From Harry Styles’s lipstick to cut-throat shaves and ‘boyzilians’, male grooming has taken off big time – even if not all those who do it will admit to it. So who are all these new routines really for?
It’s Thursday evening, and, over a big cup of tea, Andy, 24, is walking me through his beauty routine. “Did you know that there are 20 different shapes your eyebrows can be?” he asks me, “so I printed off a guide from the internet and sketched out the shape I wanted before I plucked.” As well as eyebrow maintenance, Andy does his nails, removes his chest hair, and indulges in a little bit of “manscaping” (“pubic grooming” to the uninitiated), but what I’m really curious about is Andy’s unabashed use of makeup. “I wear concealer and tinted moisturiser,” he informs me. “The tinted moisturiser is from Tom Ford and has gold sparkles in it. It makes my whole face shimmer. It makes me look like a God.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking that men and makeup only come together in the rarified worlds of 1970s glam rock, 1990s game shows, or noughties emo-kid culture. In fact, golden sparkles aside, the modern male beauty industry is less about imitating Bowie-esque flamboyance or experimenting with gothic guyliner, and more about using the subtler products and treatments that millions of women use on a regular basis. Man makeup is increasingly popular. Celebrities such as Johnny Depp and Bradley Cooper have been photographed sporting more than a little bit of slap. Even heartthrob Harry Styles, of One Direction fame, is alleged to have worn lipstick to the band’s film premiere.
The trend is not reserved to celebrities, however. Debenhams reported that this year men spent 24% more on grooming products than in the same period last year, and the male UK skincare market is worth an estimated £600m. This month, high-profile fashion designers Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs are launching new male cosmetics ranges, and industry insiders are predicting that interest will continue to build. It’s not the first time man makeup manufacturers have tried to go mainstream. In 2008, Superdrug launched its Taxi Man range to great fanfare, but perhaps the world was not ready, as the range has since been withdrawn. Nowadays, however, half of men aged 18-55 are reportedly happy to describe themselves as “metrosexual”.
Though the wearing of makeup and the use of grooming treatments by men has been accepted in the gay community for some time now – Andy says that he regards it as strictly for going-out purposes, and would never dare to wear foundation to the office – the figures suggest that straight British men are, for the first time, starting to take a genuine interest in the business of grooming.
“I don’t think there is or was a ‘boom’ as such,” says Jessica Punter, styling and grooming editor of GQ, “but this side of the industry has gone from infancy to a fully fledged market in a relatively short space of time. When I began covering grooming in 2006, we were still at the stage of trying to convince men to even moisturise – let alone pay for facials or manicures.”
The manicures, shaves and spa treatments that for generations have been a part of barbershop culture, particularly in the Middle East, are attracting new British customers. City streets are teeming with barbershops and nail bars seemingly unaffected by the recession. The barber shop revival has perhaps been helped by the hipster fixation with the male moustache, and trendier places such as Murdoch London, which offers luxury facials, manicures, cut-throat shaves and shoe-shining, are cropping up, but the more traditional shops (where they’ll use a flame to remove your ear hair whether you ask them to or not) are also doing well.
Jim Hussain has run the Gentleman’s Hairdressing Salon on the Caledonian Road in north London for 55 years, and business is booming. “It used to be that the barber down the road would send guys who wanted a shave up to see me,” he says, “but now they’re offering them as well.” The increase in popularity means that some barbers have upped their prices. “Men used to go for a shave twice a week, but my cousin had one in Camden the other day that cost £30. Who can afford that? Nobody,” he says. Jim offers a traditional cut-throat shave for £10.
Below-neck hair removal is also becoming more popular, with places such as the Soho Salon offering a range of waxing treatments including the “boyzilian” – the male brazilian wax. Andy balks at the idea, declaring the all-off look as “not very manly”, and is even more sceptical of shaving, saying that “there is just far too much to nick down there”. However, according to a poll of Britain’s beauty professionals, hair removal was the second most popular treatment for men last year after the haircut.
Jessica Punter thinks this is less down to male insecurity than it is about new standards of beauty. “I am pretty sure [male hair removal] is influenced by the porn industry and I don’t think this is necessarily about a conscious insecurity, just what men perceive as the new normal,” she says. Meanwhile, Harriet Robbins, 28, who says her boyfriend has a routine to rival her own, suspects it might be about upholding a certain standard. “Of late, he’s taken a bit of effort to neaten up his downstairs area,” she says. “Why, I’m unsure, but maybe it’s because I occasionally go to the effort [and] he feels like he should, too.”
Certainly, among all the men I spoke to there seems to be a sense of upping one’s game in the grooming stakes. Like shaving, manicures have always been one of the less stigmatised areas of male grooming. “They’re one of the more ‘accepted’ treatments for men”, says Helena Biggs, of nail industry magazine Scratch. “A businessman with well-groomed, clean hands gives a far better impression while shaking hands with a client than one with dirty fingernails and chapped cuticles.” Mark Smith, who runs a blog called the Spa Man dedicated to male spa treatments, agrees that there’s a competitive aspect to it. “You take a look around any urban setting and guys look good, they take pride in their appearance and dress really well and have maintained their hairstyle, beard or tache,” he says. “That may be different in the regional parts of the UK. But in any metropolitan city, guys groom. It’s aspirational.” Grooming is in fact booming everywhere in the UK – it’s just that salons in the north-east and north-west are reporting that men tend to favour fake tanning treatments slightly over a wax.
If indeed men are feeling increasingly competitive when it comes to grooming, what impact is it having on self-confidence and body image? “Magazines continually present the perfect image of masculinity,” says Mark, “but it’s more complex than simply wanting to look like celebrity X … the aesthetic pressure is different [to other pressures]. It’s more self-imposed than coming from outside influences.” Thom Watson, of the male makeup blog Man Face, is a skincare specialist. “Spots are one of the most common concerns among men, and yet there is no education about it.” He highlights adverts on television in which the spotty guy is always portrayed as the loser. “The new cosmetic ranges, such as Tom Ford’s, don’t play on insecurities so much.” Instead, brands such as this position grooming as a luxury endeavour for the modern man who takes pride in his appearance. “It’s about time guys stepped up”, he says.
Nevertheless, Thom thinks that there is still a huge stigma that needs to be overcome, and I agree; most of the men that I spoke to for this article asked that I change their names. “With spots, guys don’t know how to treat the problem. Men are still so embarrassed. Straight guys will tend to email me so that we can discuss the problem privately. It’s a barrier to overcome. Once you take the step of covering up your spots, that’s when it starts to build.”
Toby King, a 39-year-old systems analyst, is unashamed. “I was a total scruffbag of a child, but when I was about 12, I suddenly got really dry skin on my face. Unsure of how to best deal with this, I fiddled around with my mum’s creams that I found in the bathroom,” he says. “Having discovered this amazing new world of grooming by necessity, I found it fascinating that there were all these products available that could help enhance or hide bits of you that needed adjustment. Looking back, I suspect I was still quite a mess. But I probably smelled better and psychologically it had the benefit of making me feel like I was making the best of myself, even if the outward appearance didn’t live up to that aspiration.
“One of the best things to have happened to me was going bald and the need to adopt a skinhead haircut. The amount of time and money I used to spend on attempting to get my hair to behave was ridiculous – at least 45 minutes every morning. Getting to the age where I felt comfortable enough in myself to admit that my receding hairline had won was a genuine relief,” he continues. “My experience of male grooming is not that it’s an enjoyable pastime or an attempt to make myself amazingly beautiful. It feels more like a battle to try and not look quite so rubbish as I otherwise would do. It’s about making myself presentable more than anything, so as not to unnecessarily frighten women and children.”
Helena also feels that her boyfriend’s grooming routine may have its roots in schoolboy insecurity. “I think it’s a confidence thing. In school he was a scrawny, acne-ridden guy. His friends were bigger and quite sporty. I think maybe he is making up for lost time … but I also think maybe he does it for me. In a way, it’s nice to know your partner wants to look his best for you.”
Holly Baxter, 24, agrees that it might have something to do with pleasing women. “An ex of mine once put hair-removal cream on his back. [He was] convinced that his back hair was atrociously ugly despite the fact that I’d already told him I loved him the way he was. Sadly, he didn’t feel the same way about me, replying, ‘Well, I personally think it’s disgusting. And maybe you should think about that in relation to your leg hair.” She continues: “Unfortunately, he hadn’t read the label and it started to burn. His flatmate had to help him take it off.”
The fact that men are feeling increasingly insecure about their physical appearance is borne out by a number of studies. Last year, for example, the YMCA revealed that 38% of men questioned said that they would sacrifice a year of their life if it meant that they could have the perfect body. And yesterday the so-called “Adonis complex”, an obsession with matching society’s idea of the perfect male body, was being discussed at a British Psychological Society conference in Brighton.
It’s certainly worrying, but I also think men’s grooming is becoming more fashionable because capitalism has simply run out of things that it can market to women. When I ask a close friend about his grooming routine, he replies without hesitation: “We are modern men. Our skin is soft, our eyebrows are neat, and we no longer need a case of pubic lice to inspire us to trim.”
The subtext seems to be: “What’s the big deal?” As Andy says: “It’s my face – why wouldn’t I take it seriously?”