From Macho to Make-Up: Shifting Gender Ideals in South Korea

Centuries of conservative morals and Confucian culture has led to a traditional sense of gender in South Korea. Gender roles are still widely very stereotypical and the ‘macho male’ image still prevails across the country – yet South Korea is the male make-up capital of the world. It has the largest market for male skincare than anywhere else– even though there are only approximately 19 million men in South Korea.

Some gender stereotypes are starting to shift away from the stringent gender roles that were previously considered ‘the norm’, as many South Korean men are now turning to skincare and even make-up to enhance their image. It is suggested that these gender shifts began in the late 1990’s when the South Korean government relaxed a ban on cultural goods from Japan. This exposed South Korean men to different standards and ideas of male beauty.

The beauty industry is a highly profitable one and parts the public with their money regardless of what country it is in. Nevertheless global economic troubles seem not to have any impact on the men’s beauty industry in South Korea. Sales of cosmetics for men and male skincare are on the rise. In recent years the market for beauty products for men in South Korea has emerged and has been widely embraced which has led to its considerable growth.

According to market research from Euromonitor International, in 2011 South Korean men spent roughly $493 million (US dollars) on skincare. This massive figure accounted for almost 21% of global sales that year. Of the approximate male population of 19 million men in South Korea, it is estimated that at least 1 in 10 wear make-up and this number is likely to increase.

Amore Pacific, South Korea’s largest cosmetics company expects the number of men who use skincare products and/or wear make-up to dramatically increase. They predict that South Korean men will spend roughly $850 million (US dollars) on these products this year alone.

It is universally known that stars wear make-up regardless of gender or nationality. Both male and female K-pop stars, actors and actresses and models wear make-up for their professional careers. It is also widely accepted that females (whether public or stars) wear make-up and use skincare products in their everyday lives. But now the male population of the South Korean public are joining in.

These so called ‘flower men’ are becoming more and more prevalent on the streets of South Korea. ‘Flower men’ are categorised as exceptionally good looking young men, and the phenomenon was arguable made popular by Ahn Jung-Hwan, a South Korean World Cup soccer player, in 2002.

This lifestyle trend is more associated with urban populations than with rural ones, with Seoul being the obvious example. It is not unusual to find South Korean men wearing the most basic of make-up in their everyday lives. These products can include, but are not limited to, concealer, foundation, mascara, eye shadow and brow pencils. BB cream is perhaps the most popular product for men. It was originally designed for the plastic surgery industry, so that patients could hide minor surgery scars and reduce the appearance of redness after dermatological procedures. Now it is used worldwide by men and women alike.

Amore Pacific currently has 17 brands for men with dozens of products available. It also has two ‘Manstudio’ stores in Seoul dedicated purely to men’s skincare and make-up. They even offer their own branded camo-paint for men to use during their 2-year mandatory military conscription service. The benefits of this brand over standard regulation camo-paints are that Amore Pacific’s one is kinder and gentler on the skin. Soldiers have also openly admitted to using make-up such as BB cream due to its SPF properties as they are out in the sun a lot during their service. Soldiers are not the only ones who are wearing make-up in their professional career. Korean Air holds annual male make-up classes for all of their male staff at Incheon International Airport.

There is no doubt that some South Korean men are now wearing make-up, and a lot more are using skincare products such as cleansers, anti-aging creams and eye creams, but the question is why?

South Korea is a deeply competitive country. It has already been established that its focus on beauty and presentation is paramount. In a society that values how a person looks just as much as the substance of their academic achievements and personality, first impressions are vital.  When the decision for those who are successful in their endeavours and those who aren’t is being made, it could come down to something as simple as: who looks better?

Using make-up and skincare products to cover spots, tired eyes, scars and other undesirable aesthetic features has become relevant to boosting fortunes, social lives and company in a society that holds personal appearance in such high regard. Handsome, flawless and fashion conscious men saturate the media in South Korea, and the image of a beautiful man is unavoidable. Male K-pop stars now endorse make-up and skincare brands and it is commonplace to see advertisements for male beauty plastered all over large cities in South Korea.

Plastic surgery is already rampant in South Korea for both genders and the pressure to look flawless and perfect is already overwhelming. Personally speaking, I see no problem with men wanting to wear make-up to enhance themselves, but when it’s done due to societal pressure it begs the question: How far will this go?

What are your thoughts on make-up for men and the current beauty standards for both genders in South Korea?

This is part of a series of posts on body image and gender in K-pop and Korean society.


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  • Terri

    I find it odd, but I don’t object to the idea that men can wear make-up. What I dislike is the pressure from society to look good and to spend so much money doing so.

  • Orion

    I think whatever is worn or done should be for one’s self. The reason why more women wear make up than men is because our patriarchal societies have pushed this on women. Be perfect, be flawless, hide your problems or no one will want you. At some point in time, in some places, being pale was liked. Some other point, being chubby. They are still demands for women made by the men of their society.

    I just think it’s backfiring to men now. Women are, more than ever, fighting for their equality and they’re turning all those repressed feelings to men. It’s about control. Flower boys are about control. Women who feel threatened by the manly image they associate with bad character want their men to look more like them. Both for them to feel the men are changing themselves for their sake (which means they control men) and because the soft exterior is falsely connected to a kind personality. Sadly though, this is used by industries mostly run by men to control women back, by hooking them to that image and using it to promote their own agendas, yet again. It’s a false sense of control for Korean women.

    Whoever feels forced to cover up what everyone else is calling “problems” is simply a victim of a society which is getting too demanding and fighting over who has more control over whom and who makes more money by using the primal urges of the other sex. If they do what they do because they personally find it aesthetically pleasing, then it’s their business and I doubt anyone would mind. Given South Korea’s competitiveness and obsession with reaching non-existent perfection though, I doubt most people do it because it makes them feel good and not because they feel worthless or in danger of being rejected and alone otherwise.

    • Petter Nordal

      As if I were not already dealing with being rejected and alone, but now i find out it’s all because i don’t wear makeup and prance around in what might be mistaken for “casual girls clothing”?

      Why damn, thank you patriarchal society for ironically forcing guys to look like a Justin Bieber/One Direction/whatever babyface ladyboy celeb. Kudos and 5 stars. You guys make us other guys look bad :'(

      (In hindsight, I should do well to read what I write one more time before posting. This could just as well been a sarcastic troll)

  • Tiffany

    I personally think it was only a matter of time before men jumped on the makeup bandwagon too. I mean, think about it: women use makeup to dramatically improve their looks all the time. So why can’t men?

    The macho man look seems to be a dying fashion (though I do love me some muscle 😉 and most women are gravitating towards a more refined and well-groomed male nowadays. But how many guys are born with those sharp noses, sparkly eyes, and cupid’s bow lips South Korean women crave? Few, if any. Just like women, men want to be seen as attractive and desirable. As men started realizing their natural looks just weren’t going to cut it, they turned their focus to something women have been using to beautify themselves for centuries: makeup.

    Basically I’m trying to say that this trend stems entirely from societal pressure (for most men at least). Applying makeup was never a traditionally “manly” thing to do, yet so many men are doing it, all over the world. I consider this a direct response to changes in the society (women’s preferences and/or men’s need to redefine masculinity as the definition of femininity changes with the feminist movement perhaps?) Personally, I prefer wearing makeup to getting plastic surgery. Wouldn’t want to end up with ugly kids and have to sue your husband/wife right? That actually happened, by the way. Look it up :)

    Something interesting to note: the daily makeup routines listed for guys has about twice the products I normally wear lol.

    • Orgil Khatanbaatar

      What do you mean? Women are not pressured to wear make up? Tradition pressures women to wear make up for over centuries to look good.

      • Tiffany

        Certainly, women are/have been pressured to look perfect, I.e. wear makeup. What I meant is that now, a similar pressure is being applied to men where there wasn’t one before. Now, men have to hide their imperfections as much as women, though to a lesser extent. With that in mind, it was only a matter of time before some men saw the benefit in and even felt a need to wear makeup.