K-beauty: the ugly face of South Korea’s obsession with women looking forever flawless

The global buzz around South Korean skincare and cosmetics belies the harsh realities of lookism and sexism faced by Korean women, who can’t leave home without putting on make-up

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 December, 2017, 2:19pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 December, 2017, 8:58am

K-beauty has become a buzzword in recent years, as Korean skincare and make-up trends flash across social and traditional media. From last spring’s “zombie” face mask hype and the much blogged “glass skin” trend, to the barrage of hydrating-animal-mask selfies on Instagram, marketing targets the impression that Korean women have flawless skin.

This romanticised image is held to be true, not only by K-beauty fans or the beauty bloggers promoting it; it’s an image championed by an industry serving one of the world’s top 10 markets for beauty products, one that is estimated to be worth more than US$13 billion this year.

Global sales of South Korean skincare products are projected to reach US$7.2 billion by 2020, according to a report by market research firm Mintel. With posters of perfectly made-up K-pop stars touting CC cushions and clay masks plastered on the walls and websites of cosmetics stores across South Korea, K-beauty would appear to be a cultural phenomenon that is here to stay.

Using every conceivable beauty product – K-beauty experts advocate a highly regimented 10-step routine involving cleansers, toner, serum, masks, moisturiser and more – is less a habit than a necessity for many women living in what is a culturally monolithic and highly patriarchal society.

“There’s this idea – why are Korean women so beautiful? It’s because Korean skincare products are so amazing,” said Michael Hurt, a visual sociologist and professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul. “It’s not because Koreans have some ancient beauty philosophy, it’s because your body is your number one asset in this world, in a way that it’s not for men.”

“For men, the social expectation is: don’t be fat, have a nice haircut, dress OK,” he says. “If all you had to do to succeed as a woman is dress OK, not be too fat, look all right, you’d have a lot fewer problems. And in a culture where female beauty is so regimented, of course you’re going to have all these products.”

The beauty products available offer all types of creative solutions, with offerings such as V-line masks that promise to slim puffy cheeks or angular jawlines; hair markers created to hide high hairlines and widow’s peaks [for women]; body tints for rouging ashy knees, elbows and nipples; and DIY home facelifts that come in small vials of serum containing micro needles.

Almost 30 years ago, Naomi Wolf wrote about this in The Beauty Myth. “Beauty is a currency system like the gold standard. Like any economy, it is determined by politics … In assigning value to women in a vertical hierarchy according to a culturally imposed physical standard, it is an expression of power relations in which women must unnaturally compete for resources that men have appropriated for themselves.”

In South Korea, as in much of the world, the beauty myth is still a reality for women. The pursuit of beauty is often an expectation, especially for those who seek social and professional success.

“If I don’t have make-up on, my colleagues will say something like, ‘Why is your face so tired and melted-looking?’” says a twenty-something financial consultant who preferred to remain anonymous.

You can be beautiful in different ways, but you still need to care about your beauty. You have to show that you care about your appearance
Marie Lee, film buyer

“When I go to meetings for client audits, my colleagues push me to wear more make-up because [our clients] these older men will be more willing to speak with a ‘pretty face’,” she says.

Marie Lee, a film buyer who studied in the UK before returning to Seoul, says Korean women have little choice. “The main difference is that people here can’t go out without make-up on. The point is that every [woman] has to wear some make-up.”

On sites such as April Skin, one of South Korea’s biggest cult beauty brands, products like Perfect Magic Face Starter come with slogans including “Today, you’ll have a perfectly made-up face! No more dense, rugged pores with this cover.”

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“Your skin is getting weak and collapsing, you need an original solution to your problem,” reads an ad for Skin1004, a skincare solution targeting college students in their 20s.

As elsewhere in Asia, pale skin continues to be an ideal in South Korea, but the emphasis has shifted to healthy skin. “Chok chok-han pibu,” or moisturised, youthful, glowing skin, specifically.

“You hear a lot about gwang, the glowy, dewy style of make-up,” says Lee, on the latest K-beauty foundation and cushion trend in Korea. “It’s supposed to look like you just had a shower and didn’t put on much make-up. It doesn’t matter if you’re darker or lighter, your skin just looks dewy.”

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Although the Korean beauty industry has diversified over the past decade, with a wider range of colours, new techniques such as bronzing, and experimentation such as nude lipstick or rust-coloured eyeshadow, Lee says the key is still about looking put-together.

“You can be beautiful in different ways, but you still need to care about your beauty. You have to show that you care about your appearance.”

This year, South Korea ranked 118th out of 144 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap survey, which considered factors such as wage equality and maternity leave. The nation ranked close to Japan at 114, and lower than neighbouring countries including China, Malaysia, Singapore, and Cambodia.

In one step that could help ease the image burden on Korean women, the Seoul government last month announced it would phase out plastic surgery advertisements in subway stations by 2022. Media reports cited a public outcry, with over a thousand complaints and requests asking the stations to take down such advertising.

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“I think the powers that be finally admitted to themselves that this is a problem,” says Hurt, the academic. “People are encouraged, almost forced to invest in their body and cultural capital, to the detriment of other things. If you’re so worried about your future and face, you’re not going to do other things with your money. All kinds of negative effects have taken place.”

He says the government is also recognising the problem of an emphasis on the female body. “[For example,] President Moon Jae-in is looking into getting rid of requirements for photos on résumés; they should have done that decades ago. Requiring that is probably one of the biggest drivers of plastic surgery and low self-esteem [for women].”

The era of when women could be sent home from work for not wearing enough make-up has passed and women have become major consumers who can afford to rock the boat, says Hurt. “Women have more power, social power and buying power; women have more room to vote with their wallets,” he says.

Editor’s note: As some readers have pointed out, the author of The Beauty Myth is Naomi Wolf, not Naomi Klein. The story has been corrected