On my laptop, you’ll find a bookmarked folder labeled “Beauty,” which is completely filled with articles on Korean Beauty — KBeauty, for short. You’ll see that my skincare and makeup routine is made up of only Korean products and that my email inbox is cluttered with newsletters from Soko Glam, a U.S. website that curates KBeauty products, and the Klog, a KBeauty blog. Suffice to say, you’ll probably come to the conclusion that I am a Kbeauty obsessive, and you’d be correct.
I’ve used KBeauty for about three years now, but it wasn’t until last year that I became aware of the deeply entrenched colorism that is present in KBeauty — and in other Asian beauty products as well. This manifests itself most clearly in skin-whitening products, products that are marketed, mostly toward women, to encourage them to run after a colorist, dangerous beauty standard of having lighter skin.
It can hide itself in less obvious products as well, products that aren’t explicitly marketed toward whitening one’s skin. The key is an ingredient known as hydroquinone, which I found in a product that did not include any packaging about being skin-whitening; when I had bought it, I was not aware of this ingredient or that it was used in skin-whitening products. Once I learned about it, I stopped using the product.
This ingredient, and more explicit skin-whitening products, don’t just perpetuate a certain white American and European beauty standard, but can also be incredibly harmful to those who use them. Physically, it can lead to intense cystic acne and irreversible skin thinning; mentally, it can make one feel less adequate, less human for being deemed “too dark.”
KBeauty has also lagged behind in what’s been called the “Fenty effect,” after Rihanna’s beauty line that has gained acclaim for its numerous (40! shades!) and inclusive shades for all women, not just white women. Meanwhile, many KBeauty products often only offer five or six shades, sometimes even as low as three.
One could argue that South Korea doesn’t have as many Black and brown folks living in the country, and that is why they have limited shades. While that’s certainly true, it doesn’t account for the fact that KBeauty has exploded in the U.S. and elsewhere, where there are many Black and brown folks, and many who are making their mark in the beauty industry and world. If KBeauty companies know their products are extremely popular to users outside of South Korea, then they must take into account the varying shades of all people.
All of this points to the history and continuation of colorism within South Korea, as well as in many other Asian countries and Asian American communities. Historically, Koreans with tanner or slightly darker skin were associated with the poor and farm work, which was often looked down upon because they were not part of the nobility. The valorization and fetishization of white skin dates as far back as the Gojoseon era, and European and American imperialism certainly didn’t help matters in the perpetuation of colorism, either. Today, South Korea leads in cosmetic surgery, and many, many people find ways to lighten their skin.
So why do I still buy from KBeauty companies? I avoid the skin-whitening products, of course. But when I began my foray into KBeauty a few years ago, it was because I wanted to clear up my skin (which I recognize is a beauty standard / norm that I am still wrestling with) and because a part of me believed that this would be a way for me to feel more authentically Korean American, never mind the fact that there isn’t just one way of being “authentically” Korean American. A part of me still believes that, and it is something that I am still wrestling with as well.
But there is also some evidence that KBeauty companies are following in the footsteps of those who have widened the beauty industry to be more inclusive for people of color. There are a few KBeauty brands that, while they certainly don’t have as many as Rihanna’s 40 shades, have more than what is normally seen in many KBeauty products. It’s certainly a start — and yet, there is so much more room to grow.