A cursory glance at CVS’s personal care aisle is a powerful testament to gender roles: shampoos, deodorants, and shaving creams labeled “for men” are packaged in darker colored containers and use words like “strong” or “sport” in their product descriptions. This is not a foreign concept to consumers — among other things, there is Kleenex (for men), Pocky candy (for men), and lip balm (yes, for men).
Even among my classmates, hygiene is perceived as a uniquely feminine thing. There is a social stigma among men when it comes to things that we typically associate with being “girly.”
In my free time, I manage a skincare blog that reviews skincare and cosmetics products and their ingredient lists. A glimpse of my insights reveals the gender distribution of my audience: 87% women and 13% men.
I wasn’t surprised. Toxic masculinity — this cultural ideal of manliness that is defined by violence, aggression, and a fear of being feminine — is rampant in American culture. Products that function the same regardless of gender (for example, a face wash) are assigned genders as marketing strategies, and perpetuated by consumers that buy into these strategies.
Plenty can be learned about gender roles and expectations from the stark differences in male and female hygiene products.
For instance, fonts on products that are targeted to males tend to be larger, bolder, and sometimes a variant of a military style font. It’s intriguing to see how fonts are used to convey gender expectations — military style fonts may be used in male products to show strength, confidence, and seriousness, and to reinforce the idea that the military is “a man’s place.”
As for “feminine” fonts, they are typically more playful, decorative, and in cursive, suggesting that women are expected to be more delicate and artsy.
As for color schemes, hygiene products marketed toward men have deeper colors that are associated with masculinity: navy blue, red, black. Those marketed toward women have traditionally feminine colors: pink or purple or a pastel color.
I have witnessed the word “gay” being used to describe a face moisturizer. As ridiculous as it sounds, for many men, the word “hygiene” is antonymous with masculinity. There is a barrier in the field of skincare (and clothing, colors, school supplies and whatnot) when it comes to gender. It is crucial that we address it, and normalize it in the process.
Because when things as genderless as having emotions and being open about mental health are perceived as feminine, we say phrases like “boys don’t cry” and we witness men refusing to express emotions. Toxic masculinity becomes an obstacle to mental health treatment.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2017, suicide rates among males were almost four times higher than that of females.
When we teach boys to associate hygiene with femininity and emotions with femininity, we perpetuate dangerous stereotypes, reinforce rigid gender roles, and block the dialogue about mental health among men.
It’s the little things in our life that we can change. We can stop using phrases like “man up” or “boys don’t cry.” We can make skincare genderless. We can acknowledge this culture of toxic masculinity and openly address it. It’s that simple.