When Ruth Berger, a Korean beauty blogger and skincare coach, first heard about Escape the Corset and “skip-care,” the recent phenomenon of women in South Korea throwing away their makeup and skincare, she feared that K-Beauty was on its way out just when she was starting her own business. She uploaded a video to YouTube, explaining that she was initially worried by the movement, but then realized that “skip-care” was about more than just tossing toners and essences into the trash. In an image that harkens back to Victorian-era corsets and rigid standards for women, adopting a simpler beauty routine was a feminist rallying cry and a symbolic way to reject the unrealistic ideals with which women grappled on a daily basis, encouraging them to embrace the faces with which they were born.
“I realized that the beauty standards over in Korea are held as absolute rules,” Berger tells CR. “In other words, if you aren’t doing all 10 steps, then you are just destined to be ugly. I had read somewhere that it’s not even uncommon for teenage girls to be gifted plastic surgery. My own biological sister has showed me what she’s done, including her nose and eyelids. In Korea, it’s not just something fun to do or something to feel good about yourself, it’s the standard. What’s really interesting to me about Escape the Corset is that it’s about the women trying to escape the standard that you have to look a certain way to be beautiful.”
In a time of gender inequality and the global #MeToo movement, women have realized the most powerful way to speak out is with their wallets, refusing to participate in the very industry that makes them feel self-conscious and physically inferior in the first place. It also raises the question of what the future of the beauty industry will look like, as companies grapple with peddling lavish products and extensive routines, all the while maintaining the feel-good image of body positivity and feminism. Even Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, once considered progressive in the early 2000s by having women with different body types and ethnicities parade around in matching underwear, dropped an ad last year that featured a black woman taking off her shirt and transitioning into a white model, inciting public outcry and accusations of racism.
“Given the pressures to buy into beauty culture, Korean women are protesting by throwing away their beauty products in order to draw attention to the unrecognized labor that beauty work requires,” says Sharon Lee, an assistant professor at NYU, whose book The Geopolitics of Beauty maps out plastic surgery in Korea. “Not only does it cost hundreds of dollars a month to maintain, but time as well as energy to keep abreast of trends and to maintain appearances. Plastic surgery in South Korea is a form of ‘body work’ and here you see these same women not only pointing out the ‘body work’ of beauty culture but opting out of it in a way made hyper visible through social media.”
The unfair constraints of beauty standards on women are really nothing new, dating from 19th century corsets that manipulate the torso into the desired hourglass shape (thereby shifting and damaging internal organs in the process) to ’50s housewives who applied an entire full face of makeup an hour before their husbands woke up in the morning. And as it seems, one of the ways women could come to terms with unattainable beauty was to reject the very products that felt so oppressive in the first place, leading second wave feminists during the ’60s to reportedly throw away bras, girdles, and household products and ’90s-era women to embrace androgynous silhouettes, loose-fitting flannels, and grunge-y style at the peak of the riot grrrl feminist movement. We see this now on the runways and high fashion’s take on norm-core, forsaking sky-high stilettos and clothes emblazoned with luxe logos for Uggs, crocs, dad-style sneakers, and utility-wear.
In Korea, those standards manifest as regimented beauty routines consisting of toners, moisturizers, face masks, and two different types of cleansers. Western fascination with Korean culture (called “hallyu”) has taken off in recent years, ranging from food, music, and boy bands proliferating across social media to Western countries and along with it, the world of K-Beauty. Popular brands TonyMoly and Glow Recipe can now be found at Sephora and Ulta stores across the U.S., while BB creams and sheet masks line the shelves of drugstores. Korea’s beauty industry alone has an estimated net worth of over .1 billion in sales in 2018, according to Mintel, a global market intelligence agency.
Korea is considered the world’s biggest plastic surgery capital in the world, with one in three women between the ages of 19 and 49 having had at least one cosmetic procedure and around 20 percent of young women have gotten plastic surgery, according to a study on surgery from 2008. It also has the most plastic surgery per capita on earth, with over 980,000 operations in 2014. The ideal woman is plastered all over billboards for plastic surgery advertisements: pale skin, a small, oval-shaped face, large eyes, and a thin, lithe frame. There’s even a reality TV show called Let Me In that turns transforming women into entertainment, offering cosmetic surgery to those who weren’t naturally genetically blessed with these physical attributes.
Many places of employment require photos during the hiring process, with the implication being that conforming to widely held beauty standards paves the way for faster career advancement. To Korean women, beauty has always meant more than just increased social status, but also a pathway to higher job positions and even Western assimilation: “Because photos are required on resumes, beauty culture in South Korea is distinctly related to economics and employment,” Lee says. “Makeup and plastic surgery are not simply about vanity: there can be a lot of pressure to be your best in every way, which makes appearance a priority as salient as learning English when it comes to marketability.”
Berger decided to create her own hashtag #MakeupLessMondays in order to embrace natural beauty and feel comfortable in her own skin, for one day a week, that is. It’s a message she feels aligns with the core tenet of Escape the Corset. “The premise of the whole movement is all about accepting yourself the way you really are and not having to put on a special face or mask you present to the world,” she says. “That’s what Makeup-less Monday is all about. It’s about taking off the mask and getting real with ourselves. I used my makeup to present a certain face that I wanted everybody to see, so in order for me to learn to love myself, I decided it was time to take off the mask and not being afraid to say I have acne today. It’s learning to accept all of my flaws and present that to everybody, flaws and all.”
After hearing about the Escape the Corset movement, one YouTuber Lina Bae uploaded a video called “I am not pretty.” While she previously posted videos on her channel of her elaborate makeup routines and product recommendations, this one was different. She goes through the usual, arduous process of applying foundation, shimmery eyeshadow, eyeliner, and false lashes before wiping it all off in the end.
“Women are forced to wear a corset that makes one wake up an hour or two earlier to get ready,” she wrote in the video. “Some are even pressured to wear makeup to the supermarket, because of their insecurities of their bare face. I wish and hope that the future generations live a better life with more freedom and better ideals. That is why I made this video, simply to help those. You do not need to be pretty, or beautiful.”
For professional models or actresses with access to makeup artists, hairstylists, and an arsenal of the highest quality products on the market, achieving this ideal might not be too impossible. “If you look at the trend of Korean beauty, it focuses heavily on having great complexion and skin and for a while, everyone was obsessed with ‘water shine skin,’ which is the dewy glow presented on the runway,” says Soo Joo Park, a Korean model. “In the fashion industry, we have lighting and retouching but in real life, what you see is what you get.”
For women without the economic or social privilege, the Escape the Corset movement begs the question of whether or not there are ethical ramifications to beauty brands advertising elaborate skincare routines to a generation of women who might either struggle to afford the products in the first place or be negatively impacted mentally or psychologically by the unattainable images. Korean women spend twice as much of their income on beauty products than American women and Korean men spend more on skincare than men in any other country. To some, beauty products might seem less of an empowering form of self-care and more of a requirement in order to look presentable in public or climb the corporate ladder.
“This is something I wrestle with, because if I say you should get a 10-step routine, that’s a lot of money,” Berger says. “That’s something that frustrates me about the beauty industry: the more expensive the product, sometimes better the result, and I get that. We’re almost taught that if you’re not spending hundreds of dollars on your cleanser, then you’re not going to get a good result and if you break it down, you need to ask why. Why do you need to use an expensive toner and essence?”
There’s also the inherent danger in claiming that extreme beauty standards are restricted to Korean women or Korea alone. Ideals of physical perfection vary from culture to culture, from the Kayan tribe in Burma in which women stack brass coils around their neck to create the illusion of length to sunbathing in Western countries for tanner, bronze-y skin. In Korea, it’s all about achieving doll-like good looks, with an emphasis on Western aesthetics: double eyelid surgery, also known as blepharoplasty, is the most common procedure and is meant to create an eyelid crease in order to make eyes appear larger. Nearly 40 percent of women surveyed in Korea also regularly use skin whitening products, according to the World Health Organization.
“Pointing to South Korea as a place where beauty standards have gone awry runs the risk of detracting from how this is true almost everywhere and certainly the U.S. is no exception,” Lee says. “Many women in the U.S. spend exorbitant amounts of money on makeup, gym memberships, non-invasive procedures, and plastic surgery. Focusing only on Korea’s Escape the Corset movement seductively draws attention away from the ways in which the consumption of feminine beauty products and procedures has become a compulsory part of femininity globally. Perhaps worse yet, this focus on South Korea can even make U.S. women or feminists feel somehow better or more ahead of the game in comparison.”
Ultimately, the proponents of Escape the Corset are less concerned about condemning makeup products and the skincare industry as a whole and more about questioning why these rigid and unrealistic standards are placed on women on a global-scale in the first place, making them impossible to attain without expensive surgery or products.
“There’s nothing wrong with enjoying fashion or enjoying beauty. I have tons and tons of makeup, but as individual women, we need to ask ourselves why we’re doing this,” Berger says. “We’re doing it because we’re afraid. I’m afraid of leaving the house without makeup on and I’m too afraid to show my face if I don’t have cover-up on, or I have to be dressed a certain way. Why are we letting people outside of our lives tell us what we need in order to feel beautiful about ourselves?”END
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