Man Tan

14 May
Source: Author's image

Source: Author’s image

What do Gerard Butler, George Hamilton, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey all have in common? You may have guessed it … they use fake tan.

Recently my wife interrupted me whilst I was studying in my little ‘man cave‘.  She was getting ready for a night out to celebrate her brother’s engagement and needed to apply some ‘Tan Building Moisturizer’ to her back and couldn’t reach.  Obediently, I obliged and applied the tanning cream, which I was instructed to make sure I washed off my hands.  On the way into the bathroom, I spied myself in the mirror and thought I looked a little pale and peaky … you guessed it … I rubbed what cream was left on my hands into my face.  I said nothing to my wife until later that evening, when I asked her whether I had a nice healthy glow?  She laughed when I told her of my impulsive act of ‘man-scaping’ and warned me I had better not tell her brothers or my friends, as they would probably make fun…

We readied ourselves and headed out to celebrate my brother-in-law’s engagement.  During the night I had a great ‘man chat’ with a friend (the husband of one of my wife’s best friends).  As usual my studies come up in conversation and I mentioned some of my current readings on masculinity.  During this exchange of great wisdom, I shared the secret of my healthy glow.  My friend laughed and our conversation moved on. I thought no more about it.

Later that week my wife came home from work and asked had I told any one about my man-scaping?  It turned out my friend had told his wife about my spontaneous tanning.  With the sanctity and confidentiality of my ‘man chat’ broken, my secret was out!  A week or so later, my wife and I were out again, this time celebrating a friend’s 40th birthday.  At the party, my wife’s best friend (the one in on my tanning secret) approached with a devious look in her eyes.  With a smirk on her face she said ‘Clay … you’re skin has a very healthy glow!‘  My impulsive act of man-scaping was out, and all our friends were now in on my tanning secret, which they thought was hilarious.  It’s a good thing I’m equipped with a literal and metaphorical ‘thick skin’, or should I clarify … thick tanned skin!  But if the likes of Gerard Butler can smother himself with man tan without ridicule, why can’t I?

The answer is Gerard Butler’s position within the hierarchy of masculinities allows him to, but it may also be a subtle indication of shifts in hegemonic masculinity.  Older archetypes of hegemonic masculinity, such as the Marlboro man, didn’t worry about man-scaping, yet modern men are now increasingly encouraged to man-scape through glossy advertising campaigns.  Masculinity has become commoditized and a huge industry has developed around men’s cosmetic products[1].  Cosmetic companies would have us believe that men today can enhance and augment their masculinity by purchasing exfoliating face scrubs, intensive skin strengthening moisturizers, hair styling gels and putty, aloe-vera coated razor blades, and wrinkle fighting eye cream.  These products are promoted using adrenaline fueled imagery and language that encapsulates essentialist understandings of masculinity.  Grooming, or rather man-scaping, is being gradually appropriated into the hegemonic masculine ideal in Anglo-American culture.

Hegemonic males such as Butler tell us mere mortals, that we can maintain our masculinity and in fact enhance it by caring for our skin, or the like.  However, Butler and his band of moisturizing buddies don’t warn the average Joe that using such products may not only soften their skin, but soften their masculinity too.  Man-scaping is a relatively new phenomenon[2], and is an indication of subtle shifts in contemporary masculinities, and a ‘softening’ of the hegemonic ideal.  Some scholars, such as Demetriou[3] and Arxer[4], would suggest that the appropriation of ‘softer’ masculinities within the hegemonic archetype is in fact symptomatic of the hybridization of hegemonic masculinity.

The softening of hegemonic masculinity through the appropriation of behaviours or practices otherwise associated with subordinate masculinities may just be a ‘new masquerade’[5] of hegemonic masculinity according to Demetriou.  The appropriation of new gender practices, such as man-scaping, does represent an encouraging change in contemporary masculinities and may support the theory of Inclusive Masculinities espoused by Anderson[6].

Either way, my tanning experience illustrates how gender practices are socially policed and how traditional notions of masculinity remain entrenched (certainly within my own social context).  My friends although maybe just having a little fun at my expense, demonstrate how individuals and groups can challenge those whom they view to be breaking normative gender practices.  Exemplars maintain higher positions within the hierarchy of masculinities allowing them to man-scape without little ridicule or challenge.  Although I was not so fortunate, with a little good humor and self-depreciation I was unscathed and retained my ‘mansomeness’!

Further Reading: 

[1] For more information, see –

[2]See Mansome (2012) Directed by Morgan Spurlock

[3]Demetriou, D.Z. (2001: 355) ‘Connell’s concept of hegemonic masculinity: A critique’, Theory and Society, Vol. 30, (3), pp. 337-361 (link)

[4]Arxer, S.L. (2011) ‘Hybrid Masculine Power: Reconceptualising the Relationship Between Homosociality and Hegemonic Masculinity’, Humanity & Society, Vol. 35, pp. 390-422 (Link).

[5]Demetriou, D.Z. (2001)

[6]Anderson, E. (2012) ‘Shifting Masculinities in Anglo-American Countries’, Masculinities and Social Change, Vol. 1, (1), pp. 40-60 (Link).


A version of this blog featured on on 11/17/2013.


Clay is a PhD candidate at University College Dublin, School of Sociology.  His research interests are Masculinity and Drug Use, in particular, exploring the role of drug use in the construction, maintenance and displaying of young masculine identities.  Clay’s other areas of research interest include health, Irish culture and art.

For more blogs by Clay go to

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