From King Louis XVI to Jeffree Star – Redefining Cosmetics

While mass media and toxic masculinity often stigmatise the cosmetics industry as a ‘no-man’ business, emerging social media influencers such as Jeffree Star and James Charles attempt to remove these socially constructed gender binaries. Specifically, influencers and celebrities encourage more men to embrace beauty with brushes and blending sponges. However, the image of a man putting on makeup has not always been a taboo throughout human history. History has proven that men once took pride in spending time exploring the idea of beauty in their powder rooms.

From ancient Egypt to Elizabethan Britain, historical records and archives trace the prevalence and even popularity of men putting on makeup. For religious reasons and beauty standards, men were not afraid of pursuing contemporary mainstream ideas of beauty by means of makeup products. With ancient Egyptian nobles drawing decorative cat-eyes to resemble their gods and 18th-century French aristocrats putting on lead-made powder to look ghostly white, cosmetics were not seen as a tool to promote or perpetuate gender binaries as they are today.

Indeed, after the gruesome world wars in the last century, media attached labels to cosmetic products which advanced the idea that the items were only for women. As time went on, society perceived the act of applying makeup as ‘emasculating’. With post-war society equating cosmetics with femininity, the underlying causality between the two was simply constructed upon an arbitrary binary system of genders. While society restricts the ways in which males and females behave, acts of gender transgressions are often seen as unacceptable. In advertisements and digital contents, cosmetics and beauty products are often shot with or from the perspective of a female. Consequently, we internalise these visual cues and associate makeup with the ideals of femininity. As Judith Butler argues in Gender Trouble, ‘there is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results’ (Butler 1999: 33). While society associates the act of applying makeup with being the ‘very expressions’ of the other-ed, feminine identity, the products in essence are not gendered. Our perception of these beauty items is simply shaped by the arbitrary gender differences.

Moving into the second decade of the 21st century, as societies become more aware of the topic of gender bias, leaders of the cosmetics industry take on a pioneering role by introducing gender-inclusive products. In 2018, Parisian fashion powerhouse, Chanel launched its Boy de Chanel makeup line exclusively for men. The world’s beauty leading conglomerate, L’Oréal Group, also offered a range of male beauty and skincare products, providing more options to cater to men’s different skin types and needs. Magazines, including GQ and Esquire, have also encouraged men to break away from the stereotypical image of traditional, ‘macho’ beauty by destigmatising cosmetics.

Recently, social media and entertainment industries have also become platforms for celebrities, makeup artists, and influences to advocate for the ‘de-gendering’ of cosmetics. With Korean boy bands becoming a hit in the global music industry, more male teenagers and young adults start to adopt the idea of putting on makeup products. Influencers such as Jeffree Star defy the gender stereotypes by offering online gender-inclusive makeup tutorials While gender-free cosmetics become a new trend in society, we have to bear in mind that never should we judge a book by its cover. The role of makeup is to bring out our wellness and beauty as well as to allow us to express ourselves.

Certainly, there is still a long way to go in order to de-gender cosmetics products. As we become a more inclusive industry, we should also be more open-minded to our beauty standards. After all, with (powder) brushes and (eyebrow) pens, your face is your canvas.

[Ernest Shiu – he/him – @shiuology]

[Image Credit: Martina Porru @martiporru/ @gazediary

Suggested and referenced reading:

Butler, Judith. 1999 [1990]. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

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