It sounds like either a racy Victorian romance novel or one of the world’s most specifically themed escape rooms. In reality, it’s a lot more serious than either, denoting a new movement of Korean women who are sick and tired of the oppressive and conformist pressures placed upon them by the modern beauty industry and society at large.
It’s no secret that K-beauty is having a moment. With legions of sheet-masking, glow-seeking customers following its all-knowing regimen, K-beauty is the adorable, cartoon towel headband-clad darling of the modern cosmetics industry. Part of the success of Korean beauty has been through its development of a certain female archetype – far from the nonchalant cool French girl trope, the stereotypical Korean girl is the picture of shimmery perfection and won’t be seen with an eyelash out of place. In K-beauty, effort isn’t uncool – it’s expected.
While there’s a lot to be said for the damaging effects of peddling a mirage of ‘effortless beauty’, it only takes a little bit of Seoul searching to see that the fun-loving, pastel-hued image of K-beauty has its own underbelly. It’s not (conventionally) pretty, and that’s the point.
In fact, beauty is so embedded in Korean life that it’s literally part of the infrastructure, with mirrors dotting subway stations and hordes of teenage girls (and boys) stopping to make sure they look as similar to the K-pop idol plastered on the wall nearby. In this world of glittery, sexy girl group members and porcelain-skinned K-drama beauties, it can feel like beauty is a 24/7 corset.
Some women like YouTuber Lina Bae have chosen to shun this corset and speak up. Previously, Bae was a makeup vlogger who expressed discomfort even going to the groceries without a face full of makeup. Makeup had been her armour against judgmental eyes that could tear her apart if they saw what lay beneath, but she soon realised that makeup wasn’t a powerful arsenal but a formidable shackle tying her to ludicrous expectations.
So she released a new video that reverse-engineered her previous makeup tutorials. In this video, entitled ‘I am Not Pretty’, she removes her makeup and shares hateful comments she had received likening her to a pig wearing makeup. Bae states matter-of-factly that it’s all right not to be pretty and the message has since been view by over 6.3 million people on YouTube, generating emotional comments from fellow females who feel suffocated by the pressure to fit a narrow beauty ideal.
Escape the Corset has inspired further videos from other women, cutting their hair short in an act of defiance and destroying expensive makeup products to express their newfound freedom. In a country where even a small bump in your nose warrants a visit to the plastic surgeon, the complete rejection of makeup is a unique message confronting a deep toxicity in its society.
Of course, this darker side of K-beauty doesn’t necessarily define it and there are plenty of arguments in favour of the empowering nature of makeup and self-care.