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Buffed: how these Essex lads polish up to get pretty

TextAngus HarrisonPhotographyHazel Gaskin

Preened and pumped, these young men – both straight and gay – are the OG metrosexual men, but still feel the pressures of unattainable beauty standards

Welcome to Behind The Masc: Rethinking Masculinity, a campaign dedicated to exploring what ‘masculinity’ means in 2019. With photo stories shot in Tokyo, India, New York, and London and in-depth features exploring mental health, older bodybuilders, and myths around masculinity – we present all the ways people around the world are redefining traditional tropes.

Essex – or at least the Essex of our imaginations – has long been associated with a certain type of beauty: glossy, meticulous and bronzed. Yet until a few years ago it was the women of Essex who were the face of this cliche, admired and derided in equal measure for a supposed affection for plastic surgery and spray-tanned skin. Now, however, they’ve been joined in our collective imagination by a new, instantly recognisable archetype: the Essex lad. 

You know the look; muscular, spotless, and hairless. Signifiers of traditional manliness remain – muscles, tattoo sleeves, facial hair – but are offset by new-school squeak: iridescent teeth, grease-slicked quiffs, perfectly sculpted eyebrows and beards, all atop baby-soft skin. This look existed before The Only Way Is Essex burst onto our screens almost a decade ago, but it has stayed in our consciousness as the show has stayed firmly popular on our screens, and it has leaked into other parts of British culture, from the preened Adonises of Love Island to posters of tight-Hawaiian-shirted Boohoo models. 

All of this visibility proves that the phenomenon of the metrosexual preened and pumped Essex Lad is no longer localised to Essex alone, either. The male beauty industry is booming and male-exclusive grooming salons can be found across the UK. According to Allied Market Research, the men’s cosmetic and personal care industry could hit $166 billion by 2022, with male skin-care products enjoying a 7 per cent jump in sales last year alone. Just as beauty salons have pivoted to incorporate men into the treatments they offer, many barbers are branching into facials alongside wet shaves. Men’s beauty is booming, and changing the cultural identity of cis males as it grows, redefining the way we think about manliness from the natural caveman to something much more carefully contrived. 

“Men’s beauty is booming, and changing the cultural identity of cis males as it grows, redefining the way we think about manliness from the natural caveman to something much more carefully contrived”

At the Tranquility Beauty Salon, in South Woodford, the faces of this New Masculinity congregate, coming in for treatments. Leanne has been a beauty therapist at Tranquility for the best part of nine years. She’s noticed both a considerable increase in male clients in the past five years, but also a change in how comfortable they are in the salon environment. From overworked CEOs booking massages to 20-somethings seeking tailored skincare solutions, men who a decade ago would have sheepishly come in with their girlfriends but now enjoy regular monthly facials at £55 a pop.

“We see a lot of guys who travel for work, people who work in security and areas like that,” she says. “As soon as they get back we get a call: ‘Are you available for a manicure? Eyebrow shape? eyelash tint?’” Many of them are influenced by men in the media who outwardly embrace grooming. If there was a time when David Beckham’s haircut made column inches, consider last summer's World Cup when a team of barbers flew to Russia to provide the entire team with fades before every game. From Love Island finalist Tommy Fury, who balances boxing with immaculate eyebrows, to a booming industry of dapper male influencers on Instagram, the mainstream modern man is expected to be faultless, washed and waxed.

Sam, who I meet at Tranquility, is also a boxer. When we meet at the salon he’s a few weeks away from a big fight, so is training hard and curbing his eating in order to drop weight. He’s typically masculine in many respects – athletic, muscular, a gentle cockney swagger – yet has a weekly haircut, has his eyebrows shaped on a monthly basis and visits sunbeds as many as three times a week, (although, aware of the health risks, he’s trying to cut that number down). He claims his interest in grooming isn’t unusual in boxing circles. “You still get your rough and ready boxers, but it’s a lot more common now,” he says. “You’re in front of so many cameras, so much media, it’s more acceptable to take an interest in it.”

Sam admits he gets some flack, mostly from blokes of his parents’ generation or above. “Yeah, a lot of the older generation are like, ‘What’s the matter with you? You pansy’,” he says. “I’m like: ‘I like to look good. What’s your problem?’” He says his dad was similarly sceptical until recently, when they stopped at a tanning salon on the way back from training and Sam convinced him to have a go on a sunbed. “He’s been back twice since… on his own.”

The seriousness with which Sam approaches his regime is something Leanne has recognised in many of her male clients of his age. She even suggests that this change in attitude are helping to disentangle beauty from gender identity altogether. She points out that Tranquility don’t offer treatments labelled male or female. They are the same treatments, regardless of how the person receiving them identifies. “It’s an even playing field now,” she says. “You can be who you want to be. It’s the same treatment.”

Joey Turner is the latest cast member to join The Only Way is Essex (Aged 18, he was ten when the show first aired in 2010). He prefers a nighttime regime over a morning one, and only uses natural products including baking soda on his nose for blackhead removal. He carries himself with a languid confidence, brought to life by a gooey, grinning Essex accent. Later, when I ask what words he would like people to associate with him, he beams and slowly lists them: “Very unique looking, very beautiful. Exceptional. Everything good. Stunning, perfect, unreal, breathtaking.”

He first started taking an interest in grooming as a child, but since appearing regularly on television has felt the pressure increase. He admits to washing his face more than he would like to, and has started using concealer occasionally. Recently he went as far as getting his eyebrows microbladed, a semi-permanent effect that creates realistic hair strokes using a small blade and ink. Generally speaking, though, he prefers home treatments to the salon. “I think home treatments are more relaxing. Plus whenever I have cucumbers on my eyes I fall asleep.”

When I ask why he thinks Essex is the home of male beauty – or at least the cliche – he readily admits his employers have played a huge role. “I think the reason it’s more socially mainstream here is literally because of TOWIE,” he says. “In other places I visit, cos I’m literally always on the move, it’s different. You pick it up quickly, it’s a vibe.”

Olly moved to Basildon from Bournemouth to study at a performing arts college. As a teenager he suffered from bad acne, so now takes a keen interest in his skin. Now 20, he has a clean-cut youthful radiance, preserved by his morning routine: shower, exfoliate, moisturise. When he’s sweaty from training at college he’ll often wash his face multiple times in the same day, using cold water to close the pores. “I like to look nice when I go out,” he says. “If I’m going to an event or a party… I want to be someone people look up to.”

Just like the other men profiled in this piece, Olly uses Instagram a lot. He describes it as his art; the place he shows his authentic self to the world. That said, he often laments the role it plays in his life. “Instagram can be overpowering at times,” he continues. “I don’t think about it all the time, but if I do look good I’ll always post it and see how successful it is. Obviously that’s what Instagram’s about now. It’s annoying but that’s the world we live in.”

The pressure is echoed by Sam – who readily admits to feeling the “pressure to be perfect” – and Joey, who has the added lens of a career in reality television. It’s a stress Leanne sees in her clients. “Men are told they have to be six foot or above, chiselled chest, broad… Some people aren’t born like that,” Leanne says. “People can get carried away. Cosmetic surgery, having certain treatments or having too much of something. That’s a big thing, and it’s starting to affect people mentally.”

“The Essex lad is full of contradictions. On one hand, he represents a new school of masculinity, able to talk freely with his friends about eyebrow shaping in the smoking area of a nightclub, yet he is also riddled with insecurities symptomatic of the Instagram-age”

The Essex lad – if we want to return to this nebulous (possibly unhelpful) character – is full of contradictions. On one hand, he represents a new school of masculinity, able to talk freely with his friends about eyebrow shaping in the smoking area of a nightclub; comfortable with concept of “me time” and self-care. Yet he is also riddled with insecurities symptomatic of the Instagram-age. The platform has exposed him to the beauty standards women have been weathering for decades, leaving him at once more open and more exposed.

Leanne points out later that there is also a class dimension to Essex’s role in this phenomenon. Regular beauty treatments are not cheap, meaning those who enjoy them are typically affluent – many of them ex-Londoners who made their money before migrating to the southeast suburbs. “If you live in Essex you tend to have a bigger house, higher wages, you can afford to look better,” she says. “Rather than just showing off your money, you can show yourself off that way.” It’s a sentiment Sam echoes: “I know it sounds bad or materialistic, but you want to look like you’re worth something.”

Perhaps the hope comes from the salon itself: a peaceful place where new age music drifts over the gentle babble of basins filling with warm water. Leanne speaks to the safety offered within the salon walls, the ethos of self-care implicit in a good skincare routine, or the space for conversation provided by an hour-long massage. It’s a quality she embodies – to spend a day with Leanne is to encounter small talk as a religious experience – but conversation can err on the more serious too. “A lot of guys, particularly long-term clients, will talk about anything,” she says. “‘I’ve lost my wife… I had to bury my grandad… I’m not in a good place right now.’ We have those sorts of conversations all the time. It’s a therapy session, only much cheaper than going to an actual therapist.” 

All three guys speak to the lift the grooming gives them; the pride they feel when the look good and the sanctuary they find in their rituals. “When you start looking after yourself physically you can better look after yourself mentally,” Joey says. It’s a different vision of masculinity – one that feels new pressures but also has a greater understanding of how to soothe them. Or, as Sam puts it, “It’s nice to be pampered. You know what I mean?”

Read more from Behind The Masc: Rethinking Masculinity here.

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