South Korean men lead the world’s male beauty market. Will the West ever follow suit?

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes. Photo by mentatdgt from Pexels

My email contribution to Jessica Rapp’s piece for CNN. Who told her that if you ask me about one of my pet topics, I’ll happily type away for hours, even if only a few lines will make it into the final article? Confess!

  1. What has South Korean beauty done in terms of redefining masculinity and how has that space changed?

I would argue that the South Korean beauty industry has generally been much more reactive than a driver of trends and redefinitions. In particular, while the kkotminam (lit. “flower beautiful man”) phenomenon of the mid-2000s has now become so mainstreamed as a male beauty ideal that the term has fallen into disuse, it only appears to have been an invention of the beauty industry. In fact, it was overwhelmingly the result of changing women’s tastes, who were already very much changing the public conversation about sexual norms and beauty ideals from the mid-1990s, and who were heavily influenced themselves by the influx of (surprisingly popular) homoerotic yaoi manga from Japan after a ban on their import was lifted in 1998. Also, many of the first male celebrities to be branded with the kkotminam label in fact generally rejected it, and even those that did take advantage of it still made sure to buff up and show off their bodies regularly, lest the label raise questions about their masculinity and heterosexuality.

In that vein, it is actually Korea’s prolonged economic slump, especially its jobless-driven recovery from the 2008 financial crisis, that is primarily driving male beauty trends today. Specifically, Korea now has the highest youth unemployment rate since the catastrophic Asian Financial Crisis of the late-1990s, and has always had too many graduates (Korea has one of the highest numbers of university entrance rates in the world) chasing after ever-diminishing numbers of jobs at conglomerates like Samsung and LG. In this cut-throat environment, 20 and 30-somethings are all about improving their “specs” with extra degrees, courses, internships, English-language qualifications, and so on, and the beauty industry has been quick to address the need to get a step up on the competition through improving one’s looks too. Lest this sound like exaggeration, bear in mind that Korea and Japan are the only countries in the OECD where it is routine to require photographs on resumes, and accordingly the Korean internet is full of forums where people can upload their pictures and receive constructive criticism on their appearance and photoshopping suggestions before they submit their job applications.

A selection of resume forms, seen in an Osaka Daiso last August.
  1. What role does K Pop play into the male beauty culture?

Given all the overseas media attention focused on the Korean Wave, and especially recently on the phenomenal success of the boy-band BTS, it is very easy to overlook the fact that K-pop isn’t actually all that popular in Korea itself, by any metric. Also, there are huge generational and regional differences in male beauty culture, with generally only young Seoulites embracing the new beauty trends that get all the media attention. (Overseas K-pop fans that visit Korea are often surprised and disappointed that most Korean men look nothing like their idols!).

Much more influential then, are the aforementioned job-hunting pressures, as well as men’s almost universally-shared experience of military conscription. Facing two years in the harsh wind and sun along the DMZ, these days conscripts quickly learn to become avid users of sunscreen especially. A gateway drug, if you will, to more involved and varied skin routines once they leave the military.

That said, K-pop has been a thing for over a decade now, so all Korean 20-somethings have grown-up under its influence. It is also true that Korea has a uniquely celebrity-obsessed media culture, to an extent that is difficult to appreciate without living in the country. Over 60% of television commercials feature celebrities for instance (compared to 10-20% in countries like the US and UK), and they appear on TV shows far more often than their Western counterparts. Moreover, most of the men you see when you flick the channels are indeed young K-pop stars, as their entertainment agencies have strong incentives to accept offers of endorsement deals for them, which are far more lucrative than music sales. Naturally, many of these deals are for selling male beauty products. But they are no less influential if they are in ads aimed at women instead (they have increasingly appeared even in lingerie ads for instance), as if Korean women increasingly come to demand the beauty standards and routines of male idols in their romantic partners, then ordinary Korean men will only be too eager to attempt to provide.

Given K-pop stars’ pervasive, ubiquitous presence in Korean daily life then, it is very difficult to imagine the beauty ideals they represent and advocate don’t have some influence on the Korean public, regardless of their personal music tastes!

  1. When we think of male “beauty” in Korea, are we thinking of it in the traditional way that women wear a full face of makeup? Or is the mainstream more about skin care?

The emphasis is overwhelmingly on skincare, based on their previously-mentioned, formative experiences in the military. Unfortunately though, unrepresentative Korean men that do spend lots of money and time on cosmetics are often featured in clickbaity foreign media reports about male beauty in Korea, thereby perpetuating “crazy Asian” Orientalist stereotypes.

Please note that I said spending money on “cosmetics” however. Spending significant amounts of one’s income on minor cosmetic surgery like a double-eyelid operation is very normal and mainstream for Korean men now, and is arguably considered no more or less unusual of an necessary investment in a valuable spec than in, say, the English lessons required for a high TOEFL score.

This was not always the case for Korean men though, so it’s by no means impossible that male cosmetics use will likewise become increasingly mainstreamed in the future too. My personal feeling is that most Korean men will balk at the huge amount of time, effort, and money that Korean women routinely have to spend on cosmetics, but who knows? Korea is a rapidly changing place, and Koreans love to defy foreigners’ convenient stereotypes of them.

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If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)