“What are you doing?” I asked.
My friend Ismail and I had made a quick stop at the supermarket. I was heading towards the chips and soft drinks, but my childhood friend took a quick detour to the cosmetics aisle.
He looked slightly embarrassed when he realized I was staring at the deep cleansing, skin rejuvenating, blackhead erasing, unicorn feather infused face wash he’d been examining. “Oh, nothing,” he said quickly, putting back the tiny tube that cost more than my month’s supply of bar soap. “Let’s go!”
I remember rolling my eyes and shaking my head. I remember Ismail dodging my expression and instead solemnly focusing on grabbing the snacks we came to purchase.
This happened several years ago, but a recent encounter brought back this memory. Why?
Well, it all depends on how you answer this question. If you are a male, what is your opinion of makeup?
Part of the problem when writing for a website like PinkLungi is that you’re never sure if the thoughts in your head are your own, or shared by those who read your articles. So forget the title of this piece that purposefully generalizes for the sake of alliteration. Let me tell you what I thought about makeup, and you can tell me if you feel the same way.
All throughout my childhood, I remember witnessing a domestic scene, at first with curiosity, then bemusement and finally frustration. Whenever there was a party or formal function to go to, my father would be dressed and ready in the living room within minutes. And then he’d start reminding my mother and sisters about the time. Getting increasingly annoyed as they took time to braid their hair or match their outfits or exchange earrings or whatever it is that was happening behind closed doors.
His agitated queries and frustrated laments would be punctuated by quick questions directed towards me. “Are you ready?” He’d ask. I’d be flipping through a newspaper or surfing T.V. or in later years squeezing in one final game of Crash Bandicoot on Playstation.
“Yup!” I’d reply without taking my eyes off the entertainment. All I had to do was zip into my room, pull off my track pants, pull on a pair of jeans, grab a shirt off the hanger and comb my unruly hair. I was ready before the game even finished loading on the screen.
“Oh, pennungalku orungan endoram nerama!” (Oh, how long it takes for women to get ready/dressed!)
I’m not sure where I heard that sentiment before. But I know I’ve heard it several times in my life. Haven’t you?
Now I’m wondering why I told you that anecdote. I don’t really know how relevant it is to my argument, but maybe it’s a clue. Because you see, I always got ready in no time. All throughout high school, my grooming routine would make a Spartan weep with pride. I was a minimalist in the washing cabinet and a conservative in the wardrobe closet. I could wear the same five shirts over and over again. I could last for a month with just a bar of soap and maybe a palmful of shampoo of any kind.
I know not every man who reads this is like me. Some of you are far more sophisticated and cultured, groomed and hygienic. So bear with me as I talk about “my people”, the folks who populate dirty college dorms and have a toxic relationship with an iron box. After almost a decade of complacency and subconscious pride, I’ve finally realized what should have been obvious. Men like me mock makeup!
And all the credit for this epiphany goes to Julia, my colleague at work.
Julia was the prettiest girl I’d ever seen in real life. She was tall, with silky brown hair, sharp nose, and slender eyebrows that could rise in scepticism and frustration or joy and laughter. She dressed in fashionable clothes and had the cutest, most sophisticated accessories.
Oh, and she was the smartest person in the office, the first to arrive, the last to leave, and in line for a promotion. That’s how I realized I was about to have an epiphany.
“Are you going to the art gallery?” She asked me one day.
I chuckled and shook my head, as though it was obvious that I wouldn’t be going.
“Why not?” She asked, her eyes confused enough to make me stop smiling.
“Ah…” I started, wondering how I could tell her why I wasn’t going. “I – That’s not my kind of scene…”
“You don’t like paintings and sculptures?”
“No, not that,” I replied. I definitely wanted to see more paintings and sculptures. That wasn’t the issue, though, was it?
“It’s just…it’s going to be a fancy event, right?” I felt suffocated just thinking about all the men in suits and women in elegant dresses, with perfect hair and pungent perfume, talking and laughing without concern about sweat and smell…
“You don’t have a suit? Is that it?”
I finally gave in and told her what the problem was. I wasn’t comfortable in such formal events. I would sweat profusely just thinking about how I would sweat profusely. I would be terrified of spilling something on my shirt or accidentally wiping my hands on my pants or trousers or whatever the right term for it was. I’d probably forget my handkerchief at home after having gone out specifically to buy one, or I’d get it tangled up with my wallet and earphones in my pocket. I would speed walk everywhere so that I’d never have to risk running and crease my clothes, but I’d restrain my movement whenever it felt like my body was about to heat up.
In short, I would never be able to enjoy the art around me. I wasn’t equipped for it.
And instead of agreeing with my valid reasons and sympathizing, Julia chuckled and shook her head.
“Marwan, everyone faces these problems. You just have to learn how to deal with them!”
Cue the Rocky soundtrack.
Julia explained to me how mankind had devised an ingenious system to combat body odour, amplify natural pheromones and sustain massive human interactions for hours on end without risking discomfort or disgust. Like Tarzan taking classes from the Queen, I sat and took notes about the differences between deodorant, perfume and cologne. The advantages of shower gel over soap. The progression from coconut oil to shampoo to conditioner to hairdryer and hair gel. How an extra sheet of a particular brand of fabric softener, when combined with the deodorant of another Multinational Corporation, could allow you to remain fresh and fragrant throughout the day, provided you carried a small bottle of perfume in your bag or car. I learnt that scented wipes are not just accessible once a year when an air hostess hands them to you, but something you can carry with you when you go on train journeys and bus rides as well. The fancy, bulky hand sanitizer machines in corporate offices now came in pocket sizes too! By the end of the class, I almost had tears in my eyes.
“How…how do you know all this?” I exclaimed.
Julia just grinned and shrugged.
As I walked home that night, I wondered how many Marwans and how many Julias there were in Kerala and elsewhere. How many guys like me who are morons when it comes to personal hygiene and grooming? How many girls like Julia who are ninjas at both makeup and being a productive member of the workforce?
I think that’s why I told you about childhood anecdote. I believe that’s where it all began for the Marwans and Julias in this world. My theory is, every time our parents announced that we were going for a party that night, the boy walked into his room and walked out a minute later. The girl walked in and walked out ten minutes later. The boy was aloof, the girl probably anxious. The boy didn’t learn much, the girl got a little better.
Repeat this a hundred times over the course of a decade. What happens? I believe the guy (and again, this is not referring to the “Freakans” and “Chullens” among my brothers) ends up with an atrophied sense of dressing, grooming and hygiene. It’s hard to know your skin is oily when it’s never been oil-free since puberty, right? Why would you think a boring shirt with an even boring pair of jeans wouldn’t be fine, if your mother and sister were always hustling out of the house and barely had any time to comment on your dressing, and your father was too busy grumbling about how late you all were for the party?
I believe guys (like me) have never bothered to groom themselves for several reasons. First and foremost being, it was never expected of us. Second, perhaps there was a notion amongst our elders that guys don’t have to spend much time dressing up. Third (and this is where it gets murkier), there is perhaps a subconscious belief within society (Malayalee and even Indian), that men don’t need to groom themselves.
Imagine if you were with your family and relatives. Assume your brother was taking twenty-five minutes to get dressed and come out. Do you think someone might comment, “Uff! Evan pennungale katiyum kashtamanallo! (Uff! He’s even worse at getting dressed than the women!)
It might be just a joke, but does that joke point to a belief? I can’t be certain, but it’s certainly worth considering?
And fourth, is where my friend Ismail and I come into the picture. The fourth reason why I feel guys like me never bothered to groom themselves is because …we thought it silly. Now, different people will have different alternatives for the word “silly”. I can imagine how in a western setting the word “gay” would be used as a substitute. Amongst an Indian crowd, perhaps the nearest sentiment would be “girly” or “feminine”.
My own word would be…superficial.
I honestly believed grooming was superficial. When I saw Ismail consider if he needed palmolive extracts in order to erase the blackheads beneath his eyes, I instinctively thought he was shallow. Oh, look at this guy, so concerned about his looks!
Over the past few years, I’ve come to realize that I’m not alone. Plenty of guys have a paradoxical view of makeup. You might have come across memes that joke about having your first date at a pool party because girls use “so much makeup that they look completely different!” Then there are those incessant OutBrain links at the end of even reputed websites that promise you shocking pictures of celebrities sans makeup.
Many men have a prejudice against makeup. A woman who openly admits how much makeup she uses is seen as shallow or superficial. Many men lament this, wishing they could meet someone who is “natural” and “not fake”.
Ironically, every woman they gaze upon, be it the fashionable youngsters in skin-tight jeans flocking past them at the mall, or the supermodels grinning at them from billboards as they drive home, or the news anchors and reporters talking in the living room television when they walk in the front door and even the pornstars being flexible on their mobile phones before they fall asleep…everyone wears makeup!
Then why this hypocrisy?
It’s taken me about a quarter of a century to understand things that I’d unknowingly internalized. And I believe it’s time I summarized them, for both your and my benefit.
- Getting dressed like Barry Allen isn’t something to be lauded. It might be a useful skill, but it won’t alter the course of humanity.
- Gone are the days when women looked pretty and men picked up heavy stuff. Nowadays, neither are picking up heavy stuff, unless it’s in the gym, in which case men need to learn from women, and ensure that they’re recreating their neanderthal ancestor’s feats of physical prowess, and not body odour.
- Women appreciate a well dressed, well-groomed, hygienic man. And men should appreciate such men as well, instead of exhibiting toxic masculinity or mild homophobia.
- Men who mock makeup end up ultimately losing out. Thinking you are better because you don’t care how you look is a slippery slope, and more often than not, it ends with you too afraid to go to the art gallery, but too proud to admit why. And too self-absorbed to realize why the girl you like isn’t attracted to you, even though you’re a nice guy!
There’s a part of me that wonders if I’m alone in all of this. If I just expressed something personal and embarrassing that no one can relate to. I hope that’s not the case. Not just because I’d look like a fool, but also because not everyone is lucky enough to have a Julia to enlighten them. If you’re reading this, and like me, you too are terrified of art galleries because you sweat like a pig and don’t know what to do about it, rest assured, there’s always a way.
Now, let’s get busy improving ourselves, shall we?