With the musical genre of K-pop becoming increasingly popular, Cara Balen discusses the South Korean concept of male beauty and how it is embodied by K-pop artists.
If you Google ‘male celebrities who wear makeup’, you’ll find a list of black-eyeliner wearing rock ‘n’ rollers, made up by the likes of Marilyn Manson and Robert Smith. But it seems that this view of male makeup which consists of black smudges and messy lipstick is becoming slightly outdated. An increasing amount of male celebrities are applying makeup to enhance their natural beauty rather than wearing it as an act of rebellion against societal norms. However, these male celebrities are found, more often than not, in the more Eastern spheres of fashion and pop culture.
One country that is at the forefront of men’s beauty is South Korea, which has become the male beauty capital of the world. When you think of Korean beauty, your mind might be drawn to the many Korean makeup influencers on Instagram, or the K-pop girl groups who show off their lightened skin, red lips, and large, glittering eyes. But it is a mistake to think that the South Korean beauty industry solely focuses on women. Unlike the West, where makeup is traditionally seen as a gendered product, South Korea prides itself on the many brands and products that are available to men. And nothing embodies this more than K-pop culture.
A single glance at any K-pop boy band will show you that their concept of masculine beauty is completely different to what the Western world has typically deemed to be ‘handsome’. Groups like BTS, EXO and GOT7 showcase what it means to be a beautiful man in East Asia. With perfectly dyed and styled hair, blemish-free skin often topped off with a perfect smoky eye, the K-pop Idols, as they are known, show that male aesthetics do not have to be rugged or unkempt. These idols personify beauty, and often groups have a couple of members who are nominated as the ‘visual’ – those who have the role of increasing the visual appeal of the group.
The appeal of many idols can be linked to the popularity of what is colloquially known as a ‘flower boy’, which refers to men who are almost feminine-looking. This may be expressed with the clothing that they wear, as idols often don large earrings and pastels, or the makeup that they use. Gold shimmering eyeshadow serves to soften and deepen their eyes, and contour and foundation sculpts their face so that it becomes chiselled and refined. These men wear makeup, but rather than this counting against their masculinity, makeup helps to enhance it in order to allow them to achieve new levels of beauty.
But it isn’t just South Korean celebrities who are allowed to break the gender norms of makeup and beauty. The South Korean makeup industry is booming, worth over a whopping $10bn, and 10% of this is now coming from male grooming products. All across Seoul you can see billboards and posters advertising makeup stores which specifically cater to men. Using makeup to improve your looks isn’t just a privilege reserved for the famous amongst society, but is seen as typical for everyone, regardless of gender. But why is it the case that these male beauty standards are so different to ours? Well, there are many different answers to this question. Some cite the rise in popularity of Japanese manga in South Korea. Certain types of manga, such as Shoujo (think of Sailor Moon), became a staple of South Korean entertainment, and as a consequence perpetuated the body images that were incorporated in the style of the comics. Shoujo is well known for having cute and girly female figures, and beautiful, pixie-like male characters. This might have contributed to the appeal of men with boyish charm and soft features.
Another explanation might be the country’s fixation with visual appeal. Beauty is believed to be one of an individual’s most important assets in Korea, which is known for its obsession with plastic surgery and extreme beauty hacks. Often, employers ask for headshots with a candidate’s résumé, and there is a commonly held belief that a person’s good looks can give them an edge in the job market. It may be the case that men started to alter their appearance with the use of makeup in order to keep up in a society where more attractive can mean more successful.
Whatever the reason for the difference between our Westernised view and the South Korean conception of beauty, the South Korean culture of male grooming is becoming increasingly popular in American and European pop culture. As K-pop gains more recognition, we are seeing people changing their view on what it means for men to wear makeup. An example of this occurred on Twitter when fans of K-pop defended the concept of men looking after their appearance after Twitter users hurled homophobic and derogatory slurs at BTS’ Jimin. Many of those defending Jimin argued that toxic masculinity is stopping individuals from accepting different ideas about male beauty. Instead of pushing men to be tough and macho, South Korea accepts and promotes a diverse range of male body images. It disregards the arbitrary idea that only women can cover up their blemishes and touch up their appearance, a view which is supported by the popularity of male makeup vloggers in South Korea. Creators like Park Bosung and Kim Seung-hwan show men how to apply makeup in a way which emulates looks seen in k-pop music videos or on South Korean male models. But unlike Western male beauty gurus, who often appear to tie their sexuality to their love of makeup, these vloggers do not seem to regard makeup as indicative of sexual orientation – something which reflects the Korean belief that makeup is purely a tool to enhance your natural beauty.
It seems that we can learn a lesson from the South Korean makeup industry. Self-expression through makeup is not a gendered concept. Anyone who thinks that applying makeup would help them with their self-confidence or sense of style should be able to do so – regardless of race, sexuality, or gender.
You can read more of Cara Balen’s work on Twitter by following @BalenCara.