Mask wearing during COVID-19 seems to have brought about a paradigm shift in makeup norms in Japan and Korea, the two leaders of the cosmetic industry. Whether or not people do makeup during this troubled time could unveil the motivations as well as rationale behind the application of makeup in the first place and provokes us to pay heed to the oppressive norms in both countries. We interviewed 44 foreign youths living in these countries with regards to their reflections on makeup cultures in Japan and Korea after the outbreak of the pandemic. Thirty-five of them identified themselves as women.
COVID-19: A Time to Reflect?
Mask wearing during the pandemic seems to have made makeup either partially or completely. A 27-year old woman from Singapore in Japan, “I don’t wear makeup these days, and, surprisingly, grow more comfortable with my own bare face for the first time in my life.” It transpired that COVID-19 provided our respondents living in Japan and Korea a time to reflect on their makeup regimen in the normal times and become more aware of the oppressive facet of makeup cultures in the two countries. Our interviewees shared their reflections on the makeup regimes in the normal times.
According to our interviewees, one is constantly under the invisible pressure of what many see as a herd mentality to conform to a uniform style of makeup in Japan and Korea. Individuality is absorbed into the collectivity that the boundary between self and ‘us’ is obscured. In Japan, that uniformity is informed by the notion of medatanai, or ‘not standing out’, to blend in with everyone else and to stay futsu (ordinary and humble). People would be sanctioned for being different seems to have seeped into Japanese makeup culture. A 27-year old Singaporean man considers the dominant Japanese beauty norm to be uniform “even for male makeup”, emphasizing the idea of ‘barenai’ (an imperceptible makeup look). In fact, ‘barenai’ makeup sometimes requires more effort on women’s end to paint an illusion of natural beauty. Makeup norms for women also contain another layer of societal expectation for ‘ideal femininity’ that dictates women to be natural and demure. As women are expected to keep a low profile, a strong and emphatic look is associated with the undesirable strong-headed, expressive, and vocal images of women, which would “draw unwelcome looks”, according to a 24-year old British woman in Japan.
Similarly, foreigners in Korea often feel obliged to adhere to the ‘Korean look’ to blend into the local community. “There is a rigid beauty standard, and if you don't follow that, you would be considered an outlier,” a 21-year-old Vietnamese woman in Korea said. One mainstream measure of the ‘Korean look’ is the fairness of complexion. In accordance with the expectations of women to be sweet and innocent, tanned skin is frowned upon. “It seems like everyone in Korea prefers a paler skin tone,” said a British female student.
The aforementioned uniformity in exterior beauty regimes reveals something much more than just skin-deep conformity. The idea of so-called 'proper makeup’ is like, as a 24-year old American woman in Japan said, an “invisible pressure that latches onto you”.
One of the buzzwords that interviewees used to describe the Japanese and Korean makeup norms was “oppressive”. A 24-year old Taiwanese woman believes “women in Japan are obliged to wear makeup”. “Some advertisements openly encourage a certain feminine hairstyle or makeup style by inferring such looks would make them moteru [perceived favorably or popular] among men,” she added. Foreigners in Korea shared similar experiences. In response to the question whether she felt the need to conform, a 20-year old Vietnamese female said: “Sadly, I do”.
Such conformism may make people feel inadequate about their exteriors. It does not allow a pluralistic form of beauty, suffocating individual agency to assert different personalities and personhoods.
Some respondents shared about the personal defense mechanisms they adopted in response to the pressure. One of them is to defy such norms. “I choose not to wear makeup,” said a 24-year old Taiwanese woman in Japan, explaining that she thinks such a norm is “stupid”. On the other hand, a British university student shared how such pressure triggered her to “grow apart from the Korean mainstream beauty ideas” by being rebellious in her makeup and clothing style. However, the majority opt to conform by rationalizing their motive to do so. For example, a 20-year-old Vietnamese woman portrayed her choice of makeup as emanating from free will, rather than from social pressure. “I enjoy wearing makeup because I feel happy when I look pretty”.
One question arises: Is the transgression by the latter really an attainment and assertion of individual agency? It seems to us that people’s choices are largely confined to the binary extremes, in which the choice of being ‘in-between’ is not viable. Whether or not wearing makeup appears to have presented an illusory sense of individual free will. As the 24-year old American woman said, “You have to look either the same as others or hell of a lot different like a rebel, because there is no such thing called ‘in-between’”.
The so-called ‘Male Gaze’
Despite an increasing trend in men’s consumption of cosmetics, makeup is still perceived as highly genderspecific (predominantly for women). This explains the lack of responsiveness to our survey and interviews amongst people who identify themselves as men. “I slide past surveys about beauty culture, thinking those are not aimed at me”, said a 21-year old Vietnamese man in Korea. A 24-year old male from Taiwan said that “Japanese girls generally look cuter (than those from other countries)”. He might have overlooked the fact that behind that validation, Japanese and Korean women are under the constant scrutiny of the societal gaze to match the predominant beauty standards. Plus, commenting such way may further reinforce such social pressure upon one’s exterior.
Aika Sato is a Yenching Scholar at Peking University, and also a Baixian Scholar at the Baixian Asia Institute. She graduated from Waseda University in Japan and National University of Singapore with dual degrees in International Liberal studies and Political Science respectively.
Quynh Thuy Truong is a student at Ewha Womans University, South Korea. Her research focuses are on international relations and political sociology. She is the co-founder of Yenching Academy East Asian Studies Forum.