South Korea's 'Escape the Corset' Breaks Away from the Patriarchal 'Ordering' of Beauty

The 'Escape the Corset' movement in South Korea questions unrealistic societal beauty norms.

After years of struggling with contact lenses and fake eyelashes, Hyun-ju-Yim became South Korea’s first female news anchor to wear spectacles on air. This act of defiance against strict standards of feminine beauty triggered the birth of the “Escape the Corset” movement in South Korea (Yun-myung 2018).

The  movement’s name originates from the 19th century Victorian-era garment worn by women to constrain their bodies, instantly giving their torso an hourglass shape (Davies 1982). This corset was usually sized a few inches smaller than the wearer’s waist size, the idea being to accentuate the curves of a woman’s hips and bustline, thereby transforming her into a beautiful, “wasp-waisted” woman. Women experienced extreme discomfort, restraint and pain from tightly laced corsets, which often caused long–term bodily damage, and had a crippling and debilitating effect on their lungs, heart, chest ribs, liver, bladder, large and small intestines (Davies 1982).

Escape the Corset, greatly inspired by #MeToo (Economist 2018), is about women in a deeply unequal society finding their long-lost freedom to express themselves and not conform to the artificial standards of “feminine beauty” (Beautytap 2019). Women from different spheres and strata have narrated their individual experiences via social media about their daily tryst with the mainstream notions of beauty as well as challenged the misogynistic attitudes prevalent in South Korean society, politics and industry. Most women have shared common concerns about constantly obsessing over how to look “beautiful”, coping with the enormous pressure to look “pretty” and about facing immense backlash on failing to meet the unrealistic beauty expectations. It has encouraged Korean women to question widely prevalent patriarchal norms of beauty and embrace their natural selves.

The 'Ordering' of Beauty

The Korean beauty regimen, popularly called “K-Beauty”, is attracting consumers from across the globe (Euromonitor 2018). It is a 10 to 18 step skincare routine that is uncontested in South Korea, and its value unchallenged (Hong 2017). Korean women use a minimum of 10 products, morning and night, to obtain skin that is free of blemishes, lines, and maybe even pores (Schaefer 2019). If the step-by-step guide is followed, this regimen can take up to one hour and fifteen minutes to complete.[1]

Neil MacCormick, a 20th-century scholar of jurisprudence and legal reasoning adopted the methodology of interpretative analytical inquiry to understand why norms are intelligible and worthwhile to human participants in social and institutional settings (Murphy 2006). According to MacCormick, this is the “institutional normative order.”

This normative order comprises of two key elements: a universal practice and a widespread belief in the intrinsic value of said practice.  For example, the K-Beauty regimen is the norm that orders most women in South Korean society.

This feminine “prototype” in countries like South Korea is a woman who has a slim hourglass figure, a pale flawless complexion, a high nose bridge, high cheeks, cherry-like lips, big eyes, a small oval face, skinny legs, big breasts, waist-to-hip ratio of less than 0.8, and most importantly, a nine to one body–face ratio (Rajvanshi 2015). Women struggle to meet the standards set forth by these norms of feminine beauty because they believe it is worth their while and that other individuals in the society also believe in the same ideal. The central lesson that women have ingrained into them since childhood is “if you are a woman, you ‘ought’ to look beautiful”.

MacCormick’s idea of normative ordering is all pervasive. The model of ideal teenhood, the Barbie doll, complies with all the oppressive bodily requirements of feminine beauty. She is beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed, has an ultra-skinny waist and legs that taper and appear deformed so that they may fit only into high heels (Messner 2000). Since the 1960s, young girls across the world have imitated Barbie, an icon of white womanhood and “true” femininity. Small children have impressionable minds, they are vulnerable and their lives reflect upon playing (Honigsberg 1995). These dolls allow them to internalise these lessons on feminine beauty and norms of “superior beauty”, which adversely impact their self-esteem.

Today, teenage girls are continually exposed to and socialised into  ideals of feminine beauty through nurture, education and socialisation. They are taught the lesson of self-regulation—how to look, walk, and talk like “an ideal woman”. Norms that are implicit in informal settings—family and social milieu—soon become explicit in institutionalised settings like professional spaces and offices. Studies show that women who conform to the standards of feminine beauty are more likely to succeed in their personal as well as professional lives as well. Good looks can be exchanged for social position, money, and even love. Such normative ordering,  however widely practised and valued,  is oppressive and denies freedom to individuals. There are long term implications of this “beauty chase” on women as well as the society at large (Economist 2003).

The Beauty Market

Body shaming in Korea is so prevalent that almost every third woman in the country has gone under the knife to correct her looks (Gallup 2015). Seoul is considered the plastic surgery capital of the world, with the South Korean beauty market revenue estimated at $13 billion (Mintel 2017).

The global cosmetic products market was valued at $532.43 billion in 2017, and is expected to reach a market value of $805.61 billion by 2023, registering a compound annual growth rate of 7.14% during 2018–23 (Orbis Research 2018). The Indian cosmetics industry is driven by the demand for skin whitening and brightening creams. It therefore comes as no surprise that Hindustan Unilever’s mass facial moisturiser brand “Fair & Lovely” has remained a market leader in skincare for many years (Euromonitor 2016). The size of India’s beauty and wellness market is estimated at Rs. 80,370 crores at the end of 2018 (Hussain 2018).

Takeaways from the Movement

Normative order guides choices, but does not cause them (MacCormick 1997). Given a free choice to break a queue, people would still prefer to wait in line for their turn because it is a universal, demonstrated and accepted truth that in such institutional settings, queuing is the most appropriate, just and fair way. However, the same cannot be said about the normative ordering of feminine beauty.

Men in South Korea continue to view and judge women according to their appearance. Despite its material wealth, South Korea ranks 118 out of 144 countries in the World Economic Forum’s measure of equality between the sexes. Sexism, misogyny and patriarchy are deeply entrenched in the South Korean culture and society. A survey by the city government in Seoul found that four-fifths of women had experienced controlling behaviour (such as boyfriends telling them what to wear or whom they could meet), and more than half of the respondents  had suffered unwanted (physical) sexual advances and nearly two-fifths outright violence.

Escape the Corset has raised questions in South Korea, and even amidst (mostly male) backlash, women are expressing their concerns widely and voicing their disagreements against the patriarchal and misogynistic ideas of feminine beauty. It is important to note that the standards and expectations that the movement challenges are deeply entrenched in the society and cannot be dismantled overnight. However, this feminist wave has triggered difficult conversations within families and the society at large. 

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