Men and Make-up: History, Stigmas And The Way Ahead
Is Wearing Make-Up 'Normal' for Men?

Even though the male beauty industry is expanding, what do men in beauty need to do to destigmatise it? 

A few years ago, a leading Indian e-commerce platform launched a campaign with its billboards placed across the high streets of metro cities. The imagery of the campaign was unusual for many but intriguing for a few. It featured a man with a well-trimmed beard and bushy brows but also with a nose ring and a full face of make-up. It did what it was expected to – grabbed eyeballs. However, not everyone was pleased because the ‘men don’t wear make-up’ trope is still a part of our social dynamics. 


It took a few sought-after celebrities foraying into beauty for people to get comfortable with the idea of men experimenting with make-up. Whether it’s pop-star Harry Styles launching his gender-fluid beauty line Pleasing while sporting the most eccentric nail art or global pop singer Rihanna launching Fenty’s campaign video with male models, the industry is taking slow steps towards un-tagging gender on beauty products.


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A History Lesson 

While it’s seen as a pleasant change for the industry, the connection between men and make-up is centuries old. History shows that men from different ethnicities used make-up as a daily tool for self-expression. For instance, accentuated eye make-up was an integral part of the look for Egyptian men who used different pigments to create elongated eye shapes. In fact, it was common for them to paint their nails, and the nail colour indicated their status in society.


Similarly, Roman men were known for their indulgent skincare routine; while the use of scented oils and mud baths were essential to their beauty rituals, it was midway during the first century A.D. that the use of rouge on the cheeks and powder to lighten the complexion also became common. Romanian men, in fact, enjoyed painting their nails. In the absence of any specific nail product during that time, they often mixed pig fat with blood to colour their nails. Indian men too weren’t oblivious to the use of make-up, unlike the current times. They often used kohl and bindi for spiritual purposes. Though common throughout the history, when did wearing make-up become a taboo for men? 


The Changing Scenario 

It was in 1994 that I first witnessed a conversation around genderless beauty when Calvin Klein launched its CK One perfume—a fragrance for men and women. While the industry has been witnessing a change, it is slow and staggering. Since the ‘90s to early aughts, there has been less or no such noticeable instances that reconnects men with make-up, without any gender bias. “There is more awareness around the concept but the perception towards men wearing make-up hasn’t changed outside social media,” says Ankush Bahuguna, digital creator and make-up enthusiast. “This transformation can also be attributed to influencers and campaigns they are part of,” he adds.

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Chatting with Bahuguna regarding influencer campaigns reminded me of the stir CoverGirl—an American make-up brand—created when they named make-up YouTuber James Charles as the first male face of the brand in 2016. Addressing the change, Saikat Chakraborty, National Artist at MAC Cosmetic India, says, “Today men and make-up are in a transformative phase. Men are becoming more fluid and comfortable with make-up, even addressing the topic to begin with, driven by the influence of social media, changing societal norms, and growing acceptance of gender fluidity.” 


Positive representation is what it takes to welcome men to beauty aisles without being uncomfortable. Maybelline, in 2017, debuted a mascara campaign with the first-ever male ambassador, make-up artist Manny Gutierrez. Close to home, a homegrown beauty brand FAE Beauty also launched campaigns with male faces making a compelling case for representation in the industry. “Men look for validation on packaging and pick up products that are specifically tagged as ‘for men’ and therefore, it’s understandable when brands launch make-up products targeted at men. However, the future of the industry is brands going gender-neutral,” says Bahuguna, who believes that beauty brands still have a long way to go when it comes to representation in their campaigns. “Looking at a foundation, one always associates the product with women because it’s rare to see a man in such campaigns or on packaging,” he adds. On the other hand, however, Chakraborty feels that brands like MAC actively showing artists and make-up users across genders on social media is a step in the making of the future we aspire for. “I show numerous ways of wearing make-up on my social media and have always received a positive response,” he adds.  

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Men, Make-up, & Social Stigma 

While on paper, the male cosmetic industry is waiting to be tapped into, marketing of these products to men is often overlooked. This could also be blamed on decades of societal conditioning that doesn’t allow men to think beyond regular skincare. Even if we don’t accept it, the truth is that an increasing number of men are using make-up. For instance, men in the entertainment industry have been wearing make-up for decades. However, it’s rare to find celebrities talking about it openly. “This could be due to fear of judgement and concerns over one’s masculinity, but new artists are starting to break this silence, challenging stereotypes,” adds Chakraborty. 


Raise your hand if your boyfriend, male friend, or brother has asked you a quick way to hide dark circles or tackle spots. I have not just fielded such questions but have also helped my friends conceal their under-eyes and hungover skin at weddings. While they might not be beauty enthusiasts, they are all curious, to say the least. “Men want to use make-up; in fact, they use it often, but fear talking about it. The sad part is that the judgement they fear comes from the men only,” says Bahuguna who confesses that his content about undetectable make-up is also viewed by men. “I know they refer to it but won’t share it openly,” he adds.


The Way Ahead 

A concealer is a wonder product for anyone looking to hide dark under eyes; an eyebrow pencil is for all those fighting thin, scanty brows and a mascara doesn’t discriminate between men and women. Case in point: a product, at its core, does not know genders and therefore, make-up needs to be genderless. What is it that we can do about it? It needs more men to embrace it and talk about it. “Addressing stereotypes, providing education, and fostering an inclusive community for male make-up enthusiasts are crucial steps for smoother acceptance,” says Chakraborty. Men and make-up are at a pivotal point right now, while it’s changing and evolving, there’s a long way to go. With that, it also requires more brands to create equal opportunities for men to be a part of their brand communication. “I would appreciate more representation; I’d like to see more brands taking men as their brand ambassadors and not just campaigns,” concludes Bahuguna. We are wishing for a cultural shift in the thought process that makes men wearing and talking about make-up equally comfortable. 

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