South Korean men get the make-up habit
- 3 December 2012
- From the section Magazine
South Korean men have a particular kind of image - hard-drinking, hard-working and prepared to fight bravely for their country. But now major cosmetics companies are seeing a different side to Korean manhood - a growing interest in skincare products, and even foundation.
Two years of compulsory military service and centuries of Confucian culture have left many South Korean men with a deeply traditional sense of gender - something young Korean women often complain about these days.
So their new appetite for skincare and make-up comes as a slight surprise.
Despite the global economic troubles, the market in South Korea's male skincare products grew 10% last year, according to London-based market research firm Euromonitor International.
The country's biggest cosmetics company, Amore Pacific, estimates growth is now even higher at around 14%, and puts the market's annual value at almost $900m (£562m).
Yu-jin, a 26-year-old student of business management, uses a popular type of foundation known as BB cream on his face every day, as well as five different skincare products including facial cleanser, anti-ageing moisturiser and eye cream.
"I used to have bad acne, but the BB cream made me look much better, and now people say I look more handsome," he said.
BB cream was originally used in the plastic surgery industry to hide patients' scars after treatment. It is now widely marketed as a daily cosmetic to both men and women.
Yu-jin's brand comes in a bright yellow plastic tube, and is marketed as a practical, down-to-earth product with sun protection.
There is no mention of make-up, but the beige cream does what any other foundation does - covers blemishes and evens out skin tone.
"I started using BB cream when I was in the military because it also acts as a sunblock, and being a soldier, you're out in the sun all the time," he said.
"I think a lot of Korean guys get into this kind of thing while doing their military service."
The country's old military generals would probably turn in their graves to hear him. But times are changing.
Amore Pacific's Lim Jung-shik estimates that 20% of young men now wear some kind of foundation occasionally, and that there is no conflict with Korea's macho, competitive culture.
"In the West, if a guy wore make-up or a group of men walked into a make-up store, people might think they were gay. But here in South Korea, things are different," he said.
"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. It gives you a competitive edge."
South Korea is a deeply competitive place, with some of the longest working hours in the developed world.
More than 80% of school-leavers go on to higher education, and competition for jobs at big-name companies is fierce. Youth unemployment is twice the national average.
Given that, says Yu-jin, why wouldn't you want to look your best?
"I think for guys who do use make-up, it's not that we want to appear more feminine, we just want to have a crisper, cleaner look as a guy," he said.
"It's a very competitive work environment for young people these days and difficult to find jobs. If you look more groomed and more handsome, people have a better impression of you."
Whether it tips the balance in a job interview or client presentation is one thing, but what do women make of it all? Those shopping alongside the men in a busy cosmetics shop in the capital, Seoul, all seemed positive.
"It's all about men grooming themselves and making themselves more attractive, so in that sense, I feel it's a good thing" one woman said.
She was less positive however about men using other forms of make-up like eyeliner or lipstick.
"It's not my thing, but I wouldn't object if someone wanted to do it!" she said.
Another female shopper agreed. "I think it's a good thing because it's about guys trying to groom themselves. I've given BB creams as gifts in the past," she said.
"I'm quite positive about the trend," another woman added.
"I even have a brother who uses BB cream from time to time. But unless you're a TV personality, I think other types of make-up like eyeliner would be a bit too much."
Whether or not the trend will grow into other forms of make-up, BB cream now seems to be firmly in the mainstream. Adverts promoting men's brands now vie for television airtime alongside those for women. And there are entire programmes devoted to the topic of male grooming.
But perhaps the best sign that South Korea really is comfortable blending its notions of old and new manhood is a popular product from Mr Lim's company - a set of camouflage face paints for your military service, designed to be gentler on your skin than the regulation army ones.
After all, James Bond never had spots, did he?