Korean Beauty: It's Not Just Fashionable; It's Feminist

By: Victoria Villamil

Many times, when I feel overwhelmed by the burden of womanhood, I opt for an at-home beauty treatment, like a nice face mask, a scrub, or a mini- facial. I do it because it makes me feel refreshed, renewed and, frankly, a little more empowered. Funnily enough, many newish skincare brands now like Glossier are using female empowerment as a marketing tool for their skincare products, affirming that modern women can take ownership and be proud of their beauty routines. But can the oftentimes insincere beauty industry find common ground with feminism? Don’t they automatically conflict?

Some people seem to think they do. My celebrity crush and feminist icon Emma Watson had to defend herself after being criticized for posing sensually for Vanity Fair noting that, “Feminism is about giving women choice. Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women with.” Unfortunately, many so-called feminists are quick to judge other women for their choices, such as spending too much time on “frivolities” like beauty and skincare products. Cheryl Foland, the founder of minimalist brand Lilah B, states, “Women have more of a mind of their own now…They don’t need to take an hour to get ready in the morning.” In a 2015 article in the Huffington Post, writer Roxie Jane Hunt encouraged readers to take back the beauty industry by “simplifying” their beauty routine and “going shampoo-free as a first step in your personal beauty take-back. The process is liberating, empowering, and eye-opening.”




Um…while I agree that women need to be conscious about what they put on their body, I’m not about to start walking around with dirty hair. (And Cheryl, it sometimes takes me two glorious hours to get ready and I love every minute of it. So go put that in your pipe and smoke it.) Writer Teta Alim isn’t buying the take back craze either, noting that the minimalist mentality and the “less is more” skincare trends are often championed by twentysomethings who are “already typically slim with clear skin.” And honestly, if these people are feminists, they shouldn’t look at beauty routines and self-care so negatively. Even though I admit the beauty industry is wholly imperfect, this is still a dangerous and false equivalence. Most women genuinely enjoy self-care. And, ironically, some enjoy it for probably the same reason Cheryl and Roxie dislike laborious beauty routines: feminism.   

I started to correlate skincare beauty and feminism years ago when my father complimented my mother one day on her looks. She unexpectedly turned to him and said, “You like? I do too. Which is why I need the time to take care of myself.”  I’m not sure if my father gave that comment much thought but I did. Especially because I used to criticize her for spending endless minutes applying serums and for collecting travel-sized creams to bring on vacations. But I’m a wiser, older, and different person now and I’ve realized that applying skincare products is not necessarily a denial of aging or a ready acceptance of societal beauty standards. It’s a conscious choice and, more importantly, a therapeutic act. It is, I think, quite feminist and there’s one country I know who would agree: South Korea.


For many South Korean women skincare is synonymous to a religious pursuit and they spend significant time applying products in the morning and the evening. Most Western women typically cleanse, tone, and moisturize their faces but South Koreans usually follow a six to ten step routine. They always cleanse twice to discernibly remove excess filth, they apply essence in addition to toner, they use sheet masks to lock in moisture, and they exfoliate. Lee-Sa-Bi, a thirty nine year old South Korean model, who I think looks better than Beckham, strongly upholds the South Korean routine saying, “I grew up doing this because I saw my mother doing it. It was all a part of learning how to take care of yourself” adding “skincare was never about looking pretty or wearing a lot of makeup. Skincare was always about being healthy.” Unlike many Western companies, Korean ones emphasize a person’s general well being and thus don’t pretend that a pricey magic moisturizer can “cure it all.” They instead recommend exercise and good eating and sleeping habits, in conjunction with good products.

Korean saunas and spas are also very pro-woman. The capital Seoul, for example, has many postnatal spas which offer daily massages, lactation help, and 24-hour infant care. Another fun little fact about Korean spas is that everyone has to strip naked. (But really, they are always naked, so much so that even Germans might get uncomfortable. Like, women communally shower in their birthday suits.) Writer Amy McCarthy wrote in Cosmopolitan that she stopped hating her body after visiting a Korean spa stating, “I've tried to pinpoint the exact moment that I stopped giving a damn about whether people were looking at my body, and I think it was probably when I sat in the hot tub with a group of elderly Korean women. They were laughing, gossiping, and truly letting it all hang out.” In a Korean spa, there is just no room or tolerance for bodily insecurities and comparisons. Cellulite, c-section scars, body hair,stretch marks...most woman have these and they indicate a life lived, not an embarrassing existence. Korean spas force you to accept and embrace yourself as you are. And, after a few minutes of awkwardness, you just have no other choice but to shake it off. I can’t help but admire it.



Korea’s skincare rituals have not gone unnoticed in the Western world. “France was considered the global leader in beauty, but now all eyes are on Korea,” confirms Peter Thomas Roth. Unlike most French products, however, Korean products are quite accessible to the average woman. For example, a really nice moisturizer would normally be between 50 to 200 dollars in the U.S. but in South Korea, they typically cost 10 to 20 dollars. Koreans see lush facials and dermatologist treatments not as a luxury but as an essential component to a person’s health. Therefore, these procedures are also not expensive. A good dermatologist facial in Seoul, for example, costs around thirty dollars. This is starkly different from a similar one hundred to two hundred fifty facial in New York City. And fraxel treatments, which are about 1,500 dollars per treatment in the US, are only 100 dollars in Korea. In short, Korean skincare is almost classless and egalitarian! (Is there nothing that screams feminism more than inclusion?!) Best of all, Korean women are much more informed about ingredients and aren’t as easily swayed by pretty packaging the way many Western women are, including myself. They understand chemical combinations and most importantly, their own skin type. In fact, Korean beauty stores expect customers to be very informed and particular about what they are putting on their skin. Alicia Yoon, co-founder of the online Korean skincare site Peach and Lily, agrees stating, “In Korea, what is trending is not so much about a million steps. It’s really knowledge empowerment.” And to top it all off, even the boys are obsessed with skincare! It should come as no surprise that Korean men care more about skincare products than men in any other country. Couples often even go to skin care appointments together. Seriously, talk about equality.

But by far, I applaud Korean beauty for stressing the importance, or dare I say vitality, of SPF. More than any other culture, Koreans consider this to be the chief product of skincare, much more essential than a fancy serum. Koreans don’t just apply SPF once in the morning, they constantly reapply as the day goes on, which helps them to prevent wrinkles, sunspots, and skin disease. As a pale person who grew up in tan-obsessed Miami, I felt the societal pressure every day to look like a brunt beach golden girl and not a sickly ghost. But that was the nineties. Sadly, sun tanning and tanning beds are “still a thing” in 2017 and this is as ridiculous as it is harmful. (Seriously, do we need to spell out the dangers the way we do on a cigarette pack?) The whole “be comfortable in your own skin” message we are fed by feminists goes nowhere if women are still obsessed with recklessly altering their skin colour. And if you insist that you just gotta look like J. Lo, then buy a tanning lotion for heaven’s sake! As the saying goes, fake it, just don’t bake it.

NOTE: The Korean beauty industry is not all milk and roses either. Plastic facial surgery and whitening treatments are popular amongst some women. There are also beauty companies who sadly exploit street workers to make inexpensive sheet masks. This side of Korean beauty and skincare is utterly extreme and the complete opposite of feminism.

Not unexpectedly, women throughout the world are now seeing skincare and beauty routines as a feminist act. Author Autumn Whitefield-Madrano admits that she used to feel like she “shouldn't be thinking about beauty as much as I was because I thought it meant I wasn't serious or I wasn't a feminist.” But she decided to embrace the joy she found in beauty openly stating, “I realized I really treasure my six-and-a-half minute morning face routine. I need that time to feel centered, and I like that sense of communion with myself.” New York Times author Jodi Kantor felt the same when she visited South Korea and additionally emphasized how wonderful it felt to share that experience with other women. She writes, “At the start of the trip, I missed my husband and daughter, but after a few days, I realized I needed my girlfriends.” Preach, sista. For us Western women who yearn for good inexpensive Korean beauty products, we’re in luck. Beauty mogul store Sephora offers an entire section of Korean beauty products (or K-Beauty as they call it.) Women can also buy products online through websites like Soko Glam, Peach and Lily, and OhLolly. And all this is readily available today for good reason. Most Korean products are just honestly great. They help getting rid of acne, they achieve a clean dewy-look and they effectively revitalize your skin. But more than anything else, they can help people feel confident and incredible on the inside as well as on the outside. So next time you see a woman fuss over a serum or a night cream, consider what they're doing as an act of self-restoration, rather than one of superficial indulgence. Korean women have been celebrating the skincare ritual as an empowering and necessary one for years now. Shouldn’t we?

P.S. For the history and beauty buffs out there...