In the past few years there’s been growing evidence — or at least, an increasing number of headline-baiting surveys — suggesting that men in the 2010s are increasingly fixated on their own appearance. The average modern male checks himself out in the mirror 23 times a day, according to one survey from 2015 — that’s compared to only 16 times a day for women. Every morning, the average guy takes 23 minutes in the shower and 18 minutes shaving. And overall, according to some estimates, we take a borderline-pathological 81 minutes per day primping ourselves to be fit for public consumption — cleansing, moisturizing, exfoliating, choosing our clothes, admiring yourself in them, and, of course, surgically tending to our rampant nasal foliage.
The typical man’s 21st-century complexion costs him an average of $275 a year in facial products, and in 2016 the male grooming market was estimated to be worth over $14.8 billion worldwide, making it by far the fastest-growing category in the global beauty industry (which, nearly all experts believe, will be known soon as the ‘rugged-yet-sensitively-handsome industry.’)
While it shouldn’t be a surprise that modern men want to look good (why the heck wouldn’t we?), it’s all fascinatingly different from the quick post-shower pat-down (plus approving Fonzarelli thumbs-up) that many might remember as standard bathroom procedure just 15 or 20 years ago. Go back a bit further, though, and you’ll find that the grooming routines of our fathers and grandfathers are practically unrecognizable.
I asked my Kiwi father-in-law, Bruce Ferguson, how today’s male grooming standards might have struck his own father or grandfather — working-class men inhabiting New Zealand’s conservative society of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. According to Bruce, “It would be so outside their world view that they would genuinely find it incomprehensible.”
Bruce describes his dad as an “early adopter” of electric shavers, getting his first in the late 1950s. “But before that, when he used a blade, it was quite a ritual. He would often go outside to shave, sitting on the verandah in his [undershirt] in the morning sunshine with a bowl of hot water and a hand mirror… Under pain of death we were not allowed to touch the brush. He also used, for a while at least, a cut-throat razor. He would sharpen it in a swashbuckling fashion on a leather strop which doubled as an instrument for chastisement of his children.”
For Bruce himself, as a young professional in the ’70s and ’80s, “grooming was still mainly just a matter of keeping everything clean.” By and large, this meant a scrub down with Lifebuoy soap — a brand once ubiquitous in America as well as New Zealand and Britain, which dates back to the Victorian era and survives today as a market leader in emerging economies such as India.
“It was pink, but a manly pink,” recalls Bruce, “with a carbolic smell, and it was guaranteed to keep the schoolboy armpits fresh. My memory is that there was only one deodorant available for men.”
Daily showers may have been the norm in Bruce’s day, but just a generation earlier hygiene habits were still catching up with indoor plumbing. Deadpan public information films, such as the one below, aimed at scruffy teenagers in 1956, were instructing Americans that while bathing every day was a good idea, “In winter, when you’re less hot and sweaty, every other day will do.”
“And here’s another habit,” the narrator advises: “Wash your hair on the same day each week. Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday… whichever day you choose!”
This being the 1950s, the emphasis in this and many similar educational films falls not so much on good bathroom protocol as on making sure your shoes are properly shined. In this film from 1949, for example, hilariously rigid brother and sister Don and Sue take the shininess of their shoes so seriously, it’s a fairly safe bet they’re Soviet spies trying to fit in.
They also, like nearly every grooming campaigner from the era, exhibit an obsession with keeping their fingernails pristine. “Dirt under your fingernails must be cleaned every day — and it’s better in private,” the narrator warns darkly, and a little mysteriously, before reminding us that, “Their good grooming habits help them in friendships and in business. For your success depends a great deal on how you look.”
And that’s pretty much how it was, says Bruce. In your efforts to make yourself presentable, “It was mainly social acceptability that was important — people would talk about you if you differed from the norm in your appearance. I think every generation has shown a need to conform, but whereas today it is peer pressure, in those days it was the whole of society’s pressure, which was very difficult to go against.”
Peer pressure today impels people to look perfect on Instagram, rather than to look normal for the boss, and that’s helped de-stigmatize some of the more radical beauty treatments on offer, such as male manis and pedis, personal waxing and the trend for all-over ‘manscaping’ body-hair trims. Three or four decades ago, says Bruce, “We would never have believed for a minute that anyone would even think of doing this, let alone actually do it.” Today, of course, men feel an opposing pressure: For some guys, it’s impossible to believe that someone wouldn’t trim the hedgerow before a date.
Blame a climate of selfie-heightened millennial insecurities, blame the stunning soccer superstars of the world, or blame your own undeniable smokin’ hotness, but today’s male face is the most pampered it’s been in centuries — certainly since Louis XIV was hitting the powder room and ordering for more rouge from the colonies. It’s worth making that sort of effort for the one you love, though, isn’t it? Especially if they’re checking you out 23 times a day.