Reimagining Makeup: A Gender Neutral Endeavour

Graphic by Eric Estibeiro

Is makeup just for women?

Gen-Z says not at all. From the plethora of tutorials available on social media to the profusion of brands offering gender-neutral makeup, the stride of the current generation seems to be on the path of making beauty everyone’s business.

It’s interesting to see that makeup has come to represent a blurring of the gender binary since for a good chunk of the 20th Century, it was just another means to cause a divide in the gender spectrum. However, to all our surprise, this change can be perceived as a return to history as opposed to a break from it. Since antiquity, people have used makeup to showcase their riches, social standing, and even virility, in addition to their desire to look beautiful. As ancient Incan and Babylonian troops would ceremonially paint their nails prior to battle, Egyptian males would dramatically line their eyes with green and black kohl, while Roman soldiers favoured rouge. Male members of Louis XIV’s court in France painted on beauty marks, while Elizabethan men powdered their faces with ceruse, a poisonous concoction of vinegar and white lead. It was during the reign of Queen Victoria I that makeup for both men and women went out of favour as she, driven by the Church of England, deemed it vulgar. The traditional conceptions of masculinity became especially constrained as English religious values spread throughout societies around the world. Facial beautification for men eventually went out of style around the turn of the 19th Century, while other cosmetic enhancements for males, such as hair products, gained mainstream momentum. Little of this is logically sound. Why couldn’t a modern man make up his face without encountering any stigma if it is socially acceptable for him to style his hair and bathe himself in body spray?

Evidently, the history of makeup has always been as much an archive of gender norms as it has been a record of beauty standards. Only in the last decade or so has makeup become more gender-inclusive, and the concept of “metrosexuality” infiltrated the cultural consciousness, thanks to globally influential figures like Harry Styles, Jared Leto and the numerous K-pop artists. By incorporating jewellery, nail paint, and makeup into their styling routine, they have significantly helped in subverting conventional beauty norms. If you think that men’s makeup is exclusively a fad among celebrities, you’re wrong. While more and more women toned down to natural makeup during the pandemic, ordinary men, who may have always been curious about cosmetics but were wary of being labelled effete, on the other hand, dabbled with makeup to conceal blemishes, wrinkles, or razor bumps as they hopped from one Zoom meeting to another. It has now become common to hear young men share their daily grooming and skincare routines on social media without feeling self-conscious about their favourite applicator brush or serum. As a result, the new attitude toward makeup is less concerned with attractiveness and femininity than self-improvement.

For years, harbingers of the industry have paved the way for others to follow, sadly without ever succeeding in denaturalizing makeup as a feminine endeavour. But why is it happening now? Most likely because toxic masculinity has never been more volatile, and the timing is culturally and technologically favourable to change, driven by Gen Z’s determination to reject labels and pigeonholes. Additionally, with the rapid growth of social media sites, beauty gurus like Manny Gutierrez, Jeffree Starr, and James Charles have found a global platform to showcase their artistic expression and dispel long-standing stereotypes. Makeup has always been an important tool of expression and resistance for the LGBTQ+ community, whether it be drag queens or marginalized queer youth. However, they are no longer compelled to keep their true and creative selves hidden from the world for fear of judgement. Today, their presence dominates the beauty industry. Even on Indian soil, there has been a surge of male (straight and LGBTQ+) content creators trying to normalize makeup for all. From Ankush Bahuguna’s subtle touch-ups to Deep Pathare’s vibrant creations and Shantanu Dhope’s glamorous eye looks, influencer content has played a pivotal role in motivating an entire generation to embrace their inner creativity regardless of constrictive social stereotypes. But as would be expected, success brought with it a wave of online hate. “Is your masculinity so fragile that it gets hidden by translucent powder?” is the only question Bahuguna, like the rest of the beauty community, has for these haters.

One might wonder, does an embrace of makeup represent an expansion of beauty norms or a narrowing of them? While pondering on it, we must always remember that on its most superficial level, makeup erases scars and blemishes. However, for some, wearing makeup is a simple and affordable means of self-expression and metamorphosis into a more refined and confident version of themselves. This could go a long way toward self-acceptance in a world of relentless judgement.

In short, makeup is a method of self-expression/improvement for all and is no longer merely a question of gender or sexuality. Although men wearing makeup may not yet be an everyday sight, there’s no doubting that makeup is gradually making its way into their lives- not necessarily in the over-the-top designs of YouTube and Insta beauty gurus, but occasionally in subtle and natural ways. Beauty trendsetters like L’Oréal, by revamping its tagline “Because You’re Worth It” to “Because We’re All Worth It”, have inspired the world to wake up to the promising fact that not only women are interested in skincare and makeup.

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