The real power behind China’s new trend of ‘sissy men’ ... is the empowered modern woman

The ‘luxury pig men’ are challenging traditional gender stereotypes, and some commentators believe greater empowerment for women is helping them to do so

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 September, 2018, 8:01am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 September, 2018, 10:58am

In recent weeks, a new buzzword has emerged on the Chinese internet to describe a new breed of make-up loving young men: “luxury pig men”.

These skincare-savvy jingzhunan, as they are known in Chinese, have gathered widespread attention for their intricate and time-consuming beauty regimes in a stark contrast to the traditional macho ideal.

But the trend may be driven not just by fashion but by greater female empowerment and the increased attention to what women want.

The younger generation of Chinese male heartthrobs, the “little fresh meat” whose appearance is much more like that of their counterparts in Japan and South Korea than previous generations of Chinese stars, are at the forefront of the phenomenon.

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But young, affluent millennials are increasingly copying their look, characterised by dewy, porcelain skin and delicate, elfin features.

The trend has, perhaps predictably, upset some traditionalists – a recent appearance by a boy band on a national back-to-school television show saw them denounced as “sissies” by the state news agency Xinhua.

That triggered a backlash in other sections of state media as commentators and women’s groups weighed in to support the right to adopt different forms of masculinity.

A similar debate was triggered by the first “luxury pig man” – a 25-year-old from the eastern city of Hangzhou who spends up to 30,000 yuan (US$4,380) a year on his beauty regime.

Although local media criticised Xu Tao’s “excessive” grooming routine – he spent around 30 minutes each day doing his make-up – this soon triggered a heated debate as the story went viral on social media.

“They embody a new trend of male beauty that appeals more and more to female millennials,” said Matthieu Rochette-Schneider, China general manager of French brand consultancy Centdegres. “It is becoming the new beauty standard for Chinese men.”

Professor Geng Song, who researches Chinese masculinity at the University of Hong Kong, agreed.

As women have gradually improved their social and economic standing, “their tastes and desires in terms of masculinity have become increasingly important”, he said.

Programmes starring “little fresh meat” – with their huge female fan base – are more likely to get commissioned by TV stations, according to Song, especially since Chinese television drama audiences are dominated by women.

“I think this shows that women’s purchasing power speaks loud as to desirable masculinity today,” he said.

As a knock-on effect, men are feeling more pressure to take care over their appearance and use it as a form of social capital – as women have traditionally done for centuries.

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Advertisers are cottoning on to the trend with singers such as Wang Junkai and Lu Han fronting multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns for Western beauty giants such as Chanel and L’Occitane.

“It’s not that all women in China particularly like this type of young, handsome, effeminate man – it’s that men have begun to realise that appearance could be important for them in terms of career success,” Song said.

In this way, China is slowly beginning to mirror South Korea in its oemo jisang juui – or “looks are supreme” – culture of workplace advancement.

Besides celebrities, many young men in China are first coming into contact with make-up through a growing number of male beauty bloggers or their friends and girlfriends.

Video producer Zhang Dayu, 28, was first introduced to make-up and skincare four years ago through his beauty-conscious girlfriend Christine while they were living in Beijing.

“At the time, he didn’t pay much attention to his appearance, and never got into the habit of skincare,” Christine said. “His skin was coarse, his pores were obvious and his eyebrows were growing wild.”

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Before long, she recommended him a skincare set and regularly urged him to get his hair cut and eyebrows groomed, hoping to introduce these grooming rituals into his lifestyle. “After all, this is a looks-focused society,” she added.

“Back then, I had very little idea of cosmetics and she complained that my skin was too oily,” Zhang agreed. “I do it now mostly because it makes me feel better.”

He uses toner, moisturiser, aftershave lotion and cleanser occasionally.

While Christine asserts that “feminised” men can be “very beautiful”, for her, true attractiveness does not rest on looks alone.

“There’s nothing wrong with using make-up to improve one’s appearance, like some of my male friends,” she said. “But for a man to be truly handsome, one must see his true colours.”

One 29-year-old Beijinger nicknamed Xiaoyu said he had started using make-up two years ago because he was suffering from bad acne. Thanks to product recommendations from his male friends, the Beijinger quickly fell down a make-up rabbit hole and now spends 800 to 1,000 yuan (US$117-US$146) a month on cosmetics and skincare.

“Society’s increasing acceptance of men wearing make-up is a definite trend,” he said. “After putting on make-up I feel more confident.”

Xiaoyu normally spends an hour per day on his make-up and skincare routine, and uses a variety of products including BB creams (also known as beauty balms), foundation, face masks, sera and cleansing oils.

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In recent years, male cosmetics and skincare have come to represent a small but fast-growing segment of China’s lucrative beauty industry, worth 20.13 billion yuan in total as of May 2018, according to data from Statista.

Research from Euromonitor predicts that annual growth rate for male cosmetics sales in China will hit 13.5 per cent by 2019 – well ahead of 5.8 per cent for male beauty products worldwide.

A similar recent study by online retailers Vipshop.com and JD.com found that sales of male beauty products on these platforms have doubled year on year since 2015. Face masks, BB creams, lipsticks and brow products were especially popular.

Asia’s appetite for male cosmetics is not only fuelled by viral beauty bloggers and K-pop aesthetic ideals, but also the beauty industry’s keen desire to capitalise on this relatively new audience.

“As there is an increase in male beauty vloggers and men who wear make-up, cultural ideals of who can and how to wear make-up will definitely change,” said Babette Radclyffe-Thomas, a PhD researcher in Asian fashion trends at the London College of Fashion.

“Skincare trends also hold different cultural significance in Asia compared to other regions. Notions of skincare and grooming ideals in this region are interlinked with ideas surrounding cleanliness rather than gender or sexuality.”

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But it may still be a long while before wearing full facial make-up will become the norm for Chinese men across all ages, social classes and regions.

“Whether among LGBT or straight people, it is a common perception that men who wear make-up are ‘sissies’ or ‘will scare women’,” said Duan Shuai, media director of the Beijing LGBT Centre.

As a result, many ordinary men who use make-up and skincare prefer a more “natural” look in contrast to male beauty bloggers, whose audiences are largely made up of women and gay men.

“These practices are adjusted according to … societal context so that their facial appearance would neither undermine their sense of masculinity nor incur any perceived femininity,” said Simon Chan, a gender studies doctoral student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

As for Zhang, using these products “definitely” makes him feel more attractive to women, but he prefers not to go overboard.

“I think the magical part of make-up is that you do it to a degree where people don’t notice, but they’re like ‘looking good today!’,” he said.

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While “luxury pig men” may be the extreme end of the phenomenon, ordinary men taking more care over their appearance have increasingly been welcomed in Chinese society.

For instance, the top-rated online comments in response to the “luxury pig men” controversy were overwhelmingly supportive.

“Can the entitled straight men in the comments just blow up on the spot?” wrote one user on Weibo, China’s Twitter. “I can just imagine what this kind of person looks like in real life …”