The other day, as I wasted precious time on Facebook, my eye caught a little ad pushing a product called The Men Pen, a concealer stick for men. Give yourself the gift of confidence, it said, stop feeling embarrassed. Conceal it today! Hmm, I thought, good luck with that.
But maybe my reaction was too hasty. Maybe at some point in the near future, as the importance of physical appearance seeps further into the male domain, men too will start to paint their faces. Sculpt their jawlines with bronzer, fill out their eyebrows a bit, or even out their skin with said Men Pen. After all, it’s not like blotchy skin is inherently masculine.
I asked the nearest male, my boyfriend, if he’d ever consider wearing makeup and he looked at me like I’d just suggested gender reassignment surgery. That wasn’t such a surprise – or an unusual reaction. The prevailing feeling in society around the topic is that makeup is worn by women, therefore any man who wears makeup is gay (because gay men are all secretly women), overtly feminine, or just not really a “proper” man. Even if it’s not couched in such specific terms.
It wasn’t always that way: Men and women in ancient Egypt lined their eyes with kohl, used blue-green eyeshadow made of copper, and wore henna nail stain.
Men and makeup are even mentioned in the Old Testament (Ezekiel 23:40) with reference to “face painting”.
During the Regency period in England both genders wore geranium petal rouge. And in Renaissance Europe men as well as women used powder to whiten their faces so they looked like they were moneyed enough to stay indoors all day, doing precisely nothing. Also: sage to whiten teeth, and an egg and honey mask to smooth away wrinkles. And these were “manly” men – kings, dukes and nobles.
And for the jewel in the crown of historical-men-who-wore-makeup: Alexander the Great, who – having traveled extensively in Asia – became addicted to the region’s wealth of makeup and aromatics and set up a botanical garden from cuttings when back home so he’d have a self-replenishing supply.
He then set about slaying, commanding and conquering and all sorts of man-things that definitely aren’t woman things.
An Ask Men article on the matter sums up prevailing attitudes pretty neatly. Having conducted a small all-male survey – 25 “hip, urban professionals” – writer Douglas Cooney discovers, to his abject horror, that 20 per cent of them responded positively when asked if men should men use makeup:
Sensitive New Age Guys have heeded the constant female pleas for men to be more sensitive. In doing so, they assumed more feminine traits of sharing their feelings and spending more time in front of the mirror.
Which I think is slightly off the mark, because since when does spending lots of time in front of the mirror equate with being sensitive? Anyway. Perhaps Cooney doth protest too much – who knows. He continues:
How long will it be until men start going to the bathroom in pairs to touch up their foundation? Or gossip about their girlfriends while sitting under the perm hair dryer, their feet soaking in skin toner?
There is something admirable about the man who takes his imperfections with grace and carries on with his life. Maintaining a good image is fine, but let’s draw the line at face paint. Let the drag queens keep that.
But it’s not just the drag queens, apparently. According to recent stats quoted in The Daily Beast, makeup for men is no longer taboo, with American gents spending US$5 billion on men’s grooming products last year – and half of that sum spent on skincare and cosmetics. (Relevant fact: The word “cosmetae” was first used to describe Roman slaves whose job it was to bathe men in sweet perfumes.)
To be honest, I think I would be concerned if my boyfriend was right beside me applying lipstick pre-party, even though I don’t know how to justify that concern without sounding suspiciously like Douglas Cooney. Maybe I, too, only associate makeup and men with drag queens, because that’s the only time I’ve witnessed the two together, and somehow I might (irrationally, I know) fear he was gay. Which would be fine, obviously, if he weren’t my boyfriend.
Alternately, it’s just artwork. On faces. And there is nothing wrong with the wonders that are KISS, David Bowie, or Johnny Depp. I repeat: nothing at all. They can come be my second boyfriends/get ready for a party with me any time of the week.
So could Alexander the Great – if he were alive, just for a laugh. He might even tell me, as he plundered the long white cloud – that our contemporary gender norms would look pretty alien if transported back to his time. Which is a useful thing to remember – as is the idea that our rules will probably also seem pretty alien when looked back on from the future. Where no self-respecting man is without his Men Pen. Maybe.
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By Rebecca Kamm @rebeccakamm Email Rebecca