is male beauty the next step for body positivity?

As Marc Jacobs sparks a male beauty movement with #MalePolish, and #makeupisgenderless trends, we look at what make-up means for men in 2016

by Ashley Clarke
25 April 2016, 2:09pm

Grace Wales Bonner fall/winter 16

The term 'male beauty' is, in many ways, an oxymoron. Men, multi-faceted beings though we are, are slaves to an unwritten rulebook thick with things we shouldn't really be doing in order to preserve our fragile masculinity. You know, things like wearing skirts, or painting our nails. It's the reason Jaden Smith has sparked so much coverage for his binary-breaking dress sense recently: we live in an age where small details about a man doing 'feminine' things with his appearance is newsworthy, and K-pop and 1D fans tweet at each other to kill themselves over whether or not their idols wear make-up.

Still, we might finally be approaching a time where it is acceptable for a man to whip out the concealer, and not worry if it comes in a package shaped like something really manly and powerful like, I don't know, an AK-47. There is currently a surge of popular male beauty vloggers giving men (and women) tips on how to contour, blend, and conceal. Last month, YouTuber Jake-Jamie launched a now-viral campaign under the hashtag #MakeupIsGenderless, calling for us to drop our preconceived notions about who should wear what on their faces. On his Instagram under a before-and-after make-up selfie, the vlogger wrote: "Our sex should be completely irrelevant. I honestly believe make-up can change certain individuals' lives. It enables you to put your best face forward, and this means that people suffering from acne, scarring, rosacea, pigmentation, birthmarks, vitiligo and many other conditions can use make-up just to feel 'normal'." In other words, removing the stigma that comes with wearing make-up is an important step in allowing men to feel confident about their appearance. This rings true in the UK, where, according to a YouGov study, a reported 31% of men are unhappy with their body image.

Unfortunately, battling that stigma is difficult when the mainstream conversation around male body image, progressive or otherwise, is still obsessed with being masculine, and when big brands view male body image as nothing more than a lol-worthy April Fools' joke. IMG may have signed Zach Miko as its first plus-sized male model last month under the new 'Brawn' division, but the thinking behind the change is disappointingly narrow. "Brawn has a body positive message," the agency's president insisted. "Brawn is physical strength." The casting of Miko, who boasts a 40-inch waist (but is also -- surprise! -- dizzyingly tall and muscular), is perhaps a move in the right direction, but the rigid boundaries of masculinity aren't really being widened at all, or even challenged; worryingly, it seems like they're being reinforced. The message is clear: it's okay to be plus-sized, as long as you're also physically strong. Be any kind of man, but just make sure you're a masculine one.

This rhetoric means that for most men, make-up is out of the question, and sexuality undeniably comes into play. Scrolling through a recent Reddit feed asking straight men if they wear make-up (apart from a few brave confessions to the odd dark-circle cover-up, most responses were from men practically hemorrhaging at the very idea), I came across one rather poignant entry from a man who said "even though I'm worse looking, I'm more attractive without [make-up]," an admission that although make-up can improve a man's appearance, it can't cover up the fact that mainstream society finds men in make-up unattractive. Homophobia is of course part of the issue. The few men who wear make-up in the public eye are often openly gay, which means that make-up, like many other so-called 'feminine' practices, is often seen as the preserve of gay men, even though the gay community is responsible for a worrying degree of masc4masc, anti-femme discourse. On the same Reddit thread, a user wrote: "This question ["Any straight men wear make-up?"], as a gay guy, offends me a bit. Why do you need to specify if straight men wear make-up? It implies gay men do. I do not. Many, if not most gay men do not." In the male world, regardless of sexuality, make-up can be scary and offensive, because it represents femininity. Our internalized misogyny means there's little worse than a feminine man. Still, we push on.

Marc Jacobs is, somewhat unsurprisingly, the latest figure to spark fresh interest in male beauty. In recent weeks the designer has taken to sharing weekly Instagram posts on 'Mani Mondays' of his painted nails (courtesy of Korean nail artist Jin Soon Choi). The images are captioned with his own finely-punned hashtag #MalePolish, which has facilitated a trend of manicured (and sometimes pedicured) men to share pics of their own painted hands and feet. To Jacobs, of course, a crimson nail is nothing revolutionary -- if you google 'Marc Jacobs dress', you'll get images of his womenswear on the catwalk, as well as on the designer himself. Jacobs has been teasing the gender binary from the lofty heights of fashion for years now: the female models who walked the runway for his spring/summer 15 show went completely make-up free. This wasn't the feted 'no-make-up-make-up' trend at play, but literal facial nakedness. The most groundbreaking beauty look of the season dared women not to wear make-up at all. Imagine that!

The kind of gender-play that Jacobs flirts with is particularly powerful because it conveys a nonchalant attitude towards prescribed behaviors and aesthetics. See: Marc Jacobs casually turning up to the Met Gala, fashion's most coveted event, in a black lace dress of his own design simply because he "didn't want to wear a tuxedo and be boring". The dress later sold out. See also: Marc Jacobs casually posting a nude selfie on Instagram, deleting it, and responding to the following furore with this dismissive statement: "Meant to send it by DM… I flirt and chat with guys online sometimes. BIG DEAL!" Jacobs is of course not the first man in the public eye to flout gender codes when it comes to his image. Behind him are countless names like Brian Molko, Boy George, Marilyn Manson -- the list goes on and on. Still, to change anything, consistent rule breaking is important. The touches of femininity Jacobs employs are not his entire persona, just little decorations here and there to brighten up the place. It's as if the nail polish, dresses and make-up hardly matter at all. And that's exactly the point.



Text Ashley Clarke
Photography Mitchell Sams

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