rob Lowe  and Tom Ford are two recent introductions. The magazine Men’s Health runs articles with titles like, “9 grooming products every man needs,”  and Vogue  ranks the spectrum of men’s creams and scrubs.

“The male-skincare marketplace over the last several years has outpaced sometimes doubled the growth of women’s skincare,” said Joseph Grigsby, vice president of global marketing for Estee Lauder’s Lab Series Skincare for Men. Estee Lauder has been making skincare products for men since the sixties, but it created an entire men’s skincare group in 2014. 

“We have gotten over the hump and the stigma of using product to where there’s an expectation for men to do that,” Grigsby said.

For sociologists like Lisa Wade, assistant professor at Occidental College, the most surprising thing about it isn’t that it’s happening. “What’s surprising to me is it’s taken this long,” she said. 

Capitalism, Wade likes to say, is relentless. And it has been trying for a very long time to get men to buy what, if we’re speaking honestly, we should call beauty products.

“Over time in the twenties and thirties, there was a lot of work to sell these sorts of products to men,” explained Kristen Barber, assistant professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University and author of the forthcoming book ‘Styling Masculinity.’

“There were advertisements that would try to sell powder for men’s face – it would say ‘not for the ladies.’”

Men resisted.  But not necessarily because it was too womanly:  at that time, women resisted such products as well. Mass-produced cosmetics, for example, were seen as “something that only jezebels participated in,” said Barber.

Personal-grooming products and creams didn’t become more acutely gendered in the way we might think of them today until around World War II, argues Barber. “Women moved in greater numbers into factory work producing ammo and war machines,” she said. “There was a lot of cultural insecurity about the dissolution of gender roles and so cosmetics were sold as part of an attempt to reinforce biological differences between men and women so if you’re gonna work in the factory make sure you continue to look like a woman, wear some lipstick, be ready for your man when he comes home from war.”

Once personal-care products became attached to womanhood, “companies had a really difficult time then turning around and saying ‘ok and men can use it too,’” said Barber.

The gendering of personal care has, over the past decade or two, begun to break down. Part of the reason is who is leading the way:  young men ages 18-34, who “don’t have the historical memory of the work these companies had to do to attach it to womanhood,” Barber said.

The term metrosexual was coined in 1994, in perhaps an early observation of a change in this definition of masculinity. 

“The younger generation is very comfortable in using products to make them look good,” said Lab Series’ Joseph Grigsby. “Millennials are exposing their life and how they look every day,” the appearance of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, Youtube and other platforms allow hyper connectivity, hyper exposure, and myriad direct connections to cultural influencers.

“We are living in a selfie culture,” Grigsby said – regardless of your gender.

Barber’s work interviewing men in salons reflects a desire on the part of older men to keep up with youth, and so the mores of a younger generation may be influencing those of an older one. 

Grigsby also argues that men’s changing approach to beauty products is connected to something deeper, to what makes men feel like men. “We’re entering this unknown land of gender roles,” he said.

Sociologist Lisa Wade agrees.  “I think that we are in a period where we’re really unsure where masculinity goes next,” Wade said. “There’s very little basis on which men and women are different anymore.” They largely attend the same schools and work in the same professions. 

 In such a world, some sociologists argue, men are looking for ways to feel like men.

“It could be the case,” said Tristan Bridges, assistant professor of sociology at the State University of New York’s college at Brockport, “as jobs become things that men are less able to count on to demonstrate their status as men, they find other ways of demonstrating their status.” 

Bridges warns, however, that making blanket generalizations about masculinity may reveal implicit assumptions that deserve some inspection.  Sometimes, he said, “what we frame as transformations of masculinity – usually we’re talking about is a shift in a specific group of men. Young, straight identified white men. And when something happens with that group, when they do something they didn’t use to,  it’s common to say masculinity is transforming, when really it’s a shift in in that group.” 

Wherever the change is located, the change in sales seem to bear it out.  And if men have been looking for ways to express to the world and to themselves that they are manly, relentless marketing is giving it to them. “Sometimes beauty products are marketed with this hyper-masculine strategy,” Wade said. 

Axe body spray commercials may be the most iconic example targeting a male demographic at a particularly sensitive age.  Even more modern marketing like that of Old Spice plays on the idea of masculinity and adulthood while taking a somewhat mocking or tongue-in-cheek approach.

Marketers are fine-tuning their approach to men: exfoliators became scrubs, lotions became serums. Men tend to prefer, according to Lab Series’ Grigsby, instant gratification, “an immediate sensorial moment.” Lab Series is also offering a cream to accentuate the male jaw line. 

Sociologists like Kristen Barber argue that some kind of cultural change is afoot within masculinity, and sales of men’s grooming products are bearing that out.  The exact causes may not be clear for another thirty years, but it appears for the moment that masculinity is being defined with the products it was once defined against.  And that is making billions. 

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.