SEOUL: On his popular YouTube channel, Kim Ki-soo recently tackled a somewhat uncomfortable question from a viewer:
Why do you wear make-up? It’s dirty.
Kim responded with the calm composure of someone who had clearly had to answer that question before.
“If you think wearing makeup is dirty, please think that over again,” he said with restrained politeness.
Try to appreciate how much I love beauty.
Kim went on to explain that he has a passion for beauty, and that he makes his videos not to inform or teach his viewers, but to share that passion and engage in dialogue with them.
As a man in his mid-40s, Kim is not your typical makeup YouTuber. He’s a former comedian building a second career sharing beauty tips from a man’s perspective.
One of his recent videos feature recommendations of colours of lipsticks. In another, he tests out various kinds of foundation.
On YouTube, Kim doesn’t stick out nearly as much as we would in a traditional medium, like television.
Topics and personalities that don’t fit mainstream media can find audiences on their own. South Korean YouTube is a fascinating glimpse into how a particular society is evolving.
In an ecosystem with no gatekeepers, Kim can find a niche with his unique approach.
The fact is, as a South Korean, Kim lives in a society where appearance counts for a lot.
South Korea is by no means unique as a society with those characteristics, but South Koreans seem especially motivated to keep up with conventions of good appearances, with this country having one of the world’s highest rates of cosmetic surgery.
While use of cosmetics by South Korean men is growing, it has not yet reached a tipping point where television shows can comfortably include discussion of the controversial topics of male beauty that Kim tackles.
Conservative norms still hold sway when it comes to appearances but there are signs change is in the air. While the South Korean cosmetics industry is dominated by products aimed at women, more men are, for various reasons, choosing to use make-up.
Korean pop culture also offers up many examples of entertainers who wear make-up, with young celebrities presenting an almost androgonous image as an acceptable form of expression and an on-trend style worthy of emulation.
A GROWING BEAUTY TREND AMONG MEN
A recent CNA feature painted a picture of cosmetics use by South Korean men as motivated less by conventional notions of beauty and more out of a desire to put a fresh, healthy looking face forward.
According to the report, South Korean men spend more than men in any other country on grooming products. Three-quarters of South Korean men have beauty treatments on at least a weekly basis.
This generation of young Korean guys are more conscious about their wellness, and are less likely than their forebears to smoke cigarettes, drink excessively, or spend all night at the office. Showing up for work looking like you were up all night, either at a bar or at your desk, is increasingly frowned upon.
There is variation when it comes to the products that men use, with most applying only basic items, like toner, and others using products to darken their eyebrows and moisten their lips, rather than the full-on make-up with eye shadow, blush and lipstick that Kim uses.
For middle-aged guys fighting off the signs of ageing, using cosmetics to retain a youthful appearance can be one way of staying relevant in your workplace.
Despite a traditional norm of deference to elders, the fact is youth is highly valued in South Korea. Most people hate getting typecast as the stereotypical cranky old guy in the office and getting mocked for it.
KEEPING UP WITH APPEARANCES
More practically, most companies - in both white and blue-collar sectors - retire workers around 60 with severance packages but without a lifelong pension.
With one of the world’s longest life expectancies, many South Koreans have to reinvent themselves, keep employed and find new ways to keep earning into their silver years. To do so, they’ve got to keep up a sense of self-confidence to earn support and recognition from their colleagues.
One cosmetic surgery clinic markets to middle-aged men with messages including, “In the era where men have to compete in matters of appearance, don’t neglect to improve yourself”.
The website also features testimonials from men who say they regained their confidence in middle age after making their appearance a bigger priority.
Confidence is a key concept. People who have plastic surgery often explain being motivated by a desire to more confidently carry themselves, to interact with others from a position of strength.
After having surgery, or applying makeup, they worry less about something that they found embarrassing.
Still, anecdotal experience tells me it is mostly young men who decide to have plastic surgery. In this context, make-up remains an appealing broad alternative for men who would rather avoid the expense and risk of surgery.
Men who have taken measures to appear more youthful say they interact more confidently with younger colleagues.
CONFIDENCE AND HOPE
Indeed, it takes confidence to deal with critics who, like the questioner in Kim’s video, will imply that a man wearing makeup is somehow weird, or deserving of mockery.
In a country where women feel increasingly pressured to wear cosmetics, and societal norms on what construes acceptable appearances weigh heavily on most, Kim has set a good example by reacting calmly and asking for understanding.
Perhaps in time, Kim will get fewer questions like these, less judgment and greater understanding of how he’s chosen to express his individuality – by wearing it on his face.
Steven Borowiec is the politics editor of Korea Expose.