When an essay called “The Skincare Con” made the rounds a few weeks back, the rebuttal “Skincare Is Good and Also Works” was up within a matter of hours. Skin-care lovers were pissed, and made quick work of picking the essay apart across Twitter and beyond. The shared stories of skin-care routines as tools to combat depressive episodes and conduits for unprecedented self-confidence spoke to something more than a desire to critique a weak piece of writing—they were responses to a personal attack. This kind of emotional attachment to skin-care products, where it’s just as much a part of who you are as it is something you use, speaks to a deep need for comfort that goes beyond the products themselves—and that isn’t going away anytime soon.
The U.S. is currently third-largest export market for K-beauty, a shorthand for the multifaceted world of Korean cosmetics that often refers to a 10-step, 10-product skin-care routine; the U.S. also deploys the third-largest number of its active-duty overseas troops in South Korea, where the K-beauty industry’s total value hovers around $10 billion.
The United States began its military presence on the Korean Peninsula in 1945, a few months after the end of World War II. Back home, women still wore red lipstick to kiss the letters they sent to their deployed husbands and lovers in Korea, just as they’d done when the men were deployed to Germany or France. World War II had been a boom period for American cosmetics, as the industry continued to thrive in the face of a national rationing program that championed self-sufficiency and doing without. Makeup was deemed not just non-frivolous but an integral part of women’s new working identities in factories, fields, and army reserves. A 1944 ad for Elizabeth Arden’s “Montezuma Red” lipstick credits “the brave, true red of the hat cord, scarf and chevrons of the Women in the Marines” as inspiration for the shade, alongside a perfectly coiffed woman in uniform. The only part rendered in color is the brave, true red of her uniform’s details and her slightly parted lips, caught in the middle of saying something pragmatic.
Lipstick afforded many American women a certain level of consistency as they navigated the war’s turbulent effects on their lives, a stable sense of who they were as they headed to work outside the home for the first time. It was a small, personal luxury as the war effort demanded sacrifice on so many other counts; it was a means of daily escape that helped make everything else a little bit easier. This, too, was harnessed by the era’s advertising, where companies like Tangee championed lipstick as “one of those mysterious little essentials that have an importance far beyond their size or cost . . . an instrument of personal morale that helps [women] to conceal heartbreak or sorrow.” American women used lipstick as a coping mechanism, its routine application a way to combat the threat of an uncertain future.
It’s a technique that K-beauty aficionados in 2018 might find familiar. In an essay for the New Yorker, Jia Tolentino described her K-beauty routine as a refuge from 2017’s yearlong deluge of horrible news. She writes that there’s “something perversely, unexpectedly hopeful about skin care in today’s political context.” This context, with its push-alert parade of the latest developments in nuclear posturing and environmental collapse is marked by fear that there might not be any future to speak of, let alone an uncertain one. A K-beauty routine is a way to maintain some semblance of consistency in the face of it all, the 10-step routine’s ritualistic elements an opportunity to reorient oneself with the act of existing in the present moment.
By 1946, American women were spending an average of $30 million annually on lipstick, a 33 percent increase from when the war began in 1941. This kind of uninterrupted growth, during a time when so much commercial production was redirected toward the war effort, is striking. American cosmetics companies during WWII were still American cosmetics companies, and subject to War Production Board scrutiny just like everyone else. If cosmetics were freely available to serve as American women’s wartime coping mechanism, it was only possible because the U.S. government saw a way to benefit from it. The advertising that heralded lipstick’s morale-boosting properties was also a method of giving women a role to latch onto in the war’s larger narrative of a fight our heroic soldiers will ultimately win if everyone back home does their part.
A public war narrative is what turns the innate horror of mass death over a sustained period into something tolerable. It also means that, at some point, the war is intended to end. Beautiful women became essential tools of this narrative through their representation of social stability—and in how they could function as a status symbol. The soldier is fighting for all the beautiful women back home with an implicit promise that those women will be his upon return. Consequently, women are duty bound to keep themselves beautiful, which is why lipstick’s virtues as a wartime morale booster were inextricable from its utility as a tool for women to maintain their femininity as they worked outside the home. From that same Tangee ad:
It’s a reflection of the free democratic way of life that you’ve succeeded in keeping your femininity—even though you are doing a man’s work!
Of course, the men’s work would be waiting for them when they came home, and stressing the importance of maintaining one’s femininity was also a way to ensure that middle- and upper-class women didn’t forget that this was only a temporary stray from the boundaries of their domestic sphere. The U.S. Office of War Information was keen to ensure that women heeding the call to join military reserve units would be “respected as women, and . . . . not remodeled into some other kind of half-male, half-female hybrid” (emphasis mine). Such a hybrid would undermine everything that American soldiers were fighting for; in fact, it would shatter the nuclear family serving as the basis for that era’s entire social order, which depended on public adherence to firmly defined gender roles.
Much of K-beauty’s appeal is in the adoption of a finely tuned process in which each product serves a different purpose. These products do comfortingly specific things like balance pH levels and enhance cell turnover. The products get so specific that forming a routine out of the requisite research-intensive, trial-and-error process feels satisfyingly hard-won. The ability to precisely pinpoint an issue contains the promise of a solution in and of itself. It’s reassuring that each step of your skin-care routine was designed to target a specific problem, which increases confidence that your routine will actually work.
The act of purchasing and using a K-beauty product is just as important as what the product itself does for your skin, in terms of total positive effects on your psyche. K-beauty reviews and how-tos contain a breathless promise that this, the truly expert skin-care option, is what you’ve been waiting for. This might, in part, stem from product copy itself, with its promises of industry-wide exceptional innovation in response to a highly discerning clientele that demands nothing less than excellence. In tinkering with your own personalized product roster you learn the particulars of your skin’s chemistry as you observe reactions to different ingredients and techniques. Skin care is a way to become reacquainted with your body’s signals, when we’re so often discouraged from it in other contexts.
K-beauty is consistently presented as cutting-edge. It’s meant to transcend makeup by eliminating the need for it altogether, with erasure supplanting coverage as a means of flaw elimination that still promises the ever desirable prospect of “natural” beauty. To sell the promise of a fresh, dewy glow is ultimately to sell the promise of confidence, and all that’s meant to come with it. It’s another version of the practice that remakes the self into a chosen image, with the shifted goalposts of doing it for oneself and not for others. It wouldn’t be good business to try and sell cosmetics in the 21st century with scare tactics about how fine lines will send men running for the hills.
In 2014, K-beauty products were quickly becoming one of South Korea’s largest exports, netting the country over $1 billion. The government set up tax breaks for cosmetics companies—essentially eliminating taxes for those that went export-only—and established a fund to pay the legal fees of companies that ran into licensing issues abroad.
K-beauty’s American success is attributed not only to the products’ unique efficacy but also to the rise of skin-care-savvy influencers spreading the word accordingly. However, considering what’s gone into cultivating K-beauty as an international export, it seems unlikely that the development of new markets would be solely left up to the whims of consumer choice. K-beauty guru Alicia Yoon explains that “Korean beauty has gained better traction because of US-based e-tailers and major brick-and-mortar stores like Urban Outfitters and Sephora” and there’s not a single person to be found in the process. Who gave exporters the support they needed to facilitate that traction? Who made those partnerships, navigated those myriad networks of international commerce? What ensures those networks remain as unhindered as possible?
The United States has approximately 800 military bases in 80 countries around the world, and that’s only based on the information available to the public; those totals don’t include Special Ops teams, whose locations and numbers are classified. It’s become increasingly clear that we may never know the full extent of the global military presence developed over the past half century, which has ballooned to such a scale that public support almost seems to function as a garnish—for presentation only, separate from the dish’s actual ingredients. The “war on terror” has been humming along in the background of American daily life for 16 years now, its total damage borders on incalculable, and private contractors still flock to the war zones it’s created. This kind of war has evolved into something so expansive that civilian opposition is borderline demoralizing when confronted with the sheer scale of violence at play, an integral part of why it can be easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. The endless war, in all its iterations around the globe, is a naked resource-management tool with increasingly flimsy justifications for the ultimate goal of ensuring U.S. market access to anything, anywhere, at any time; victory, then, means continuing to fight in perpetuity. K-beauty’s U.S. popularity is a partial product of this new era, as it feeds a need to experience at least some sense of personal agency in the absence of other venues.
What is a beauty routine if not a way to control how you interact with the world, and how the world interacts with you? Given how strongly a woman’s appearance affects how she’s treated, it makes perfect sense that beauty routines would serve as a coping mechanism during periods of mass uncertainty; in that same vein, it makes perfect sense how readily that coping mechanism is exploited towards other ends.