In China, Men’s Makeup Isn’t a Threat to Masculinity — It’s Self-improvement

Ever since brands like Tom Ford and Chanel started launching male cosmetics lines, discussions about whether man makeup would be the next big thing have been nonstop. Both the Guardian and BBC have reported on the rise of male beauty, but both have put a question mark on its commercial viability among Western men. In China, men makeup’s commercial viability has already been a matter of fact. Not only has men makeup gone mainstream, but it has also manifested an entirely different narrative than its western counterpart — makeup isn’t a threat to masculinity. Instead, it is self-improvement to be a more empowered man.

In millennial China, male beauty is the new normal. Today, one in five Chinese men born after 1995 (the so-called post-95 generation) use BB cream and lipstick on a regular basis. According to Tmall’s 2018 Men Grooming Report, the platform’s male beauty market has also grown by more than 50 percent for two years in a row. On Tmall alone, the year-on-year sales increase of men’s eyebrow pencil, men’s lipstick, men’s BB cream had reached 214 percent, 278 percent, and 145 percent respectively. Influenced by a youth-obsessed culture, the even-younger post-2000 boys (the so-called GenZ) have also started to invest in anti-aging products. As the report points out, sales of anti-aging essences purchased by males born after 2000 have grown 336 percent in 2018, surpassing that of all other age groups.

Behind the “mainstreamization” of China’s men makeup lies a psychological driver that is fundamentally different than the Western norm. In the West, men makeup is, despite the diminishing social stigma, largely connected with gay culture. Top-notch male beauty influencers such as James Charles, Gary Thompson (known as the “the plastic boy”) are mostly gay men, and most of their advocacy promote inclusivity or “freedom of expression.” In China, instead, the discussion about men makeup is largely associated with personal growth, as if makeup, just like reading and fitness classes, has become a practical tool to advance socially. Contrary to feeling uneased by something “unmasculine,” many Chinese men genuinely believe that makeup could lead to their more attractive selves, making them deserve more opportunities in life. Makeup, thus, becomes an instrument for Chinese men to feel more empowered.

Recommended ReadingMen & Makeup: The Changing Face of Chinese BeautyBy Tamsin Smith

To understand this peculiar culture of “makeup makes you a better man” in millennial China, here are three recent campaigns of premium male beauty products:

The “Achieve More” campaign video and photoshoot, featuring actor Lay Zhang and the message “achieve more more more”. Credit: BiothermHomme official Weibo

The “Achieve More” campaign video and photoshoot, featuring actor Lay Zhang and the message “achieve more more more”. Credit: BiothermHomme official Weibo

1. Biotherm Homme x Lay Zhang

In June 2018, premium male skincare line Biotherm Homme appointed Chinese actor Lay Zhang to be the brand’s Asia ambassador. Being one of the most prominent “Little Fresh Meat” idols, Lay Zhang is publicly known and admired for his good looks and strong work ethics. Going along with his hard-working persona, the brand’s campaign video features how skincare could help him to “achieve more, more, and more.” The actor, whose Weibo name is “work, work, and work more,” published the campaign in his own account. The post had later been re-shared over 1 million times.

Lab Series collaborates with China’s iG Digital Gaming League to attract the Gen Z male audience. Credit: Lab Series official Weibo.

Lab Series collaborates with China’s iG Digital Gaming League to attract the Gen Z male audience. Credit: Lab Series official Weibo.

2. Lab Series x iG Digital Gaming League

In China, the fastest-growing consumer group of luxury skincare is not retirees. It is the millennials and Gen Z. Lab Series, the high-end male skincare line from Group Estée Lauder, has chosen China’s iG Digital Gaming League as the brand’s ambassador to attract a younger audience. The campaign’s slogan, “Attractiveness score (颜值) helps you to reach new possibilities,” has conceptually softened the effeminate quality of applying luxe lotions, justifying the act of skincare as something positive and inspirational.

3. Martin Cologne: No Need to Be Proactive

Just as many Chinese women associate better skin with better career and marriage, Chinese men also believe that a cleaner, smoother complexion would help them reap more benefits from life. Albeit not being a luxury brand, domestic brand Martin’s May 2019 campaign “No Need to Be Proactive” has precisely communicated this attitude.

Having collaborated with actor Ming’en Zhang and China’s top-tier lifestyle influencer @GQ Lab, the brand launched a campaign story of a good-looking, fresh-faced man standing out from the crowd. The protagonist gets noticed by the prettiest girl in a crowded bar and called for an interview from a row of anxious applicants, all because of his flawless face. The message is clear: Opportunities will find you when you have a good look, not the other way around.

But China’s general attitude towards men makeup hasn’t always been this smoothed. In September 2018, the government’s mouthpieces Xinhuanet and People’s Daily had both published articles to criticize such phenomenon, calling it “a sick way of life.” But outside of the authority’s point of view, male beauty has only got more popular than not. Today, it is increasingly common to see young Chinese men walking on the street with an umbrella to avoid the sun or putting on facial masks to conclude their beauty routines. Many of them are perfectly straight, and they don’t see the interest in makeup or beauty a threat to their masculinity.

Xiaoming Zhao, a 20-year-old college student in Guangzhou, told Jing Daily that “there are six guys in my dorm, and we regularly use facial masks or essences before we go to sleep.” When asked about his view on how male beauty relates to masculinity, he said, “It is just a way to improve myself, like going to the gym.” In his mind, and that of many Chinese GenZ, using makeup is essentially a tool for personal growth, and they are empowered to strive for a better future.