Beauty as an Industry: The Case of South Korea


The ethics of the beauty industry have constantly bounced between creating oppressive visions of femininity, deciding attractiveness as a potential for professional and inter-personal success, and determining trends in media, popular culture and self-image. This also includes eating disorders because of poor body-image, painful animal testing, and an exploitative regime of power curating ‘normalcy’ and ‘naturalness’ through obedience to a static system—Foucault was never more right. However, this becomes further problematized when the subjects of this industry explain their participation as voluntary and based on conscious choice—they view it as an act of agency and empowerment, because they take their life in their own hands.

What this argument quite obviously brushes off is the construction of the illusion of choice in a capitalist market economy, with consumerism as the ‘fated’ reality of the subject and ‘conscious buying’ an attempt at free will. This has been seen at an exponential scale especially among women as subjects of the perpetual male gaze—aspirations of beauty are essential for women to assume the position of powerful decision-making that men are ‘instinctively’ gifted with as part of patriarchy. Beauty thus becomes a method of proving oneself as capable, while patriarchy privileges men in exercising this method as per their desire.

However, the industry is an all-consuming animal, as is evident from the sharp incline in cases of male cosmetic surgery and usage of beauty products. This performs the twin functions of breaking down the gender binary by diffusing the restrictive boundaries of masculinity and femininity and thus allowing for more empowering gender fluidity to take place, and at the same time expanding the scope of pressurizing subjects into morphing them into perfect specimens of obedience, as ideal consumers of the beauty industry.

Around 20% of South Korea’s population has undergone plastic surgery of some kind. The misogynist emphasis on perfect appearance as per the ideal Korean beauty standard—a small face, ‘double’ eyelids, light-toned skin etc. is extremely rigorous. For example, the placement of photographs on resumes for job hiring ensures that many women go under the knife to increase their chances of acceptance. This boom came into being when the heavy industry and electronics emphasis of the state shifted to Korean culture generation and publicity, what we today know as K-pop, K-dramas etc., with the beauty industry benefiting most because of the indirect influence of physically perfect idols and actors on self-perception as reference groups.

Visual sociologist Michael Hurt explains the reason behind this phenomenon, “It’s not because Koreans have some ancient beauty philosophy, it’s because your body is your number one asset in this world, in a way that it’s not for men.

For men, the social expectation is: don’t be fat, have a nice haircut, dress OK…If all you had to do to succeed as a woman is dress OK, not be too fat, look all right, you’d have a lot fewer problems. And in a culture where female beauty is so regimented, of course you’re going to have all these products.” (“K-beauty: the ugly face of South Korea’s obsession with women looking forever flawless” by Crystal Tai) Furthermore, Tai quotes Naomi Wolf in finding the causative factors behind the absolute domination of the beauty industry in the country. “Beauty is a currency system like the gold standard. Like any economy, it is determined by politics. In assigning value to women in a vertical hierarchy according to a culturally imposed physical standard, it is an expression of power relations in which women must unnaturally compete for resources that men have appropriated for themselves,” she says in The Beauty Myth.

This standard has also started influencing Korean males, many of whom have undergone rhinoplasty and re-structuring of the jaw to achieve the physical perfection of their male music/acting idols. Lookist commentary has become a part of everyday idiom, and a major formula for bullying in a system that has a deterministic power hierarchy. The manufacturing of puppet-like Korean music idols after the ‘Hallyu’ wave has also met with severe critique with female idols performing men’s idealized versions of femininity through racy costume, suggestive movements or ‘cute’ hummable songs. This notion of acceptability has also decided public opinion in favour of certain artists or professionals, with something as distantly related as job hiring being performed through levels of attractiveness gauged.

Contributed by Tript

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