Back when I was a beamish boy and had the world ahead of me, I also had a fair amount of acne. Many boys and girls do as well and these were the days of Stridex pads advertised in the back of my sister’s Seventeen magazines, which I read exclusively for Trauma-Rama. More importantly, my father, with whom my relationship then was tenuous and now nonexistent, also had bad skin. During those years when a boy needs a father most, our points of connection existed primarily in his instructing me in the ways of skincare. He, a closet ascetic, recommended Pernox, a strong-smelling astringent scrub which turned my face bright red and shiny. It has since been discontinued, and when I recently looked it up on eBay, I learned that it has become a collectible. I found half-full tubes of it going for $500.
Back then, most men’s grooming products were cloaked in the respectable garb of the medicinal—the vibrators of the 19th century for the teenagers of the ’80s. That a man might groom simply to feel and look better seemed effeminate and weak. Certainly that’s how I understood the bathroom cabinet. Tubes of creams and tubs of Noxzema were my mother’s and my sister’s domain. With the sole exception of hair products—Brylcreem and Vitalis were both deeply masculine—a man’s toilette was restricted to scrubbing vigorously.
For the last 15 years that I’ve been covering the men’s grooming industry, I’ve watched it both metastasize and wrestle with the alligator of masculinity. Today it’s a billion-dollar industry and growing much faster than its topped-out beauty counterpart. The landscape—the manscape if you will, but don’t—has drastically changed.
I was a little too young to be aware of the metrosexual movement as it happened but certainly grew up in a metrosexual landscape. I first learned of it as a thing through the backlash. In men’s products, I think that was best represented by the emergence of AXE Body Products. I remember an early review of I did for one of their products for The New York Times, something called the AXE Detailer Shower Tool. It was basically a loofah with special plastic molding to make it, I suppose, more easily grabbable by a man’s hand. Latent in the design and marketing, of course, was the idea that a man’s body is a machine—a car, in this case—and his interest in things stops at their utility. Thus it isn’t a sponge. It’s a tool.
Generally, AXE, which now includes fragrances, body scrubs, and shampoos, made the argument that grooming is OK and manly because it’ll get you laid. But that is just one avenue for justification, albeit the most crass. There are many veins of manliness grooming companies can tap to assuage the fears of the poorly moisturized. History is one of them. Thus, though the observation is anecdotal at this point, it seems men’s grooming companies make very good use of the word since. Kiehl’s, whose line of men’s grooming products is among the most expansive and useful, is Kiehl’s’ Since 1851. In Chicago, there’s CW Beggs and Sons Since 1874. Baxter of California, which makes use both of since and the comfortingly old-timey phrasal template “X since X” describes itself as “dedicated to elevating the craft of men’s grooming since 1965.” And the “76” in V76 by Vaughn, another one of my favorite lines, refers to 1976, when a young Vaughn Accord began cutting hair.
The other wealth of reassuring masculinity comes from associating grooming products with other traditionally male activities. This accounts for the popularity of brands like the Savannah-based Prospector Co., whose face mask is called “All Purpose Dirt” and whose soap is called “Miner’s mud soap” and Portland General Store. Look, the logic goes, if a miner moisturizes, the manliness of his mining outstrips the pansiness of his moisturizing. And it’s even present in the typography. Ever wonder why Jack Black, whose line includes a delightful eye de-puffing gel, looks like bounty from a privateer’s cabin? Or why Ursa Major, a skincare line out of Vermont, has a logo of a lurking bear? Short answer: our fragile egos.
Look, at the end of the day, it’s a good sign men are more comfortable with self-care. It’s not just about shaving but it’s about moisturizing, tenderizing, and softening the skin. Staying soft and supple, I think we can all agree, is probably more important now than ever. And it’s heartening as well to see not just the range of products expand but also the approaches to framing them. When I gaze upon my bathroom counter, I see a range of what it means to be a man concerned with his face. It’s gotten a lot less compensatory. With its simple lettering and matter of fact packaging, Kiehl’s new Age Defender is relatively neutral. V76’s brand new packaging is clean and smart and not at all men’s clubby. Portland General Store has a new minimal line, which dispenses with the whisky smells and old-timiness for a clean aesthetic and cedar.
Finally, we might gaze into the mirror and say, proudly, we are men and we moisturize.