I’m lying face-up on a massage bed for a facial at the famous Shangpree Spa in Gangnam, the ultra-cool district in Seoul, South Korea. There is no relaxing spa-music. The lights are not dim. Sitting behind the bed is a woman who is examining my face through a giant magnifying glass. She rings a bell. Two women follow. The lights are even brighter now and a debate underway. They come in closer to examine my face. There is no hiding.

“Do you massage your face,” asks a woman with glowing skin.

“No.”

“You need to,” says the aesthetician and walks out.

As I walk over to pay, another woman with flawless skin tells me about the “Facial Massage App” that gives instructions on how to massage your face, step-by-step and area-by-area focusing on anti-aging, a regenerating facelift and an eye massage.

This is the first conversation I’ve had since I landed in Seoul and it will become a template for all future conversations. South Korea is beauty mad, K-Beauty is one of their biggest exports and I’m sold to the Beauty Capitalist Complex.

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K

orea’s tryst with beauty can be traced back to the 1990s when South Korea became wealthy, after Samsung, LG and Hyundai-Kia made their way around the world. The quality of everything improved. Gone were the cotton-candy pink face creams and in came products from the fertile Jeju Island. Then the 1998 Asian financial crisis hit and the Korean government recalibrated its economic strategy. As the economy plunged into financial turmoil caused by banks loaning too much money to huge companies—the International Monetary Fund approved a $57 billion bailout package for South Korea, the largest in IMF history—the government had to rebuild and diversify the economy. It branched out from heavy industry and electronics-focused conglomerates into the business of pop culture. What was born was a new Korea, a cool Korea.

Korean cool manifested itself in mass-produced sitcoms and pop music. K-pop stars ruled the airwaves from Mumbai to Bangkok and almost everyone danced to Gangnam style. Around this time Korean beauty chains rose to prominence. Innisfree (the name plucked from a Yeats poem) and Face Shop both opened in Seoul in the early 2000s and the world was exposed to the Korean triple cleanse.

None of this was by accident. It was all a part of hallyu or “the Korean Wave” where Korean pop culture crashed over the rest of the world, allowing it a massive stage to build its cultural economy. K-Pop bands were the rage and the beauty industry hit the jackpot with BB Cream, intended to protect and heal patients’ skin after treatment.

The Korean brand, Dr Jart introduced the cream at Sephora in the United States in 2011 and this one product brought about a fundamental change in the way we think about beauty, blurring the lines between skin care and makeup.

The cream was a major disrupter, and beauty companies took note. Soon  LÓreal, Dior, Bobbi Brown and Chanel came out with their own versions. This innocuous event paved the way for a Korean beauty invasion of our vanities. A skin-first philosophy suddenly gained traction in beauty regimes.

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T

here was a slight drizzle when I jumped out of a taxi at Myeongdong, epicentre of the beauty industry and walked into Love Health and Beauty (LOHB). House music pumped out of the speakers in what can only be described as a supermarket for skin care. The sheer number of products—Red Dragon Blood Resin Extract, Starfish Cream, Alpha-hydroxy acid-based peels—left me breathless. An attendant walked over and suggested I connect to the WiFi to read a review of the products around the store.

She talked me through her regime as we went from aisle to aisle. She admitted it was a struggle to keep up with the sheer number of products. “Every month something new hits the shelf,” she said. Part of her job was to differentiate fashion from fad. Now she was certain that snail cream and snake venom lotion were on their way out and the “real big thing is donkey milk”.

With a bottle of snail cream and donkey milk (both are incidentally stellar products for dewy, hydrated skin) I discovered this downtown neighbourhood where every other shop was a beauty store. The sidewalks buzzed with young Koreans, some with pimple patches on their face, most with immaculate skin.  Korean trends are fast, cheap, and fantastically out of control. Myeongdong is where it all happens. People aren’t crazy about clothes but beauty. The checkout counters had lines of women, some with bandages from surgery.

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South Korean culture is closely linked with technological advancement. The pace of life is hectic. Everyone has a smartphone. Everyone is concerned about their looks and there are thousands of companies working round the clock launching new products. There are TV shows that review beauty products and the number of K-Beauty bloggers and vloggers is astounding.

But beauty products are nothing new. An article in the Indian Journal of Plastic Surgery notes that “the ancient science of cosmetology is believed to have originated in Egypt and India, but the earliest records of cosmetic substances and their application dates back to circa 2,500 and 1,550 BC to the Indus valley civilization. There is evidence of highly advanced ideas of self beautification and a large array of various cosmetic usages both by men and women, in ancient India”.

Today, however, we live in the age of post-beauty. Smartphone filters allow you to have perfect skin. A filter smoothens out all the lines and creases on your face and the boom in K-Beauty can’t be disassociated from the Instagram Face, one that is heavily airbrushed and contoured, a new perfect. And the beauty industry thrives on this. It pushes women to work towards looking better, looking younger and shielding ourselves from what the writer and crittic Susan Sontag called “the Double Standard of Aging”.

In her essay she details the “humiliating process of gradual sexual disqualification” and like a unicorn the beauty industry promises to solve this “crisis of the imagination”.

“People let the direct awareness they have of their needs, of what really gives them pleasure, be overruled by commercialised images of happiness and personal well-being; and, in this imagery designed to stimulate ever more avid levels of consumption, the most popular metaphor for happiness is ‘youth’,” Sontag writes.

Cue in the K-Beauty anti-aging products—Amore Pacific Future Response Age Defence Serum, anti-aging sheet masks and the Easydew Derma Roller Special Program Special Kit. Couple this with this age of botox and fillers and there is a play on the inevitable—that you may be less youthful in the future. “Rules of taste enforce structures of power,” writes Sontag and the corporate beauty giants make a killing by selling coping mechanisms in innocent-looking bottles that have made their way into our beauty regimes.

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I

’m a skin care junkie. My fascination can be traced back to the early 1990s when my mother was given a label-free bottle of placenta. I also grew up in Dubai! I have a cabinet loaded with skincare for everyone and almost everything. Moisturizing? Check. Anti-aging? Check. Oil control, pore minimising, you name it. I am a dermatologist’s nightmare and a devout believer in the K-Beauty 10-step programme.

Taking half an hour for your skin-care routine isn’t weird, it is absolutely acceptable. Unlike in the West or India, when you describe a beautiful girl in Seoul, it isn’t about how skinny she is or about how fair she is. It is about how pure and fine her skin is. Skinny isn’t as important as glowing skin. Sure there is a dark “Picture of Dorian Gray” undercurrent to this. A spot on your face might be taken as evidence of your failure as a person but at least you’ll have good skin. 

Here is a quick run-through the 10-steps. It starts with a cleanse, double cleanse, exfoliate, tone, massage in an essence, use an ampoule, apply a sheet mask, add eye cream, moisturize, moisturize again. You should wait 30 seconds to one minute in between each step to let the product absorb. (It usually takes me about 15 minutes if I’m being seriously diligent.) Essence is a very important first step because it acts as a nutritious serum that packs your skin with vitamins and preps it for the moisturizer. There is no right or wrong, products are catered to meet specific needs (hydration, dark spot correction, acne scarring and so on). Mixing serums together results in a cool cocktail. I’ve learnt after the strange spa experience that the facial massage is crucial.

Since then I have added K-Beauty products to my daily routine. These products range from being kitschy, whimsical to fun. Korean brands are all about making their products accessible. There are gels, cloud creams, puddings. The names are hard to resist: Egg Mousse Soap, Gummy Sheet Masks and the packing sometimes shaped like pandas seem like frivolous fun. But don’t be fooled.

This Korean “glow,” much like Samsung, has become the beauty world’s latest obsession, and beauty junkies world over lather their faces as clear skin became a signifier of inner health and “glow” became the new buzzword in beauty.

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T

he beauty market has long been led by European countries, which were thought to be the source of innovation. But no more. Everyone wants to know what’s next to come from the “Silicon Valley of cosmetics”. BB cream, cushion compacts, sheet masks, moisture pads, tattoo brows—these are all product categories that have been developed and or popularised in Korea before they made it out West and they would qualify as K-Beauty related. K-Beauty has been the real disruptor in the beauty industry.

 There are cute cushion blushers—pillowy sponges soaked in foundations, alphabetised bb, cc and dd creams and now beauty editors are gushing over glass skin, pig collagen and everything in between. It’s having skin that looks pristine without make-up, focusing on health and hydration. A major force behind this is the Korean government.

South Korea has very limited natural resources. There isn’t much natural gas, minerals, let alone oil. Instead there are sheet masks, essences and face packs. Korea is constantly on the search to identify new products it can export and right now beauty is one of the major players. In 2015, for the first time, Korea exported ($1.067 billion, according to the Korean Pharmaceutical Traders Association) more beauty products than it imported. According to a report by the Korea International Trade Association, Korea exported $158.9 million worth of cosmetics to Europe in 2017, a twelve-fold increase from 2010 and up 46.8% from 2016. Korea has leaped to become the fifth-biggest exporter of cosmetics to Europe, elbowing out Japan. Cementing its place in the beauty world, Sulwhasoo (with the best sheet masks in the business), opened an outlet in Paris while Innisfree is going global with stores opening across Mumbai. Beauty products are on the verge of becoming—in addition to electronics and cars—one of Korea’s biggest exports.

Standing firmly behind Plant Base Nature Solution Hydrating Bamboo water toners and Atoclassic Real Tonic Soothing Origin essences is the Korean government.

South Korea’s experience with rebuilding and diversification of the economy means that the government gets behind products that will sell. The government gives tax breaks to export-only companies, like Wishtrend, a Korean beauty enterprise that sells to the U.S. and doesn’t pay taxes at all. There is also a government fund that is set up to pay legal fees for companies who find their products manufactured illegally and sold on the grey market.

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I

t seemed as though all elements of life had been permeated by technology in Seoul. A GPS network tracked taxis and fed the information that detailed accurate traffic prognosis. There were detailed digital readouts on roadside signboards keeping the commuter updated and everything moved smoothly. Despite all this, there was a momentary pause.

A bus pulled up with a girl’s smiling face. She had perfect, clear, fair skin. A sign in English read: “You Only Feel Pain Once”. What could this sign be for? Aside from the donkey milk and snail slime, could there be something else at play? Could there be more to the Korean “glow?” Behind the gentle, nature-meets-technology ethos of Korean sheet masks lingered a sinister truth.

South Korea is among the world’s capitals of cosmetic surgery, with eyelid and jawline surgery leading the way. About 20 per cent of Korean women have had some form of work done. Korean news outlets have reported that 42 per cent of Korean women aged 21 to 55 have had either Botox or filler injections. Despite the cute packaging, I found unbelievably high concentrations of active ingredients in products.

I’m a keen believer in the power of retinol, a vitamin A derivative found in many wrinkle creams. Retinol is harmless in small doses but at Olive Young I was amazed when I chanced upon a whole counter with retinol based products with concentrations twice as high as what I normally use.

Later that evening at a live music venue called Jebi Dabang, a Korean girl with a bejewelled gel manicure spoke about the pressures to always look immaculate, about how doctors prescribed Accutane, a powerful drug to treat severe acne that can result in nosebleeds, when a couple of pimples threatened despite its side-effects.

The beauty industry with its incessant pressure to look better, to look younger has hijacked the narrative. Writing in 1988, Audre Lorde who was battling cancer, claimed that “caring for myself is not an act of self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare/” So when I put on my Sulwhasoo face mask and peel it off, exposing angry red skin, I’m torn. Is this vanity, am I being played by the beauty industry or is this a just fight?

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K

-Beauty is everywhere. It is in Sephora in Dubai, opening at Pheonix Mills in Mumbai, it is online on Nykaa.com and offline people in the beauty world are questioning whether the K-Beauty bubble will burst? But behind products named Dear Darling Water Gel Tint and selfie-friendly sheet masks is geopolitics. K-Beauty is yet another illustration of how Korea is repositioning itself, away from China and into the arms and vanity boxes of the West. 

K-Beauty’s presence in Western magazines and markets was until recently a matter of prestige, not money. The industry’s main consumers were Asian and exports to China and Hong Kong led the way. But South Korea is seeking out new markets reworking its export strategy away from China who is also mass-producing pop culture and is a North Korean ally. K-Beauty is yet another indicator of how Seoul is seeking out new markets.

But not is all so rosy. K-Beauty has a very limited acceptance of what beauty is, simply look at the limited range of foundation colours. I walked into the pink and white Etude House and was greeted by a girl in a ruffled costume with the bubble gum sparkle eye shadow. She spoke with an American accent and apologised profusely for not having foundation to match my skin shade. She spoke about the backlash Korean beauty was facing at a time when Rihanna launched Fenty Beauty, the most-inclusive foundation range with 40 different shades of foundation that spanned the spectrum, from fairest to the deepest, and filled in a void in the market for more inclusivity.

It is through this prism, of pressure to look perfect, that the “escape the corset” movement in Korea should be seen. Feminism is up pace in Korea, where women are revolting against their excessive nightly regimen, against the need to have big eyes, cherry lips, a high nose bridge, skinny legs, pale skin and a nine-to-one body ratio. Most of this is impossible without plastic surgery in a country with the highest rate of cosmetic surgeries in the world, standing at 1 million procedures a year. There are more than 500 clinics in Gangnam alone.

Alongside K-Beauty devotees are the dropouts who are throwing out their products, masks and gels and posting the images on social media. In a country of deep patriarchy, “escape the corset” is a backlash against culture and has taken a page out of the #MeToo movement fighting against restrictive beauty standards.

When I finish this article I will probably end up checking Instagram. I will inevitably wonder if makeup can actually go that far. If most of the “Instagram models” stop at airbrushing. Beauty can be a slippery slope: eyelash extensions, micro-current facials, injections, and more. But tonight I’ll stop with massaging my face, satisfied that I’m pushing toxin away from my face and that the Korean essence in my hand and the lines on my face tell a story that no ampoule should erase.