Gendered Dirt

We all know that living in a city can be a dirty affair, even in cities where extensive regulation and legislation prevents too much litter from floating the streets. Singapore famously penalises littering of public space with fines of up to 300 dollars – but this does not prevent the city state from having to grapple with air pollution caused by exhaust fumes. Indeed, no city is exempt from subjecting its inhabitants to soot and dirt. London, of course, seems continuously unable to curb its pollution levels and its air quality is getting worse rather than better.[1]

Everyone who lives in a big city is affected by poor air quality, but L’Oréal has found a way to not only use urban pollution as a marketing ploy, but also to make it a gendered issue. I picked up my male housemate’s L’Oréal Men Expert Hydra Energetic Black Charcoal Wash “Magnetic” Effect facewash the other day, and was startled to read the text on the back of the package:

Too much DIRT? Pollution, oil, impurities…Everyday’s [sic] a challenge in the urban jungle. Unfortunately this can show on your skin: dullness, shininess… For skin that feels squeaky clean: TRY THE “MAGNETIC” EFFECT WASH

(…) The formula acts like a magnet on skin to capture & get rid of dirt (impurities, excess sebum and pollution) and helps fight 5 problems that can be caused by daily city grime: SHINE; BLACKHEADS; STICKINESS; DULLNESS; ENLARGED PORES.

Putting the bogus claims about ‘the power of charcoal’ and ‘magnetic facewash’ to one side, what really struck me is how this product, marketed at men, states that the city is to blame for any skin issues. By comparison, this is the text on the facewash I use myself, which is branded for female use[2]:

Is PureActive Anti-blackhead deep pore wash right for me? Yes, if your skin is prone to blackheads, blemishes and imperfections, if it is combination to oily and if you are looking for a deep cleansing wash. (…) Enriched with Zinc and Salicylic Acid, selected for its purifying power, it helps to control shine and helps protect against the appearance of blemishes, blackheads and imperfections.

Here, it is not an external factor that causes the skin to break out, but it is the skin’s innate failure and ‘imperfection’ that is the culprit. Women are told they probably have skin that is ‘prone’ to blackheads and they can buy products to ‘control’ this natural urge of their skin. Men, on the contrary, are implied to have ‘perfect’ skin as their natural state, and this is only disrupted by their environment.

Of course, in either case, it is limiting and worrying that these products imply that the only skin worth having is one that is completely free of ‘blemishes’, which are in any case naturally occurring and completely harmless phenomena. I also personally quite enjoy the feeling of having freshly washed skin, and I presume my male housemate does, too, and that is the reason we use these products. But these brief marketing texts show that the gendered advertising of ‘care and beauty’ products goes beyond using black packaging for ‘male’ products and pastel-coloured packaging for ‘female’ products. The narrative used in the marketing copy reinforces the notion that women are somehow faulty and can only hope to one day be worthy, whereas men are sufficient in their own right and only need to use products to scrub off external tarnish.

The L’Oréal product presents the city as the source of all pollution, the cause of imperfections, without challenging one’s choice to live in the city if it is such a source of dirt. You can imagine the kind of man this product is aimed at: someone with a successful professional job, who is go-getting and does not want his impure skin to stand in the way of his success. Lewis Hamilton, who is currently the ‘face’ of the L’Oréal Men Expert line, embodies this ideal. The wash even claims to have an ‘Active Defence System’, to further the connotations with masculinity and the military. Living in the city is a battle which the Man is going to win – never mind that the city is wholly man-made. The ‘defence’ is against man’s own creation, the city like a Frankenstein’s monster that has gone out of control.

Finally, in a curious twist, the RRP for the Men Expert face wash is £6.35, whereas my own facewash sells at £3.69.[3] I was expecting the ‘male’ product to be cheaper – after all, the Internet routinely reports on examples of ‘female’ products having an inexplicable mark-up. Not in this case; I wonder if it is because the Men Expert wash has that Active Defence System and is apparently veritable piece of engineering. The price increases the status of the wash developed by ‘experts’. All my own soap does is try to assist my own body’s apparent inability to control itself.

[1] King’s College London maintains a website which gives Londoners access to live air pollution levels in the capital: www.londonair.org.uk

[2] This is Garnier PureActive Anti-Blackhead Deep Pore Wash

[3] Original retail prices at Boots UK

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