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The dogmatic world of male beauty and me – then and now


Ben Sharp

The “It's complicated” column is Ben Sharp’s uninhibited (and English-language) approach to subjects that deserve attention but perhaps shouldn’t always require academic research or too much intellect. Discourse over doctrine or coded commentaries. Ben – a British-born, Berlin-based, gay 20-something with passions for fashion, fried chicken and overthinking – looks to pose questions that are answered differently, in intrinsic relation to our individual experiences and identities.

Ily Sporno

I was a child of the nineties. This meant that, while I was unfortunately a little too young to appreciate the minimalist, unassuming tone set by the likes of Jil Sander or Helmut Lang, or the iconic appeal of Calvin Klein’s sex-infused ads, I was starting to bloom around the time that the (deliberately?) confusing-sounding “metrosexual” came into play. And what an exciting extra layer of not fitting in it brought with it.

“Metrosexual”, many of you will remember, was a term coined by Mark Simpson – first in 1994, then again in an arguably more impactful way in 2002. It was thanks to the second article that the theory really gained traction and, in effect, acceptance. It was essentially the now rather unremarkable idea that the average man would eschew the tradition of not caring about his appearance, in favour of spending unprecedented money, time and energy on fashion and grooming. It was also, of course, a marketing ploy. Hence “grooming” as opposed to “beauty” or “cosmetic” products. We couldn’t go calling it something that made us equal to our female counterparts now, could we? Nonetheless it was a marketing ploy that worked, leading to increased sales of such goods among male consumers, and filtered into a somewhat updated envisioning of the gender.

I quickly became aware that, while the dogma and its rules seemed clear for those around me, it was going to be challenging to navigate just how metrosexual I should be. I was on the verge of discovering and denying homosexuality. How open was I to be about my metrosexual tendencies? Let’s just say: less so than felt entirely natural.

Ily Metro

Since the 00s we have moved on. Not that the journey has been without its pitstops along the route via more twentieth century terminology, equally uneasy on the ear. There was the spornosexual: also coined by Mark Simpson in a 2014 article, the word is a portmanteau combining sport and porn, with a heavy emphasis on the sexual. “They want to be wanted for their bodies, not their wardrobe. And certainly not their minds.” More recent developments saw the emergence of the lumbersexual. As many of the Urban Dictionary’s definitions explain, this is just as surface-level: despite a rugged look, a hipster hero lumbersexual would have about as much manual labour experience or aptitude as my grandmother.

There were limits that couldn’t be crossed. Lest those lines then be blurred and mistaken for the boundaries of homosexual.
Ily Lumber

Cut to boys my age at the time, on the cusp of manhood – whatever that even really means – and fully on board with their urbanite idols’ approach to vanity. (And let’s be frank: the majority of these men had learned to be in touch with their vanity – not their feminine side, as some might misinterpret.) Except I was on the cusp of gay manhood and, although clichés never feel cool, my idols were the then regularly adjusted Destiny’s Child line-up and Karen Walker from Will & Grace. I didn’t necessarily have the same frame of reference for the dos and don’ts of life as a blossoming metrosexual. Because, at least as it felt to me, the lines were at times hard to make out but certainly there. You were allowed to wear products in your hair, but only the few that had been unofficially certified as appropriately manly. There were limits that couldn’t be crossed. Lest those lines then be blurred and mistaken for the boundaries of homosexual.

Obviously, most of it has only ever really been marketing. But let’s not forget that in a capitalist world, consumerist trends are a large part of what (in)forms our identities. The male beauty slash grooming market has seen steady growth but is still largely unexplored and undefined in comparison with its female-focused counterpart. Maybe that’s the reason for such absolute terms: these clear-cut, chapter-like segmentations that seem to define “the man”. As if we were all one. Perhaps it also goes a way to explain why, when Chanel releases makeup marketed at men in late 2018, sensationalist journalism suggests that this is it: this is going to change everything.

Specifically, the suggestion that the originally named “Boy de Chanel” will be game-changing (while perhaps true to some extent) dismisses previous men’s lines by Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs, both launched in 2013. Such dogmatic discourse also dismisses a wider picture of masculinity at large, still grappling with itself and not always as quick as certain brands and headlines to adopt the newest characteristics of mankind, often presented as foolishly finite ideals. It avoids a greater discussion about masculinity, part of which is man’s actually very slowly evolving approach to looking like a man – still largely trapped in needing to look like and perform as the alpha, dominant and in charge. Dare I say trapped in a kind of toxic masculinity? (I do dare.)

Ily Question

Not to say that there’s anything negative with steps being taken in a forward motion. Towards new products, towards new ideals. And it should be said that there are less mainstream platforms, presenting rounded and balanced images of men’s beauty. For masculinity and male beauty can of course be wonderful, rightly celebrated things. It’s just silly to pretend that the conversation is less complex than it is. That the market, as it were, is still as wide open as it is – with as much potential to mould masses into singular incarnations of an entire gender – is surely indicative of how far there is to go in our understanding of masculinity’s complexity. Aesthetically and ethically speaking.

As for me, I can only be grateful on a personal level that I figured out who I am. Accepted and owned my sexuality, which led me to an acceptance and ownership of my masculinity and my stance on beauty and grooming. Phew – I did good getting out before succumbing to failed attempts to be a half-baked spornosexual. And now I do what the f*ck I want, without assigning myself to a blinkered image of one type of male. I choose instead to focus on what makes sense for my body, my mind. Perhaps the next buzzword definition of a man might be the subspecies that subscribes to a kind of beauty that isn’t focused solely on peak manhood. One that instead understands the rich tapestry that is the male gender. It’d just need a catchy name, which raises eyebrows 10-15 years before proving its own prophecy.

Patch design: Dominik Gauly