‘Escape the Corset’: Why are Korean women destroying their makeup?

Dozens of these photographs have been posted on social media platforms, as part of a South Korean feminist movement nicknamed “escape the corset.” Young women are rebelling against the strict beauty standards that have become their country’s norm. They’re chucking out their cosmetics and skincare products, replacing complex gels and peels with unscented moisturizers and lip balms, and adopting short, wash-and-go haircuts. “One theme running through the movement is the idea of a beauty regimen as a form of labour,” reports Benjamin Haas, in the Guardian, “one that only women are expected to perform and for which they are in no way compensated.”

So women from all over Korea are now fighting back by joining in with the ‘Escape the Corset’ movement, which sees women smashing up their makeup to fight back at pressures from society.

South Korean woman, Cha Ji-won, a woman taking part in the change, said she used to spend 100,000 won/£68 a month on makeup alone.

She told The Guardian: “There’s only so much mental energy a person has each day, and I used to spend so much of it worrying about being “pretty”.

Cha Ji-won, along with many other women, are now showing their resilience by opting for super simple routines and wash-and-go hairstyles. And now influencers are following suit, with popular #EscapeTheCorset YouTube videos amassing over 5 million views.

At the latest anti-hidden-camera protest held in early October, thousands of women who protested against spycam sex crimes, revenge porn and gender discrimination were seen sporting the short haircuts – and even buzz cuts – normally worn by men in South Korea. Many of these women were also Escape Corset supporters, and attended the event without any traces of makeup.

This takes a rare willingness to stand out in highly status- and image-focused South Korea, where one’s appearance is a prized commodity and beauty is considered a component of a woman’s success. This contributes to the country’s reputation as a plastic surgery mecca, where an estimated one in every three women have undergone some form of cosmetic procedure.

In recent years K-beauty has become a growing trend in the cosmetics industry, which focusses on healthy and hydrated skin.

According to analyst Statista the cosmetics and personal care revenue in South Korea amounted to US$12.995bn in 2018 and is forecast to grow 5% annually between 2018 and 2021.

This is not the first time women across the country have hit back at perceived sexism.

“In South Korea, the standard of beauty is out of our control. Typically, women should have fair skin, be 162cm to 168cm tall [over 170cm is too tall] … weigh less than 48kg, have large eyes, a perfect nose, and long hair,” said the Korean gender studies expert.

“These standards are common [for women] when applying for part-time jobs that don’t require much skill. ‘If a cashier is pretty then customers will enjoy the experience better, [therefore] we should hire pretty girls’ – this becomes treated like a true statement.”

Ultimately, women should be allowed to be themselves, she adds. “We should see women as they are, rather than only accepting them when they’re decorated and dolled up.