Guyliners, kohl and menicure: How gender lines in beauty are blurring

Image credit: Instagram/Varun Grover

Bollywood lyricist, scriptwriter and activist, Varun Grover recently created a buzz on social media after he shared a picture of him with his cat, where his nails were painted. This sparked off a series of comments - both positive and negative. While he mostly got compliments from women, there were many men who reacted negatively. He was also at the receiving end of some homophobic comments.

On his part, Grover wrote how not wearing nail paint seems to be one of the final frontiers of masculinity. “Long hair, ear studs, sensitivity, have all been accepted by men as unisex, but nail paint is still crossing a line,” Grover wrote. Despite the reactions, Grover was not making any statement with his nail paint. His reason for wearing it was very simple - it made his hands look beautiful and colourful with minimum effort.

If there is one industry that has been securely divided among gender lines till recently, it has been beauty and makeup – while there are a humongous array of products for women, the range for men have been limited to mostly personal hygiene products. The cosmetics sector, in particular, has been giving men a pass and has focused on catering to women, primarily.

A bit of self-care, not toxic masculinity

Our ancestors were much more focused on self-care. Some of the earliest records dating as far back as 3000 BC reveal how men in China and Japan would wear a form of nail paint. Men in Babylonia were also known to paint their nails with black and green kohl, circa 3200 BC. In ancient Egypt, makeup was actually considered to enhance masculinity and men would use black pigment to make elaborate cat-eye designs. In ancient India as well, there was a large array of cosmetics available for both men and women. It was only in the 18th century that makeup acquired a gender perspective and became relegated to women, after Queen Victoria I deemed it vulgar for men to wear makeup.

However, things are changing slowly. As per Euromonitor International’s Beauty Survey, the number of respondents who search for beauty products specific to gender has decreased from 2016 to 2018, which suggests that gender specification in beauty has gone down. Gender fluidity was earlier restricted to the trans community, however, today many companies such as Mac, Chanel and Clinique have brought out their genderless lines and lines that target men.

While Varun may have entered into seemingly uncharted territory in India by painting his nails, the menicure, or manicure for men, is an example of how more men are embracing beauty and fashion in what were once considered to be feminine zones. Guyliners, foundation, concealers, eye shadow, rouge targeting men, are all slowly becoming mainstream.

Social media has played a large part in bringing about this change, with an increasing number of men putting out how-to vlogs and tutorials on YouTube and Instagram. Generation Z has also been increasingly embracing fluidity in makeup and fashion. One of the biggest names in the beauty and makeup industry, CoverGirl embraced this when it featured the then 17-year-old celebrated YouTube and Instagram makeup blogger, James Charles on its cover.  

Jaden Smith, Hollywood actor Will Smith’s son, has been a vocal proponent of challenging the gender boundaries that society has placed on fashion and beauty. Despite frequently being at the receiving end of vile comments and press, the youngster has not shied away from wearing dresses, skirts and floral blouses.

In Bollywood, traditionally, masculinity has been a heavily guarded area with most heroes being depicted as macho men - films have further reinforced gender stereotypes in fashion. Hence, while the hero would be all covered up in heavy woollen clothing, the heroine of the 90s’ and early 2000s would prance around in the freezing cold wearing a thin saree or mini-dress.

Things seem to be changing here as well and actors such as Ranveer Singh are pushing boundaries in by experimenting with fluidity in fashion. Singh, for example, is as comfortable wearing a skirt as he is wearing bold and colourful, pink sequined suits. He has graced fashion covers including Vogue India, wearing florals, bright pinks, heeled boots and gowns with much elan.

Others such as actor Jim Sarbh and producer/filmmaker Karan Johar have also not shied away from colourful bling attires. Prateik Babbar also made waves at the 2018 Lakme Fashion Show when he walked the ramp in a drag avatar, dressed in a kimono jacket, wearing eye accessories and bold makeup.

It may have taken thousands of years for men to finally become comfortable owning their skins again, but it is a sign of the progressive times that we are in that is allowing men to shed notions of masculinity and indulge in some self-care.