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Consume This! The Language of Buying and Selling

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There is little doubt that recent years have seen significant change in the gendered pattern of consumption, along with much else about gender. A prime example comes from the realms of fashion and beauty. Described popularly, although not particularly usefully, as the rise of “metrosexuals,” one aspect of this change is increased male participation in traditionally female beauty rituals. In this month’s post, Kristen Barber explores how salons have reconfigured the language of products to increase demand and make men comfortable with adopting feminized practices. (My personal favorite is the MANicure.) Barber’s pioneering work argues that language has been key to the success of this new male beauty culture, by neutralizing feminine associations and constructing a masculine ethos around an essentially identical set of products and practices. Based on ethnographic work in the mecca of beauty culture—Southern California—this is fascinating work that advances our understanding not only of gender and beauty culture, but the role of language in consumer culture, an important, but understudied topic. Let us know what you think!

– Juliet Schor

The Language of Buying and Selling

By Kristen Barber

During my research at two high-service men’s salons in Southern California, I learned that men don’t have “bangs.” Nor do they get “highlights” or “manicures.” The salons’ stylists told me that men instead simply have a “front” to their hair and get “manlights” and “hand-detailing”—as if they were shoring-up cars instead of their cuticles. And all of this consumption is utilitarian; with nail technicians telling their clients that when they are “in meetings, it’s a lasting impression” to have tidy nails. Online reviewers of men’s salons reinforce this idea, regularly claiming these are places for men “in business” who “care” about how they look. So how does the beauty industry, which has been culturally tied to the cultivation of women and femininity, get men to invest in its products, services, and dedicated spaces? In my book, Styling Masculinity: Class, Gender, and Inequality in the Men’s Grooming Industry (Rutgers UP, 2016), I found that language is key. Men’s salons sell beauty to men by not calling it beauty.

Language is crucial in creating a new beauty consumer in professional-class straight men. Peter J. Murphy argues that comparing men’s bodies to machines like cars is a typical metaphor that situates them as “disembodied, efficacious piece[s] of equipment” (see his book on gendered metaphors, here). This sort of language draws from Cartesian theories on mind-body dualism to setup men as an inverted image of the emotional, leaky, and fragile woman; and, here specifically, the vain beautifying woman. Metaphors that men are machines free them from the supposed softness of bodily embellishment. And so, with an ironic twist, these men are linguistically separated from the vanity of feminine beauty practices while purchasing pricey haircuts, having their nose hair waxed, getting facials, and purchasing styling products.

L'Oreal men expert

“Men Expert” skincare line by L’Oréal. Source: parisstaronline.com

During a day of following sales associates around Bloomingdales, employees working the men’s cosmetic counter told me that they went through training in how to talk to men about products. “Exfoliator” is called “scrub,” one associate told me. This creates symbolic dissonance from women’s consumer habits and communicates to presumably naïve men in clear terms what the product does—“it scrubs your face.” These employees had a training manual filled with such terms, but often the language is printed right on the packaging: Kiehl’s Facial Fuel “Energizing Face Wash” and L’Oréals Turbo Boost “Hydra Energetic” Recharging Moisturizer, for example. This formality indicates that the redefining—or masculinizing—of cosmetic products is institutionalized at the corporate level.

Veronica, owner of one salon, similarly provides her employees with a glossary of terminology—what she referred to as “masculine verbiage.” Instructing her stylists, barbers, and estheticians on the semantics of professionally grooming men, she argues that language matters. She refers to her salon as a “grooming lounge” to get clients through the door, but believes this “verbiage” reflects real differences between her shop and the sorts of salons women frequent.

Dapper Gents

Insignia from St. Louis “Grooming Lounge” for men. Source: dappergentsgrooming.com

The women and few men working at these salons become educators of men by passing along this new verbiage to clients who might otherwise feel uncertain about what getting highlights says about their gender and sexual identities. Importantly, this masculinizing language is portable. These men can turn around and explain their new grooming practices to friends and family to convince them that they are not creating themselves in the image of women by having a “MANicure.” In this way, introducing men to this both reassures them that consuming beauty is “manly” and provides them with a ready-made discourse to defend their consumer participation to others.

This consumer language is supposed to make hair dye more palatable to men as “color camo,” but also creates the foundation upon which beliefs in biologized gender differences can take root. One salon client explained: “I understand from Veronica that [women’s salons] don’t put the right—they’re used to mixing the chemicals for a woman’s pH-balance of their hair, where a male is different.” This is just “another thing between women and men that are [sic] different,” he said.

Language is a powerful normalizing mechanism that signals to men and women where their interests should lie and rewards or stigmatizes men and women differently for identical practices. The contaminating effect of beauty for straight men helps to discipline their bodies, so they avoid the same products and practices in which women are applauded for investing. The salons therefore aim to convince men that what they are doing is unlike what women do in comparable spaces, and institutionalizing services as part of a unique “grooming” experience helps to recode “beauty” as an appropriate aspect of professional men’s bodily repertoires.

The routine use of gendered language in our everyday lives supports behavior by which people create and re-create themselves in relation to others and reveals the operations of gendered, classed, racialized, and heterosexual power—and consumer industries get in on this practice. Large-scale corporations like Nivea, which sells men “loofas” as “dual sided shower tool[s],” and independently owned salons, such as those in my study, are creating a male consumer of beauty at the same time they design a new language for existing products and services.

shower tool

Dove’s “Dual Sided Shower Tool” for men. Source: Target.com

In Styling Masculinity, I show how the responsibility of routinizing a “masculine verbiage” of beauty falls on the shoulders of beauty providers, who spend their days teaching men why they should choose a “deconstructed” neckline shape. They are supposedly using terminology that men “would understand.” But saying beauty jargon has to be translated for men to understand it removes them ideologically from beauty culture and upholds the idea that men and women do not speak the same language. This language of buying and selling ultimately upholds a myth in which men and women are heavily invested: the notion that women and men are more different than they are the same.

Kristen Barber is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. She is author of the book, Styling Masculinity: Gender, Class, and Inequality in the Men’s Grooming Industry (Rutgers UP, 2016).

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