Elise Hu on K-Beauty and aesthetic self-optimization
David Gates’ poem today is particularly relevant: https://www.instagram.com/p/CsoKPkCOtk-/?igshid=ZWQyN2ExYTkwZQ==
Yes, I have good skin
it keeps the rain out and
vital organs in
I'm not pretty. This isn't me being humble or self-deprecating. I don't perform the labor of prettiness. It makes people mad! I've always had a really grudging and conflicted relationship with this stuff because I know my career and pay are suffering for it but I still can't bring myself to, uh, do anything about that.
I deeply love a thing Elizabeth Gilbert said on IG on these topics and refer to it regularly: https://www.instagram.com/p/B2b1yeIhI9n/
"I want to eventually become one of those badass old ladies whose faces look like topography maps of everywhere they’ve ever been, and everything they’ve ever felt. Because, to me, that’s authentic beauty."
Great interview and it got me thinking about a recent conversation that a bunch of female friends and colleagues were having at a party and everyone was sharing where they get their botox and fillers. And I'm hearing these smart, capable, talented women (most who have PhDs and are leaders in their fields) being so afraid of being 'ugly' and 'old looking' -- when none of them are ugly by any reasonable metric and we all look old at one point because we all age. IDK, it's just interesting because beauty is also a byproduct of class politics and we do have an underclass of people who cannot afford to not be ugly but then people who can only afford to look ugly. And I know these issues are systemic and individual choices will not free any of us, but I wonder what would happen if, for our own sake, we just accepted and appreciated being 'ugly'*
*probably fuck all lbr
This is such a great discussion. On one hand I SO appreciate Korean American (or just American expats in Korea) influencers from a few years back (2010~). They were/are so great at breaking down and teaching consumers what these products were and how to pick/choose/customize your routine.
Their guidance is the reason I was able to get to the root cause of my acne and address it. I also only regularly wear sunblock due to the cosmetic elegance of Asian formulas - ditto with cleansing oil. The cleansing oil and pleasant feeling sunblock is the only reason my husband is willing to COAT himself in sunblock which is critical for his predisposition to skin cancer. And cheap/easy to use oil cleansers have been a godsend for my kiddo with eczema, ditto on the light essences/toners which he is willing to use over the thick greasy American versions. The clear disclosure of key ingredients (and the % and concentration!) made me a MUCH savvier consumer and the huge amount of competition meant sophisticated formulas with great actives are so much cheaper!
That being said I realize that I get to pick/chose the good parts from the bad in a way women in Korean really can't. I'm hopeful that globalization of beauty/gender standards works both ways and it seems like the interrogation of beauty standards is starting to permeate the culture there.
Oh, my goodness, is this a timely read. I just got back from California, where I had met some friends from DC to run a marathon. And among the people I was visiting, so much of the talk revolved around weight, fillers, Botox, face lifts, perceived flaws, etc. We were all there specifically to accomplish this crazy physical feat, and yet almost as much airtime was given to the ways our bodies and physical appearance were supposedly letting us down as it was to how strong and capable we were. I’m not immune to it; I’m headed to Sephora in a bit to plop some money down on yet another hair care regimen in the hopes that this will be the one that transforms my frizzy middle-aged hair back into the glossy locks of my twenties. But the weekend did make me realize how much less of that beauty anxiety I experience in crunchy Seattle than I did when we lived in the DC area.
I'm really curious to read this book. I lived in Seoul in the early 2000s and I was VERY aware of the cultural pressures around beauty there (I've never had more strangers say something about my hair/body/clothing than when I lived there, including an adjumma pinching my belly on the bus to express her feeling that my shirt was too short) but I don't recall feeling like the skincare product industry was anywhere near the thing that it is now. I'd like to learn more about how social media helped spread/grow Korea's reputation in that space.
Love this, and super interested in the book. My kids (21 and 19) have tried to tell me (50) about K-pop before. Also, for the record 40s are terrible because someone decided that zits and wrinkles TOGETHER are an acceptable combination. They are not.
I love this. I lived and taught in Seoul in the mid-aughts as a non-Korean myself, and have friends who still live and teach and parent in that context. I do think that in liberal coastal America, because we at least pay lip service to diversity in all of its forms, there are more options for self-styling. There is more space made for androgyny in style in the U.S., which intersects with our growing acceptance of queer and non-binary identity, and I find that a relief. In Seoul, fashion felt more binary and gendered in general. It was hard to find clothes that fit my identity, much less my curvier body, even as I received more unsolicited approving comments on my “doll-like” facial features than I have ever experienced Stateside. (This is just how my face looks; before I moved to South Korea, I hadn’t given my large eye size, relative to my face size, a second thought.)
But -- our choices in the U.S., as noted, are also constrained in their own ways, by American aesthetics. Is the choice I have as a cis woman, to either go for “heavily made up” or “no makeup makeup” as a look, really a choice, if I don’t also get to opt to roll out of bed and skip makeup altogether like my partner without seeming unprofessional at work or like I’m “letting myself go” as a mom? Is the choice I have to either be a ripped CrossFit queen or a waifish manic pixie dream girl in motorcycle boots really a choice, if I don’t get to also opt to have a soft, rested, well-fed body that looks however it looks in that condition? If our choices boil down to how we participate in hustle culture vs whether, then we’re still oppressed.
So, I think it makes sense to look at this as a global system of oppression with different facets, as the author does, rather than turning it into an exercise of Orientalism in the guise of feminism. No matter which side of the planet we live on, we all want more bodily autonomy and freedom than we’re getting.
Loved this and immediately added the book to cart. Every single woman in my extended family in Korea has had plastic surgery (eyelid for sure, others as “needed”) and when my mom and I visit we stand out as very dark-skinned (because we don’t use bleaching creams) and unkempt.
If anyone is interested in learning more about the larger context of hallyu, or the cultural dominance strategy, I highly recommend The Birth of Korean Cool by Euny Hong. A great and fascinating read!
“South Korea’s gender pay gap, women’s labor participation rate, and the percentage of women in leadership positions are the worst among the developed nations in the OECD.”
I learned a lot from this entire article, and the facts around the gender inequality in Korea are crucial.
I’ve heard Korean men link their suicidal thoughts to feeling like a loser, which they define as someone who doesn’t own a car or house by the time they’re 30.
As mentioned in this article, matchmaking agencies focus on all these beauty specs, but apparently, one of the first questions Korean men receive from women is “How much do you make?” and “What’s your job?” Appearance and money seem to be crucial prerequisites for dating.
My first thought was, “how can they be so shallow?” But by understanding the gender pay gap and Korean culture, one might argue many women don’t have the same opportunities to make money, so they need to ask men right away.
I’m curious what Korean people from this community think? Also, is it true that if you go to a bar on Saturday, it means you’re looking for sex and only sex? I’ve heard it twice, but couldn’t find any articles that confirm it.
I am wondering how much this ties into their extremely low birth rate. It’s much harder to control how you look when pregnancy hormones are having their way with your body.
I think liberating oneself from appearance shame can is easier done when one knows that there’s a fancy suit/dress/outfit in the closet that can be worn in a certain situation or a degree/point in career that gives you a backbone in doing this.
I also think this is one of the messages of punk, but stated more clearly, with anger, and for everyone to see: we don’t agree with your beauty standards! And we’re not willing to buy into this idea of being sold a better version of ourselves.
I love staying natural and yet again, my eyelids are not nearly as ‚pretty‘ as I’d like them to be... I find myself meandering between both sides and would sometimes love to just pick one and then decide on the topic once and for all. But then again, I wouldn’t know which side to choose, so I guess I’ll keep sailing from one shore to the other
I’m very interested to read this. A good friend who was born in Korea educated me about the concept of “glow up”- supposedly natural looking skin versus a made up look. However, a lot of effort and products go into getting one. As a side note, I have pale skin snd have worn sunscreen every day of my adult life. When I lived in Japan, aestheticians complimented me on my skin tone and I felt VERY uncomfortable about it. My color was not something I wanted anyone to aspire to.
Thank you for this interview! I loved this part in particular:
"... now I understand their decisions to modify their bodies as totally rational for a broken system, and we should challenge the system instead of judging the woman. As a mom of girls, I’ve really endeavored to .... model for them, showing instead of telling, that our bodies are instruments for doing and feeling, and not ornaments for the gaze of others."
There is so much power in these words! That judgement is so pervasive and I don't hear it discussed enough. The work to undo those internalized beliefs that our looks equate our worth is really difficult but so essentially to living full lives, I think. I realize, too, that I have absolutely no idea what I truly think is beautiful in terms of looks: What's me versus what have I been taught to want to look like or covet?
I’ve always wondered about (non-surgical) beauty care efficacy, and the podcast Science Vs recently addressed this in an episode. But I’m not sure how much they looked at K-beauty products; maybe they’re functionally the same (mostly to be a sun barrier/keep in moisture, with a rare “active” like vitamin A actually doing anything) or maybe they have some magic up their sleeves. There’s so much discussion about efficacy, and I’m glad this book is questioning why we have certain beauty standards in the first place. I never got into wearing makeup on a daily basis, and like someone else mentioned, I may be paying a professional price for that; I don’t care, though. And in the U.S. (or at least my area) you can pass off no makeup as being queer and/or a hippie, ha. It seems like that’s not an available way to opt out in Korea; if not, I wonder what cultures do opt out of K-beauty standards? Maybe the book addresses this.