In a socially conservative, male-dominated, and dare I say it, slightly sexist country, it may come as a surprise to many that recent data has shown South Korean men to be the number one consumers of male cosmetics in the world.
In fact, it would seem that it is not only the women who find themselves swept up in the national pursuit of perfection. Despite there only being 19 million men in the country, they somehow make up 21% of the global male grooming market. The report, published by market research group Euromonitor International, shows that South Korean men spent a staggering $495,500,000 on cosmetics and skincare products in 2011, with an estimated $885,000,000 to be spent this year.
Gone are the days of rough, tough and ready macho men, and in it’s place is a new generation of image conscious, sharply-dressed and immaculately groomed young businessmen. Dubbed ‘flower men‘ by the South Korean media, these men have flawless, porcelain skin, pencilled in eyebrows and long, thick eyelashes.
Pale, whitened skin is very much the preferred look in Korea, harking back to the ancient belief that pale skin was a symbol of a privileged life, free of manual labour, whereas tanned skin showed a hard life spent working in the fields. Skin whitening creams, pills and even injections are big sellers for both men and women here.
Alongside a strict skincare regime consisting of cleansers, exfoliators, moisturisers and eye creams, products like foundation, eyebrow pencils, eyeliner, mascara and lipstick are fast becoming popular with Korean men. Even young men undertaking their mandatory 21 months of military service don’t have to suffer the indignity of bad skin, as some brands offer camo paint for sensitive skin.
But what lies behind this startling new trend?
Of course there are many who point the finger at the South Korean media and its starlets, for bombarding these impressionable young men with images of their ‘peers’ photoshopped beyond recognition. However, this seems too simple an explanation for such a huge phenomenon.
Korean society places an overwhelming amount of pressure on it’s younger generations, and success is everything. The competition for jobs and for girlfriends is fiercer than ever and in a culture where “appearance is power”, first impressions count for a lot. Taking such a high level of pride in your appearance offers an opportunity to show that you are sophisticated, reliable and conscientious.
In a country with the highest rate of plastic surgery in the world, combined with the highest suicide rate in the world, where a job application requires a photo and keeping-up-with-the-Joneses (or should that be the Kims?) takes on a whole new meaning, where will this obsession with appearance go next?