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

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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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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