I was at the mirrored counter of an airport sandwich bar when I caught sight of myself. Leaning forward to tap my bank card, I glimpsed down and there I was. It was a harrowing picture: beneath each of my sunken eyes was a horrendously puffy semi-circle of darkened skin and shadow.
Would they even let me on the plane with all that extra baggage? And if they did, how to bound into the meetings and interviews planned for the day ahead with dynamism and zeal, knowing that I resembled a haunted coal miner just emerged from the pit? I suddenly felt extremely old and supremely haggard.
Next door at the chemist’s I found my panacea. “Ultimate Eye Cream” read the label. The price worked out at a little more than £1.50 per millilitre – crazy money – but my eyebag insecurity was crazier. And the more expensive it is, the better it works. Right? So I paid up and, once aboard my flight, dabbed it on. Aaaahhh. Sandpaper was transformed into silk. Shadow cast away by light. At least that’s how it looked in the aeroplane toilet.
“Amore, what is that under your eyes?” asked my girlfriend that evening. After recounting the sandwich-bar-eyebag trauma, I showed her my Olay. “But this is make-up! It’s tinted!” As she laughed, I felt a ripple of masculine crisis. But that Olay made me feel good. So I quoted Melania Trump’s jacket: “I really don’t care – do you?”
I am far from the only make-up-curious man. Slowly, after years of coy flirtation, beautifying male products are becoming a bona fide cosmetics category. The male-grooming industry has long focused on selling products that are marketed to negotiate masculine, heteronormative insecurities by emphasising performance over aesthetics. So a moisturiser claims to “attack” wrinkles, a deodorant “eliminates” perspiration and an exfoliator “purges” dry skin. The next time you’re in an area of the pharmacy dedicated to men, check out the labels and you’ll see: the language of the masculine bathroom shelf is imbued with the idea of being a warrior. The unfortunate thing is that instead of “beauty” we get “grooming”, a term often applied to horses, dogs and hamsters.
Now male cosmetic products are changing. A number of brands have started to present items as beautifying, purely aesthetic tools rather than spurious performance enhancers. Chanel has launched its first ever dedicated, male product line, Boy de Chanel, a range that spans eyebrow pencils, a matte lip “balm” and an SPF 25 concealer. Tom Ford, the pioneer in the field, offers brow definers, concealers and bronzers for men.
Like my eye cream, a beauty product doesn’t need to be labelled “for men” to be used by them. One cosmetic company executive who works for a rival firm told me that Estée Lauder women’s make-up is especially popular among males who do more than merely moisturise because, she says, “the products are classics, the packaging is discreet, and they’re reliable tools for men who want to perk themselves up without looking like they have.”
That emphasis on discretion is telling, given the old stigma around men who openly use make-up. In China a generation of enthusiastic young male beauty vloggers collectively known as “little fresh meats” has used social media to reveal the contents of their make-up bags. In an unreconstructed fightback in September, Xinhua, China’s state news agency, published a tirade about a popular boy band: “They look androgynous and wear make-up. They are slender and weak.” It went on to describe the men in make-up as “sissy pants”, “weirdos” and part of a “sick culture”.
I’m more “fat old jerky” than “little fresh meat”. But out of solidarity with my Chinese make-up wearing brothers – oh yes, and because I hate those eyebags – I won’t hesitate to invest in a new pot of eye cream when that airport buy runs out. I’m ready to be beautiful.