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Breaking stereotypes: The historical acceptance of makeup among Asian men

Image Credits: UnsplashImage Credits: Unsplash
  • Historically, Asian men have used makeup to enhance their appearance, with practices dating back to ancient China.
  • South Korean men are leading a modern beauty revolution, significantly influencing global beauty standards.
  • The acceptance of male makeup has fluctuated over time but is currently experiencing a resurgence, challenging traditional notions of masculinity.

The notion that makeup is exclusively for women is a relatively modern construct. Historically, men across various Asian cultures have used cosmetics to enhance their appearance, challenge societal norms, and express their identity. This article delves into the rich history of male makeup in Asia, highlighting how these practices have evolved and continue to shape contemporary beauty standards.

Ancient Chinese Beauty Practices

In ancient China, the use of makeup by men was not only accepted but often admired. During the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220), men powdered their faces to achieve a fair complexion, a beauty standard that was highly coveted at the time. Emperor Hui of the Western Han even mandated that his attendants could not report for duty unless their faces were powdered.

The Six Dynasties period (220-589) saw dandified men who meticulously cared for their appearance. Figures like the poet Cao Zhi and the imperial secretary He Yan were known for their elaborate grooming routines, which included the application of face powders and perfumes. These men were far from being seen as effeminate; they were celebrated and emulated by their contemporaries.

The Influence of Korean Pop Culture

Fast forward to the 21st century, South Korean men have become global leaders in the beauty industry. The influence of K-pop idols and TV dramas has inspired a generation of young men to pursue flawless skin and well-groomed appearances. South Korean men are now the world's biggest spenders on skincare and makeup, contributing significantly to the $7 billion Korean beauty industry.

Brands like Chanel have recognized this trend, launching their first cosmetics range for men, Boy de Chanel, in South Korea before expanding to other markets. This line includes products like tinted foundation and brow pencils, designed to create a natural, polished look. The success of these products in Asia is gradually influencing Western beauty standards, promoting a more inclusive and gender-neutral approach to cosmetics.

Historical Shifts in Male Beauty Standards

The acceptance of male makeup has fluctuated throughout history. By the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), men who wore makeup began to fall out of favor. Literature from the period, such as "The Unofficial History of Longyang," criticized excessive femininity in men, advocating for a more natural appearance. However, this did not erase the long-standing tradition of male grooming and beauty enhancement that had been prevalent for centuries.

Modern-Day Acceptance and Challenges

Today, the debate over male beauty and the use of makeup continues. While some view it as a passing trend, others see it as a natural evolution of societal norms. Influencers and celebrities, such as BTS and male rappers like A$AP Rocky and Lil Nas X, are challenging traditional notions of masculinity by openly embracing makeup and grooming products.

In China, the popularity of male beauty products has surged, with online sales of makeup for young men climbing significantly. This resurgence reflects a broader acceptance and a return to historical practices where male beauty was celebrated rather than stigmatized.

The history of male makeup in Asia is a testament to the fluidity of beauty standards and gender norms. From ancient Chinese dynasties to modern-day South Korea, men have used cosmetics to enhance their appearance and express their identity. As societal perceptions continue to evolve, the acceptance of male makeup is likely to grow, challenging stereotypes and redefining what it means to be masculine.

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