Men’s Makeup in China: The “Concealer” of Patriarchy or the “highlight” of gender equality?

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By Pan Siran

For a long time, wearing foundation, dyeing eyebrows and putting on lipstick has been viewed as an exclusive privilege for women. Now, men in China beg to differ. Makeup has become the “new normal” for an increasing number of Chinese men, a core part of their daily routine.  

“I put on makeup once or twice a week on average, usually before going out with friends. I spend around 30 to 40 minutes on makeup each time,” Chen, a 22-year-old Master’s student at Nanjing University, remarked. “If I need to be the host at some party and have my photos taken, I will use makeup too,” he added. As for the others, like Wang, a 24-year-old We Media practitioner whose Weibo account @朝越南 has more than 60,000 fans, makeup is their trump card for “certain occasions like going to clubs or going on a date.”

This booming trend has been highlighted as an effort to break gender stereotypes, redefine gender roles and promote gender equality within Chinese society through a redefining of men’s social expectations. Nevertheless, it is too soon to highlight a causal relationship, since the psychological drivers behind this trend vary among men and their perceived conception of masculinity. 

Wang has been recommending products and making swatches on both his Weibo and WeChat official account to his fans. 
Photo credit: Wang’s WeChat official account 

The 2018 Men Grooming Report released by Tmall, which is one of the biggest Chinese online shopping platforms, shows that its men’s makeup market has increased by more than 50% for two years in a row. Most of the men tended to play it safe when putting makeup products in their shopping carts. BB cream, eyebrow pencil and lipstick are their favorite choices, with staggering sales increases of 185%, 214%, and 278% respectively. Men spend at least 2.2 hours per week on average applying these products to hide blemishes, darken eyebrows and brighten their lips. Data also shows that high-end products are being chosen more and more frequently by Chinese men.

It has become obvious that Chinese men like Chen and Wang are paying more attention to their appearance, as well as investing money in their aesthetics, which is in line with the trend across the world, especially in the West. In many Western countries, Started from the latter half of the 20th century, makeup has been used by pop stars, gay community and gender equality promoters to express themselves. As a result, the concept of “metrosexuality” are gradually accepted by the Western society, and now an increasing number of people have accepted the norm that men, like their female counterparts, can also be beautiful and freely express or enjoy themselves by applying makeup.

In China, in contrast, men wearing makeup is still viewed as a taboo by a large part of society, and the question surrounding the social acceptance of men in makeup persists, mainly due to the patriarchal culture rooted in thousands of years of history. Men’s makeup in China is largely connected to self-improvement for better chances of financial, social, romantic and career success, which are viewed as crucial elements of one’s masculinity. That is to say, one can use makeup, but can‘t be “娘”(feminine, girly or sissy), although the basic and essential functions of makeup is to give someone characteristics which are traditionally associated with “娘”. Contrary to women’s makeup centered around the socialized expectation to enhance beauty, the main function of men’s makeup seems to be preserving masculine stereotypes through improvement of one’s appearance. 

To better understand this interesting notion, one can take a look at the advertisements of Chinese men’s makeup, which often try to convince potential customers that the magic of becoming more successful and masculine men lies right in their products. The descriptions of men’s makeup avoid lavish and detailed description on the direct changes on the face, since the excessive focus on appearance is often regarded as “sissy” or traditionally feminine in Chinese society. Products are often advertised through gendered norms of masculinity labeling makeup as a kind of “weapon.” 

During the 2019 Tmall’s “Double 11 Shopping Festival”, “Natural If True Men Plastic Frost” from Chinese brand 左颜右色(Man Codes) topped the sales ranking of men’s makeup. The seller states that their product can “make a man handsome in 30 seconds” and “let her fall in love at first sight.” Although the product is essentially a kind of light foundation, which, should be no doubt categorized as makeup, the seller insists that using it “changes the appearance without applying makeup”. Other brands, including 和风雨 (Solehe) whose men’s lipstick attracts more than 1,000 buyers every month, also cling to the idea that their products are not a threat to its buyers’ masculinity. “(This lipstick) makes you look fresh but not sissy”, as they said in their advertisement. 

Advertisements of Natural If True Men Plastic Frost from Man Codes and men’s lipstick from Solehe. 
Image credit: Flagship stores of Man Codes and Solehe on Tmall
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Besides the sellers of men’s makeup, the buyers also found themselves facing the psychological conflict between makeup and masculinity. The concept of masculinity demands a man to be tough, stern and macho, to constantly conceal their emotions and to be uninvested in their appearance. Under such cultural pressure, Chinese men are careful about building masculine images in the public’s eye and are on high alert for any signs of “娘”(girly or sissy) which are traditionally accompanied by social prejudice and stigma. Even if they feel like taking good care of themselves without being concerned of losing their masculinity, other people’s opinions may pressure them to think twice before picking up their eyebrow pencils or lipsticks. “All my friends and classmates know that I use makeup products, I’ve never hidden this side of me, and they think it’s normal,” Chen said, “But I’d keep a low profile in front of the elders. It’s not like I feel guilty wearing makeup, I just don’t want to waste my time and energy on the attempt to change their prejudices.” Wang told a similar story, saying that his parents have no objection to him applying makeup, fortunately, but they have suggested he reduce the frequency. 

Despite the social pressure, both Chen and Wang said that they will keep applying makeup. “The determinant of using makeup or not is how I feel about myself, not how other people feel about me,” Wang said. “Makeup is a good thing to me. It brings me more confidence and fun, and it makes me feel in control of my life,” Chen remarked, “I think the choice of makeup should stem from one’s self-knowledge, and I fully accept this side of me.” As more men like Chen and Wang join the club of makeup, the social mindset is gradually changing. Men’s lipsticks and eyebrow pencils have the potential of promoting a more freer, diverse and tolerant Chinese society—if only they can stave off the socialized norms of patriarchy first. 

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