Vanity flair! - ‘We live in a society where expectation is escalating and escalating’
After a summer of preening narcissism on TV and social media, Rose Mary Roche looks at the pressure on men to beef up and buff up, and asks what lies behind it
Between Cristiano Ronaldo's preening selfies, Love Island's male peacocks, David Beckham's chiselled torso on the beach and Aidan Turner's bare chest splashed across the front pages, we are firmly in the age of peak male vanity.
There was a time when vanity was exclusively a female preoccupation. Now with the 'metrosexual' stereotype commonplace and the boom in male grooming encompassing skincare, fragrance, beard maintenance, tattoos, waxing and manicures, men are internalising feminist author Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth with religious zeal. The gym has become the new church and the inverted triangle of the perfect athletic male body the object of worship.
It's a trend psychotherapist Stella O'Malley has observed in her work with teenage boys. "Instead of girls following the boys into being less vain, the boys followed the girls. It is a really sad situation," she says.
"Now they primp and preen and… an exact link with anxiety is narcissism. If you are continuously looking at yourself and focusing on yourself, it leads to anxiety. Immediately. There's a direct link."
She continues: "I see anxiety levels are rising. Anxiety disorder is the most common disorder in Ireland and it's also very linked with vanity, superficiality - a focus on their looks."
The outlook isn't entirely negative, however. Darren Kennedy, TV presenter, stylist and fashion journalist, sees aspects of the rise in male grooming as an encouraging development.
"It's the evolution of men and for a long time, men didn't pay heed or attention, maybe it wasn't seen as accessible or a manly thing to do. The pendulum has swung now and we're playing catch-up on women in many respects," he explains.
Kennedy adds that an increased interest in taking care of yourself is indicative of progress.
"I think a certain amount of care in your appearance is important. If people want to label it vanity or whatever they want, then each to their own, but I think taking care of your appearance, how you look, what you're eating, what you're putting on your skin - all those things overwhelmingly are positive. I believe everything in moderation."
This summer in particular has seen the male body become as sexualised as the female form. You need look no further than prime time television to find Aidan Turner's Poldark emerging shirtless from the sea or the hunks of Love Island cavorting in nothing but swim trunks for weeks on end.
In the last decade, celebrities like David Beckham, Gerard Butler and David Gandy have spurred on a male grooming revolution as ambassadors for cosmetic and skincare companies. Beauty brands have realised the potential in the male consumer, and are reaping lucrative dividends from male skincare ranges.
On the more extreme end, the likes of Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs have launched make-up lines for men while liposuction, laser hair removal and face lifts (once the sole preoccupation of women) are growing more and more popular among men.
Colman Noctor, a child and adolescent psychotherapist, allows that the "body conscious male has become far more mainstream than perhaps it would have before".
"We live in a society where expectation is escalating and escalating and escalating," he cautions, advising that "as our expectations for happiness and for what it is to look well grow higher, if that bar keeps rising then we will always fall short of it".
Noctor notes that there are elements of the new age of male vanity that are to be celebrated.
"It's important to say some of the health and fitness things are really good - good exercise, eating well, whatever it might be - but there will always be a cohort who move the dial into the obsessive regime and they take it far too seriously."
On Love Island, viewers saw the young contestants shaving their chests, blow-drying and styling their hair, and carefully grooming their beards. It's not just a British phenomenon, either.
In Dublin, Emmet Byrne, owner of the Butcher Barber, has been ideally placed to follow Irish men's changing attitudes about how they look. He endorses better grooming, explaining: "I think guys have realised that looking like a fit, healthy man who takes care of himself is a great way of promoting yourself in work or making yourself stand out from the crowd.
"I do believe that there's a fine line - looking at some of the young guys in Ireland, I believe they've gone too far," he goes on, citing leg waxing as an example. "They're grooming themselves maybe more than women."
While the technological and information age has dramatically altered modern concepts of masculinity, it seems there is still a barometer on what level of vanity is socially acceptable, and women still hold the top spot when it comes to grooming.
As we find ourselves in an era where the cult of the self is the defining ethos of modern life, self-love, self-care and selfies have created a tsunami of imagery of the male body beautiful, but this exhibitionism can also speak of insecurity.
"I did my PhD in this area and in the cases of young people who might have appeared narcissistic, they weren't declaring their identity, they were trying to find out who they were through that," says Noctor. "So I think that narcissism can be misinterpreted sometimes.
"It's not necessarily a grandiosity but more an uncertainty or a lack of self-esteem that causes them to [focus on their appearance]."
While there's a therapeutic value attached to grooming, the flip side is the pressure exerted by perfectly ripped, airbrushed idols of masculinity.
Those pressures are similar to the ones women have had to grapple with for years, and images that promote unrealistic bodies, crafted by filters and Photoshop, can leave ordinary men feeling inadequate.
Just like women do, men have to learn to negotiate such idealised imagery and how to manage their own expectations.
For Kennedy, it's a matter of "progress over perfection": being "the best version of you" but also "the honest version of you".
Emmet Byrne, meanwhile, sums up his approach in saying: "I think we've got to start saying, 'It's okay to look good and take care of yourself' but you've also got to love yourself, be happy with who you are and how you look."