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A ‘Manly’ Cream: The Hugely Problematic Way Skincare Products Are Sold Today

Posted on May 2, 2016 in Cake, Sexism And Patriarchy, Society

By Shambhavi Saxena for Cake:

It’s ridiculous to think that so many things in the world have been divvied up between the sexes. In the Blue Corner – video games, sports, beers and the pure sciences. In the Pink Corner – clothes, make-up, martinis and romance novels.

Also divvied up in this whole scheme is skincare, the process of which was first highlighted by this tumblr blogger in a simple four-word text post:

Unconvinced? Peruse, if you will, the google search results for “skincare”:


Have a crack at it yourself and you’ll be scrolling down endless miles of ‘fresh’, ‘smooth’ young faces. And while you’re at it, how about a search for “moisturizer ad”:

moisturizer ad

Do we spy a male forehead in there? Don’t get your hopes up. The ad, by Nivea (for Men), focuses on how the tension of having a kid causes wrinkles. Tension. Not vanity. Not the aspiration towards some inorganically generated image of beauty. But tension, because men deal with real life problems, but women are just here to look good.

The Market Is For Everyone – But There Are Separate Queues For Men And Women

The gender-binary (male and female) excludes un-feminine women, un-masculine men, and intersex, trans or gender non-conforming people fit. The binary is also the scaffolding to the heterosexual matrix, negating same-sex or asexual experiences. And wouldn’t you know, the binary and market forces have vested interests in each other.
There is a longstanding criticism of advertising with the sales-pitch “our product makes you attractive to the opposite sex”. Axe is pretty much the boss of this area, but so are ‘feminine’ bath and beauty products.

Products are packaged and sold to demographics. That’s how it’s always been done. The preferred targets of a political thriller are not going to be kids aged five and below, just as ‘Sesame Street’ or Nick Jr. programs aren’t for college grads. In this scenario, the underlying assumption, that people at different developmental stages have different interests, does hold true.

But what about when companies market via the gender binary? Sure, Tampax and Whisper buyers are likely to be women, but what about trans men who menstruate? Alright, forget about biology and such. Why do toy stores put cars in the boys’ section and dolls in the girls’ section? Can’t kids have an interest beyond their assigned shelves?

Don’t Men Need Skincare?

Is there a biological basis to this? According to dermatologist Annet King, different levels of hormone secretion, size of oil glands, and skin thickness makes men’s skin different from women. These differences, King writes, mean that men produce more oil than women (hence all those oil-control lotions). But it also means “male skin appears to be better hydrated”.

Different skincare requirements aside, today both men and women use more or less the same products, but women are just under more pressure to have soft, grease-free, wrinkle-less, ‘radiant’ skin. Always have been. Why else would Star Wars ‘fans’ be so critical of Carrie Fisher’s aging in ‘The Force Awakens’, when Harrison Ford and Mark Hammill are also old now? Responding to this, Fisher said: “What I didn’t realise – back when I was this 25-year-old pin-up for geeks – was that I had signed an invisible contract to stay looking the same way for the next 30 to 40 years.” And that’s essentially what this whole skincare business has done.

The Market’s Changing Relationship With The Gender Binary

But it’s even more interesting to think that the same companies that have feminised skincare, have had to make an entirely new range of products and smack the words “for men” on it, as if to say, “don’t worry bro, this doesn’t make you a pu***.”

A new Himalaya MEN ad boldly declares that “men hate pimples too”, because research has found that, amazingly, men also deal with acne and feel shame for not looking like the blemish-free bros in glossies. Mind blowing stuff. But not really. Given how the fella in the ad has to make fun of his female friend first, before admitting to his own vanity. But there have been valiant attempts, and from surprising places too. An Axe commercial released a few months ago portrayed a “tremendous spectrum of masculinity”, including same-sex flirting and voguing.

Since the rise of the “metrosexual” man, there are more skincare products for men. Esquire and Men’s Fitness are as loaded with beauty tips as Cosmopolitan or Vanity Fair. But you’ll notice a clear attempt to masculinise what is by default seen as feminine (don’t worry if your head is spinning a little, the binary has that effect). There’s a men’s facial scrub from Portland, Maine, called a FACE BOMB, because war and explosions = man. Kleenex has ‘Mansize‘ tissues. And can we also talk about the manly bacon deodorant stick by J&D’s? Nice try, but we all know what’s really going on here. Without that over stated masculinity, all the men who use these products will instantaneously and irreversibly turn into teenage girls. The horror, the horror.

Skincare is feminised, but it’s probably not going to stay that way. The set up has been hugely profitable, so much so that the gender binary is now being bent by the market, to tap into men as consumers of these same products. With different names. But hey. A rose is a rose.

This article was originally published here on Cake.