Some Kore­ans have HAD ENOUGH OF ‘BEAUTY’


The Nation - - OPINION -

Of all coun­tries, South Korea – whose cap­i­tal is a mag­net for Asian women (and some men) crazy about cos­met­ics – has given birth to an anti-makeup cam­paign. And what is so far just a small move­ment could well catch on. If it does, you might never view cos­met­ics ad­ver­tise­ments the same way ever again. The global trade in beauty prod­ucts will have to re­vise its mar­ket­ing strat­egy.

The women be­hind South Korea’s “Es­cape the Corset” cam­paign say they’ve wasted enough money tend­ing to their phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance. Their col­lec­tive dis­may has seen piles of beauty prod­ucts de­stroyed at pub­lic­ity events – crushed to pieces. It’s noth­ing less than a re­bel­lion against South Korea’s rigid beauty stan­dards, which the women deem un­re­al­is­tic – and against its world-famous plas­tic-surgery in­dus­try.

The #MeToo move­ment helped in­spire the upris­ing, but in a strict pa­tri­ar­chal cul­ture like Korea’s, the cam­paign is unique and truly re­mark­able. It has a moun­tain to climb if it is to suc­ceed, though. South Kore­ans un­dergo cos­metic surgery at the world’s high­est per capita rate and Seoul is one of the world’s most beauty-ob­sessed cities. Teenage girls say they wouldn’t have con­fi­dence to go to school with­out makeup. This is, af­ter all, the land of “K-beauty”, and that’s a ma­jor ex­port.

Re­ject­ing such no­tions out­right, many of the women in the move­ment now sport bowl hair­cuts, which Seoul Broad­cast­ing Sys­tem re­ports have drawn de­ri­sion and even death threats. Bosses have told employees with plainer coif­fure that they didn’t “look fem­i­nine enough”. Else­where, a news an­chor­woman was crit­i­cised for wear­ing glasses, de­spite it be­ing com­mon­place among her male coun­ter­parts.

But the back­lash has only helped the move­ment spread, fu­elling sim­mer­ing anger over glar­ing dis­par­i­ties in both pol­i­tics and the econ­omy. South Korea’s wage gap is the high­est among mem­ber-coun­tries of the Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion and Devel­op­ment, and women hold just one-sixth of the seats in the Na­tional As­sem­bly and one-tenth of cor­po­rate man­age­ment po­si­tions, ac­cord­ing to SBS. De­spite this, fem­i­nism has firm roots in the coun­try and the cam­paign is nur­tur­ing it fur­ther. Misog­yny is blamed in large part for the per­ceived neg­a­tive in­flu­ences of the beauty in­dus­try.

The cam­paign­ers be­lieve ad­ver­tis­ing un­duly pres­sures women about their ap­pear­ance. Cos­met­ics and fa­cial-care prod­ucts gen­er­ated US$13 bil­lion worth of sales in South Korea last year, the buy­ers co­erced into be­liev­ing that such items are es­sen­tial daily needs rather than mere ac­ces­sories. This more than any­thing is what trig­gered the cur­rent cam­paign – the wide­spread mar­ket­ing tac­tic of claim­ing that what’s ut­terly un­nec­es­sary in life is in fact es­sen­tial. Women are told they ab­so­lutely must have makeup as well as other prod­ucts to ap­ply be­fore and af­ter.

It seems un­likely that the cam­paign will bring about sweep­ing change in na­tional sen­ti­ment any­time soon, but the change en­vi­sioned is cer­tainly de­sir­able. It’s best en­cap­su­lated in a video posted on­line by some­one in­volved in the move­ment. Rack­ing up 5.5 mil­lion views to date, it shows a woman la­bo­ri­ously ap­ply­ing creams, foun­da­tion, eye­liner and fake eye­lashes – pre­sum­ably her daily rou­tine – as a se­ries of mes­sages she’s ap­par­ently re­ceived in the past flash across the screen. One says, “I would kill my­self if I were you.” Then she takes off all the makeup and says to the viewer, “Don’t be so con­cerned with how oth­ers per­ceive you. You’re spe­cial and pretty just the way you are.”

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