What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word ‘South Korea’? Perhaps kimchi, Korean barbecue, K-pop, K-dramas and so on? What about skincare, makeup and cosmetics? Looking good or close to perfect is extremely emphasized in Korean culture. According to Euromonitor, South Korean women spend more than twice of their income on makeup and beauty products than American women. And the men don’t fall behind. South Korean men spend more on skincare products than men in any other country. No wonder South Korea boasts a 10 billion dollar beauty industry. To better understand S. Korea’s beauty obsession, I explore how mainstream culture and the Hallyu Wave promote South Korea's beauty obsession.
Strict Korean Beauty Ideals
Upon first arriving in South Korea, something stood out to me - the beauty and makeup craze. Women and girls wear makeup, at all times. S. Korean women are not embarrassed or self-conscious to touch up their faces in public. While riding the subway, eating dinner at a restaurant or during work breaks, anywhere is fair game. It’s commonplace to see groups of young girls staring at their compact mirrors while they reapply lipstick or foundation. Witnessing this is kind of refreshing but also odd since they care so much about their looks. I first noticed how often some of my co-teachers reapply their own makeup. They have flawless skin and their makeup is always on point but their regimen requires high maintenance and time commitment. From someone that rarely wears any makeup out of sheer laziness, I’d never keep up.
The matter of the fact is that the beauty standards in South Korea are sky high. Blame it on social pressures or not, good looks and flawless skin is what everybody wants, but especially younger people. Currently, there are about 2000 S. Korean beauty brands. That is an insane figure given that South Korea is such a small country but the demand exists. The average Korean beauty regimen calls women to apply 10 to 18 different products a day! When natural beauty doesn’t meet the strict standards of Korean ideals, plastic surgery is the answer. Since appearances are such an important part of S. Korean culture, 60% of women in their 20s resort to plastic surgery to look as perfect as the models, actresses and singers gracing television, magazines and advertisements.
South Korea is an inherently competitive culture in which looks play an important role. Looks can help someone land a job or not. I’ve read articles in which employees felt pressured by employers to get plastic surgery so they could look more attractive. Beauty ideals are skewed mostly everywhere in the world. For example, in the US, Caucasian pin thin women with long, luscious blonde hair are emphasized as the ideal woman. At least that’s what most models featured in magazines and commercials look like. In Mexico, curvy women with lighter complexions are viewed as the epitome of beauty. In South Korea, being thin and having a perfect face are the beauty ideals. A perfect face should be small, pale, preferably have eyelids with a Caucasian crease but the ultimate must is glowy, dewy skin.
The obsession with beauty is heavily influenced by Korean mainstream culture. Young S. Koreans aspire to look as beautiful as their favorite K-Pop singers and K-Drama celebrities do. It’s commonplace for these singers and actors to endorse beauty brands which their loyal fans rush to purchase. Some K-Pop labels have started their own lines of makeup while beauty is intertwined in the plots of K-Dramas. Getting plastic surgery is often featured as well as the main actresses focusing on their skin care routine.
The Hallyu Wave Cont’
Along with K-Pop, K-Dramas, and movies South Korea continues the Hallyu wave (Korean pop culture rolling over the world) by selling its cosmetic products to international markets. As the S. Korean domestic market became saturated, companies began to look elsewhere to expand their businesses. With the help of the S. Korean government, these companies began to successfully export their products. China and South East Asia were logical choices due to proximity but now the US is one of the major export markets. Now, S. Korean cosmetics are starting to be viewed as the most high-tech by cosmetics experts. South Korea is well on its way to establishing itself as the leader in beauty and skincare products. In 2015 alone, 2.64 billion dollars in cosmetic products were exported. South Korea’s booming beauty industry clearly doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.