K-Pop is not my thing, but I am more and more aware of friends who follow it, talk about it, think about it, and care about it. So Joanna Fuertes’ essay on “K-Beauty” at Medium, which turns out to be a few months old, caught my eye this week.
Playing a starring role [in the all-things-Korean culture explosion] is a glorious onslaught of Korean beauty products, with the K-Beauty market now valued at over $13 billion, and $7.2 billion of which is from facial skin care alone. Serums, acids, oils, cushion compacts, CC creams, BB creams, masks that bubble on your face, masks to sleep in, volcanic clay, and snail slime are seeing improbably explosive popularity, and they’ve done so with accessible pricing and cute packaging that has grown women reaching for panda face masks.
Fuertes is interested both in the consumer appeal of the K-Beauty products …
So how is the Korean beauty industry seemingly light years ahead of us in the first place? One explanation is they’ve just been doing it longer. “The philosophical and cultural underpinnings have been in place for centuries, long before it was ever commercialized, and Koreans valuing their skin is not a new phenomenon” [Jude] Chao [whom Fuertes describes as “somewhat of an oracle on K-Beauty”] explains.
There is also an inadvertent appeal to a Western audience that is becoming more interested in natural ingredients. Most recently, K-Beauty has had snail mucin fever, using slime collected from garden snails crawling around on a mesh net in a dark, humid room. Once beautifully packaged in a glossy jar, it’s easier to overlook the ick factor and aspire to dermatologists’ claims that it encourages effervescent, aging-resistant skin.
… and the commercial factors driving their success:
“What people don’t see is the amount of government support and PR that drives interest around everything from Korean food to Hollywood buying the rights to Korean dramas,” says Chao. “Skin care is another form of popular culture that’s proved to be a powerful export. So, if you go to beauty trade shows, it’s not unusual to have a Korean government presence supporting at least some of the homegrown brands.”
The involvement of the Korean government is no surprise to anyone who has lived in New York City, where the “Korean deli” — a mom-and-pop convenience store with little or no Korean products — is found everywhere. Korean delis thrive in part because the Korean embassies help immigrants through every step of the process, including advising them on what to stock and how to display — which is why they all look so familiar and are so easy to navigate.
In her analysis of the appeal of the products, Fuertes digs into Korean history, western Orientalism, and the deep-seated conviction in so many cultures around the world that fair skin is better and more desirable. In her analysis of the commerce aspects, she exposes Western appropriation, and readiness to repackage inexpensive products in costly trappings.
In sharp contrast to Fenty Beauty, Rihanna’s cosmetics line, which I wrote about early this year, the K-Beauty craze is less about people of color finding and promoting their own style for people with skin like theirs, and more about the monetary value of everything from snail mucin to skin lightening, with (of course) the money flowing towards the oligarchs of the white western world.
At the same time, the music and drama explosion of K-artists does seem (to the extent I understand it) to be a genuine import of Korean aesthetics and preferences; here’s hoping that the less expensive, more genuine products Chao is promoting make their way into Western hands, and the money flows to the people who make them, not the Westerners who repackage them.
And I am always happier when there’s less skin lightening and more encouragement of satisfaction with your own skin of any color.
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