Over the past couple of years, I’ve done a pretty good job of keeping my voice of reason shut away in the padlocked basement of my mind. Sometimes, though, usually late at night when I’m trying to choose between one of my many, many essences or serums or lovingly leafing through the hundreds of sheet masks in my collection, a muffled voice drifts up to the surface of my consciousness and asks timidly: Why does it matter? Beyond the therapeutic effects of my meticulously curated many-step skincare routine, what is it about K-beauty that has held my attention for so long?
The answer finally came to me last night. When it did, it made so much sense that I knew I had to share it with you all. Maybe I’ll find I’m not the only one who feels the way I do.
K-beauty has given me, for the first time in my 35 years in this skin, a sense of total comfort in that skin, and in my identity as a Asian American woman.
Before I explain any further, a disclaimer: This is not a piece on Asian or Korean pop culture, social norms, or beauty standards. I am categorically unqualified to write on those topics. I’m not a sociologist or a cultural anthropologist. Neither am I Korean, and I don’t presume to understand K-beauty or hallyu from a Korean perspective. In fact, I’m too Westernized to even speak from a Taiwanese point of view. I’m Asian American. That’s the perspective I’m speaking from. And I’m not speaking for anyone but myself, an individual. These are my thoughts and experiences alone.
To understand why it took 35 years and the cosmetic ripples of the hallyu wave to make me 100% comfortable in my ethnic and cultural identity, we have to go a few decades back (because I’m old as shit), to my school years in a medium-sized, vast majority Caucasian town in the Midwest.
I was the only Asian kid in my grade and one of only two in my entire elementary school, then one of four Asians in my middle school. My classmates were, in general, not what you’d call “interested in people who are different.” I don’t feel like dragging up too many specific memories of teasing and bullying and rocks thrown through our windows, so let’s just say that I was most definitely Othered and most definitely internalized it. Deeply. My elementary school years also coincided with a wave of Yellow Peril fear about the Japanese threat to U.S. manufacturing and commercial dominance. At least some of the kids around me surely heard some unpleasant things about my kind (Asian, not Japanese because that I’m not, not that anyone cared about the distinction anyway) at the dinner table.
Comparing myself to the Caucasian girls around me, I felt unfixably ugly, unfixably wrong. Largely ignored but sometimes taunted and sometimes rejected by boys of every ethnicity, I felt unfixably ugly, unfixably wrong. And looking at the images of Caucasian women that dominated the media and shaped my perceptions of beauty and femininity, I most definitely felt unfixably ugly, unfixably wrong.
What I mean by “unfixable” is that when your “flaw” is your ethnicity, when it’s in your very genes, then it doesn’t matter what brand of jeans you wear, or what size. As a kid, being the Other meant being lesser in a way that was impossible to conceal or to compensate for.
Things got a little better when I was accepted into an academically demanding, majority Asian boarding school for high school, but by that time, the sense of wrongness I felt about my features was deeply rooted. If I tried to buy foundation and couldn’t find a match, I never thought, Why is all this makeup so wrong for my skin? Instead, I perceived my skin tone as what was wrong. I read every issue of every major fashion magazine every single month, and instead of questioning why everyone they featured besides Naomi Campbell was Caucasian, I devoted myself to copying the models’ looks. The thought, always present but rarely examined, was: If I just get my eyebrows the right shape, if I just put my blush on the right way, if I just master eyeshadow so that it looks like theirs, then I’ll look like that. Just under that thought lurked reality: You’ll never look like that because your features are all wrong because your race is the wrong one.
I haven’t kept any pictures from my childhood at all (they’re all in the hands of various relatives). I so vividly remembered all of my facial flaws; I didn’t want to see them again or expose them to anyone else.
But here’s the weird thing. I know now, today, that I’m not unattractive by conventional standards. Today, I don’t feel uncomfortable wearing my face at all, whether I have makeup on or I don’t. In fact, I feel so comfortable in my skin that I’ve been freely doing something I once would have considered unimaginable: showing it to the world in various states of bare and freaky. Like so:
But that’s too easy. Let’s see. It used to take me over a year of dating before I’d be willing to let any romantic partner see me without at least my eyebrows filled in.
And being seen as “weird” or “a freak” was my nightmare. I would have required absolute solitude and privacy to do anything like this:
Or, for the love of all that is holy, this:
I could keep reposting comically horrible mask selfies all night long, but I think you get the point. I don’t feel ashamed of my face anymore, no matter what state it’s in.
I’ve also started to see my features in a completely different way. In fact, almost every day I have a weird moment where I can’t reconcile the face I see in the mirror with the face I hated when I was a kid. I haven’t had any facial plastic surgery, not even double eyelid surgery, so how could my features have changed so drastically? Is it possible that I never looked the way I thought I did at all? Is it possible that I only saw what I did because all my perceptions at the time and my memories later on were warped, in large part by having never seen women of my race held up as aspirational in the same way as women of the dominant race?
I think it is possible. In fact, I think that’s exactly what happened. Feeling Othered, I learned to see myself as I imagined everyone else saw me, and I imagined only the worst. I had no examples of Asian women presented as equal and aspirational in the popular culture of the time. That omission suggested to my impressionable mind that Asian women simply weren’t as worthy. There were, of course, examples of Asian women presented as sexually desirable, but in a gross, racist, fetishizing way that wasn’t about the women themselves but about the stereotypes they demonstrated. Even those women weren’t held up as something that women of the dominant race should admire or emulate. It was understood that they would never want to and had no reason to.
As far as I know, the hallyu wave and the K-beauty trend are the first time in my life that Asian women have been presented to–and accepted by–US beauty consumers as aspirational figures. Major mainstream publications like Vogue and Allure don’t just shill skincare from brands using the sunbathed tan of Caucasian celebrities anymore. They now regularly and enthusiastically plug beauty brands that sell product using images like Jun Ji Hyun’s dewily moisturized, pearlescent glow. The media isn’t presenting K-beauty as some exotic phenomenon to gawk at, either. Articles provide US-based stores’ contact info or links to online shops. Readers are expected to want to buy and use those products. Thanks to K-beauty, it’s considered totally normal for Caucasian women to look to Asian ones for beauty tips and makeup looks. Not for some yellowface roleplay in the bedroom. Just for everyday wear, as a way of conforming to a socially acceptable standard of attractiveness.
Normal is the word I’m looking for here. I have no desire to see Asian women set above women of any other race, because I have no belief in the superiority of any race. And it doesn’t bother me, a Taiwanese American, that the trend is specifically one of Korean origin rather than Taiwanese. This isn’t the time or the place for the artificial divisions and pointless resentments that nationalism creates. The thing that’s important is that K-beauty has normalized Asian women in the broader American culture. K-beauty frames Asian products, Asian aesthetics, and Asian skin as worthy of admiration and emulation by the general, non-Asian public. That is amazing. That is something that I, as a child and then a teenager, never in a million years would have believed could happen.
Another normalizing aspect of K-beauty is the incredible diversity of brands and aesthetics. It’s (mostly) not about exotic ancient Asian beauty secrets and geishas. It’s about:
- Pretty princesses in pink
- Youthful freshness influenced by nature
- Attainable sophistication
- And every other brand identity in between and then beyond, including evolving brand identities, like COSRX’s ongoing metamorphosis from clinical simplicity to some kind of indescribable, adorable wackiness (with products retaining the brand’s original clinical effectiveness).
K-beauty brands aren’t homogenous and monolithic. The fact that there’s something available for every taste is silent proof of the diversity of the women who use them. That fact alone has the power to erode stereotypes like a heavy rain on a SoCal cliff.
I’ve been really surprised and pleased by the longevity of the K-beauty “trend,” which at this point seems less like a passing fad and more like something with the potential to become a mainstay in beauty stores and on beauty shelves. Something with the potential to become normal, even among non-Asians.
These steps towards the normalization of Asian women have been nothing short of healing for me. It may sound silly and shallow to credit a beauty trend with finally making me completely comfortable in my own skin (and I had been making some progress for the decade and a half in between high school and the beginning of my K-beauty escapades), but it’s true. No aesthetic stops at the surface, but comes carrying baggage heavy with the weight of cultural and personal meaning. It makes sense that what lightened my baggage after all these years was the reversal of what made it so heavy in the first place.
Unpacking all the influences that have converged to produce and propagate K-beauty in the West would take a whole other blog post, or maybe a book. (Book editors: Email me.) There’s the Korean government and its promotion of Korean cosmetics abroad, the Korean brands who ventured beyond their own borders to take on new markets, the Korean K-beauty shops who make a vast array of brands and products available to their international customers, and the US-based K-beauty shops whose owners and CEOs eloquently promote their products and educate the public. But beyond those forces, there’s one particular influence that stands out in my mind as surprisingly powerful: the K-beauty blogger community.
See, one of the first questions many people have about Asian cosmetics is, “Will it work if I’m not Asian?” And if you’re not Asian, hearing an Asian tell you that it will may not be entirely reassuring. It’s Asian, it’s different, it’s for Asian skin not my skin. But to see beauty bloggers like Cat of Snow White and the Asian Pear and Tracy of Fanserviced (both white), and Dee of Adore Dee and Sheryll of The Wanderlust Project (both black) all passionately articulating how Asian products have improved their skin? That’s convincing. Kerry from Skin and Tonics is half Caucasian and half Asian. Coco, The Beauty Wolf, has Caucasian and Native American heritage (and, making her the ultimate stereotype-busting all-kill, a Korean male model for a husband).
There are South Asian K-beauty bloggers and Northern European K-beauty bloggers. K-beauty is also apparently a thing in Russia, where I’m sure it’s spawned a lively bloggerverse (ew, sorry, but in my defense, blogosphere is even worse) there. There are male K-beauty bloggers, too. Just think of Ryanraroar and Pico Prince. Meanwhile, Asian American bloggers like me and Chel of Holy Snails don’t speak from an “exotic,” “Asian” point of view, but as just your regular, homegrown beauty nuts with way too many products and a lot of thoughts about those products.
What these bloggers and the hundreds (thousands?) of others active in the scene prove is that K-beauty and Asian cosmetics aren’t just for Koreans or Asians. They’re for anyone who wants to try them out. Again, normalization. In my opinion, normalization is what benefits previously marginalized or Othered groups the most. The less differently we’re perceived, the less differently we’ll be treated. For me, that’s the ultimate goal. That’s why I have this blog and why I jump on any opportunity to share my take on K-beauty with a wider audience. And that’s why K-beauty matters to me.
Finally, I want to make it clear that this isn’t just about me and my feelings and my formerly poor damaged self-image. I have a son, as you may have noticed if you’ve ever looked to the right of my blog posts. My son’s father is Caucasian, but his mother is me. I don’t want my son to go through the same experiences I did when I was a kid. In the grand scheme of things, K-beauty may be just another beauty trend, but it’s one that I think has the power to help ensure that he won’t. In fact, I think it’s already had a significant impact.
What do you guys think?