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Cho Won-Hyuk, a 24-year-old student, shops for skincare and make-up products at a cosmetics store in Seoul.
Cho Won-Hyuk, a 24-year-old student, shops for skincare and make-up products at a cosmetics store in Seoul.

‘Flower men’ replace ‘rough and tough’

Socially conservative South Korea becomes male make-up capital of the world as ‘guyliner‘ craze sweeps the country.

SEOUL // Cho Won-hyuk stands in front of his bedroom mirror and spreads dollops of yellow-brown make-up over his forehead, nose, chin and cheeks until his skin is flawless. Then he goes to work with a black pencil, highlighting his eyebrows until they're thicker, bolder.

"Having a clean, neat face makes you look sophisticated and creates an image that you can handle yourself well," said the 24-year-old student. "Your appearance matters, so when I wear make-up on special occasions, it makes me more confident."

Mr Cho's meticulous efforts to paint the perfect face are not unusual in South Korea. This socially conservative, male-dominated country, with a mandatory two-year military conscription for men, has become the male make-up capital of the world.

South Korean men spent US$495.5 million (Dh1.82bn) on skincare last year - nearly 21 per cent of global sales, according to Euromonitor International, a global market research firm.

This makes it the largest market for men's skincare in the world, even though there are only about 19 million men in South Korea.

The metamorphosis of South Korean men from macho to make-up over the past decade or so can be partly explained by fierce competition for jobs, advancement and romance in a society where, as a popular catchphrase puts it, "appearance is power".

Evidence of this new direction in South Korean masculinity is easy to find. In a crowded Seoul cafe, a young woman takes lipstick out of her purse and casually applies it to her male companion's lips as they talk. At an upscale apartment building, a male security guard watches the lobby from behind a layer of make-up. Korean Air holds once-a-year make-up classes for male flight attendants.

"I can understand why girls don't like to go outside without make-up - it makes a big difference," said Cho Gil-nam, 27, a tall, stocky insurance-fraud investigator in Seoul. He starts important days by dabbing on make-up after finishing his multistep morning cleansing and moisturising routine. He carries a multicoloured cosmetics pouch so he can touch up throughout the day.

It wasn't always this way. The ideal South Korean man used to be rough and tough.

Things began to change in the late 1990s, when the South Korean government relaxed a ban on Japanese cultural goods, exposing South Koreans to different ideas on male beauty, including popular comics featuring pretty, effeminate men.

James Turnbull, a writer and lecturer on Korean feminism, sexuality and popular culture, said the economic crisis that hit South Korea in 1997 and 1998 also played a role in shifting thinking.

Struggling companies often fired their female employees first, angering women who had already seen their push for equal rights take a back seat to protest movements against Japanese colonisers and the autocratic governments that followed.

"The times were ripe for a sea-change in the popular images of men in the media," Mr Turnbull said. Women, as a result, began questioning the kinds of men society told them they should find attractive.

In 2002, large numbers were attracted to a hero of South Korea's World Cup football team, Ahn Jung-hwan, who became a leading member of the so-called "flower men" - a group of exceptionally good-looking, smooth-skinned, fashionable sports stars and celebrities who found great success selling male cosmetics.

Men everywhere began striving to look like them, with the encouragement of the women around them, and a trend was born.

Kim Jong-hoon, 27, a tech industry worker in Paju, said the endless media exposure to famous men with perfect skin helped steer his progression from soap and water to an elaborate regime that includes as many as eight steps, from cleanser to eye cream and lotion to a small amount of make-up powder.

"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," Mr Kim said.

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