The Brotox Era: Does Male Vanity Even the Playing Field, Or Condemn Us All to Unreachable Beauty Standards?

It was only a matter of time before the unfortunate term “Brotox” became a cultural catchphrase. This lovely new concept was broadly introduced to the nation on Good Morning America this week in a story about the spike in new clientele for cosmetic surgery: men.

So, it looks like the once gender-uneven practice of sticking needles in your face to erase signs of wrinkles is slowly but surely becoming equal opportunity. This reveals of course, that men are sweating about all the things that are part of the road to Botox: their hair. Their weight. Their skin. Their eyebrows. Their age. Congratuations men. Welcome to body image hell. 

On one level, it might be argued that this trend a good thing. After all, it mitigates the particular problem that these kinds of expensive treatments used to be a burden thrust primarily, unfairly, on women.

But is this really the direction in which we want beauty standards to be headed? It disturbs me that instead of a society that’s more tolerant of flab, wrinkles, hair and imperfections on all of us, regardless of age race and gender, we’re heading further in the Barbie and Ken direction. 

In recent decades, women have been expected to be hairless, thin, ageless and so on in an increasingly frantic way. Meanwhile men could be greying, disheveled, slightly overweight, unkempt and still exist as sex symbols (look at Johnny Depp or any stringy-haired, bearded male rock star for a example of this). Naomi Wolf’s seminal book The Beauty Myth was a clarion call to recognize the dangerous sexism behind the beauty culture--unforgettably linking it with myriad other abuses of women, their commodification and dehumanization by society. Later Courtney Martin’s Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters linked physical perfectionism among a new generation of young women with emotional emptiness and crippling outside social pressures. The spreading of that toxic culture to men is alarming. 

Nothing New and Not Just Elite

It should be noted that the rise of male interest in fashion and beauty is nothing new. Men have long had to follow their own fashion trends--Beau Brummel in the British Regency era was a famous fashion icon, and musicians, actors, and male socialites have followed suit (pun intended). It's true that women contended with corsets, bustles and other insanely restrictive clothing, but men's less punishing breeches and buckles were hardly sweatpants-level-comfy.

The craze for more invasive beauty treatments for men isn’t new either--GMA specifically cited a fifteen-year growth spurt. Half a decade ago, the ballooning phenomenon of men getting plastic surgery was being discussed in the UK, where that nation’s male pinups--soccer stars and other celebrities--were stoking a trend for laser hair removal, botox and other such treatments. The Independent reported: 

Plastic surgery clinics are reporting a surge in business from men seeking a helping hand to stave off the ageing process. And men aren't just interested in looking younger, but also thinner and more polished.

Inspired by sportsmen such as the Arsenal midfielder Cesc Fabregas, the number of men having laser hair removal has almost doubled in the past 12 months at one national cosmetic surgery chain.

Devotees of Botox include Pop Idol's Simon Cowell, Baywatch's David Hasselhoff and Sylvester "Rocky" Stallone; while John Schneider, The Dukes of Hazzard star, has admitted to having liposuction.

On these American shores the trend of plastic surgery is the peak in a mountain that includes an increased attention to menswear and fashion as well as grooming-- “manscaping” and men getting their nails done and shopping more carefully for products.

A 2005 story in MSNBC described the staying power of what was once “dismissed as a metrosexual fad” (the fact that that word is almost meaningless now is evidence of this)--and most importantly, that it’s not just affecting the privileged set who can afford Botox.

The growth in the market isn't relegated to the high-end products. Sales of men's skincare products surged 68.6 percent at mass market retailers compared to a 6 percent increase for women's products, according to the research firm ACNielsen. Men's shampoo and conditioner sales rose 17 percent while the market for women and unisex hair products was flat. 

We’re Not Heading Into a Good-Looking Utopia

But it’s not a utopia to have everyone well-groomed, buffed and toned, and ageless. In fact the above stories about skyrocketing profits off of the imposition of male beauty standards touches on the second deadly aspect of beauty culture (the first being sexism): that’s capitalism and the profit motive. 

In a capitalist system, the goalposts of beauty standards will constantly keep moving. New creams, elixers and surgeries will keep being offered, and the magazine cover “ideal”--which we know is created by huge teams of makeup artists, trainers, lighting specialists and photoshoppers--will remain ever unattainable. And the most insidious side to it is the way it works subliminally: the more celebrities and people on the street we see who appear a certain way, the more that look becomes “normalized” and we start to feel inferior if we don’t match it. In other words, men are learning what more aware women know: there are several industries out there that thrive off making us feel bad about our looks. Really bad.

In this profit-driven race, “natural” looks--those which require less maintenance, less trips to the salon or less investing in gym memberships, workout videos or diet products--may never really come back into style. Corporations will always try to sell a magic bullet by making us feel inscure about ourselves, and the bullet will never work.  

It should be also noted that lurking beneath this everday angst over our looks is the threat of even more deadly things: depression, body dysmorphia, eating disorders, and not to be ignored, a racial and gender bias.

It's also no secret that beauty standards match up with other forms of cultural oppression: women who look "whiter" are deemed more lovely, which adds to internalized racism as well as discrimination at the broader social level. In shop windows and beyond, there's a harmful adherence to gendered “feminine” and “masculine” standards that further marginalizes and oppresses gender non-conforming people.

The peril-laden, corporation-driven conformity of beauty standards needs to be fought back against on an individual and cultural level. And it's already happening--more and more women are calling bullshit on photoshopping, on cultural expectations, and on the idea that they have to look a certain way to succeed. So maybe as men followed women into this mess, they can follow us out of it too.

That's why rather than criticize individuals who give in to social pressure to look a certain way, we need to think bigger. We need to Occupy our collective self-image, if you will. Imagine a world in which fashion and beauty ideals are seen as fun, frivolous not loaded and entirely optional--for everyone, regardless of gender. 

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