Avoiding the M-Word: Labeling Men’s Beauty Products to Reflect Power and Economic Status

LoloStock / Shutterstock.com

Men are from Mars, and women are from Venus. The differences between the genders have been expanded, condensed, crossed-over and contorted more so than ever in just past few years as gender identity has become a topic on the forefront. The beauty industry itself has seen a new consumer identity: one that is more rugged and rough, who seems to be getting deeper and deeper into the art of self-care.

According to Euromonitor International, men’s grooming is set to be one of the fastest growing categories in beauty and personal care. Last year, it was predicted to add approximately $4 billion to its global value size. Even though men have been recorded using makeup and facial products for centuries, they’re becoming more likely to add modern cosmetics—including concealer and eye cream—to their daily routines.

Still, it isn’t likely that you’d see a man perusing down the makeup aisle, trying on samples and filling up his cart with products. Seth Lerer, distinguished professor of literature at the University of California San Diego, says that increase in beauty sales for men is directly related to the language used in the marketing. First of all, the criteria for attractiveness is extremely different between men and women.

“For men,” Lerer says, “Radio, TV and the media use the words ‘powerful’ and ‘distinguished’ to describe attractive men. The words have less to do with physical beauty, and more with economical success.”

Michele Probst, owner of the male beauty and skin care line Menaji, says that men are possibly more vain than women, and that has led to increase of interest in the beauty industry. But it’s still rare to see them out in public indulging in it, because they require exclusivity.

“Their packaging needs to be discreet, masculine and easily to understand,” Probst says. “Take the T-zone for example. Women know what that is, but men don’t. I have learned so much about men and what they think from this business. If they are afraid or don’t think they can do it, they’re going to walk away from it. A pink box is not going to sell to a man.”

Lerer, who has been a professor for 36 years, uses dating sites as an extended example of the concept, because women promoting the sites talk about how wonderful it is to have someone their age, and men talk about their own sense of self, success and power. Lerer says in male beauty ad campaigns, the model used looks more like he’s after a job or economic status, not necessarily the attention of a woman.

“The language of male beauty is openness, and naturalness,” Lerer says. “Female beauty is marketed as enhanced and unnatural. Products like hair growth, exercise machines and male enhancement are all meant to make the man look more natural.”

What Lerer has learned studying language and, he says, living in the California culture of beauty, is that men are the norm and women are the exception. In other words, society expects men to look natural, and allows women to look artificial or enhanced.

“We find men attractive that look natural,” Lerer says. “We want them rugged and weathered. Men’s attractiveness is unenhanced, while female attractiveness is nothing but enhanced. It’s increasingly clear that men do not want a women to look real. But we want men to look real. We don’t want a man who has obvious enhancements.”

A recent beauty experiment by Bustle writer Brinton Parker backs up the idea that men are more attracted to women with unnaturally enhanced features. Parker set up three different accounts on Tinder, a popular online dating app, each showcasing herself wearing three levels of makeup: no makeup, natural makeup and heavy makeup. She received 28 messages on her no makeup account, 47 on her regular makeup account and 52 on her heavy makeup account. In her heavy makeup Tinder profile, she chose photos where her eyebrows were enhanced, and she was wearing a different color of lipstick in each picture.

“The most surprising development in this portion of the Tinder experiment was how many men complimented my style and makeup,” Parker says in the article. “There were fewer comments on my appearance in this portion of the experiment than during the regular makeup, and the guys were certainly more civil.”

For the experiment, she decided to swipe right (the method on the app that allows you to match up with a potential partner) for the first 100 suggested matches per account, and then allow one hour afterward to see what kind of messages and matches it turned up. Though the heavy makeup account received more messages, it only had 87 matches compared to the 100 that the other two accounts received.

“Their language seemed to reflect what they thought of the woman behind the makeup, treating my bare-faced account as a friend before a hookup,” Parker writes. “While it’s unfortunate to me that many of these men treated a woman as more sexualized because of her cosmetics, their cordiality in most of the messages was refreshing. While the negative standouts among these Tinder-dudes seemed to possess an antiquated mindset that a woman’s makeup/clothing reflects her sexual willingness, most of the other guys seemed as respectable in their pursuit of a date as one can, given that the app exists to judge based on appearances.”

Lerer says that society is still after the conservative image of men and women. When it comes to male attractiveness and beauty, people want consistency. A good-looking man is classic. Styles for 50 years ago are seen as dapper and timeless, explaining the success of TV shows like “Mad Men” and movies like “James Bond.”

Women are considered fashionable, meaning that their style is ever-changing and trendy. They are expected to change with the times, and wearing clothes from 50 years ago would not be as accepted by the general public.

“The language of male beauty is wrapped up with power, success and naturalness,” Lerer says. “My personal view is that we are growing towards more old-fashion, gender stereotypical roles. Male clothes of 50 years ago are seen as classic. Society wants a socially conservative and physical notion of men and women. Men and male beauty is stable, women’s is fashionable and implies change. It’s just a part of the culture.”

Probst says she recently spoke about the shift in the beauty industry that has led to women stealing beauty products from their boyfriends and husbands.

“Because of the education and the knowledge on the internet, you would have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to see what’s happening,” Probst says. “For men, it has to be simple, easy to understand and they want immediate results. Women will dive into any skin care product even if we have no idea what it is.”

Through her own marketing, Probst has also learned that unlike women, men do not think that the more expensive a product is, the better it is. Since they are new to skin care, men will generally go for the cheapest items.

“You have to break it down,” she says. “You have to tell them to think about it like this: it’s going to last and it costs less than a dollar a day. Then they get it.”

She also knows to avoid the dreaded m-word: makeup. Men will not buy products labeled as makeup because they believe it to be unmasculine. This also goes for gay and bisexual men.

“The gay men are just as discreet as the baby boomers,” Probst says. “He still doesn’t want a pink box. The makeup word is so taboo that we call it skin care that looks good. It’s skincare with a little color. Clean up not makeup.”

Many exclusively male beauty lines have made an effort to let their potential consumers know that they still want men to look like men. Back in 2013, fashion designer and film director Tom Ford released a line of men’s grooming products called Tom Ford for Men. When first launched, the line included a face cleanser, moisturizer, eye treatment, purifying mud mask, concealer and bronzing gel, as well as two fragrances.

Ford himself told the trade that people are surprised to find out he wears products like bronzer.

“Most people say to me, ‘Wow, you have great skin.’ I pay attention to my skin,” Ford had said to Fashionista.com. “I use skin-care and grooming products. People think I am always tan, but I wear bronzer every single day. I use it on areas of my face that would usually get hit by the sun after a morning playing tennis. I put it across the high part of my forehead, and on my nose and cheekbones.”

John Demsey, group president of the Estée Lauder Cosmetics, told Women’s Wear Daily that the line is “aimed at enabling men to present their best selves…and the man, who’s shopping this category in this distribution feels very comfortable having this discussion. This is a serious, high-ticket men’s grooming line with a couple of products with cosmetics benefits to be used in a very masculine way.”