A young man smiles as a beautiful woman ruffles his shoulder-length hair. A cactus goes limp. A bulldog grins in a mullet wig. A sans-serif font spells out “shout out to the men who aren’t afraid of stepping up and taking care of themselves” on a pastel background. Then there’s a link to buy some erectile dysfunction (ED) drugs.
This is Hims. Since it launched in 2017, the men’s wellness site has received more than $197 million (£162m) in investment. But the website’s millennial-friendly colour scheme and straight-talking style could easily belong to any number of eerily similar sites that have launched in the last two years.
These subscription-based brands sell a mixture of pharmaceutical drugs and wellness products using an aesthetic cadged straight from the brand guidelines of makeup firm Glossier. They’re littered with stats that argue that up until now men haven’t taken care of themselves, such as “ninety per cent of men don’t seek help unless they have a serious problem”, and they encourage visitors to “challenge the outdated notion that real men shrug their shoulders and carry on” by… buying their products.
Hims offers prescription hair growth drug finasteride and ED sildenafil pills to customers in the UK. In the US it also sells gummy vitamins, cold sore-fighting virus suppressants and anxiety-reducing beta-blockers. It launched within months of Roman; a pharmaceutical-focused men’s brand that sells hair loss and ED products as well as medication for herpes and enlarged prostates.
The lineup of cookie-cutter male wellness brands is joined by Numan, which launched in February 2019, and sells finasteride, sildenafil and another ED drug tadalafil, as well as Manual, which launched in January. It sells those same drugs, as well as skincare products and a caffeine shampoo that claims to encourage hair growth. There’s also Cornerstone, which launched as a shaving brand in 2015 but over the past two years has expanded to sell 24 products. It sells everything from condoms to toothbrush heads and skincare, plus finasteride, sildenafil and tadalafil. Its founder is hoping to launch weight loss, stop-smoking and acne products soon.
These sites position themselves as part of the blossoming of a new masculinity, where men can moisturise without getting called “metrosexual” and talk about taboo issues like ED and hair loss without feeling ashamed. They offer themselves as a panacea for a gender that has been bombarded with unrealistic body images but – until now – has struggled to talk about their impact. But behind the rise of male wellness, something much more sinister is going on. Are the rash of brands claiming to overturn the staid world of male cosmetics actually just applying a pastel colour scheme to decades-old stereotypes of masculinity?
The roots of the male wellness go back to way before the launch of Hims, and the boom of subscription-based companies in the mid-2010s. Dollar Shave Club, which launched in 2011, set a precedent for men’s grooming services that would deliver products (in this case razors) to your home at regular intervals. By 2016 it was valued at $1 billion (£826m).
While subscriptions were catching on, the pharmaceutical world was experiencing a crisis around some of its most popular drugs. In 2014 the patent for the hair-loss drug finasteride expired while the patent for sildenafil – the generic name for the drug sold as Viagra – will be finished by 2020. In 2017, Telehealth laws in the US changed meaning that some pharmaceutical drugs could be prescribed by online doctors.
These new brands are riding a change in attitude towards wellness that dates back to 2008, when Gwyneth Paltrow sent out her first Goop newsletter. It was the birth of a mainstream shift – from thinking that being healthy was about not being ill to the idea that even otherwise healthy people should always be optimising their bodies. Diets started being presented as ways to get rid of “toxins” or get more energy. Cleansing routines were described as good for your mental health or ways to “love yourself”. We were introduced to sleep tracking apps and supplements that claimed to help with memory and attention span.
The lifestyle was quickly adopted by influential men as well as women – and their choices became talking points. It was reported that Lebron James spends $1 million (£826,000) on his wellness routine each year, Tom Brady’s strict alkaline meal plan became infamous and the extreme biohacking habits of (largely male) Silicon Valley CEOs are widely dissected online. Twitter’s Jack Dorsey has claimed to eat one meal a day and go on silent meditation trips.
“Products that promise to bolster you against the strains of contemporary life have become appealing,” says Rachel O’Neill, a sociologist at London School of Economics who studies wellness communities. As the 2008-2009 financial crisis diminished aspirations and job opportunities, wellness brands stepped in to offer a path towards sell-improvement. “In a context where people’s life chances are diminishing, you can work on the body to create value for yourself. This could particularly be the case for men as employment has been a key site of defining masculinity.”
Traditionally, male-targeted grooming adverts have been very practical. In the 1950s, shaving products were all about speed and effectiveness. They said things like “cools my faces in seconds, soothes my face for hours”. Even now, heritage brands like L’Oreal focus on the science and sensation of their products. They’re “hydra-energetic” products that leave you “invigorated” or “squeaky clean”. But the new sites borrow the holistic language of the wellness movement – Manual, for example, promises to make men “the healthiest, happiest, most confident”.
“Traditional players have been caught out,” says Lawrence Janes, managing director of marketing consultancy company Collidascope. Research his firm conducted last year showed that saying a product made you “less stressed” and “more relaxed” drove significantly more sales than when it described its ingredients and efficacy. “The language has softened up. It’s a much more holistic approach and it has to be authentic.”
The new start-up founders claim that this new approach to men’s health is changing how men look after their wellbeing. If so – it’s not necessarily for the better. Cornerstone founder Oliver Bridge says 80 to 90 per cent of the people buying the brand’s ED products have never used the treatment before. Can he be sure that people aren’t buying it who don’t need it? “Possibly, I couldn’t rule that out,” he says. “To get the product from us you have to fill out a detailed questionnaire and, you know, if people aren’t willing to be honest, there is only so much we can do.”
Doctors have spoken out about how young men are self diagnosing with ED when actually they have performance anxiety – a condition that is more widely linked to stress and body image issues than the physical problem that ED medication fixes.
“[Using ED medication] might distract men from addressing the fundamental issues,” says Brendan Gough, a psychologist at Leeds Beckett University who has been studying the rise of the men’s wellness industry. “Traditionally a lot of men are reluctant to go to the doctor so this kind of service removes having to talk to someone about the issue. It’s a shortcut.”
As Gough says, while these brands claim to “to enable a conversation that’s currently closeted” they’re also helping men get treatment without having to talk to anyone about their problems. And that’s not the only problem with the male wellness movement. While Manual’s site claims the days of “square jaws and no flaws” are “long gone,” their entire brand leans on the assumption that flaws in men’s bodies need fixing. Even if Numan says “some like it bald” – when it’s written next to a photo of a good-looking young man playing with his full head of hair and then a link to some hair loss prevention drugs, it’s hard to believe it means it.
And blurring the line between pharmaceuticals, supplements and cosmetics might also be a problem. Pharmaceuticals that might have serious side effects (finasteride, for example, is reported to cause ED in one out of 31 men) sit next to innocuous skincare creams. Meanwhile the benefits of vitamins – which are unregulated – are elevated to the status of heavily-trialed pharmaceuticals. The Hims’ site features $73-worth of rainbow-coloured vitamin gummies, all making vague promises about improving sleep, heart health or immunity.
Other products are even more worrying. In the US, Hims markets the beta-blocker propranolol as a quick-fix for life’s stressful moments. “Perhaps you have important meetings coming up, a speaking engagement or an interview,” the US site says, positioning its pills as a short-term solution. But this risks pathologising what are otherwise normal and transitory feelings. “It’s the medicalisation of everyday life,” says Gough. “Brands are redefining and re-characterising everyday feelings so that new markets can be created and new products sold.”
Behind the minimalist online aesthetic and the photos of fresh-faced young men, the male wellness movement might not be so empowering as it seems. If men are as bad at looking after themselves as these sites claim, the solutions might not lie in startups and vitamin gummies, but in a more profound societal shift that enables us to have unbiased conversations about male body image. Even if the flaccid cactus thing is charming.
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