By Courtney Suciu
In November 2018, a fight broke out a local pub in Seoul, South Korea after two sisters claimed a group of men insulted them for not appearing traditionally feminine enough. According to The Korea Times1, when the women verbally retaliated, the conflict took a violent turn. While the police report held both parties accountable (with some witnesses claiming the sisters initiated the confrontation), the public’s impassioned response to the story brought attention to mounting gender tensions in South Korea.
These tensions have been fueled by global movements like #MeToo, as well as a growing feminist rebellion against unrealistic beauty standards known as Escape the Corset.
Many South Korean women are giving up time-consuming, expensive and often dangerous cosmetic procedures to combat what they see as rampant misogyny. But doing so comes at another cost: these women are often the victims of violence and discrimination as they fight to change the role of women in Asian societies.
The global South Korean beauty (known as So-Ko or K-beauty) craze started in the early 2000s with BB cream – an all-in-one “beauty balm” including some combination of moisturizer, primer, foundation and sunscreen. By 2011, Korean beauty exports were raking in the equivalent of 800 million US dollars; by 2016, they were worth 3.9 billion, according to a newswire report2.
Allan Lever, CEO of Masque Bar, one of the most popular K-beauty companies (they put out the popular sheet masks that make you look like a cute animal – I was wearing one while researching this article at home), explained to Women’s Fitness3 what makes a Korean beauty regimen so unique:
Culturally, Korean women have been brought up from an early age to know that if you take care of your skin you will lead a healthier life as well as look better and feel better, and they typically go through a whopping 10 steps in beauty and skincare before they go to bed.
These 10 steps also require 10 different products, including make-up removers, cleansers, exfoliants, toners, serums, masks, eye cream, moisturizers and night creams which sometimes include rare and unusual ingredients such as bee venom, horse fat and kombucha; and promise such benefits as preventing the accumulation of fat cells in the face and “sweeping away” fine lines and wrinkles.
It’s easy to see how the expense in time and money quickly adds up when following such an elaborate routine. In an interview with Alexandria Stevenson of The New York Times4, 22-year-old Seoul resident Kim Ji-yeon estimated that she had spent two hours daily on skincare, and $200 each month.
But cosmetics and creams are only part of the So-Ko obsession with beauty. South Korea has the world’s highest rate of cosmetic surgery per capita, according to Stevenson. Kim told The Times that from the age of 7 she destroyed every photo taken of her until she was 21 and her parents agreed to pay for her to have painful cosmetic surgery.
After that, Kim said she started to question her willingness to pursue such measures for the sake of her appearance. These impossible standards of beauty and femininity seemed to her part of a greater issue – the repression of women’s rights.
“Misogyny is extreme in South Korea, and the beauty industry has made it worse,” she said.
So, she cut her hair short and destroyed her make-up.
Kim is not the only one to rebel in this manner – she is part of a growing movement among South Korean women (including the two sisters from the pub fight) known as Escape the Corset. Their objective is to defy repressive norms around women’s appearance and promote self-acceptance and female empowerment.
Another member of this movement, Lina Bae, a former YouTuber who starred in popular makeup tutorials, told Stevenson she “realized there was something very wrong” when she noticed many of the comments on her videos came from young girls who responded that wearing makeup gave them the confidence to attend school.
Other messages Bae received criticized her looks, and even urged her to commit suicide.
In a newer video, she is shown removing her makeup while she tells her audience, “Don’t be so concerned with how others perceive you. You’re special and pretty the way you are.”
While there has been a lot of support and momentum behind Escape the Corset, participants are also frequently bullied and threatened. For this reason, many Korean feminists prefer to remain anonymous.
“The violence against people who leave the mainstream path is very intense in South Korea compared to other countries,” Cha Ji-won, host of a feminist YouTube program called “Because There Is So Much to Say,” told Stevenson.
Additionally, failure to live up to traditional beauty standards can result in discrimination for Korean women seeking employment. Kim revealed that two prospective employers refused to hire her because she didn’t appear feminine enough.
A 2016 study on “Understanding Identity in Asian Facial Cosmetic Surgery”5 puts the experiences of the women in the Escape the Corset movement into a larger cultural context. Focusing on China, Japan and Korea, researchers Yves Saint James Aquino and Norbert Steinkamp examined how Asian women’s identities are based on relationships, both socially and within their families.
This means that there is enormous pressure to adhere to rigid beauty standards to attract potential romantic partners; but Aquino and Steinkamp also found that such pressures often come from a young woman’s parents.
“Parents themselves drive young women to undergo cosmetic surgery, believing that a particular type of beauty would accord their children improved success in life,” they wrote.
A woman’s identity is not only defined in terms of her success in romance and having children, but in terms of all familial relationships. In this way her appearance reflects on her value as a daughter or sister, in addition to as a mother. “Therefore,” according to the researchers:
decisions involving plastic surgery can be associated with the desire for establishing or continuing familial relations. This is apparent in the trend of Korean parents’ willingness to fund their children’s cosmetic surgeries as graduation gifts, which also transforms surgery into a family-bonding activity.
For Asian women, appearance also factors into success in “academic, social and economics spheres,” Aquino and Steinkamp observed, pointing to reports of Korean parents and teachers who gauged a student’s ability to improve academically according to their level of attractiveness.
Additionally, researchers cited reports of high school students “who believe appearance would be more important than abilities and skills in future employment.”
In Japanese and Korean cultures, a woman’s beauty is also believed to provide opportunity for upward social mobility. From this perspective, cosmetic surgery might ironically represent one way “Asian women are transforming themselves to become more modern and socio-economically empowered,” according to Aquino and Steinkamp.
However, they also note that the potential benefits of such empowerment need to be “evaluated against the contexts of inequality and patriarchy that may result in further harm against women.”
In the meantime, the young women of the Escape the Corset movement are fighting – sometimes literally – to change the way women are seen. And not just in terms of how they look, but who they are as people, and the roles they play in South Korean society.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu