There are some things that are determined by someone’s sex. The ability to give birth to children, for example, is determined by your biological sex (not by your gender). However, most things we think of as a man/boy thing or a woman/girl thing are socially determined. It’s not as though individual people can’t choose how they want to live. It’s that, often, roles seem so predetermined that people don’t even see certain things as an option.
Grooming is one of those gendered areas that seems to be in flux. There are myriad products out there aimed at women that tell us we can and should use X cream or Y lotion to wipe away blemishes or signs of aging. We’re told that hairless is totally the way to go, even though some people (namely: me) thinks that’s a totally weird thing to do. (Seriously. Who has time for that?)
Here’s the thing, though. Why don’t men get into this game? That’s the question Farhad Manjoo asked in Slate a couple of weeks ago. When you stop to think about it for a couple of seconds, it makes no sense. Makeup is designed to make you look better. Why isn’t everyone into that?
It may not make sense, but it’s how it is. Men who do things that are traditionally feminine make people very uncomfortable. Take, for example, pants. Everybody wears pants, but have you ever seen a man wear a nice pencil skirt to the office on a hot day?
Case in point is this piece of hand-wringing and pearl-clutching journalism from the Daily Mail. Men are shaving their legs, you guys! Let’s gawk at the weirdos! What in the world are we going to do?!
I can really only speak from my experience with beauty standards. I’m a woman and I shave my legs and armpits. I also wear a little makeup. Would I have gotten into the habit of doing these things if it wasn’t for outside beauty standards? Probably not. I work from home and go to school. My days aren’t filled with people I need to impress with my good looks (except my cat, who can be very judgey). I could get away with not shaving or not wearing makeup in my day to day life. I choose not to. It might have been the patriarchy that got me into this grooming stuff, but at some point the responsibility lies with me to choose to live in the way I’m most comfortable. It feels hypocritical to deny people that same opportunity.
The men in the Daily Mail article shave and wax because they like how it looks and how it feels. Manjoo argues that men should wear makeup because we live in a society that values the beauty of the young. (Way to play right into the materialist mentality, Farhad.) These rationales are very familiar to me, and I’m not surprised. Men and women are still people living in the same world. It makes sense that, on some level, we’d have similar motivations.
As someone who tries to stay cognizant of how gender norms affect my decision-making each day, it seems as though a woman’s decision to not wear makeup or to not groom herself in the way we have defined as feminine is similar to the decision men make when they decide to take on more feminine grooming habits. They are both seen as strange and subvert society’s expectations. Men who act too feminine are punished in the same way women who act too masculine are punished. It’s arbitrary and unfair.
Let me be clear about what I’m not saying here. I’m not saying that people, men or women, should be constantly held up to oppressive and unattainable beauty standards. I’m not saying that we should shame men into conforming to socially sanctioned ideals of beauty. We’re having a hard enough time getting beauty standards for women eliminated. We don’t need to go building up barriers for men, too.
The problem comes, of course, when we take these things too far. Of course no one should have to go through a lengthy beauty rigamarole, and I understand that it’s not easy to get out from under gender norms that have plagued most of us all of our lives, even if you really want to. But it’s always worth re-evaluating what men and women are “supposed” to do.
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