Here’s a novel stat: South Korea accounts for about 20% of the world market for men’s cosmetics. This means annual sales of more than $1 billion courtesy of a mere 25 million men, and this figure will inflate by 50% over the next five years. On a per capita level, Korean men have everyone beat. Why? Because “appearance is power” and “youth equals ability.”
We’re not just talking skin lotions or aftershave here. Korean urbanites are also smitten with BB Cream, brow pencils and guyliner. Girlfriends and spouses not only shop cosmetics for their male partners in Seoul, but also casually apply lipstick to their faces in public without anyone sharpening the proverbial pitchforks.
That said, shouldn’t gender-bending be a complete no-no in the deeply Confucian culture of Korea? Also, befitting its two years of mandatory military service for young men, shouldn’t Korea’s benchmark for masculine beauty be the hardy, rugged type? Like Clark Gable? Even Bruce Lee? While that was once true, South Koreans now prize the puckish, Peter Pan look over Gerard Butler-esque alpha male chic.
These stats won’t surprise longtime fans of Korean pop music (K-Pop) one bit, though. The industry has been key in redefining what South Koreans consider the comely male. Pick out just about any K-Pop video on You Tube featuring a lad or two and you will be dazzled by thick, smoky eyes, impossibly chiseled features and a penchant for bright lipstick. Hell, there are video tutorials online offering DIY tips to look just like them.
Selling androgyny for sex appeal is not new to mainstream music. Everyone from Bowie to Boy George to hair-metal did so. Even Lord Bieber and One Direction get dolled up for shoots, though nothing remotely as radical as G-Dragon or Seventeen. Still, most makeup-wearing western acts came, shocked and left without greatly changing the status quo. Many had a feral component to their sexiness, a kind of danger by association.
The purse strings of K-Pop — formally known as SM, YG and JYP Entertainments — probably took the long view on revenue streams here. Therefore, while you always worried that Billy Idol or Adam Ant could shiv you mid-serenade, there is no such edge to most meticulously packaged males that constitute K-Pop. Sure, we get the odd edgy visuals sometimes, but these generally seem contrived and for effect.
The most elaborate marketing plans would, of course, be completely useless without strong economic drivers pushing social change. South Korea is an ultra competitive society with some of the longest working hours among developed nations. It went from having a per capita output less than the communist north’s five decades ago to becoming an immovable member of the elite G20 club. Such single-minded pursuit of the almighty won can, unfortunately, be a double-edged sword.
South Korean workers may be the most stressed in the world and the country’s suicide stats trump every nation barring Guyana, especially for young men. In a social order orbiting around material success, where everyone is competing for the same handful of topflight universities and corporations, male citizens latched onto makeup as a means to snake past the competition. Egged on by cultural pillars like K-Pop, the idea of emulating “flower boys” became “a marker of social success.”
South Korean companies probably enabled this obsession with skin-deep. Every job application, after all, requires a headshot and many owners prefer having face-readers on board interviews to determine if an applicant’s visage is suitable for their business beyond academics and skills.
Unsurprisingly then, plastic surgery is commonplace in South Korea and an increasing number of men desire Caucasian noses and slim jawlines, while approximately 1 in 5 female Seoul-dwellers have gone under the knife for various procedures. Indeed, long before Psy broke You Tube counters with his monster hit, the city’s Gangnam district was famous throughout Asia for its strip mall-like array of personal enhancement clinics.
Two events in the late 1990s reportedly accelerated the upending of traditional masculine ideals in South Korea. First, Japanese cultural staples like manga and anime fascinated Koreans after the government eased restrictions on their import. Especially popular were the “shoujo” variety targeting teenaged girls where male characters are “bishonen” or “beautiful boys” with exoplanet-sized eyes.
Not long after, the first wave of “flower boys” crashed onto Korean TV screens courtesy of K-Pop acts like DBSK (aka TVXQ) and later through the super popular local drama “Boys Over Flowers,” again inspired by a Japanese manga. Suddenly, macho men were passé and elvish imps made women swoon across the land.
The IMF Crisis of 1997 also ostensibly pushed Korean women to rebel against male stereotypes. When the downturn hit South Korea, female workers were laid off in much higher numbers than their male colleagues. Since weathering the crisis required a resurgence of nationalism, society expected them to take one for the team and quietly support their men.
Even so, Korean women didn’t take kindly to this slight and began rejecting the “the ideals of men as strong, provider types.” Coupled with the influence of Japanese comics, the emergence of “flower boys” in advertising and new movies that sold the soft, feminine male, they began pining for partners that were “more interested in satisfying them than their companies.”
Suspicious that mainstream media sources were cherry-picking narratives that made Korean men seem kooky, I reached out to my good friend Hyoung Jun Rim in Seoul. Hyoung is a record producer in the thick of all things K-Pop and a professor of music at the Korea Art Conservatory.
He admits that Korean men use makeup on a daily basis, but improved job prospects are only part of the equation. “It is about competition, but not only for job interviews.” There is a “self-satisfaction” that comes from looking good in the mirror and appealing to the opposite sex, Hyoung says. In short, a need to preen as human as hitting the john, although what constitutes “handsome” in South Korea today might incur homophobic slurs elsewhere.
Hyoung also doesn’t buy the Japanese cultural imports or IMF Crisis theories to explain the shift in masculine standards. K-Pop, he suggests, is a relatively new industry still experimenting with its image and focused solely on making money. Korean boy bands like TVXQ and EXO, for example, are really popular in manga-obsessed Japan, so androgyny could simply be a branding strategy.
Seoul may be the male makeup capital of the world, but personally Hyoung still puzzles over why South Koreans are infatuated with waif-like men wearing heavy cosmetics. He tells me he overhears people enthusing, “That guy’s head is sooo small, so handsome!” and just shakes his head.
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