South Korean Women Raise Their Voices Against Beauty Standards

In June of this year, the South Korean beauty YouTuber, Lina Bae, uploaded a video to her channel that was simply titled “I am not pretty.” Over the course of the three-and-a-half-minutes video, Lina painstakingly applies the make-up that constitutes her daily cosmetic routine and then dramatically removes all of it; while derogatory comments such as “your bare face is a terror to my eyes” appear on the screen. Lina’s written description of the video is defiant. It says, “Since I am a girl, I am enforced to follow rules, but if I don’t want to I will not wear that corset.” By October 2018, Lina’s video has amassed over five million views.


The popularity of Lina’s YouTube video is symbolic of a movement that is gathering power amongst South Korean women. These women argue that the stringent and unrealistic beauty standards that have been promulgated and enforced by a patriarchal order of society have only acted to constrain women, waste their time, and preserve notions of gender inequality. Lina’s analogy of a “corset” is one that has gained particular prominence within the campaign. It describes how the South Korean cosmetic industry has attempted to restrict female appearance to one that is uncompromisingly “homogenous feminine”. For this reason, it has been hailed the “remove corset” campaign.


Wide eyes, pale skin, thin legs, high noses, and cherry-shaped lips are physical features that have combined to create exacting standards for South Korean women. Euromonitor reports that South Korean cosmetic beauty industry, dubbed “K-beauty,” is worth an estimated $12.5 billion. Lina Bae’s YouTube video particularly announces how South Korean women are forced to buy into this in order to create the revered physical qualities that dictate a woman’s position. The Guardian spoke to Cha Ji-won, a South Korean woman who has started a feminist YouTube channel as part of her contribution to the “remove corset” movement. She described how her decision to throw away her make-up and return her dyed blonde hair to its natural black has been liberating. She states that the time that she used to spend applying makeup products and worrying about her appearance is now spent on reading books and exercising. This raises a crucial point within the campaign. Enforcement of unachievable beauty standards has not only subdued women into a constant mentality of “I’m not good enough,” but also diminished the way they spend their time in comparison to their male counterparts.


However, for many South Korean women of the “remove corset” campaign, make-up and the profitability of the cosmetic industry are merely a “tip of the iceberg”. South Korea is known as the plastic surgery capital of the world; The Guardian estimates that a third of the country’s young women have undergone surgery of some kind to augment their appearance. The type of look that is usually acquired by plastic surgery, such as big lips and a slim nose, has even come to be termed as “Gangnam beauty”. The term comes after the wealthy suburb in Seoul which houses over 500 clinics. For many South Korean women, plastic surgery has simply come to be seen as the inevitable route to success. Despite being a society that has taken important progressive steps towards the achievement of gender equality in recent years, including the election of East Asia’s first female head of state in 2013, patriarchal pressures on a South Korean woman remain high. Her chances of making a good impression at a job interview, getting married, or gaining general societal acceptance are still thought to be dependent upon her physical appearance.


The “remove corset” movement is one that has developed as a response to the place that South Korean women hold within the society. Commentators have been careful to point out that it is not a reaction against a South Korean beauty industry that encourages women to look more Caucasian. Although newspapers such as The Guardian and The Telegraph have taken the preponderance of surgeries such as skin whitening and nose jobs as evidence for women trying to achieve a Caucasian look, the pressures of South Korean beauty standards reach far beyond this. Business Insider has spoken to Alfred “Happy” Leung, a Seoul-based YouTuber, who calls the idea that “Koreans just want to look white” a “misconception” based on “Western arrogance and Eurocentrism.”  Pale skin has always been considered beautiful in Asian culture, and the popular double-eyelid surgery is done not to emulate Caucasian eye shapes, but a rare type of Asian eye shape. Li Binbin, the Beijing-based plastic surgeon, told the South China Morning Post that “in the East, we have our own beauty standards.”


The “remove corset” campaign is part of a broader rejection of elements of a society in which women have to face persistent battles for equality. The way in which South Korea’s patriarchy dictates the “face” that women should present to the outside world is a symptom of a society that has rarely witnessed backlash for its treatment of women. For example, earlier this month, tens of thousands of women took to the streets of Seoul for their fifth time in protest against “hidden-camera pornography”, or “spycamming.” This practice involves men fitting tiny recording devices into public places, such as toilets or changing rooms, to record women and then later sell the footage to pornography sites. Boyfriends have recorded their girlfriends on devices as small as a car key, and then used this footage against them; a recent high-profile case was that of the K-pop star Goo Hara, whose boyfriend shared footage of her begging him not to release a sex tape of her that he had recorded. This phenomenon and the protests that have emerged around it provide a distinct aspect of South Korea’s growing MeToo movement. There is a sense that South Korean women’s anger is empowering them like never before, with women marching en masse under signs that bear unequivocal slogans such as “My Life Is Not Your Porn.” The women of MeToo have triggered a global soul-searching, and questions of culpability for decades of institutionalized sexism that are unlikely to fade now before appropriate answers to them can be offered.


Lina Bae’s YouTube video may at first simply seem like an increasingly familiar response to a beauty industry which promotes impossible standards that most women know the tribulations of trying to meet. It is; however, more than this. Her video is a contribution to a conversation that is taking place in South Korea around the inferior positions afforded to its women. A three-and-a-half-minute YouTube video in which a South Korean woman removes her makeup and unashamedly proclaims, “this is me”, is more than a protest against K-beauty. It is a contribution to women’s declarations that they will no longer be told that their appearance is unworthy, no longer pressured into surgery, no longer filmed without their consent, and no longer humiliated when the footage is published against their will. Although South Korea’s take on the MeToo movement may be relatively new, it is no less fierce in its promise to interrogate the men who have suppressed it.