In the male-dominated society of South Korea, men who apply makeup every morning are fast becoming as commonplace as men in other places who shave every morning.
Two years of compulsory military service and centuries of Confucian culture have imbued South Korean men with a traditional sense of masculinity. But many are beginning to embrace a new version of handsome.
In the late 1990s, South Korea lifted a ban on Japanese products, including comics, which idolized beautiful men who were less masculine than tradition expected. They had softer looks with small and slender facial features. Men like them were called “flower men” and appeared in Korean dramas and movies.
Today, TV commercials in the country feature attractive male superstars with heavy makeup. The mainstream media advocate perfect skin as a necessity for finding a job and a wife.
“My skin wasn’t bad, but the media constantly sends the message that skin is one of the most important things, so I wanted to take care of it,” 27-year-old Kim John-hoon, who works in the technology industry, told AP.
The country accounted for nearly 21 percent of global men’s cosmetics sales last year, totaling $495.5 million (3.08 billion yuan), according to Euromonitor International, a market research firm. That makes South Korea the largest market for men’s cosmetics.
But many men use makeup not because they want to appear more feminine, but because they want a more crisp, clean look in order to get ahead in the country’s competitive job environment.
Lim Jung-shik, from South Korea’s largest cosmetics company Amore Pacific, estimates that 20 percent of young men now occasionally wear some kind of foundation. But he says this doesn’t conflict with South Korea’s macho, competitive culture.
“In the West, if a guy wore makeup or a group of men walked into a makeup store, people might think they were gay. But here in South Korea, things are different,” he told the BBC in an interview. “A few years ago, there was an advert which said, ‘Your appearance is also your strategy,’ meaning that grooming yourself is a reflection of your competency, part of your value as a complete package.”
South Korea is a deeply competitive place with some of the longest working hours in the developed world. Competition for jobs at big-name companies is fierce. Youth unemployment is twice the national average, according to the BBC.
In South Korea, appearances play an important role in getting jobs. All applications require photos and some employers even ask a professional face reader to join the interview process. Based on physiognomy, which assesses a person’s character from their external appearance, they ensure the company doesn’t hire unsuitable candidates, according to a recent report by ABC News.
“For the younger people, it’s a matter of survival,” Park Jin-won, vice president of Doosan Industrial Vehicle, told ABC News. “So when I interview future employees, I do keep in mind looks. Qualifications are basic and the real competitiveness is how you manage to be presentable.”