Instead of shushing her with my usual caveats, I take the compliment, perhaps emboldened by all that rosé. "Thank you," I reply. "It’s great, isn’t it?" But I know that my newfound confidence isn’t of the liquid kind; it’s my shape wear. Or more accurately: my Spanx for Men. Ensconced in my masculine Lycra shell, I’m finally able to relinquish all my feminine insecurities and just accept myself as I am, and as society views me: sleek, sexy, unquestionably entitled. I stand up to pour myself another glass of wine, keenly aware that all eyes are on me and the enticing figure I cut as I sashay to the bar.
Aside from packaging and price point, are the products truly that different?
And that’s when I'm snapped back to my actual reality, the one where I'm sweating profusely and walking uncomfortably, all thanks to a compression shirt that, much like many other gendered lifestyle products, differs in no discernible way from its female counterpart. Except one: its significantly cheaper price tag ($82 for a women’s bodysuit, compared to the compression tank’s $55 price). Despite the lower cost, the tank top offers me the same features the cult-favorite women’s product does: a comically smooth body dimpled with errant Lycra bulges, an inability to breathe, a diminished will to live.
It’s no secret that gendered products equal big business for beauty and lifestyle industries that used to cater primarily to women. But aside from packaging and price point, are the products truly that different? To find out, I spent a week swapping out my decidedly feminine shape wear, eye creams, and even menstrual pads for their male counterparts.
Call it the "Queer Eye" effect—ever since the introduction of the ‘90s metrosexual opened doors for the trend to truly take off in the early aughts, self care has been a hot market for the male demographic. Because of this, I have no problem loading a shopping cart up with enough toiletries to open my own drugstore version of Kiehl’s. A pot of Dove Men+Care Ultra Hydrating Cream, packaged in a tough steel-grey box, promises 24 hours of moisturization, while a similarly packaged daily moisturizer from L’Oréal’s Men Expert Vita Lift line assures me it will fight the five signs of aging. A poop-colored jar of Aveeno’s Men’s Face Wash goes in the cart next, because nothing says "man" like dark brown (as opposed to the hopelessly feminine tan packaging of Aveeno’s original face wash). It's followed by a manly black bottle of Banana Boat For Men sunscreen in SPF 30. I had no idea sunscreen was so gender specific, but here we are.
The thing that’s immediately noticeable on nearly every shred of packaging for a men’s facial care product is something that’s rarely seen on analogous women’s products: a photo of the product, stamped with the words ‘actual size’ in capital letters. Even when it comes to beauty, men are obsessed with size.
But as unnecessary as a mockup of "ACTUAL SIZE" eye cream feels, it works, and so does all that dark colored packaging, often texturized in "manly" finishes resembling corrugated metal or chain-link fencing. Slate writer Libby Copeland points to the idea of gender contamination—the disapproval surrounding products with a strong gender identity being used by someone of the opposing gender; say, women driving a Ford F-150 pickup truck, or a man sporting Lululemon athletic wear. Gender contamination isn’t a new concept, and when reflecting on the hypermasculine days of decades past versus the progressive mores of today, it would be reasonable to think gender contamination will slowly become an outdated concept.
A paper written by Professor Jill Avery at the Simmons School of Management and cited by Copeland suggests a different theory: that gendered products will continue to proliferate as a means to combat the ever-blurring gender lines of our progressive society. "[W]hen a cultural hierarchy is threatened, it’s natural for those at the top to cling all the more tightly to symbols of their old rank," writes Copeland. "In other words, as more and more women become the breadwinners in their families, as men have lost their majorities on college campuses, their advantages in many blue-collar and white-collar jobs, their role as head of household, they can’t help but hang on to the traditional markers of masculinity." Avery breaks it down into even more no-nonsense terms: "As gender lines are blurring, we need our things to send clearer signals."
But while marketers may be using anthropological manipulation to sell lifestyle products to a new demographic, that doesn’t mean the market doesn’t exist. Most ethnographers agree that the rise of the '90s metrosexual was an aberration, but that men these days do care about things like grooming, clothing, and self-care, far more seriously than the days of swiping a few dabs of a wife’s lotion here and there. So where does that leave us? If men are an underserved market, is it so preposterous to think that products marketed to them might actually be formulated for their specific needs, warranting the gender binary seen on shelves?
Even when it comes to beauty, men are obsessed with size.
In a word: yes.
I started with the beauty products, slathering my face and décolletage with the Dove Men+Care lotion. Other than its thicker-than-average consistency, its only discernible difference from women’s product of its ilk was the fact that it smelled remarkably like Jovan Musk, the staple aftershave of suburban '90s dads everywhere. In fact, most of the products I picked up seemed to smell like the same varietal of musky cologne; the L’Oréal moisturizer, the Banana Boat For Men, even the Aveeno Face Wash, which had promised to be fragrance free. As it turns out, men’s products, like the masters they serve, sometimes lie.
Other than smelling like a sixth grader prepping for his first dance, I found no difference in my skincare regimen. What the Dove lotion lacked in staying power, the L’Oréal more than made up for in moisture, offering skin softer than I’d ever had in my life. Cross-referencing it with the skin of a female habitual L’Oréal Revitalift user indicated that it wasn’t a variant in the men’s Vita Lift formula that yielded infant buttock facial skin, it was L’Oréal. And, likely, their hefty price tag—though it’s worth noting that while the men’s Vita Lift was just under $9, the women’s version, in the same size, clocked in at a whopping $20. As Bloomberg Business found in 2013, while companies like L’Oréal and Dove will give journalists the party line, citing variance in product formulations, the ingredients between the gendered products are virtually the same. It quite literally pays to be a man.
Slap some wings on it and call her Patty, because a pad is a pad is a pad.
Willing to give the grooming products the benefit of my benevolent, gendered doubt, I turned my attention to the bathroom; specifically, towards a box of Depend for Men Guards that promised "Maximum Absorbency for Larger Surges." While I’m aware that the Depends are marketed to men for incontinence rather than menstruation, let’s call a spade a spade: this is a pad for men. You can wrap it in as much rugged gray packaging as your heart desires, but slap some wings on it and call her Patty, because a pad is a pad is a pad. Indeed, the Depend guard functioned exactly like a pad did: it absorbed exactly what it needed to and got stuck to my upper thigh during sleep in a way that made me regret letting regular bikini waxes slip, just like my Kotex days of yore.
Padded out, I turned to the kitchen. I started with some light reading: "Meat Is For Pussies: A How-To Guide for Dudes Who Want to Get Fit, Kick Ass, and Take Names," a guide to vegetarianism for men, written by washed-up minor rock star John Joseph, whose ghostwriter watched one too many Martin Scorsese films in hopes of picking up the right New York City affect. But other than throwing out oddly aggressive statements like "I guarantee you will find out how much of a pussy you are when you get your ass handed to you like some idiot," nothing in his tome explained why a meat-free diet was specifically tailored for men. Then again, as someone with the occupational hazard of having a pussy, perhaps I’ll just never understand.
After scanning through "Meat is for Pussies," as well as a less-aggressive but similarly insulting "Green Food for Men" cookbook, I turned to the one product I’d been purposefully avoiding throughout this project: a bottle of former Loveline host and serial misogynist Adam Carolla’s Mangria. As a lover of pointless, gendered celebrity alcohols (Hi Bethenny Frankel, I’ll drink SkinnyGirl margaritas till I die), and an imbiber of the most embarrassing liquors known to man (Hi Disaronno and Cokes, I have no regret about drinking you exclusively from the ages of 23 to 25 when I thought it would impress older men), Carolla’s ill-conceived line of cocktails was a threat to the two things that brought me the most sugary alcoholic joy.
If you’ve ever wondered to yourself what prison toilet wine tastes like, it’s likely a marked improvement from the swill Carolla is peddling at BevMo’s nationwide. Even the cashier was shocked when I forked over $20 for the dusty bottle of red wine mixed with vodka, orange juice, and "a blend of other fruits," pointing out, "Good sangrias don’t use orange juice, you know?" Oh, I know.
All pointless gendering resulted in one thing: me fainting on a hot summer afternoon after squeezing myself into those fateful Spanx for Men. As it turns out, compression clothing is terrible for everyone, regardless of how you identify on the gender spectrum.
Going into this experiment, I wanted to do more than just rage at the fact that an unnecessary gender gap had been created just to sell more sticks of deodorant, and at a higher premium, no less; I wanted to understand the consumer behavior behind gendering. I tried products I fully expected to be divided by sex and still found them to be near identical to their "feminine" counterparts. I tried products I didn’t expect to be gendered—like the Mandle, a candle that comes in a variety of rugged scents including "Stripper’s Mouth," and Mack’s EarAmmo Earplugs for Men—and again, found no difference (a stripper’s mouth smells like peppermint, apparently). I even tried products that challenged my own views on heteronormativity: a kohl pen cleverly called Guyliner, that had as much staying power as its Sephora counterparts, a matte nail polish in slate gray sold under the moniker ManGlaze. Yet time and again, I continued to find no difference in the offerings.
Time and again, I continued to find no difference in the offerings.
Market segmentation—separating consumers into discrete groups, and marketing specifically to those groups—has long been a way for companies to increase revenue, and gendered market segmentation is the easiest segmentation of all. And indeed it’s proven quite lucrative: in its first year of launching Men+Care in 2011, Dove’s sales grew 7.9% in personal care. But at what cost? Just as market segmentation reinforces outdated gender norms, it also reinforces the reality of the burgeoning tax that comes with being a woman: products that are marketed separately to men and women are almost always more expensive for women.
In that way, it makes sense for men to adopt their own products instead of swiping odds and ends from their female friends and family members—why pay $20 for emasculating eye cream, when $8.75 gets you the same benefits and better packaging? As for me, I plan on switching over to the L’Oréal men’s face cream. With skin this soft at prices that low, reinforced gender binary or not, I’ll never pay double for smooth skin again.