Li Mei Foong
Jan 14, 2019

Beauty out of the box: keeping up with the modern Asian woman

From 'Escape the Corset' to the #MeToo movement, women around Asia are pursuing broader freedoms, rights and methods of expression. This includes reclaiming the definition of beauty. And brands are in a unique position to respond and engage.

Bae Eun-jeong, who uses the online name Lina Bae, uploaded a video in June 2018 called 'I am not pretty', in which she urges girls not to compare themselves to images in the media, to her YouTube channel as part of the 'Escape the Corset' movement in South Korea
Bae Eun-jeong, who uses the online name Lina Bae, uploaded a video in June 2018 called 'I am not pretty', in which she urges girls not to compare themselves to images in the media, to her YouTube channel as part of the 'Escape the Corset' movement in South Korea

Barefaced, with bowl haircuts: This is the new look of feminism in South Korea. As part of the ‘Escape the Corset’ movement, women have been destroying their makeup products and cutting their hair short to protest the “embellishment labour”—extended hair and make-up routines—that they are expected to take part in every day.

In South Korea, beauty and makeup are not skin-deep, but rooted in patriarchal systems that pressure women to maintain unrealistic beauty ideals or risk social and professional costs. This is a nation where a female news anchor, Lim Hyeon-ju, recently caused a furor for wearing glasses on air rather than her usual contact lenses, and a female employee at a café was fired for having short hair and not wearing makeup.


파데 섀도우 아이라인 눈썹은 다 버렸지만 중학생부터 "여자는 입술이 이뻐야 한다" "여자애가 좀 발라야지 주변 남자들이 좋아한다" 제일 버리기 힘든 입술 코르셋 코르셋을 벗기 시작한 2주 전부터 하나씩 고쳐나갔다 화장을 안 하고 다이어트를 안 하고하지만 입술을 한 시간마다 발랐다 음식을 먹고 나서도 혹시나 다른 사람이 내 얼굴을 보고 입술 지적을 할까 봐 너무 불안했다 오늘 마음먹고 내가 제일 잘 '사용했던' 립스틱을 다 버리려고 한다 중1부터 지금까지 조이던 코르셋을 벗는다 #탈코르셋 #탈코르셋은해방입니다

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The country has the world’s highest rate of cosmetic surgery per capita. Mintel estimates that the Korean beauty market (better known as ‘K-beauty’) raked in US$10.7 billion in 2018. Women are willing to spend the bulk of their paychecks, not to mention several hours a day, on K-beauty, which advocates for a stringent 10-step routine to achieve the standard-issue manicured look.

Frustrated, some South Korean women are saying ‘times up’ to makeup. Others are opting for ‘skip-care’—a new skin care routine that requires far fewer products.

“The ‘Escape the Corset’ movement sees younger South Koreans rebelling not just against makeup, but also the complexities of K-beauty’s skincare routine,” explains Lee Hwa Jun, senior beauty and personal care analyst at Mintel in South Korea.

K-beauty brands are responding by going minimalistic. “In beauty, minimalism is being showcased in a variety of ways, from simplifying skincare routines to all-in-one beauty products and simpler, smaller packaging,” says Lee.

South Korean skincare behemoth Amorepacific is one example, with its website proposing a three-step “Basic Ritual regimen”. Jullai, another South Korean skincare brand, has also launched a ‘skip-care edition’ of its products while touting the benefits of cutting out “unnecessary skincare steps” (image below).


#스킵케어에디션 반짝이며 빛나는 겨울, 포근한 홀리데이를 바라는 쥴라이의 마음을 닮은 골드빛 패턴이 돋보이는 스킵케어 에디션(Skipcare edition). - 'GLOW', '빛나다'로 해석된 스킵케어 에디션은 지난 2월 발렌타인 컬렉션에 이어 우리나라 문화유산 보호재단 '예올'의 젊은 공예인 최정유 작가와의 2번째 협업으로 쥴라이의 정체성을 나타내는 핑크 바를 골드빛 별을 연상시키는 형상으로 표현해 아름다운 패턴을 완성했습니다. Designed by @jungnewnew - #SKIPCAREEDITION With golden star-shaped patterns on Skipcare edition packages, Jullai wishes for a warm holiday, and sparkling & glowing winter. - The skip-care edition, implies 'GLOW' and 'ILLUMINATE', followed by Valentine collection on Feb this year is 2nd collaboration with independent designer Jungyou Choi. The pink bar on package representing the identity of Jullai was reshaped and patterned in a reminiscent of a gold light star. - #jullai #superfood #skipcare #skipcareedition #kbeauty #holidaygift #thinoil #쥴라이 #슈퍼푸드 #스킵케어 #스킵케어에디션 #k뷰티 #연말선물 #씬오일

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Lee notes that ‘Escape the Corset’ is a nascent movement that has not yet gone mainstream. However, he sees its potential to gain traction as part of a wider movement towards individualism—and away from sexism. Tens of thousands of women took to the streets last summer to protest against spycam porn, which refers to the widespread crime of taking pictures up women’s skirts or secretly filming them using the toilet. This marked the biggest women-only demonstration in the country’s history.

Beyond South Korea, the rest of Asia is also seeing more women wrestling their rights and agency from patriarchal shackles. Waves of #MeToo revelations, particularly in India, are demanding justice for sexual abuse crimes. Filipino women are standing up against the misogyny of President Rodrigo Duterte with the #BabaeAko movement. A global employee walkout at Google to protest the company’s gender-discriminatory policies started at the Singapore office.

As women reclaim their voices, makeup and skincare brands in the continent are marching along to the tune by choosing to feature strong, independent ambassadors. But is it a stretch for an industry that has, by and large, fed off women’s insecurities to be championing their issues?

Cosmetic uplift

For Philip Hwang, APAC strategy director for marketing agency SGK, the answer is no. “Given how patriarchal societies have long equated women’s worth with beauty, it’s not at all a stretch for beauty brands to champion gender issues. Beauty has always been intimately tied to female roles or expectations—it’s two sides of the same coin,” says Hwang.

He points out that while Asia’s breakneck economic growth means rapid progress in women’s financial independence and career empowerment, they are still having to contend with centuries-old gender norms.

“Old is clashing with new, and this creates stresses,” he notes. “Beauty brands are seeking to speak to that.”

One example is SK-II’s 2017 #NeverExpire campaign, which sought to debunk the “expiration date” pressure plaguing women, namely the expectation to achieve life milestones (like marriage) at a certain age. In August 2018, Dove also collaborated with fashion magazine Grazia in India to feature touch-up-free pictures of actor Radhika Apte, part of the brand’s No Digital Distortion campaign to “help women identify reality and relieve some of the pressure to look a certain way" (image below).

But while Asian women are seeking to dismantle homogenous beauty ideals, they are not tossing out makeup en masse. Hwang points out that women’s beef is usually not with cosmetic products, but with being enslaved to the ‘male gaze’ and men’s expectations of femininity. 

To tap into this mentality, beauty brands are choosing to put out messages associated with ‘courage’, ‘chasing one’s dreams’ and ‘confidence’, according to Laurie Du, senior beauty analyst at Mintel.

“In China, consumers are gradually adopting the notion that makeup is a courtesy not only to [please] others, but also to amuse myself”, says Du.

An example she sees is Pechoin, the 80-year-old Chinese skincare brand, which has released multiple ads calling for women to live life on their own terms.

Shiseido is another player in this area. The brand released a short film in Japan in October that explored makeup as a means of self-expression, depicting a girl’s internal struggle to follow her heart.

Getting the message right

Brands have little choice but to keep up with the zeitgeist. A spokesperson from Unilever, which oversees personal care brands like Dove, Lux and Sunsilk, tells Campaign that as people’s trust in advertising erodes, progressive ads—which means “forward” or “modern-looking”, according to Unilever—create 25% more branded impact and improve purchase intent by 18%.

This is according to consumer feedback from Unilever’s tests on 1,000 adverts around the world, as part of the company’s launch of the Unstereotype initiative in 2016, a company-wide ambition to strip stereotypical portrayals of gender from advertising.

But ‘femvertising’—ads with a pro-female stance—straddles a fine line between sparking conversations and stoking controversies.

Unilever’s Dove, for instance, has received bouquets and brickbats for its ongoing ‘Real Beauty’ campaigns. The ads showing the diversity of women’s body shapes and skin tone were well-received, but body wash bottles representing different body types in 2017? Not so much. This campaign was widely ridiculed on social media by the exact consumers Dove meant to engage – women of all shapes and sizes. Asmita Ghosh, campaign manager at the Feminism in India website, called the packaging “grotesque caricatures of body types in the form of clinically white, sterile, plastic bottles”.

“Brands need to be crystal clear on two things: what kind of brand are they, and what kind of consumer do they want to speak to? Asia is a complex tapestry of markets and tribes, each with a unique set of values. Get either answer wrong, and you risk backlash,” says Hwang from SGK.
He cautions that a campaign meant to tap current conversations may be called out as disingenuous if it is not on-brand or executed with finesse.

“Brands need to make sure the conversation they start and the message they send is consistent with their brand actions. You have to be committed,” he emphasises. “The reward, if done well, is a strong emotional connection that resonates on a values-level. Now, that is hard to cultivate, but harder even to break.”

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