by Lilia Yamakawa
“Beauty” and what one considers beautiful depend a lot on a person’s own culture and ethnicity. On the streets of Korea, it is not unusual to find Flower Men (FMs), called “kkotminam” (“flower handsome men”). You will know them by their pretty and “soft masculinity” and by their attention to the way they look. They are willing to spend a lot of time and money on their appearance and lifestyle. They may use make-up and other beauty products, pluck their eyebrows, manicure their nails, gel and style their hair, get facials, get massages, and even have cosmetic surgery. They are also associated with soft speech and traits such as gently caring for their families. They are seen as being pure and innocent, and they are very polite. In this report, I will examine some of the reasons to explain the Flower Man boom.
First, the boom is part of the larger global phenomenon of the “metrosexual” male, which has spread throughout both the East and the West. The metrosexual man is one who takes care of his physical appearance through means that were once considered feminine. The FM is just one example of this wide global trend. The East Asian metrosexual trend is so prominent that Time magazine did a cover story on it in 2005. Ling Liu wrote in this article:
A few years ago it may have been considered sissy for a guy to be fussy about his clothing and appearance. Real men demanded the world accept them on their own uncouth, unkempt terms. But in Asia nowadays, the definition of masculinity is undergoing a makeover – and narcissism is in, thanks to economic growth, higher disposable incomes, shifting gender roles, and fashion and cosmetics industries eager to expand their customer bases. No longer content to be the drabber sex, Asian males are preening like peacocks, perming, plucking and powering themselves to perfection in an effort to make themselves more attractive to their bosses, their peers and, of course, to women.
Although the boom is worldwide, it seems that Korean Flower Men have taken it to a further extreme than men of any other ethnic group and nationality. In 2013, South Korean men spent roughly $900 million on skincare. This was almost one-fourth of sales worldwide for men’s skin care. There are many salons and spas just for men that offer hair, facials, massages, and other procedures. Plastic surgery is also common, and there are also a number of clinics that cater solely to men. In 2013, Korean Air began training male staff to use beauty products (Fujita 2005).
The FM phenomenon itself began in the 1990s, around the time the Korean government began to allow more pop culture from Japan to come into the country (in 1998). Many manga and anime, which were previously hard to find, could now be bought and read in public. Young male actors and singers, especially in the boy bands, began to look like Japanese and Korean manga and anime characters, especially those in “girls’ comics” or “shojo manga” where the ideal image of a male is “bishonen” or “beautiful boy.” The flow of media between Korea and Japan also included tv dramas, cinema, and advertising (Sun 2010). The “yaoi” type of manga, which became very popular in Korea, is also said to be a big influence on the FM trend. The men in these manga often look like elves or fairies, and they are soft, sweet, and sensitive.
Up to the 1990’s the popular image of male beauty in Korea was a rather macho-type man. Since then, the soft male type has become much more popular. Two groups of FBs best exemplify the phenomenon today. One is the Korean boy band DBSK of idols. The other is the Korean tv drama called “Boys Over Flowers.” It was based on the Japanese manga and anime called “Hana yori dango” and was broadcast in Korea in 2009. It is a typical shojo Cinderella story of a poor high school girl who is befriended by the four richest, most handsome boys in the school, the F4. It became super popular in Korea, and later, in many other Asian countries including Japan. With “Boys Over Flowers”, the male image of the “kkotminam” became even more popular in Korea. More and more males aspired to look soft and gentle and pretty. Men’s fashion came to include pinks and floral prints, and cute “boyish” hairstyles with long bangs became the rage (Lee 2010).
Advertising has played an important role in spreading the FM image. Cosmetics companies have been very eager to sell cosmetics to this whole new group of buyers. Large areas of department stores are now devoted to men’s beauty care. Famous idols and actors, including members of both the DBSK and the F4, are used to advertise men’s beauty products. More and more men in Korea aspire to look like these idols.
The Korean economy is very strong now. This makes it possible for many Korean men to spend their money on personal beauty. With the economic power they become more confident, and more men want to look good even if it costs them.
A major reason for the “kkonminam” craze is that men want to look good to be competitive in the job market. They want to have “the right face”, which looks youthful, lively, friendly, and upper-class. Job applicants must send in photographs with their applications. Many Koreans believe that a person’s character can be read in the face, and even that their looks are more important than their skills (Jeffreys 2007).
Historically, Korean is a country ruled by strong Confucian ideals, which emphasize taking care of and making both the mind and the body strong. It is said that one reason for the “hallyu” (“hanryu” or “Korean Wave”) throughout East Asia is that the men are good-looking but show “a lack of profanity and sex, as befitting Confucian morals” (Maliangkay 2010).
David Coad believes that sports figures, such as David Beckham have been important in popularizing the metrosexual and the FB trend. They stand for traditional masculinity in their sports skills, but they also take care of their personal appearance in ways that were once thought feminine. The long-haired Korean soccer player, Ahn Jung-Hwan became very popular at the 2002 World Cup. He is known not only for his soccer skills, but also for his looks and his actions that show a softer side of men. He kissed his wedding ring after winning a major game. Then, he went on to advertise men’s liquid foundation. Coad writes:
The immediately obvious hyper-masculine and generally assumed heterosexual status of most sportsmen has been vital in changing attitudes about exposing, eroticizing, and taking care of the male body. Without some of the most celebrated heterosexual athletes in the world endorsing and embodying different facets of metrosexuality it is uncertain if masculinity norms would have changed so rapidly in so many different cultures. Metrosexuality, in a way, is indebted to sportsmen for its very existence. (Coad 2008)
Some people believe the most important reason the FM phenomenon is spreading throughout Korea, but especially in urban areas, is that women like it. Bae Yong-joon, who was so popular in the tv drama “Autumn Sonata”, is also well liked among somewhat older Korean women. His popularity is based on his character in the drama which was soft looking, passionate, sincere, and polite. James Turnbull, who writes for The Korea Times, has an interesting theory about the origins of the FM.
When focusing on men, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that it is actually women’s changing tastes in them that drive changes in their fashions and grooming jabits, and accordingly it ultimately proves to be married Korean women in the late-1990s that are responsible for flower men’s origins. (Turnbull 2009)
Turnbull goes on to explain that during the “IMF Crisis” of 1997, many more women were laid off from their companies than men were because it was assumed that their husbands could support them. They had only recently gotten the legal right to not be fired upon marriage. Then they were encouraged by society to support “Korean’s hardworking men” to help get through the crisis. He says that many women, at this time, started to reject “the ideals of men as strong, provider types, and it is no coincidence that a sudden glut of movies appeared featuring romances between older women and younger men, and that this was when the first, identifiable, flower men began appearing in advertising too.” Korean women wanted men who were more interested in satisfying them than their companies (Turnbull 2009).
It is obvious that many females from mid-teens to their 30s also like the FM. They fill social media sites with comments about popular singers and actors. They use various interesting words to describe the men: pretty, sweet looking, a hootie, cute, looks like a pretty girl, etc. One blogger on Korean pop culture expresses what seem to be the views of many young women:
So why do flower boys act like women? There is only one answer to this. Because their fans love it. I guess there is something about a handsome man trying to act like a woman which makes them even more endearing. Somehow, there is an inexplicable and irresistible urge that makes women want to pinch flower boys’ cheeks every time they do their “cute acts”…flower boys are pretty to look at and they are cute and entertaining. But, why are they so popular? The ultimate reason, I believe, is that flower boys represent certain qualities of a man women look for – a man unafraid to explore his soft side…his emotional side and admit that he is vain after all. (Deen 2011)
About those pretty cheeks the women want to pinch, many times they might be pretty as a result of plastic surgery. The Korean Association for Plastic Surgeons estimated that in 2010 approximately 15% of Korean men had plastic surgery. The Korean Herald reported that 44% of male college students were considering plastic surgery (“Think plastic surgery” 2013).
In an excellent article on cosmetic surgery in Korea, Ruth Holliday and Jo Hwang point out that plastic surgery is popular and accepted in Korean society. The former president of Korea, among many other famous people have had work done on their faces. They write that “the body emerges as a site for negotiating and reinforcing national identity.” After1945, Koreans wanted to look more western in order to look very different from the Japanese colonizers. Later, they wanted to embrace their Koreanness by consulting with fortune tellers of physiognomy to find out what is their particular auspicious face. Surgeons and physiognomists often work together in the clinics. A survey found that 7 of 10 Koreans approve of plastic surgery, and even more say they would do it if they had the money. The government supports plastic surgery tourism, does not control the industry strictly, and even approves of it through the insurance program in many cases. With plastic surgery accepted so widely in Korea, it is not surprising that men are commonly having surgery on their eyelids to make them look bigger, on their noses to make them more pointed, and on their jaws to make them look less angular. Liposuction to suck out fat is also popular among men. (Holliday & Hwang n.d.)
The Flower Man as a positive male image partly has its origins in the worldwide metrosexual trend and in Japanese manga and anime. It is, however, uniquely Korean. It was made popular by the “soft masculinity” of pop idols and actors in dramas. It has been promoted by advertising of cosmetic firms who want to open up and make money in the new market of male beauty aids. This happened just at a time when the Korean economy was relatively strong. The Korean job market is very competitive, and appearance is important. Nonsexual boys fit in with traditional Confucian ideals. Sportsmen have shown that a man can be traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine at the same time. Some women want men to be a mixture of male and female, more androgynous, and not masculine Rambo types. Finally, striving for ideal beauty (and the range of what is considered “beauty” seems to be quite narrow in Korea) and using means such as plastic surgery to get it has been a part of the Korean culture for a long time. Procedures such as cosmetic surgery are readily accepted by the general public.
South Korea is a country with a military draft. All men must serve in the military for at least one year. Some men said they started using face creams as soldiers because they wanted protection in the sunshine. It is even possible to buy a set of camouflage face paint, healthier for the skin than the usual, to wear during military service. (Ling 2012) This shows that the traditionally male identity and the newer Flower Man identity are blending well in Korean society.
- Coad, David. (2008). The metrosexual: Gender, sexuality and sport . (p. 196). Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
- Deen, Catherine. (2011, November 30). Understanding the lure of ‘flower boys’. Retrieved from https://ph.omg.yahoo.com/blogs/okpop/understanding-lure-flower-boys-050944369.html
- Fujita, Akiko. (2005, October 28). South Korean men cosmetics-crazed. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/lifestyle/2013/05/south-korean-men-cosmetics-crazed/
- Holiday, Ruth, & Jo Hwang. (n.d.). Gender, globalization and aesthetic surgery in south korea. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/726850/Gender_Globalization_and_Cosmetic_Surgey_in_South_Korea
- Jeffreys, Daniel. (2007, April 28). Koreans go under the knife in a cut-throat race for jobs. Retrieved from https://www.google.co.jp/webhp?hl=en&tab ww&gws_rd=cr&ei
- Lee, H. (2010). Men, be beautiful for spring, summer. Retrieved from http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/…/199_39427.html
- Liu, Ling. (2005, October 28). Asia’s metrosexuals: Mirror, mirror…. Retrieved from http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/2005-10/28/content_488529.html
- Maliangkay, Roald. (2010). The effeminacy of male beauty in korea. Retrieved from http://www.iias.nl/sites/default/files/IIAS_NL55_0607.pdf
- Sun, J. (2010). Pan-east asian soft masculinitity: Reading boys over flowers, coffee prince and shinhwa fan fiction. Retrieved from http://books.publishing.monash.edu/aps/bookworm/view/Complicated Currents/122/xhtml/frontmatter1.html
- Think plastic surgery is only popular with girls in Korea? Take a look at the guys – See more at: http://yourhealth.asiaone.com/content/think-plastic-surgery-only-popular-girls-korea-take-look-guys/page/0/1#sthash.FsaKcvCZ.dpuf
- Turnbull, James. (2009). Flower men: the hot topic of 2009. Retrieved from http://thegrandnarrative.com/2009.04/03/flower-men-the-hot-topic-of-2009/
- Williamson, Lucy. (2012, December 3). South korean men get the make-up habit. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20522028