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And then I log onto Grindr, a platform where my natural coloring plays second fiddle to an endless stream of nips. How does one compete? If Instagram’s Discover algorithm is any indication, I can’t. But factor in Grindr and its ilk and the answer takes on concrete form — abs and arms to the front of the line; tall is good, tan is better, swole is best. Yung Winona need not apply. It’s a prescriptive masculinity that sets the tone for a certain kind of interaction, one by now well-known for its shortcomings — unchecked bias masquerading as preference, problematic language, no one really agreeing what constitutes a "best angle."
These platforms provide a discreet way to connect with other "sane" "chill" "bros" who want to rub one out, which is great if you need it. But "no drama" is subliminal messaging that femmes (and females) are the ol’ ball and chain and that what Real Men want is the kind of natural beauty that unfurls like a rose coming into bloom mid-squat. As app-averse Jeffrey Williams, stylist and creative director for the band Lion Babe, put it via email, "[When I was on the apps] I tried to choose more casual, ‘approachable’ pics of myself because I didn't want to be judged as a diva or ‘too much.’ I know I'm not these things, but it comes with the territory of taking care of yourself with hair and makeup." Considering self care in the sad, subtle glow of an iPhone begs the question: Can a hookup app ever really be a platform for self-actualization, or do our most multifaceted queer selves simply have to manifest elsewhere?
The problem for men like Williams isn’t being superficially more effeminate, but other men’s sense of entitlement to an inalienable masculinity that their presentation puts at risk. Turns out, feeling threatened is a major boner killer. As a male-bodied person who shops in coded women’s spaces, whether for makeup, clothing, shoes, accessories — this summer’s sale haul included Céline boots and Rachel Comey’s indomitable Legion pants — I’m used to sales associates trying to figure out if I’m lost; they’ll assure me that a men’s line is in the works, even though I didn’t ask for one. There is an assumption made about my body — that I don’t know it — that grates.
But I do know my body, WASP-waisted like my mother’s sisters, overrun with strange patterns of coarse black hair; hands too big, shoulders too broad. My beard came in at 14 and by the end of high school hair had conquered much of my remaining square footage. I felt angry and prematurely aged. The term "otter" wasn’t much of a coping mechanism.
Some in the queer community might feel unjustly robbed of their manhood, or as if they’ve always had to fight for it, but to say that gay men are "men too" misses the point and mars a much-needed discourse around gender and presentation. We don’t have to be constantly running between two poles, looking for something to point to that says, one way or another, I am who I think you need me to be. Why do our chillest selves seem to have so little tolerance?
It certainly doesn’t help that these apps literally put users into tiny boxes. If there were ever a better visual metaphor for compartmentalization, I can’t think of one. Getting laid becomes an act of pruning, men hacking away at themselves, asking each other to be less and less until the only way to interact with a potential partner is to be as little as possible. Which can come in handy if you’d like your individuality subsumed into one easily commodified, hybridized entity with an Instagram account and sizable YouTube following — "looking for same" taken to its most eerily logical conclusion. But most of the time everybody just flakes out.
"I feel like male culture and men in general, especially straight-acting gay men, it’s not encouraged to be intimate with yourself in the same way that women have been for centuries," says makeup and visual artist Marcelo Gutierrez. "Makeup is a very personal experience… it’s all just you looking into the mirror and embracing or enhancing who you are. Once it’s okay for men to be sensitive, intimate, and emotional, then it’ll be okay to just be yourself." It’s a sentiment echoed by David Yi, founder of men’s beauty and grooming platform Very Good Light. "Men have skin needs, they want to look their best, they want education. It's just that no one brand is giving it to them and saying it's more than okay — it's actually awesome — to want to invest in yourself." And shouldn't we all be invested in our most shimmering, dew-faced baby angel selves, anyway?
On that count, it’s a mixed bag. A quick scroll through social media and deep dark web forums reveals as many trolls and close-minded thinkers as ever, but in spite of such naysayers bright spots easily surface. Take, for instance, YouTuber Jake-Jamie’s #MakeupIsGenderless campaign, which has gained strident support for cross-gender representation in the beauty industry. (Makeup artist Charlotte Tilbury has tweeted her enthusiasm for the hashtag.) Another trending topic, #ThePowerOfMakeup, gives voice to women who feel they’ve been shamed for loving makeup. ("Just because you love to paint your face doesn't mean you don't love yourself.") It’s the empowering flip side to the conversation Alicia Keys started with her ode to #NoMakeup last summer; what’s important about both of these threads is that no one stopped to ask a man what his thoughts on the matter are. Sorry, dad!
The fact of the matter is that applying makeup well is a skill set that takes time to learn and to hone, but because it is derided as a flippant ritual for ladyfolk and their tiny doll hands it has also been deemed worthless at best and deceptive at worst. This line of thinking finds a way to work its magic on gay men as well, when they present as femme or are seen as having feminine characteristics. "On an average day I'll conceal my acne spots, cover the dark circles under my eyes with a CC cream, and gel my eyebrows," says Keani White, a strategist at LA’s Maker Studios. "With a date on the horizon I'm likely to build upon that by filling in my brows, potentially wearing foundation, and powdering my face. If going out is involved the mug is beat, but in a way that is very natural, [at least] in my eyes. That said, I was recently invited out on a blind double date, a setup, and when my date asked if I fill in my brows my friend just laughed and said, ‘Yes.’ For the remainder of the evening I was grilled on the reasons why I would wear makeup, why was I okay with being so effeminate, and what other parts of me were made up."
It’s troubling to think that anyone believes that the ways in which men take care of themselves are more inherently honest than the ways in which women take care of themselves, as if a gym membership will reveal a more authentic self than Sephora’s rewards program. It’s also troubling that anyone would gender either of these things. "[Men] think they'll be more widely desired if their body is on point, as opposed to their brows or lashes or cheeks or what have you," notes artist Andy Simmonds. "And sadly, that's probably true." An on-point body is seen as the natural apogee of masculine beauty, creating a beauty double standard on the "wrong" side of which gay men sometimes find themselves.
Ah, masculinity, why art thou so fragile? That question’s at top of mind for Phil Henricks, vice president of strategy and business development for Online Buddies, a dick-hunting hub that includes ManHunt, Adam4Adam, and the app Jack’d. "Users provide the framework for people to create this content," notes Henricks, who’s seen firsthand the way younger users are reeling from the way these conversations play out on apps. Jack’d, with its young, diverse user base — 80 percent under 30, 40 percent African-American and 20 percent Latino — aims to combat discrimination through its recently-launched #ChangeTheGame microsite, encouraging users to "Speak Up," "Show Up," and "Stay Woke."
That’s some form of progress. On the other hand, it’s worth noting that the company’s PR was initially confused by my request for comment for an article about makeup, asking if I knew "these are apps for men?" Racked is a shopping site, you see, and makeup is a lady thing, you see? The implicit "something’s not adding up here" speaks directly to the binary bullshit that got us into this mess in the first place. It’s not a particularly nuanced way of understanding gender or sexuality, but it dictates almost all of our interactions — or it has, until now. In a Marie Claire feature titled "The Beauty Boys of Instagram," writer Koa Beck talks to male makeup influencers who "aren't trying to appropriate a performative female identity, nor push a female character… [they] aren't blurring gender — they're expanding it."
"Their unfurling of masculinity to include more variation and more expression is a valuable — even necessary — movement at a time when our country is having increasingly heightened conversations around gender. Their re-envisioning of what we consider to be ‘male’ is a reminder that, for too long, masculinity has been kept in a rigid box, too delicate to touch or reinterpret."
It is telling that Beck’s interviewees are so young, one only 16 at the time of the piece’s publication, as a generational shift feels definitively afoot. "If a man wants to use beauty products his sexuality or manhood is automatically called into question, [but] ‘grooming’ and ‘beauty’ are one in the same," reiterates Yi. "It's a very heteronormative terminology that separates one from the other. Now, marketers are trying to play catch-up." Maybe soon men will front cosmetics campaigns, or at least do a lip at the office. Makeup can be a tool for creating more fluidity within maleness, more space to be yourself and to articulate what that means on your own terms: to look how you want, when you want, for yourself. But for now, men don't really talk about existing in the world in this way. To Gutierrez’s point, that kind of reflection just isn’t asked of them.
I rip a page out of September’s InStyle because I have decided that I am the ‘Heritage Hipster.’ Her hallmark is "a subversion of masculine tailoring and refined feminine beauty;" her accessories include the Prada bag I want (the one Garance Doré has). She drinks Kusmi detox tea and reads W. Somerset Maugham and wears Céline boots. She is arguably the whitest girl you know. I am not saying that I am that girl, but that I would like to be spoken to as if we could really make up our minds like that, and be one thing with this bag in hand and another without; as if expression is limitless and never ending, available in every shade of the rainbow — but preferably muted desert tones.
To many women who read these magazines, these words are inane and condescending; "sentient trend report" is not the look. But they can offer a twisted sense of escapism, this idea that you make and unmake yourself every time you slip into a new pair of shoes, falling in love with your reflection unapologetically because it is your reflection and you own it and you look good and you know it.
At the end of the day, men, gay and straight alike, are babied, their unawareness of the fripperies of cosmetics, color coordination, or the basic definition of a mugging, excused by a society that thinks Donald Trump is qualified to campaign for the presidency against Hillary Clinton. Proximity to the otherized feminine is never "normal;" that a man might be gay, or have grown up around women, or is Justin Trudeau, only excuses his deviant femaleness. The problem, as ever, is toxic masculinity — not the products with which one chooses to manifest it, bags and lipsticks and sailor pants be damned. Maybe Henricks sums it up best: "Some people like bland food, some people like Taylor Swift. Some people just aren’t as inquisitive as they should be."