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  • Angela Tufvesson - Hong Kong

Korean skincare faces a feminist revolution

Beauty trends are inextricably linked to broader social forces like sexism. In South Korea, a growing number of young women are resisting what they consider to be a patriarchal mindset, and challenging expectations about how they should look.


Young Korean women are challenging expectations about how they should look. Photo: Elle Morre


Known around the world for K-pop and K-dramas, South Korea has a cultural footprint that outweighs its physical size—and the country’s most influential export is perhaps its enormous skincare industry.


Korea is among the ten biggest beauty markets in the world and Koreans use more beauty products daily than people in any other country. Complicated multi-step Korean skincare routines are hugely popular across Asia, as well as in the US, Australia, and Europe.


But there is more to this beauty phenomenon than dewy skin, skincare fridges, and popular ingredients like snail mucin. Korean society remains heavily patriarchal, and women experience strong social pressure to conform to rigid beauty standards that promote a youthful aesthetic. Plastic surgery rates are among the world’s highest per capita, with popular procedures often viewed as an extension of makeup and skincare.


Pervasive stigma against women who do not wear makeup, or who have short hair or skin imperfections, has fueled the growth of the Korean skincare industry. Yet there are signs that rising feminist sentiments and broader social changes are shifting the value Korean women attach to physical appearance—and the lengths they are willing to go to maintain a youthful look.


Pressuring Korean women to look good


“The pressure to look good in Korea is beyond imagination,” explains 32-year-old Gaeul Baek, who lives in Seoul and runs a publishing company. “If you go to work without makeup, your co-workers will probably tell you that you look sick and encourage you to wear lipstick. Women of all ages, from elementary school students to grandmothers, skip meals to lose weight.”


She says she used to shell out a considerable amount of money buying cosmetics and clothes. “Every morning, I spent a lot of time putting on makeup, styling clothes, applying nail polish, and choosing perfumes. I always took pictures of myself, each time with a filter,” Baek says. “I was confident in my appearance and liked to receive compliments from people.”


“There is an expectation of how a woman should look. If you are ‘within the box’ and looking pretty with makeup on, with lipstick on, with no baggy eyes, you’re okay. But once you are out of the box, or looking not-so-put-together, people will make comments."

Psychologist MinJung Doh, director and founder of You&Me Psychological and Counseling Services in Seoul, says Korea’s exacting beauty standards promote smooth, hydrated skin and favour dewy makeup that creates a ‘natural’ look—and are a frequent topic of conversation among women.


“There is an expectation of how a woman should look. If you are ‘within the box’ and looking pretty with makeup on, with lipstick on, with no baggy eyes, you’re okay. But once you are out of the box, or looking not-so-put-together, people will make comments,” she says.


A constant stream of negative feedback can fuel a belief that a woman is not good enough and, in serious cases, lead to mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and social isolation. “You slowly learn to self-monitor and adjust your appearance when you go out, so people don’t make an issue out of you,” Doh says.


Beauty standards fueled by a patriarchal society


Even though many comments about physical appearance are shared by women and among women, So Yeon Leem, an assistant professor at the College of General Education at Dong-A University in Busan, says the indirect source is in fact men.


“Getting a plastic surgery procedure from your parents for college graduation is not exceptional. It’s seen as being professional and as moving on to your next stage in life—why not look your best for your job and your future spouse?”

“Korean society is very misogynistic. Women are judged by their physical appearance, which is related to Korean masculinity,” she explains. Japanese colonial rule in the early 20th century and US military rule after the Korean War in the early 1950s were in large part responsible for modernising South Korean society. “Modern Korean masculinity is basically colonial masculinity,” Leem says.


She says this helps to explain why Korea’s strict beauty standards are driven by a youthful aesthetic. “Young women are not intimidating to Korean men,” Leem says.


In pursuit of a youthful appearance, many young women undergo cosmetic procedures in addition to using skincare products. Recent statistics show 31% of women aged 30–39 and 25% of women aged 19–29 have gone under the knife, compared to 4% and 2% of men respectively.


It is common for surgery to alter the eyes and nose and create a more V-shaped chin, explains Leem.  

“The most popular among Korean women is double-eyelid surgery, which has a long history dating back to the Korean war. In the early 2000s, a new trend emerged: jaw surgery. It’s basically about making your jaw small, so your whole face looks smaller and like a baby's face—that's the point,” she says.


Pressure to look good and achieve this youthful ideal is also driven by external forces—like competitive marriage and job markets—that loom large over the lives of young people. For many years, Korea has recorded the largest gender pay gap among OECD countries. Currently it is 31%, higher than Japan (21%), the US (17%), and top performers like Denmark (6%) and Belgium (1%). 


“Issues like ‘lookism’ or the need to wear makeup for work are widely ingrained in [Korean] work culture. A candidate who conforms better to beauty standards…is more likely to get a job or be treated better in their daily lives,” says Christine Chua, a beauty analyst at trend forecaster WGSN.


John P. DiMoia, a professor of Korean history at Seoul National University who has lived in Korea on and off since 1995, says it is common for students to attend classes in “full makeup and more formal dress”. “People just tend not to go out casually,” he says.


DiMoia says plastic surgery packages and advertisements commonly target college graduates and engaged couples. “Getting a plastic surgery procedure from your parents for college graduation is not exceptional. It’s seen as being professional and as moving on to your next stage in life—why not look your best for your job and your future spouse?”


Feminist movements changing the conversation


Despite the intense pressure to conform, there is a growing number of Korean women beginning to reject the country’s strict beauty standards.


Baek says she now cuts her hair short and no longer wears makeup, skirts, or high heels—or a bra. “I realised that I was uncomfortable to see my bare face without makeup. I didn’t even dare to take a picture of myself without a filter. I thought it was weird that my real face felt more awkward than my face with makeup. I felt something was wrong.”


She says the effect on her self-esteem and mental wellbeing was transformative. “When I stopped wearing makeup, I stopped picking at my face to see what I needed to enhance, cover, or highlight. I don’t watch makeup tutorial videos or collect photos for makeup inspiration anymore,” Baek says.


“I no longer judge women by appearance. It’s not that I believe that ‘women are beautiful no matter what’—it’s that it doesn’t matter if they’re beautiful or not.”


Korean men are becoming more conservative. An estimated 80% of young men in their 20s, and 70% of men in their 30s, believe gender discrimination against men is a serious issue.

Baek is part of a Korean feminist movement dubbed ‘Escape the Corset’ that mushroomed in the aftermath of the global #MeToo movement amid growing frustration with local issues such as illegal filming and sexual assault. The movement, which first gained popularity in 2018, saw Korean women publicly reject beauty standards by cutting their hair short and refusing to wear makeup.


“These women have stopped many beauty practices and some of them almost look like young men with short hair, no makeup, and trousers,” Leem says.


In the past few years, the ‘4B’ movement, which extends more broadly into women’s lifestyles, has also taken hold. Shorthand for four Korean words that all start with ‘bi’—or ‘no’—it is a refusal of marriage, childbirth, dating, and sexual relationships and reflects a desire to live independently of men. It is perhaps no surprise that Korea has the lowest birth rate in the world at 0.72 births per women—down almost 8% from 2022 to 2023.


“The 4B movement is about women trying to have their voice heard,” Doh says. It’s about resisting social messaging and challenging “how women historically were treated or expected to look or behave.”


There is also evidence of a large and growing ideological divide between young women and men on a range of social issues. Korean women are increasingly socially progressive and feminist, while Korean men are becoming more conservative. An estimated 80% of young men in their 20s, and 70% of men in their 30s, believe gender discrimination against men is a serious issue.


“You can't even imagine how scared Korean men are of these trends,” DiMoia says. “Even if they don't think about it consciously, they’re threatened by the real possibility of changes to job ratios and all sorts of things.”


Agitating for new ideas about beauty


Korean beauty standards are inextricably linked to broader social forces like gender inequality and a competitive employment market. Looking ahead, what is clear is that Korean women will continue to agitate and challenge societal expectations of beauty, skin health, and femininity.  


Doh says that as the number of women moving away from strict appearance-based norms increases, so too will the confidence to live and present oneself according to a more flexible set of values.


“Skincare sales are down among local Korean women because many are choosing instead to spend their beauty purchases on perfumes and wellness items." 

“A looser beauty standard will allow women to feel freer or more accepted, so they don't have to worry so much about what other people will say when they look a certain way,” she says.


“This can have a very positive impact on mental health, but it’s important to have social support or a community,” she adds, “rather than focusing on what you are not being or doing.”


Crucially, Doh says, there is still scope for women to derive pleasure and enjoyment from skincare. “Skincare is great if you’re focused on yourself and want to keep your skin healthy, and you’re not focused on what other people may say because of your skin.”


Korean women are spending less on skincare and more on perfumes and wellness items. Photo: Starcevic


Some commentators predict shifting gender politics will have global implications for the Korean beauty industry as young women move away from conventional beauty ideals to embrace more radical and expressive looks.


Others are more cautious, emphasising the resistance of existing systems of power. “Rising feminist sentiments just mean that Korean women are more careful when dating men or are opting out of dating men entirely, but the dewy skin ideal…will likely remain the same,” Chua says.


“Skincare sales are down among local Korean women because many are choosing instead to spend their beauty purchases on perfumes and wellness items,” she adds. These items “make them feel good about themselves, rather than items that make them ‘beautiful’ like skincare.”


DiMoia suggests a transitional stage between the ways of old and widespread, full-blown, 4B-style rejection of societal norms.


“The vanguard is women who are more open about it—no marriage, no sex, short hair, the no-makeup look. It is a very conscious look and it’s very noticeable when you see it,” he says.


“What I’m noticing more at university is women showing up without full makeup wearing a baseball cap and their hair more informally tied up as a way of minimising expectations.” He calls this “an intermediate step”.


Social change often begins with a small group of agitators and slowly trickles down into the mainstream, and this is ultimately what Leem says may lead to fundamental change in the way Korean society values physical appearance.


“Even though the ‘Escape the Corset’ movement is still quite minor, it is very powerful,” she says. “More Korean women now wear sneakers than high heels, but they are not necessarily aware that this is a feminist thing.


“They simply see it as a new fashion style that is accessible to more women.”



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