The more I watch little kids, the more I’m starting to understand adults. Because if you squint your eyes hard enough to see past all the convoluted posturing and fancy vocabulary, adults look just like the grown-up version of what I’m seeing on the playground every day.
For example, lately I’ve been noticing how many little boys love pretending to cook at the preschool my daughter attends.
Most people (in America, at least) think of play-cooking as a “girl” activity.
But as I wrote here, last week I had trouble getting a group of toddler boys to wind down their make-believe picnic when it was time to clean up for the day. I kept asking them to move on, and they kept pretending not to hear me.
And it makes sense that little boys would have fun pretending to cook. Everyone needs to eat, after all, and I’ve known a number of men who were excellent cooks.
But why is this the only place I’ve been seeing it happen? One day, the answer finally dawned on me: most toy cooking sets are made of pink plastic and decorated with Barbies and flowers.
The kitchen items at this place, on the other hand, are wood and chrome. They look like normal adult equipment (because it is). Nothing about them screams, “THIS IS FOR GIRLS.”
Kids may not have a sophisticated grasp of marketing psychology yet, but they do notice when toys are pink, sparkly and covered in unicorns. Whenever a toy commercial involves a lot of floral motifs, little boys quickly get the idea that they aren’t supposed to play with it.
And little kids care about that stuff. A lot.
Despite all of my attempts to bring my daughters up in a neutral environment, my three-year-old talks about being a girl approximately seventy-thousand times a day.
“You a girl, mommy?” she asks me, “You a girl and I’m a girl and sister is a girl too. We are princesses and daddy is a giant bear.”
Hmm, okay… this gender-blind experiment has so far been an epic fail. I’ve found that by the time they reach reaching toddler-dom, both little boys and little girls are already (dare I say it?) obsessed with what it means to be male versus female.
Interestingly enough, while these little boys and girls seem to like each other just fine (no cootie accusations here), most seem horrified by the possibility of being mistaken for one another. So any toy decorated with pink glittery princesses may as well have “boy repellant” sprayed all over it.
Fortunately, we adults are more sophisticated and have moved beyond all that nonsense. We can now judge an object or activity on its own merits, without worrying about the stereotypical window-dressing tacked up by savvy marketers.
Or can we?
Case in point: skincare products. We all have skin, and presumably, all need to take care of it. Everyone wants to look and feel attractive, right?
Yet when I was growing up, at least, skincare was overwhelmingly considered a feminine concern.
Words like “astringent” and “moisturizer” were once exclusively part of the female vocabulary. They spooked guys, like those freaky-looking eyelash curlers women have around.
A guy with dry skin had to sneak his wife’s moisturizer on the sly, because any man who kept a regimen beyond soap, water and the occasional bottle of Old Spice was careening dangerously close to effeminate territory.
Nowadays, however, one in four men is dabbling in fancier skincare products.
Why the drastic change? Many believe the rise of the metrosexual has something to do with it, but I think it has more to do with a shift in marketing strategy.
Because just as little boys don’t want to be anywhere near a pink-glitter unicorns, grown men don’t like to buy personal products with “beauty” or “luxury” written on them. (Hey, it’s not perfume… it’s “aftershave”).
As a result, we are currently experiencing a hilarious marketing trend of “butched-up” beauty products for the male consumer.
Designers are taking enormous pains to reassure men that they are still, in fact, men… even when they want to treat their their acne or eczema.
Here are a few examples of machismo in skincare promotion:
- The “Road Warrior” Beard Lube from Jack Black
This isn’t just a moisturizing shaving cream, because that’s what pansies would use.
This is, instead, a “beard lube,” a brand-new title that not only brings up beards (which are masculine), but also lube, which you use on gears.
So, by using this conditioning shave cream, you’re not so much taking care of your skin as tuning up your face-car. And you need a lot of it, because you’re a man of action. You’re a “road warrior”
Glad we got that straight.
- The Mr. Fix-It Antimicrobial Wound Rescue Silver Gel from Jack Black
The Jack Black brand has absolutely mastered the art of lumberjack personal product marketing.
Everything, from the font that apes a cigar sticker to the utilitarian container shapes, screams “I’m a man’s man.”
We’ve got “Mr. Fix It” in the name, which brings forth traditional images of handymen fixing mechanical problems around the house, and “wound rescue,” as though you’re helicoptering into a battle field to patch up soldiers.
This product calls itself “performance ready,” so you don’t have to worry about the protracted waiting times that a more feminine product would involve.
You’re man of action, after all, and need to be ready to “perform” on a moment’s notice.
Mentioning “silver” and “antimicrobial” is just a bonus, since it brings up images of grandfathers pouring scalding blue iodine on wounds, wounds that were undoubtedly inflicted by using heavy machinery or crashing their planes. Because that’s how the men of yore, real men, used to get injured.
- Adrenaline Junkie Energizing Scrub from Billy Jealousy
Look, you aren’t just exfoliating your skin. That’s for wusses, and wusses don’t use products with tattoo-style dragons on the bottle.
No, you’re an “adrenaline junkie,” who needs an energizing scrub for all the high-energy activities you’ve planned for the day.
Maybe you’ll kick it off with some hardcore martial arts (like the dragon suggests), or want to “get your thrills by jumping out of planes or climbing Mount Everest.”
No wait, it sounds over-the-top, but that’s exactly what the product description says, along with the fact that this product will beat your “morning cup of Joe” for its ability to get your “heart racing and endorphins pumping.”
- Combination Code from Billy Jealousy
But some men need an even bigger challenge than jumping out of a plane after their morning cup of Joe, and for these men, we have “Combination Code,” by Billy Jealousy.
Technically, it’s a mattifying moisturizer for combination skin, but with a name like “Combination Code,” you know this product is actually meant to help you crack a safe during your bank heist.
Your buddies brought stethoscopes and mini-explosives, but you’ll have the drop on those fools. You have the combination code, so you can not only crack the safe, but also mattify your skin’s overproduction of oil while attending to dry spots.
- Facial Fuel SPF 15 from Kiehl’s
And finally, we have Facial Fuel SFF 15 from Kiehl’s skincare line. It’s basically a sunscreen, but Kiehl’s calls it a “facial recovery accelerator” for “refueling” your skin.
Protecting your delicate skin from the sun’s damaging rays sounds fruity, but accelerators and refueling are things that cars need.
Not just cars, but airplanes.
Yeah… planes. There’s a picture of an airplane on the container, so you’re not just protecting your skin, you’re being a face-pilot. This brand has been around since 1851, so it was probably beloved by those titans of yesteryear, back when they did rugged stuff like climb mountains and fly fighter jets.
It still works for this generation’s lads, however, with their heaps of testosterone bursting from every pore. Kiehl’s website features John, the “Kiehl’s insider,” who says the product’s “caffeine kick makes [him] ready to take on the day.”
There are countless more macho-sounding products on the market, of course, all suggesting that the right exfoliant will help you tackle the problems you might face as a foreign war veteran who likes to hang-glide.
And as ridiculous as it may seem to equate complicated skin regimens with wrestling crocodiles, it seems to be working.
Apparently, a lot of men have been wanting to take care of their skin all along. Just like the little boys at my preschool who want to host a taco picnic, grown men were always ready to handle the adrenalin-pumping rush that sunscreen provides.
We just needed to quit painting it pink.