Soft Masculinity Making space for men in the beauty industry
As an industry that has long been associated with women, femininity and beautification for the ‘male gaze’, the beauty category has historically had to work harder to appeal to men. In a culture which vilifies men for adopting ‘feminine’ traits and behaviours, brands have had to heavily masculinise their products to make their use acceptable amongst men. For example, brands use names such as ‘Warpaint’ and ‘Bulldog’ to connote rugged ‘manliness’, add blue dyes to product liquids and serums, and use dark, serious livery on-pack. However, a recent survey by Amplify revealed that 61% of young men believe brands have a responsibility to shape modern masculinity. Within this changing cultural context which begins to question, interrogate, and deconstruct concepts of masculinity, how can beauty brands increase their cultural relevance for the ‘Modern Man’?
In 2019, Gillette’s famous advert, The Best Men Can Be, broke with these norms, directly addressing the topic of ‘toxic masculinity’ and sparking an important global conversation. Despite receiving much praise, the ad was nonetheless divisive, receiving backlash from a cohort of men who felt attacked and vilified. In the wake of this backlash, emergent brands have taken a different approach to shaping new understandings of masculinity. Brands have begun to switch from a ‘stick’ to a ‘carrot’ approach, veering away from language that could be considered accusatory towards a more empathetic tone that showcases enlightened behaviour, male vulnerability and examines the negative effects that ideologies of ‘masculinity’ have on everyday men.
Findings from the Young Blood research series by Amplify
Whilst brands have dominantly relied on hypermasculinising their products to appeal to men, emergent brands are instead opting for light-hearted language and internet humour to educate men around the benefits of skincare and beauty regimes. New York-based brand Anthony uses memes to normalise talking about skincare regimens and self-care for men. Similarly, French brand Horace gently introduces male skincare users to the idea of face scrubs through ironic imagery, emojis, and playful language (e.g. “I’m happy because my skin is soft ?”), helping to code male skincare as normal, accessible and everyday – without resorting to virile stereotypes.
From left to right: social media post by Anthony Skincare; social media post by Horace
Moving away from traditional narratives of ‘masculinity’ that emphasise emotional stoicism and hardness, leading-edge brands are countering this with language and imagery of softness in line with more emergent ideas of what it means to be a ‘man’. This shift has particularly been spearheaded by Black men, who have historically faced the brunt of these societal expectations.
Pharrell Williams’ brand Human Race employs a soft aesthetic approach to its products, replete with pictures of its founder enjoying milky baths (culturally associated with Queen Cleopatra), and with references to emotional wellbeing in the form of mindfulness quotes. Moving away from the traditionally aggressive imagery used in male skincare adverts (e.g. vigorously and abrasively scrubbing, forcefully splashing water), which code male skin as tougher and harder, newer brands depict men gently dabbing and caressing products onto their face – visually communicating a sense of self-love, care, and soft skin usually reserved for women’s brands.
These changes are occurring against a backdrop of wider conversations around mental health and stigma – particularly for Black men – as society attempts to create a safe space for men to be soft, vulnerable and emotional. In wider culture, this is best illustrated through initiatives like Flowers for Black Men, which encouraged customers to send Black men flowers in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, with all proceeds going to charity. The political dimensions of masculinity therefore cannot be underestimated, and brands will have to ensure that these are addressed (e.g. by pairing with mental health charities) whilst also demonstrating an inclusive and intersectional stance.
From left to right: imagery from Pharrell Williams’ brand Human Race; Flowers for Black Men project by Mallory With The Flowers
Modern discourse around masculinity has also begun to dismantle unrealistic expectations: Anthony Patrick Manieri’s Arrested Movement is a video art piece which depicts men of all different sizes dancing nude in order to promote male body positivity, whilst social media movements such as #ShortKingSpring challenge stigma around stature by celebrating short men.
Emergent skincare brands are tapping into these new more empathetic understandings of masculinity, by tackling male body taboos. Mantl by Karamo Brown, gives visibility to balding by spotlighting famous bald men like Andre Agassi through inspirational videos. Hashtags like #ShowUpForYourself and #BeWhoYouAre, and discussions of ‘balding journeys’ code men’s grooming products and self-care as counteractive to the worst of ‘toxic masculinity’. Similarly, Hims borrows wellness aesthetics from traditionally ‘female’ brands like Glossier and sister brand Hers, to normalise hair loss and erectile dysfunction products. Their slogan “healthy, handsome, happy you” emphasises the importance of mental wellbeing, whilst celebrating men for openly addressing taboo issues.
From left to right: still from Arrested Movement by Patrick Manieri (on display at the V&A’s Refashioning Masculinities exhibition until November 2022); Instagram post by Mantl; pej spray, the male genital desensitizer by hims
3 key take-outs for brands:
- Use internet humour and a light-hearted TOV to normalise skincare education and routines amongst men.
- Explore notions of male softness and vulnerability, both in the type of imagery used (e.g. gently applying products), and by addressing mental health through an intersectional lens.
- Deconstruct harmful notions and expectations surrounding traditional ‘masculinity’ by opening up a space to empathetically and candidly talk about male taboos, helping to normalise them through promoting body positivity.
Freya Ward-Lowery, Semiotician, & Maria Victoria O’Hana, Senior Semiotician