Male Beauty Standards

5 Min Read |

Not so long ago, male grooming products were limited to shaving creams, a splash of aftershave and some deodorant with, maybe, hair gel thrown into the mix. Not anymore. Men’s grooming has been undergoing a cultural shift in the last few years.

In the West, this movement was initially driven by millennials and now underpinned by Generation Z men. The city of Birmingham in the UK, was brought to a standstill and gridlocked for hours last Saturday, as thousands of teenagers flocked to see James Charles, a 19-year old YouTuber from New York, make a brief appearance to open a shop for Morphe Cosmetics. Rows of police and security guards struggled to hold back the thousands of teenage girls who turned up hoping for a brief glimpse of the teenager who is famous for his online makeup demos, with followings of nearly 14 million on both Instagram and Youtube.

Across East Asia, male grooming is now growing in momentum with brands like ASOS and Milk Makeup at the forefront of this trend. In South Korea the grooming regime for many men now includes eyebrow pencils and skincare products. In a recent report by JWT Intelligence David Yi, Founder of Very Good Light, a blog dedicated to redefining men’s beauty, shared his thoughts on the changing attitudes of male grooming in South Korea: “Eyebrows are huge in Seoul, to the point that young men say their eyebrows are the most important part of their face.”

In the popular neighbourhood of Hongdae, at a barber shop called Swagger, men are not just going for haircuts, but for eyebrow shaping, perms and to have BB creams applied by upskilled barbers. The shop is owned by Hellen Choo, CEO and creative director of the Swagger brand, which boasts product lines that include gels, body washes, pomades and eyebrow markers. Indeed the brand has become so popular that it is stocked in Olive Young, 7-11 and many other drugstores across the country. The brand is gaining traction in the West as Choo has made her range available in the US and on Amazon, where it is known as Ssanai, because the Swagger trademark has already been taken.

K-Pop Defies Traditional Idea of Masculinity

In Korea makeup has become a masculine norm. Yi goes on to say, “in Seoul, having brows that are less than trimmed or shaped means that not only do you not care about yourself, it could suggest you are lazy, a slob or tacky altogether”.

In a culture normally viewed as conservative, and where traditional roles generally prevail, the trend towards male cosmetics has nothing to do with sexual orientation. Indeed, in a country where military service is mandatory, the K-pop trend is so much a part of everyday culture that even designer camouflage is available to those servicemen who seek a gentler product. Gruelling drills in the sun are not good for the complexion, and therefore it is not unusual to see such serviceman carrying BB creams with them.

K-pop culture and the associated makeup routines of K-pop idols have had a huge influence on men’s attitude to beauty. Korean men are now considered to be among the biggest spenders on beauty products in the world, fuelling a $7-billion Korean cosmetics industry.

Skin products are high on the list. The eco-friendly Innisfree brand (the name is taken from a poem by W.B. Yeats) was created by Amorepacific in 2002. Known for its all-natural ingredients, many of which are sourced from Jeju Island off the coast of South Korea, Innisfree launched Extreme Power Camo Cream in camouflage colours seven years ago and is a formula that includes green tea, charcoal and pine extracts. Brands like Biotherm, L’Oreal and Lab Series are also popular and capturing market share among male consumers.

The underlying message is “men must take care of themselves”.

According to Euromonitor the future for Korean men’s beauty is still considered ‘dynamic’ as more players enter the market, despite a current slowdown. At the forefront of this developing market are millennial men who are driving sales and spending twice as much per capita on their skincare than anywhere in the world, using an average of 13.3 cosmetics per month.

LAKA is one of the most recent brands to enter the market and create gender-neutral makeup that can be used by both men and women. It boasts twelve shades of lipstick and describes itself on Instagram as “a gender neutral makeup brand… that is easy and comforting for everyone”.

The changing cultural attitude to male beauty is not limited solely to Korea, and has in fact gained momentum in other Asian countries. Young Chinese men between the ages 18 to 26 have increasingly more disposable income and have become the driving force behind the male beauty market. Young men are building their skincare habits at an early age, often starting in high school using facial cleansing products and then, as they grow older, their routines become more complex. By the time they enter university or the workforce the idea of using different types of products in their skincare routine has become the norm.

Data from Chinese e-commerce sites show increasing numbers of male online shoppers buying eyebrow pencils, beauty masks and lipstick. The increasing demand among young Chinese men for new male grooming products has prompted many existing drugstore brands to update their offerings. Mentholatum, a company that traditionally focused on soaps and shaving creams, has introduced a deep cleansing face wash with charcoal as an ingredient.

Influenced by the K-pop phenomenon, a growing niche group of male consumers are turning to skincare products traditionally aimed at women and to unisex brands like Aesop. More established brands are responding to the trend by appointing male pop idols, with a female fan base on social media, as male brand ambassadors. Many of these ‘flower boys’, who were trained in the Korean pop factories where visual perfection is expected and the slightest error in front of the camera can bring career-damaging public criticism, are popular for their soft feminine look and delicate features. Band members will often rave about their favourite products in interviews and some even get major endorsement deals with K-Beauty companies to create limited-edition merchandise.

While many marketers are still mainly focused on a female audience, the opportunity for brands to court Chinese men with better and more tailored product offerings seems clear. Although male grooming category may lack the same diversity that is widely available to their female counterparts, the future for growth in the market is vast, which will undoubtedly attract many more foreign brands to the market.

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