Young women in South Korea spend $700 a month on skincare. Now they're risking their jobs, relationships, and status to revolt against the K-Beauty industry.

Aestheticians take care of the skins of models
Plastic surgery and cosmetics have been a staple of South Korean society. But women are now starting to revolt against the standards.(AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
  • In South Korea, makeup, skincare, and plastic surgery have dominated social hierarchies.

  • But young women who spent hundreds on beauty products are now resisting these beauty standards.

  • Author Elise Hu wrote about how the movement has resulted in a drop in beauty-related spending in South Korea.

In Seoul, the beauty capital of the world, surgeons offer recent college and even high school graduates discounts on procedures so they will be ready for the job market; resumes in South Korea often require job applicants to include a photo, as well as their weight and height.

One-third of Korean women between the ages of 19 and 39 have had some kind of cosmetic surgery, according to a 2020 Gallup Korea poll — 66 percent said they would go under the knife to improve their chances on the marriage market. Even more distressing, a 2007 survey by the brand Dove found that one in four Korean mothers advised daughters between the ages of 12 and 16 to go under the knife.

Yet some South Korean women have had enough.

Since 2018, hundreds of thousands of them have taken to social media to post pictures of themselves cutting their long locks and destroying their makeup. They storm the streets in baggy clothes and spectacles.

They called their movement "Escape the Corset."

"I describe it as a general strike against this kind of [aesthetic] labor that South Korean women are expected to do," said Elise Hu, whose new book, "Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital," examines the $10 billion Korean beauty industry.

The young feminists Hu spoke with for the book reported that they spent between $500 and $700 a month on skincare. Some of them kept track of the time they spent each day grooming themselves to get ready to appear in public.

In giving up makeup, skincare products, and cosmetic treatments, Hu told Insider, "they freed up a lot of time and energy, which cannot be ignored because it's an important lever of our freedom."

Consumption data from the Ministry of Economy and Finance show that beauty-related spending has actually dropped among South Korean women in their 20s, and they also are getting less plastic surgery, Hu writes.

"It was like second-wave feminism here in the U.S., with the bra-burning," Hu said. "The feminists in South Korea are some of the most well-organized and impressive, just exceptional, feminists in the world. And they should be getting a lot more attention."

'Self-care consumerism'

In South Korea, beauty is more than skin deep. It is a duty.

"Meeting a minimum bar of appearance is just considered polite," Hu explained. "If you are getting plastic surgery in order to fit in, you're not just looking good for yourself — it's also a matter of respect for others in your community."

The government hammers this home by keeping costs for beauty products and treatments low, even offering pro bono cosmetic procedures to North Korean refugees looking to assimilate into their new home.

But while this "self-care consumerism" can be a source of empowerment for some — allowing women (and sometimes men) to move across class lines — it also can have damaging consequences.

"When you say your body is changeable, and that you can look better, then you end up being judged for not doing anything about your looks," Hu said. "And that's really dangerous."

Hu moved to Seoul in 2015, from Washington D.C., as an international correspondent for NPR. Immediately, she was struck by "how unequal it felt to be a woman moving about the city and spaces," she says. Strangers commented on her freckles — "you know there are ways to get rid of those?" — and her "big size."

Hu, a former catalog model who typically wears a size 8, had to go to a special store for larger bodies. South Korea has one size — "free" — and it's comparable to an American 0 or 2, she said.

But she witnessed a slow, steady change, brought on by moments of activism and social reckoning.

A pedestrian walks past an advertisement for plastic surgery

In 2016 a man murdered a young woman near a Gangnam subway station because he said he felt "belittled" by the opposite sex. In the days that followed swarms of angry, fed-up women flooded the subway station.

"They just showed up and plastered these multicolored post-its all over with messages saying things like 'I escaped only by chance,' or 'This could have been me,'" Hu recalled. "That kind of really began the big surge of feminism that I got to witness in my time in Korea in the mid-2010s."

"And then #MeToo happened the next year, which led to the ouster of a lot of prominent South Korean men, and then women kind of finding their voice in a country that's been historically patriarchal and remains very patriarchal today."

Escape the Corset came out of this moment.

"Essentially Korean women were just like, I've had it with these really tight pencil skirts, and the long, luxurious hair we're supposed to have, and the perfect skin, and always being made up," she told Insider. "So they just got on social media and cut their hair, they crushed their makeup compacts, they tallied how much time and money they were spending on keeping up appearances, and then showed those receipts [and announced] that they were not going to do it anymore."

Making sacrifices

A report on the South Korean women's movement published by an academic journal about East Asian gender studies, put the number of participants in the Save the Corset movement at 300,000. And they give up a lot for their autonomy. Over 56 percent of Korean men said they would break up with their girlfriend if she said she was a feminist.

"It's wild," Hu said. "They really sacrifice family ties, because they'll get uninvited to gatherings. They sacrifice professional camaraderie, they sacrifice hiring, possibly, getting hired for jobs."

"There was one teacher who spoke to me last weekend who said that her students are constantly asking her why she doesn't wear her hair long [or] get ready in the morning," Hu said. "These are elementary school students. [They] tell her that her parents say that she's lazy, because she doesn't work hard. And this is what the problem is, when we situate good looks as a matter of personal responsibility."

In all, Hu said she remains hopeful: for women in South Korea, for women in the world, and for those of us trying to push back against a society that tells us that looks are everything.

"I feel like just even talking about the book," she said, "there's a lot of recognition that's happening that maybe wasn't, wasn't, wasn't out there or in the conversation 10 years ago."

Read the original article on Insider