Male Grooming

The  preoccupation with male grooming, most  closely associated with the modern phenomenon of the  metrosexual and  his fastidious rituals  of hair  and  skin  care and  physical  fitness,  is not  simply  the  product of late-20th-century consumer culture.

Men  have  been  obsessed with  their  physical  appearance for centuries. In the ancient Egyptian world, for example,  men  practiced a rigorous health and beauty regimen that included the use of skin conditioners and moisturizers as well as the application of cosmetics to the  eyes, lips, and  cheeks. The  obsession with  skin care was also reflected  in the  Roman penchant for elaborate bathing rituals  that included, along with the use of ointments and oils to replenish and restore vitality to the  skin,  the  practice of bathing in mud. Makeup on  the  eyes and  cheeks, as well as the use of hair dyes, were common features of the male grooming regimen in Rome  by the first century c.e.

In medieval  Europe, the Christian church generally  frowned upon the extravagant  adornment of the  male  body  and  issued  injunctions against  the  wearing  of wigs and  the  use of facial powders and  paints. During the  reign  of Elizabeth I in England  (1558–1603), however, the  preoccupation with  male  physical  appearance seems  to have come  to the fore once  again. During this era, men  used  rosemary water on their  hair, sage to whiten their  teeth, and elderflower ointments to moisturize their  skin. They  also resorted to a lead and  arsenic-based powder to whiten their  complexions and  applied  rouge  made  from  geranium petals  to pink their  cheeks. These early precedents point to the complex nature of the history of male grooming.

Male grooming in North America  predates the arrival of European settlers and was a common feature of the indigenous cultures of the New World. By the 18th century, the  European fascination with  male  wigs held  considerable sway in the American colonies of the  British  and  reflected  a preoccupation with a trend that served  to not  only mark  status but  also reinforce specific standards of attractiveness.  The  concern with  covering the  head  in a fashionable manner affected  all segments of society,  including slaves, who  fashioned wigs from  animal  hair  and plant  fibers  and  used  them  both as  standard accessories and  as  a mechanism for  changing their  appearance, particularly when  they  were  on  the  run. While never  as elaborate as equivalent French fashions, wigs of this  nature point to the role that  male  vanity and  grooming have played  in the  larger  history of physical appearance.

Men’s Hair

Since  the  19th  century, men  have  been  obsessed with  three   specific  areas  of grooming: hair,  the  beard,  and  the  male  physique. Historically, hair  (and  more particularly the  lack of hair) has proven to be an obsession for men.  In the  19th century, Native  Americans in  the  southwest used,  among other techniques, an ointment of yucca  and  chili  pepper oil  to  encourage hair  growth and  prevent male  pattern baldness. Cowboys, during the  era  of westward expansion, lined up at medicine shows  to purchase a whole array of snake  oil products thought to prevent hair  loss. Similarly,  purveyors of patent medicines in this  period offered remedies for baldness in the  pages  of numerous periodical publications such  as Harper’s Weekly. Products like Scalpine, created by patent medicine entrepreneur H. H. Warner in the 1880s  as one  of his Log Cabin  remedies, promised to cure  a host  of scalp  disorders, counteract baldness, and  prevent the  premature growth of gray hair.

Concerns about baldness and  premature graying  remained pressing concerns in the  20th  century. For  most,  relief from  these  afflictions  was frequently found through the use of hair dyes or the wearing of a hairpiece. Despite the fact that they were frequently stigmatized and  often  the  subject of humor, more  than 350,000 men  were wearing  toupees by the  end  of the  1950s.  By the  1960s,  the  quest  for a remedy  for baldness led to the  development of several  products based  on  the so-called Helsinki formula, a corn  derivative  identified as polysorbate 60 that  was said to encourage hair growth. While  its success was open  to scientific  questioning, this  development led to new  research that  resulted in the  discovery,  by the pharmaceutical giant  Upjohn, of minoxidil, an effective restorative. By the 1970s, new semi permanent hairpieces like the Micro-Lock wig were being marketed and the  first hair  implants, using  artificial fibers and  infection-producing techniques, were being  offered  to men  willing to shell  out  more  than $1,000 for the  procedure.  Upjohn continued to offer pharmaceutical solutions to men  interested in encouraging hair  growth by launching Rogaine  in 1988.  New  advancements in the  1980s  also  led to the  development of a broad  range  of hair  transplantation techniques that offered new hope, and in some instances a broad  range of medical and aesthetic complications, to millions of balding  men.

While  worries  about hair loss have certainly provided the impetus for one particular  male grooming ritual,  concerns about the cutting and  styling of hair have inspired another. Barbershops have been  a prominent feature of urban and  rural landscapes for  generations. Barbers, responsible for  shaving  the  face, trimming beards, and  cutting hair,  were found in ancient history. In the  premodern world, they provided aesthetic services  while also performing medical  functions as dentists,  bloodletters, and  surgeons. Despite criticisms of men  who  paid  excessive attention to their  physical  appearance, mid-19th-century barbers in rural  villages, smaller  towns, and  large  urban settings offered  a variety  of aesthetic services  to their  clients.  Most  men  went  to barbers for haircuts, shaves,  and  beard  and  mustache  trimming. Their shops, however, were also places  where  clients  could  sample a broad  range  of beautifying techniques and  products, including face washes, colognes, and concoctions intended to hide  gray hair.

In  the  antebellum period, a number of freed  African  American men  served, especially  in urban areas, as barbers for a largely white clientele. These men  often achieved an  impressive level of financial  independence and  social  prominence in their  local  communities. By the  1880s,  these  African  American barbers were displaced by white  competitors, drawn  primarily  from  German and  Italian  immigrant  communities. By the 20th  century, African American barbers were catering increasingly to  an  exclusively  black  clientele, providing specialized services  and creating, within  their  shops, an important public  space for men  organized around the rituals  and practices of grooming.

Since  the  end  of World  War II, men’s  hair  care has changed dramatically. Despite a brief penchant among American men  for longer  hair and elaborate beards, sideburns, and mustaches in the 1840s  and 1850s  and then again in the countercultural 1960s  and  1970s  (the  era of the  natural look),  the  general  trend in the 19th  and 20th  centuries has been  toward closely cropped short hair and minimal facial hair.  Since  the  1960s,  the  prominence of the  barbershop as the  institution of male grooming has been  challenged by the  rise of the  unisex  hairdresser and, more  recently, by the  emergence of the  upscale salon  and  spa  catering to  both female and male customers, especially those  men  most  closely associated with the rise of metrosexuals.

Beards And Shaving

The  growth of facial hair  and,  perhaps more  importantly, the  ritual  of shaving, have always functioned as important rites of passage  for adolescent boys in a diverse range of cultures. Prior to the emergence of self-shaving in the late 19th century, most  men  had their  beards shaved  by servants or barbers. The  straight-edge razor  was the  preferred instrument and  remained prominent until  the  introduction  of the  safety razor  in the  1880s. This  period also witnessed the  proliferation of a broad  range  of shaving  paraphernalia and  products like shaving  soaps  and soothing homemade washes  such  as cherry  laurel water. In the 1890s, King Camp Gillette  revolutionized shaving  with  the  invention of the  disposable razor  blade. By 1905,  Gillette  had  emerged as the  undisputed leader  in the  shaving  industry, selling  close  to 100,000 razors  and  125,000 blades  annually and  expanding into European markets. In part,  Gillette’s  successes were brought about by inventive advertising campaigns that  appealed to middle-class notions of self-sufficiency and used portraits of famous self-starters like Andrew  Carnegie and Horatio Alger, or idealized, and frequently clean-shaven, images of baseball  players and soldiers. The  technology of men’s  shaving  was altered  in the  1960s  and  1970s  by the  introduction first of the  plastic  disposable razor,  intended to be used  only once  or twice, and then by the widespread marketing of electric  shavers.

The  shaving  industry was not just affected by innovations in razors and blades. By the 1920s,  producers were capitalizing on shaving  consumers by offering  men new,  and  highly  masculinized, toiletries that  were intended to ease the  rigors  of shaving  and  improve appearance. New  lines  of lotions, powders, and  moisturizers like Florian, introduced in 1929  by beauty  industry entrepreneur Carl Weeks, were  routinely advertised in  prominent men’s magazines like Fortune (f. 1930) and  Esquire (f. 1933). Since World  War II, when  military  men  embraced fastidious grooming habits in order  to meet  the  military  expectations of short hair,  a clean shave,  and  pressed and  polished clothes and  shoes, the  men’s  shaving  industry and the market for attendant skincare products has expanded dramatically. From this  point on,  men  became big consumers of aftershave products, skin  lotions, and  deodorants in order  to live up  to new  standards of male  cleanliness. By the late  1950s,  female  cosmetics companies began  to  develop  lines  specifically  directed  at  men.  This  commercialization of men’s  appearance has  led  to  further significant developments  since  the  1960s.  By the  1980s,  cosmetics companies were seeking  to further encourage men  to use products previously thought to be reserved exclusively for women. Clinique, by the mid 1980s, began marketing skin care  products specifically  to  men  by giving  key products like exfoliating masks new masculine-sounding names like Scruffing Lotion. The  products, increasingly advertised in a growing  number of men’s  magazines like Gentlemen’s Quarterly (GQ) were, by the late 20th  century, becoming more  common accessories for men interested in achieving their best possible appearance. This emphasis on skin care, which  grew out  of the shaving  industry, also led to a new valorization of the hairless male body as a symbol of youthfulness and a general  sign of cleanliness. Since the 1980s,  when  the hirsute look of the ’70s epitomized by Burt Reynolds’s  1972 centerfold spread in Cosmopolitan was replaced by a hairless ideal, men have been shaving  and  waxing their  chests, back,  buttocks, and,  in  some  instances, even arms  and legs.

Building Better Bodies

The  final area of men’s grooming relates  to the maintenance and improvement of the body’s general  appearance. While concerns about, for example,  the fineness of a man’s  leg appeared in considerations of masculine appearance in the 18th  century, the preoccupation with an athletic and trim body was, primarily, an invention of the  19th  century. Concepts of muscular Christianity, borrowed in part  from Britain, predominated in discussions of the male body in antebellum America. The muscular Christian, who trained his body through moderate exercise  and appropriate games, was expected to achieve physical fitness as a general sign of moral and spiritual health. While  some  men  in this  period, like Diamond Jim Brady (1856–1917) and  President William  Howard Taft  (1857–1930), embraced corpulence as a sign of prosperity, most  middle-class American men,  by the late 19th  and  early 20th  centuries, began  to eschew  fatness  as a sign of foreignness and  lower social status. Indeed, it was during this period that  many men  came to groom their  bodies, as they  groomed their  hair and beards, through sports like football, baseball, and track and field and, increasingly, through physical  culture exercises  and bodybuilding, promoted most notably  by  Bernarr Adolphus Macfadden (1868–1955). Macfadden, as a proponent of physical culture, promoted healthy diets,  regular exercise,  and  the acquisition of muscle through his   magazine  Physical Culture (f. 1899).

This  physical  culture craze, despite a recent rise in general obesity rates, has continued unabated for  the  past  century, and   informed, in  rather profound ways, concepts about the ideal  male  body.  In  1939,  the well-built muscular  body  was celebrated as  an  ideal  worthy of admiration and  reward  with the creation of the Mr. America contest. This  idealization of the muscular body  was further promoted through the  work of Harvard psychologist William  Herbert Sheldon who, in work published in 1940,  valorized  the  positive physical  and  emotional traits  of the V-shaped mesomorph. This  emphasis on fitness  led, by the  1950s,  to large-scale efforts  to promote physical  education as a means of improving national efficiency and health. While this preoccupation with the cultivation of a muscular body seemed to fall off somewhat in the 1960s  and 1970s,  concerns about fitness  never  disappeared entirely. In the  late  1960s  and 1970s,  running as a form of exercise  experienced something of a boom as sedentary men  sought to improve their  health and  their  body  image  through aerobic activity. The  1970s  also witnessed an increase in the  sale of exercise  equipment and the formation of health clubs, intended to provide people  with an opportunity to retain  or reclaim  a youthful appearance and  strive for individual physical  perfection. Since  the  1980s,  the  impossibly chiseled muscular body,  complete with perfect  pectoral muscles, well-developed biceps,  and  the  rock-hard abdominal six-pack has been  the ideal that  many men  have struggled to achieve  through the consumption of dietary  supplements, long  hours at the  gym, and,  in some  cases, liposuction, pectoral implants, and the use of steroids. Concerns with the grooming of the body have also led, since the Reagan era, to the creation of a broad  range of fitness  magazines, such  as Men’s Health  (f. 1987),  concerned with  providing male readers with how-to advice about achieving the perfectly  sculpted body.

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