Is the Korean Beauty Regimen a Feminist Act? Depends Whom You Ask

An article implying such has drawn controversy. Here, popular K-Beauty bloggers defend their stances.
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Sheet masks: a radical act of feminism? Photo: Snow White and the Asian Pear Instagram

Sheet masks: a radical act of feminism? Photo: Snow White and the Asian Pear Instagram

On Thursday, Slate published an article titled, "Radical Self Care: Meet the feminist academics who love K-beauty" and it caused some drama in the K-beauty world. When I first read it, I liked the story and the idea of this very involved act of self-care being a "radical" feminist act, especially in academia where women are expected to be very serious and, at least from what I gathered, are not supposed to worry about their pore size. (Although I tend to think of my skin care regimen as more of a religion than a political act, but to each her own.) It was also fun to read an article on K-beauty that had a new angle. 

The author, Rebecca Schuman, describes the experience of her introduction to and full-on embrace of K-beauty, and then throws this paragraph out there:

What I didn't realize until recently, however, is that K-beauty is also popular with self-identified feminist academics and scholars, including the prominent K-beauty blogger Tracy (fanservice-b), who is a History Ph.D., and Cat Cactus (Snow White and the Asian Pear). Several of these women told me that they view the elaborate routine not as vanity but rather as an act of radical feminist self-care.

The problem? She didn't reach out to Tracy and Cat, two very active and popular K-beauty bloggers, and they took exception to the implication that they said their skin care routines are an act of  feminism. There are direct quotes from other sources in the article that the author obviously spoke to, but not these two. They, along with many many supporters, took to Reddit, the article's comment section, and Twitter to let their anger be known. 

I reached out to both bloggers for their thoughts. "I'm angry because the author made a claim about beliefs I've never said I hold without contacting me to confirm anything prior to publishing the piece," said Tracy via email. "I think it's important when shit like this goes down to look at who is afforded the right to speak for themselves. In the case of this article, it's successful academics. Meanwhile, my beauty blogger colleagues and I (an unsuccessful academic) weren't contacted and in fact were connected to an ideology none of us has professed on our blogs or social media accounts to follow." (Please also go read her hilarious blog response, complete with a complementary skin care regimen, here.)

Cat had similar thoughts. "Bold claims were made about me, my background, and my professed political ideologies; yet I was never once contacted to verify if any of the statements were true. My blog has never been, nor will it ever be, a platform for the championing of a political cause, no matter whether I privately support that cause or not," she said via email. "To have radicalized statements that I have neither said nor given permission to be said on my behalf, and to have my body of work appropriated for someone's political agenda, all without my consent, is deeply offensive to me. As an educated, modern, empowered woman, I have every ability and right to speak for myself, and that was not respected today. I fail to see how this appropriation and lack of consent is an act of feminism." Cat said she felt her credibility has been damaged with readers as a result. 

Late last evening, Slate removed that paragraph (see a screengrab from the original story here) and issued a retraction, writing: 

This article originally misidentified the bloggers Tracy of fanserviced-b and Cat Cactus of Snow White and the Asian Pear as "self-identified feminist academics and scholars." Neither blogger self-identifies as a feminist, and Cat Cactus is not an academic. The piece also stated that Tracy and Cat Cactus are among women who "view the elaborate [K-beauty] routine not as vanity but rather as an act of radical feminist self-care." Both bloggers disavow this view, and neither of them were contacted for the piece.

The author also quoted a story which blogger Jude Chao wrote here on Fashionista about K-beauty helping her depression. She said via email, "What bothers me about the way my work was used in the Slate piece is that it undermines my efforts to make [my blog] Fifty Shades of Snail as inclusive and accessible as possible. I've made a conscious effort... to keep my personal beliefs and political leanings out of my writing."

Which brings us to the big question. Is K-beauty a radical feminist act? That depends, and based on the heated Asian Beauty Reddit thread, there are about as many opinions on the subject as there are beauty brands in South Korea. Here's what Cat and Tracy would have said had they been asked about the subject.

"I am married to an academic who is a self-identified feminist, and who uses skin care not as an act of feminism, but because it makes his spouse happy," Cat said. "I do absolutely believe that skin care is a form of self-care, and that it's a worthwhile investment in one's well-being that applies to everyone, regardless of their political ideologies. Skin care is for people who have skin, full stop." Tracy has similar thoughts. "I don't see how what the academics in the article are describing is any different from Calgon's 'Take Me Away' ad campaign back in the day," she said. "I suppose what's feminist about it is that they're connecting feminism to doing K-beauty skin care, in their own minds. I'm not. Sometimes a toner is a fucking toner."