The first time I was told Korean men wear makeup, I thought I was being duped. The second time, I dismissed it as an exaggeration—surely, it’s a tiny niche of men who are hyper-metro? Then, one night I was on a date and as he rummaged his bag, I spotted the glimmer of a shiny compact foundation. My eyes darted to his poreless skin and it all made sense.
Since then, I’ve learned a great deal more about Korean culture, gender identity and beauty. Basically, in Korea, it’s just as manly (and far more common) to roll up your sleeves for an exfoliating cleanse as it is to change a tyre.
It’s no surprise that South Korean men are the world’s biggest spenders on men’s beauty, with Danish men a distant second, spending only a quarter of their Korean counterparts. So formidable is the Korean men’s beauty market that global French brand Chanel launched its first men’s makeup line Boy de Chanel in Korea, rather than in its native country.
So why are Korean men so unique in their unabashed appreciation for skincare and cosmetics? Where did it all come from? The answer, or explanation, will probably seem just as quirky to you as the phenomenon itself.
The story is two-pronged. First, the hyper competitive nature of the Korean job market. In 1997, Korea’s economy suffered a massive blow from the Asian Financial Crisis with spikes in suicide rates, and companies going bankrupt left, right and centre. As the economy started to mend and companies started rehiring, everyone wanted to put their best foot forward and employers only wanted to recruit the best on offer, resulting in a huge emphasis on appearance. In Korea, you must include a headshot with your CV, regardless of the occupation.
The obsession with hiring the best looking candidate applies equally to men and women fuelling the plastic surgery craze for which Korea has become infamous. When beauty is not just decorative, but a practical way to climb the corporate ladder, it’s not hard to see how Koreans would view it as something in which men need to take a strong interest.
The second prong is a little more straightforward. In a word, it’s K-pop. If you’ve been to Seoul recently, you’ll know that the influence of K-pop idols is inescapable as impeccably groomed young men with perfectly coiffed hair are splashed across subway stations, stationery, and even have convenience store sandwiches dedicated to them.
On and off stage, K-pop stars wear a full, albeit relatively subtle, face of makeup, including BB cream, matte brown eyeshadow and brow definer. With the idolisation of these celebrities, it’s unsurprising that young men emulate their look by recreating this hyper-preened aesthetic.
While it’s still not at the stage where every male on the subway is seen with a YouTube tutorial-worthy makeup look, younger guys sporting a little BB cream and brow definer is incredibly common, and having a defined skincare routine is much like having a proper workout schedule—there’s nothing uniquely feminine about it. As K-culture becomes more popular overseas with the help of K-pop, dramas and local cuisine, it remains to be seen whether they’ll inspire our men in NZ to view a skincare kit the same way they view a toolkit.