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How The Beauty Industry Is Embracing Gender Fluidity and Queer Representation

From “Queer Eye” hairdresser Jonathan Van Ness sashaying around the US deep South in heels with a long mane and full beard to Harry Styles’ Vogue cover breaking the Internet, the turn towards gender-inclusive and genderless beauty is largely thanks to young consumers who are bucking societal norms, challenging brands to embrace inclusivity and expand traditional notions of who “gets to do” beauty.

By Elizabeth Choi
September 9, 2021

Interestingly, none of this is as new as it seems. As they say, “History repeats itself.”
From humanity’s earliest recorded civilizations, beauty, hygiene and appearance have always been conveyed, in part, via cosmetics and skincare —regardless of gender and socio-economic status.

Cosmetic box of the Cupbearer Kemeni, Middle Kingdom of Egypt, 12th Dynasty,  ca. 1814–1805 BCE. | Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

From as early as 4000 BCE, ancient Egyptians not only maintained daily skincare routines, but also had a penchant for cosmetics, which both enhanced personal appearance—many items contained vital ingredients that offered sun protection, softened skin, protected the eyes—and boosted self-esteem. In ancient Egyptian society, appearance in the present life was so important that it dictated what you could do in the afterlife, a belief that pervaded the entirety of ancient Egyptian society, even through Roman Egypt. Even a good glow up has a place in history.

The upper crust of any society, no matter where in the world, has always had the greatest access to the best quality cosmetics, as well as the most varied and innovative ways to upkeep oneself. In fact, throughout most of history, it was wealthy men who traditionally wore makeup. From the 1550s in Elizabethan England to 18th century France, European aristocracy were known to pile on face powder and skin-whitening face creams to attain a ghostly white complexion, the signifier of wealth and a life of leisure.

In 16th century France, it was King Louis XIV whose hallmark became the ‘the sweetest-smelling king of all’, as he had the entire Palace of Versailles doused with perfumes to sweeten the air (and hide the inevitable scent of rarely ever taking baths). Later in the late 1700s, King Louis XVI essentially made wigs “a thing” among France’s noblemen after going bald at 23, at a time when it was also common for men to don painted beauty marks and wear high heels. So by 18th century French standards, we’re not sure what all the fuss is about Lil Nas X.

Perceptions of makeup and beauty, and who could use them, changed drastically by the mid-1800s when Queen Victoria I of Great Britain and the Church of England labeled makeup an “abomination”, associating it with the work of The Devil. Unsurprisingly, factors like war and religion also further drove a wedge between what was traditionally a common practice: for men to wear makeup.

Fast forward a few centuries of “pink is for girls” and “makeup is not for boys,” that is all slowly changing with the embrace of gender inclusivity and a generation of consumers who compel brands to ask themselves why products have to be “for him” or “for her” instead of for everyone.

Photo: We Are Fluide

While corporate beauty brands shift their gears, new brands are cropping up to meet consumers where they are. This goes beyond slapping a trendy name like “Yaas Girl Yellow” on everything. The key is intentionality: from the ingredients, to packaging to marketing. We Are Fluide, which aims to be “makeup for him, here, them, everyone”, is also cruelty-free, paraben-free and vegan too. Founded in Brooklyn co-founder and chief executive, Laura Kraber was inspired by her experiences raising two teens in NYC. In an interview she explains that the goal of Fluide is “to evolve the mainstream conception of beauty while creating a space for people to express themselves authentically.” Kraber points to Fluide’s packaging and product development, which strives to be gender neutral. “We discard those notions generally because our whole belief is that gender is more of a constellation than an extreme of one or the other.”

David Yi | Photo: Very Good Light

David Yi, founder of the men’s grooming site, Very Good Light, and author of the book Pretty Boys, set out to create a platform that takes “beauty beyond the binary” with a range of skincare essentials that are effective, gentle and “for all people regardless of your gender identity.” Like Fluide, Very Good Light’s products are vegan and cruelty-free. Yi cites his “dual identity” experiences as a Korean American growing up in Colorado Springs, a very conservative and predominantly White area, as creating many challenges but also shaping his views of gender and identity. “Makeup and cosmetics have no gender identity. They are tools used to enhance and inspire those who use them. My own upbringing as a Korean American allowed me to have a more expansive view of masculinity as well as my relationship with skin care,” Yi said in a recent interview.

Even established brands, from MAC to Gucci Beauty to Tom Ford, are carefully keeping a pulse on the times with the release of genderless fragrances and men’s makeup lines, and appointing male presenting faces to lead cosmetic campaigns.

Sufficient to say, this generation’s rallying cry couldn’t be any clearer.