【明報專訊】It is a tired (老掉牙的) question: are men who engage in beauty practices, such as using facial treatment, performing extensive grooming, and wearing make-up, less masculine? In the past decade or so, the male beauty market has certainly been growing rather rapidly, yet media commentators, educators, and ordinary people are still debating if there is something ''unbecoming'' with those men. Is the pursuit of male beauty turning the very idea of ''man'' into something strange and unacceptable?
But the truth is in the US, for instance, a noticeable demand for male make-up by American men under 30 has led lifestyle retailers to stock a growing list of make-up products and create new categories for them on their websites. After retailers such as Tom Ford Beauty, Mr Porter, and Mankind popularised male make-up products, sports celebrities like former baseball professional player Alex Rodriguez have joined in the fray. ARod, as he is affectionately called by his fans, collaborated with a men's wellness brand called Hims, which is a line of skincare products. Besides, ''Make-up for Men'' tutorial videos on YouTube are multiplying, often featuring male KOLs.
In Asia, no one should be surprised that the most robust male beauty market is found in South Korea. It has been reported that the skincare market for men grew by 44% in South Korea between 2011 and 2017. When surveyed, about 3/4 of Korean men reported undertaking a beauty treatment, such as at-home facials or ''lengthy'' self-pampering grooming treatment, at least once a week. That figure rose to about 58% for younger men born after 2000, men in the so-called Generation Z. Sociologists and psychologists there attribute the ''normalisation'' of male beauty-seeking to the success of the K-pop idol culture, the cut-throat job market in a country that requires not only outstanding credentials (資歷) but also dazzling personal appearance.
Yet all of this should not lead us to conclude that the traditional cultural norms of masculinity have faded away. In Seoul, as in other modern urban cities in Asia, the very idea of male beauty is still being stigmatised. Men who enjoy the new freedom are still being demanded to play the fairly rigid traditional roles. Other kinds of sexuality besides heterosexuality are still taboo. And ''tough man'' patriarchal culture is still dominating. In the West, the Korean male beauty products have barely made a dent. A case in point about the industry in the US: the men's make-up line promoted by Mr Porter features a brand new product — it is grey in colour (of course!) and called ''War Paint for Men''.
John Erni is a university professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. He thinks everyday culture is complex but always enchanting.