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Male grooming: New trend or old tradition?

History abounds with men who sought to make themselves attractive

“Honey, can I borrow your makeup?”

That’s not a question you hear men asking their wives or girlfriends very often. But, if recent evidence is any indication, it may soon be.

In a new study of the grooming habits of 1,800 British men aged 18 and over, approximately 1 in 10 said they wear makeup. Of those, 1 in 5 wears makeup every day. Concealer was the most popular makeup item, which 71 percent admitted to using. Other popular makeup items were eyeliner and lip gloss.

And, British men are certainly not alone in this regard: Several articles have recently been published about the growing popularity of makeup among men in Korea. Even Korea’s largest airline Korean Air has started providing makeup lessons for its male flight attendants.

In fact, men around the globe from North America to China and India are spending billions of dollars on everything from cosmetics and makeup to clothing and plastic surgery. In Korea alone, men are now spending over 1 trillion won ($878 billion) on grooming products annually, according to Euromonitor International.

In addition to money, men are also investing a lot of time on appearance. In fact, recent research has found that some men spend more time each day on personal grooming than women. A 2010 study of British adults’ grooming habits found that the men surveyed spend 83 minutes a day on personal grooming, including cleansing, toning and moisturizing, shaving, choosing clothes, and styling hair. In contrast, the women surveyed spend 79 minutes. That means some British men spend four times longer on grooming than they do having sex each week!

And, contrary to popular belief, men are just as unhappy with their appearance as women, and in some cases more unhappy, according to recent research.

That might come as somewhat of a surprise. After all, according to conventional wisdom, body image is a female concern. “Real men” are not supposed to worry about their appearance. Conventional wisdom says that a man is judged primarily in terms of qualities such as strength, ambition and dominance, not attractiveness.

But, was this notion ever entirely true? Stated differently, have men historically been concerned with appearance or is this a relatively recent development, starting towards the end of the 20th century?

The evidence is clear. Many other eras and cultures focus on and are even obsessed with men’s appearance. This is not widely known, though.

One example comes from the Wodaabe tribe of Africa. Men in this society are strong warriors and political leaders, yet they regularly groom and worry about their appearance, says renowned anthropology professor David Gilmore in his book “Manhood in the Making.” Wodaabe men carry pocket mirrors and combs at all times. They also stage male beauty contests, where young men are on display as sex objects for females, in a reversal of the Western pattern. Wodaabe men believe that physical beauty is the main measure of a man’s self and social worth, and moreover, that men are more beautiful and more sexually appealing than women.

Another clear example comes from ancient Egypt. During ancient times, Egyptian cultures valued the appearance of a hairless male body. Accordingly, ancient Egyptian men regularly shaved their body hair. They also regularly applied ointments and perfumes which they made by combining olive oil and almond oil with herbs such as rosemary and lavender.

In ancient Greece, there was abundant adoration of male appearance. The muscularity of ancient Greek sculpture is one obvious example. Sculptors in Greece celebrated the male form far more than the female. Indeed, men were often presented nude, whereas women were represented clothed in cloaks and undergarments.

Roman men were fond of personal grooming. Dying hair blond, for instance, was a common practice. It was believed that blond hair provided a more youthful appearance than other hues. Using chalk to whiten the complexion was another popular means of beautification. So, too, was the use of rouge to color the cheeks and emphasize the cheekbones.

Male beauty was also propagated and glorified in the Middle Ages, with Christian heroes depicted as physically striking specimens: tall, robust, muscular, and winsome. The wig’s prevalence as a major item of male attire around this period is also indicative of men’s concern with appearance. In Elizabethan England, too, men were notably vain about their looks. They showed off their shapely legs in form-fitting tights and framed their genitals in bulging, bejeweled codpieces.

So, appearance was important to men in the past, and it certainly is to men in the present.

Are men nowadays more concerned with appearance than women? Maybe not. But, one thing is for sure: The traditional depiction of the stereotypical male as being fixated on female bodies, while being largely oblivious of his own, is fiction or a fallacy. Appearance has played a key role in men’s lives throughout the world for centuries. 

By Andrew Dunne

The writer currently teaches at Chosun University in Gwangju. ―Ed.