Toxic Masculinity And Infantilization: Why Fashion Communication Is Letting Men Down

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by Morgan Glines

Anyone who has opened a fashion magazine within the last few years can tell you that the fashion industry has come leaps and bounds in the way they treat women. There are more sizes, more shapes, more colors, more cultures, even more price points. While I don’t think anyone would say the industry is perfect, or that there isn’t still room for improvement, it would be impossible to say that there hasn’t been a tonal shift towards diversity, and general respect. Gone are the days of ads with women pressing bottles of perfume between their breasts. Of derivative Helmut Newton-esque hyper sexualized women trussed up and dominated. Of page after page of women who seem to miraculously all have the same measurements.

This push towards diversity has been a creative boon for designers, stylists, editors, and advertisers. I’ve seen friends proudly displaying copies of Vogue on their coffee tables, who until recently would have scoffed at the idea of ever picking up a fashion magazine, or frankly, any print magazine. The newfound respect the industry has shown for women is breathtaking, and it seems to be paying off. All this begs the question, why hasn’t the way the industry treats men evolved too?

Now please don’t misunderstand me. For centuries the fashion industry has profited by targeting women’s insecurities, and it still does. No one with any understanding of the fashion industry would deny that. There are countless statistics to back up that claim, from women disproportionately having eating disorders, to women outnumbering men in plastic surgeons’ offices. The industry has always walked a fine line between empowerment and toxicity. What fascinates me is that despite the seismic changes in the way the industry chooses to treat and portray women, the way it communicates to and portrays men has barely changed. Frankly, the way magazines, blogs, and brands treat men today has rarely been seen in women’s media since the seventies.

The most obvious and frequent message I see in advertising and editorials directed at men is, “Wear this to please women.” It’s overt, and it’s omnipresent. Not only is this message regressive because it doesn’t promote self actualization or authenticity, it also denies that a significant portion of the population isn’t interested in the opposite sex, or even any sex in some cases. “Dress to please the opposite sex” is prevalent in everything from fitness magazines to YouTube ads. If Google recognizes you as a male too young to qualify for an AARP membership, you can’t watch a video online without seeing preceding advertisements with messages along the lines of, “My girlfriend loves when I wear this tee shirt. She says it makes my arms look buff.” I imagine any apparel company would have to file for bankruptcy rather quickly if they marketed to women by hiring an actress to say, “My boyfriend loves when I wear this shirt. He says it makes me look hot.” Why isn’t there the same level of outcry when the same kind of messaging is directed towards men?

If you ask anyone even tangentially involved in the fashion industry today what their least favorite trend is they’ll likely tell you, “hype.” The hype based marketing phenomenon isn’t exclusive to men’s fashion, but it really reaches its zenith in men’s street wear. All fashion magazines report on trends, but in general, women’s magazines offer an assortment of ideas to pick and choose from. The messaging is rarely if ever to buy a specific product, or buy from a specific brand, because said specific product is popular. Men’s magazines frequently take the opposite approach. The messaging isn’t, “Here’s a wide assortment of trends that you can incorporate into your existing wardrobe.” It’s more along the lines of, “Buy these sneakers or you’re going to miss out.”

This kind of messaging blurs the line between advertising and editorial content to the point where there really isn’t any distinction between the two. Furthermore, it enforces archaic patriarchal stereotypes. In context, the message feels like, “Display your dominance over less cool males by buying tremendously ugly sneakers.” For men, hype based marketing is less about joining a community of connoisseurs in the know, and more about dividing men into hip and unhip camps, and pitting them against each other. This strategy is primal to the point of primitive.

The tone taken by everyone from print media journalists, to advertisers, to popular style bloggers is perhaps the most subtly damaging quality about fashion communication aimed at men. We’ve all seen it. Jovial articles or videos from the point of view of a well meaning friend or “bro,” sharing truly obvious advice. “Did you remember to shower today?” “You know you need to change your underwear daily, right?” The demeaning tone taken by these content creators gives one the impression that they think men is either children or cavemen. Worse, it enforces stereotypes that while men are great providers, they’re unable to care for themselves, or anyone else for that matter. In this day and age, we shouldn’t be pushing the narrative that men can’t take care of themselves on even the most basic level, and need a partner (read: a woman) to do it for them.

How do we move forward? It’s actually pretty easy, because women’s fashion magazines, blogs, and advertisements have already started laying the groundwork. Instead of telling men to buy something because said thing is popular, why not tell them to buy the same thing because it can express who they are as an individual? Instead of infantilizing, content creators can aim to educate constructively and maturely. In its purest form, fashion is about expressing authenticity. It’s about relating to the world around us through dress. If as a society we want to expect more from men, we need to take a critical look at the kinds of messages men are bombarded with.

The bottom line is, the fashion industry is letting men down

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