Man Made Beautiful: The Social Role of Grooming and Body Work in Performing Middle-aged Corporate Masculinity in South Korea

Jo Elfving-Hwang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


This article examines how middle aged urban men in South Korea relate to age-relevant ideas of beauty in a society in which youthful muscular bodies are increasingly presented as the ideal or arguably, even as a norm. Drawing on in-depth interviews with thirteen male participants aged 36-56 residing in the Seoul metropolitan area, it seeks to outline what role grooming and aesthetic labour play in their everyday social interactions. The findings suggest that men’s aesthetic practices in the workplace are strongly linked to considerations of in-group harmony, competency at work and maintaining social hierarchies. Rather than being motivated by a desire to emulate hegemonic masculinity embodied by male celebrities of similar age, men in this age group engage with body work primarily for the homosocial gaze of other men in their workplace in order to embody their membership and belonging to it. These micro-contexts of men’s aesthetic labour help to illustrate how not all aesthetic labour can be explained in terms of considering the body simply as an object of investment. The participants’ reflections also illustrate how men’s bodies as neoliberal objects in the contemporary Korean workplace are not interpellated by societal or cultural influences in identical ways. For white collar workers, the role of aesthetic labour was clearly seen as more significant than for those in blue collar roles, suggesting a degree of social stratification of body work. Despite the relatively easy access to affordable technologies of the body in Korea, for workers in lower-middle class jobs where grooming and fitness are not considered as essential part of their job, partaking in aesthetic labour came with anxiety that it might be encoded as “excessive” by others. This suggests that Korean beauty cultures continue to be highly class- and context-specific rather than relatively uniform as often (mis)understood in existing literature.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)207-227
Number of pages21
JournalMen and Masculinities
Issue number2
Early online date9 Dec 2020
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2021


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