A cutting-edge journalistic exposé of self-care consumerism, using the extreme case South Korea to both celebrate the astounding growth of K-Beauty and South Korean pop culture as a global export and examine the dark implications for women in a looks-obsessed patriarchy, in a debut that asks the question: What is the future of beauty?
From 2014 to 2018, South Korean cosmetics exports quadrupled from $1.6 billion to $6.3 billion. With the help of YouTube and Instagram influencers, Korean beauty’s multi-step skincare regimens, snail-slime facials, and selfie-ready face masks have catapulted into global consciousness and raked in billions. The K-wave captures imaginations worldwide by promising a kind of mesmerizing perfection, aspirational middle class lifestyles, and a sense of fun. These cultural exports, like face creams packaged to look like milkshakes or penguins or cacti, work together to fascinate us, champion consumerism and invite us to indulge.
And yet, there is a dark side to this story. In South Korea, not meeting the aesthetic norm will cost you. Women are frowned upon, at best, or openly harassed by strangers if they so much as duck downstairs to the convenience store without makeup on. South Korea is the plastic surgery capital of the world, because “your face is your fortune,” and determines not just your odds for work but your odds for a suitable partner. Headshots, and often height and weight stats, are required on resumes for all kinds of employment — accounting, governmental, sales. And beyond that, women are making just 56 cents to the man’s dollar, they are excluded from the work force, and the Korean Institute of Criminology’s 2015 report shows that 71.7 percent of women in South Korea had experienced physical or psychological abuse from their male partners at one point in their lives.
With rich historical context and deep reporting including hours and hours of interviews with South Korean women, this is a critical but not condemnatory look at an industry that raises complicated questions about gender disparity, consumerism, the beauty imperative of an appearance-obsessed society, and the undeniable political, economic, and social capital of good looks worldwide.