You used to be so pretty
Mar 7, 2024
Season 9

You used to be so pretty

How did beauty become a prerequisite for success in South Korea?

When journalist Elise Hu moved to Seoul, South Korea, to work as an international correspondent for NPR, she didn’t intend to report on the country’s beauty industry. 

But it was everywhere she looked. “I’m seeing before-and-after signage everywhere. There’s a chubbier torso and then a lean one right next to it,” she told host Reema Khrais.We don’t even know if it’s the same woman!” It was common for Hu to see people walking around with bandages from cosmetic surgery, or have strangers recommend procedures to remove her freckles. 

In her book, “Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture From the K-Beauty Capital,” Hu argues that for Korean women, the rise of K-beauty meant that being beautiful was a necessity, not a luxury. Hu says that in a competitive job market, “professional success is so tied into whether they look good, and not whether they just look good and meet conventional standards of beauty, but also whether they appear as if you were hardworking. And hardworking means working on your body, working on your face.”

Until recently, most office jobs in Korea required a headshot. Even the Korean Ministry of Employment and Labor posted a link on Twitter stating that “cosmetic surgery has become one of the seven credentials needed for employment.” 

Growing up in South Korea, Haein Shim took this advice to heart. She spent two hours a day applying makeup and styling her hair, hoping that the right look would help her move out of the working class. “Having brand-new shiny things made me feel seen, and somehow better … temporarily,” she told us.

She spent hundreds of dollars a month on clothes and makeup. But the beauty industry kept moving the goal post, inventing new flaws to be fixed.

One day Shim hit a breaking point. “I’ve been hearing so much that if you want to be pretty, if you want to be perfect, if you want it to be a beautiful woman, you have to endure pain. And I didn’t want it to be in pain anymore.” 

As Shim slowly stopped wearing makeup, she began to question everything she thought she knew about beauty, family and career. Her decision to leave behind makeup would upend her life and connect her to a community of Korean women within a movement called Escape the Corset.

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This is Uncomfortable March 7, 2024 Transcript


Note: Marketplace podcasts are meant to be heard, with emphasis, tone and audio elements a transcript can’t capture. Transcripts are generated using a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting it.


Reema Khrais: The first time I remember trying to look pretty was in the seventh grade. 

I’d convinced my mom to let me wear eyeliner. Then, the most important boy in the world…Garrett, my crush since fourth-grade, took one look at me and asked me in horror, why do you look like a raccoon? 

So I tried again. I spent my allowance on strawberry lip gloss…I loved how mature and stylish it made me feel. 

But it backfired horribly. It drew Garret’s attention to something else. You have a mustache, he told me. And in case you didn’t know, you also have hair on the back of your neck. I didn’t know that. For the next several years, I’d sneak into my mom’s bathroom to pluck the hairs from my face. And I’d avoid wearing a high ponytail or bun.

And as I went on to high school, I became more fixated on my looks. I’d wake up two hours early just to get ready. Growing up in a mostly white town in North Carolina, I wanted to look more like Shelby or Brittany, so I bought a straightener to straighten my frizzy hair, and then I bought a curler to re-curl it, to get the “right” kind of curls. 

And throughout the years, it continued. Reaching for creams and products that promised revolution. Sinking thousands of dollars into having thick, beautiful hair, but also to being hairless in all the right places. 

Today, Garett may not be telling me that I look like a raccoon, but in his place are Instagram ads, pledging to remove the circles under my eyes, saying that getting botox is investing in self-care. They’re inventing problems and selling me the solution. Making billions off that nagging sense that I’m not enough. 




Welcome to This is Uncomfortable. I’m Reema Khrais 

I’ve been wanting to do an episode for a while now about the amount of money and labor we expend on beauty…and so when I saw my friend Elise Hu recently published a book about the beauty culture in South Korea… I called her up to talk about it. 

Her book is called “Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital.”

Before reading it, I knew very little about Korean beauty. Like I vaguely knew that the country’s beauty industry is years ahead of its competitors and that several of my friends swear by Korean beauty products. 

In this episode, I talk with Elise about her book, and I learned how South Korea became such a beauty powerhouse and the unique reality there that incentivizes people to keep buying. 

Elise also introduced us to a woman named Haein Shim. We share her story of growing up in Korea…. and how her life changed after joining a massive movement to reject beauty culture altogether. 




In 2015, Elise Hu moved her family, and her life, from Washington, DC to Seoul, South Korea. 

Elise, who’s Chinese and Taiwanese-American, was going to start a new job as a bureau chief and international correspondent for NPR. She was reporting on geopolitics and missile provocations from North Korea. 

But when she first got to Seoul, she couldn’t help but notice something. 


Elise Hu: I happened to get plopped into Myeongdong, which is the makeup and skincare district, where you see one skincare store after a skincare store after a skincare store, so I could stand on one street corner and look at a brand name called The Face Shop, but then across the street there would be another Face Shop, and then across the street the other direction there’d be another Face Shop,


Reema: The Face Shop is a cosmetics store… a place where you might buy oil cleansers and exfoliators for your multi-step skincare routine. If there’s anything you know about Korean beauty culture, it might be that…how the country has perfected and exported an elaborate skincare routine that involves using specific products in a specific order to achieve a glowy, dewy look. 

But Elise also noticed all the ads around Seoul for cosmetic surgery…on the digital billboards gleaming from the tall skyscrapers, on the screens above the cars and below ground in the subway stations. 


Elise: I’m seeing before and after signage everywhere. There’s a lot of like, you know, kind of a chubbier torso and then a lean one right next to it. We don’t even know if it’s the same woman, right?


Reema: Elise says she quickly learned that the country has the highest per capita rate of cosmetic surgeons in the world…each year, tourists from places like China and Japan flock to Korea to get work done.


Elise: Before you get to baggage claim, at Seoul’s Incheon International Airport, staffers are there with just a wall full of brochures in every language imaginable to help you find a facility for medical tourism


In 2019, almost half a million people visited Korea to get procedures, cosmetic and otherwise. And they’re incentivized to do it: medical tourists can get a tax refund for some cosmetic surgeries. 

Korea’s beauty industry didn’t become massive overnight, or accidentally. 

It all started in the late 1990s. Korea was reeling from a currency crisis. Its economy was in turmoil, and government leaders realized they needed to do more than export cars and electronics.

So to diversify its economy, they turned to entertainment as an export. 

They discovered that creating an international blockbuster film could lead to more money than if they were to sell a million cars, so the government began pouring money into supporting and subsidizing Korean entertainment. Even Samsung, the country’s largest company, started financing movies and shows. 


Elise: Around the turn of the century, so from the 90s into the 2000s, when South Korean visual culture became so big – K-pop, K-film, K-drama – you also saw the rise of K-beauty as an industry.  


Reema: The government’s strategy to export their culture paid off. K-pop bands like BTS and BLACKPINK rose to the top of the charts. 




Reema: And at the same time, the country invested heavily in digital technology… which helped bring Korean soap operas and films on screens across the globe.

And suddenly these pop stars and actors became unofficial ambassadors for Korean beauty. Fans wanted to know how they could look like their idols.


Elise: And that’s when the country and its industries really began to sell this notion of “oh, you can get this glass skin. You can look glowy like South Koreans, and here are the products to get there.” So then we began to see the rise of essences and ampoules and moisturizing creams, and all those sorts of products that are now quite popularized today.


Reema: Korean beauty trends became all the rage. The government offered financial assistance and tax breaks to help k-beauty companies sell abroad. Places like Sephora started stocking Korean products, and on Youtube, you could find influencers breaking down the popular 10-step skincare routine. 



Clip 1: Today I’m going to show you a nighttime skincare routine using all Korean skincare products

Clip 2: How I get my clear glass skin look

Clip 3: Your oil cleanser, your water based cleanser, your exfoliator, toner, essence, serum, eye cream, sheet mask, moisturizer, and SPF.


Reema: Between 2015 and 2018, K-beauty exports quadrupled to $6.3 billion dollars. The country set new standards for beauty and exported them across the world. 

South Korea is among the most technologically advanced countries, which Elise says exaggerates its beauty standards. In a society that’s increasingly virtual, where your physical body can’t compete against AI-filtered images, the ideal woman becomes even more idealized. Elise says the perfect Korean woman is dainty and cute with a C-cup bra, a V-shaped chin, long lustrous hair…


Elise: and the big bright eyes and the small nose and that really white, perfect, blemish free skin. 

Reema: And you write in your book about how there’s a lot of emphasis on ratios, specs. Can you talk about that? 

Elise: Yeah, it’s pretty wild, there’s kind of a science y kind of talk and application of magic ratios or numbers that makes it seem more plausible that there is some endpoint to all the aesthetic work you’re supposed to do. 


Reema: For example, she says cosmetic surgeons in Korea will claim that you need a 1:1 ratio with the top and middle parts of your face, but the chin should be slightly smaller, like the shape of a heart, which popularized what’s known as v-line surgery. 

As part of her reporting, Elise talked with dozens of Koreans about what it was like growing up in this beauty culture. And she introduced us to a woman named Haein Shim. 

Haein grew up in a working class family, in a town about three hours south of Seoul. From a young age, she learned what it meant to be the ideal woman. She first heard her parents making comments about her looks when she was just six years old.


Haein Shim: I was like half asleep and half awake, I could still hear, you know, my parents talking about how my stomach was too big and how my legs look like an elephant’s. 


Reema: Haein says she spent much of her childhood feeling like she wasn’t enough. 


Haein: They mostly criticized my hair, the way I walked, my weight, my height, and everything was about my looks.


Reema: Her dad would turn on the TV and point at Miss Korea or Miss Universe. See, this is how you’re supposed to walk, he’d tell her. Now, you try. And Haein would take notes from her mom. Every day, her mom would stand on the scale. And in public, she’d turn to Hain and ask her…do I look fat? 

By the time Haein was a teenager, she started asking herself the same kind of questions. She developed an eating disorder. It got so bad that sometimes she’d end up in the hospital.


Haein: And while in the hospital, the nurses were, you know, showing me that the blood test results and encouraged me to eat more: “You have to eat more!” And my family and my close relatives, they were just praise me in my thinness, and they admire me for it. 


Reema: Now what Haein experienced is something that sadly a lot of people…all over the world…can relate to. Being taught that the body you have is somehow wrong, developing an unhealthy relationship with food. But there is an element to Haein’s story that’s especially resonant in Korea.

Yes, her parents wanted her to be beautiful. But as Haein grew older, she realized their fixation with her looks had a lot to do with being working class. Her parents were always juggling multiple jobs, always anxious about money. 


Haein: I think people believe that if you’re pretty enough, if you’re skinny enough, then somehow your, your class status could, could go up. Your daughter could live a, a comfortable life.


Reema: This was a point that Elise Hu also stressed to me….that for so many Korean women, trying to meet impossible beauty standards, is an economically rational thing to do. Here’s Elise again:


Elise: Their professional success is so tied into whether they look good, and not whether they just look good and meet conventional standards of beauty, but also whether they appear as if you were hard working. And hard working means working on your body, working on your face. And so if you’re not doing what it takes, then you’re not like the ideal neoliberal woman, right? You’re not participating in the market in the way that you should.

Reema: It’s so interesting because often when we think about the pursuit of beauty, it’s in the context of wanting to be maybe, like, well-liked or sexually desirable. But here, you’re talking about it as a form of economic protection.

Elise: Right, it’s economic protection in a time where it’s really precarious to be a young person in South Korea.


Reema: The financial realities for young people in Korea are tough. Living costs are high and it’s hard to land a well-paying job. When Elise was there between 2015 and 2018, youth unemployment was double the regular population’s unemployment numbers. Even today, it’s still relatively high. That’s because the private sector isn’t creating enough jobs for young college-educated Koreans. It’s a basic problem of supply and demand. 


Elise: And so there was this really hyper competitive atmosphere and anxiety among college grads because South Korea is highly literate. It’s highly educated. You have a huge college-educated population, but they were having to work hourly jobs at places they were overqualified for. 

Reema: That’s Interesting .

Elise: And yeah, and it fed a gender war that that rages on today, but also because men were scapegoating women for taking jobs that they believed they deserved.


Reema: With competition so stiff, being beautiful becomes a way to get ahead. I was surprised to learn that up until recently, a lot of jobs in Korea required a headshot on your resume. To get an office job you’d be evaluated on your experience and potentially your looks. Even the Ministry of Employment and Labor posted a link on Twitter suggesting cosmetic surgery would improve people’s chances of getting a job. After backlash, they deleted the tweet. In 2019, a change in the law prohibited companies from asking for headshots, but Elise says some of them still do.

A lot of economic forces nudge Koreans towards going under the knife. At high school graduation time, dermatology and plastic surgery companies offer big discounts to recent grads. Like you can get what’s known as a “three-pack”:  eyelid surgery, a nose job and botox. And often these packages are marketed to parents and grandparents.


Elise:  Because good looks are framed as, you know, a responsibility not of just the individual, but also their family. And if you fail, it’s a personal and familial failing.


Reema: After Haein graduated from high school, she watched friends and classmates take advantage of those discounts.  


Reema: Did you ever consider getting surgery?

Haein: Of course, I always wanted. I couldn’t afford it, but if my parents had money, I’m sure I would have asked them. 


Reema: Haein also couldn’t afford to go to college. So after high school, she moved to Seoul and juggled multiple jobs: working as a server, selling food on the street, doing telemarketing. She earned about $1300 a month, and would spend about $300 of that on new clothes and makeup.


Haein: Having brand new shiny things made me feel seen and somehow better, of course, temporarily. Um, but the consumerism became my, my kind of closest friend and easiest access of I don’t know, a form of therapy, I’ll say.


Reema: These things became her most prized possessions. Each item she added to her makeup bag felt precious, and she carried it with her everywhere just in case she needed a touch up. She told me about this time when she was walking down the street and her makeup bag slipped from her hands. 


Haein: And I remember, it was the middle of the busy street, people are walking and fast walking and I was just standing, looking down on my purse, thinking, just calculating all of the numbers in my head.


Reema: Her eyeshadow broken into tiny little pieces, her highlighter shattered, her face powder scattered everywhere. 


Haein: I remember that time so clearly that I felt my, my heart dropped.


Reema: Hundreds of dollars, gone in an instant. All this beauty work cost her in other ways. Every morning, she’d wake up two hours early to do her hair and makeup. Yeah, she would’ve rather spent that time sleeping, but the one day she did decide to do that, coworkers would stop her and ask: 


Haein: “Everything’s okay with you? You know, what’s going on? What’s going on your life? You know, let’s talk about it.” All of a sudden it became so in a form of, you know, unprofessional. Somehow, you’re not professional enough to put your morning time to put on the make up, to be presentable. 


Reema: But even when she did wear make up, comments from people close to her didn’t stop. The criticism often focused on one part of her body: her jaw. Her parents would tell her… 


HAEIN: “You used to be so pretty with your smaller jaw, with your baby jaw, and now you look like a man.” I remember at one time, one of my, you know, boyfriend’s close friends, it was a dinner table that we’re just hanging out and, um, he said out loud, “Girl, your jaw’s big!”


Reema: The comments unlocked an insecurity she couldn’t stop obsessing over 


Haein: when I was smiling in front of the mirror, I looked like a monster. I remember I hated it so much. And I thought that if I can fix my jaw, If I do get this surgery, my my entire life will automatically change, will, will be, everything will be so perfect.

Reema: Mm. In what way, exactly?

Haein: I thought that people will love me more.


Reema: After that night with her boyfriend and his friends, Haein started seriously looking into  cosmetic surgery to make her face smaller. It’d involve removing a portion of her jaw bone, which was a trendy procedure at the time. It would cost around $8,000. 

Haein saw reviews from people online saying: hey, this is dangerous, the side effects are intense, recovery is agonizing, use your money on something else. But she ignored those. Because the other reviews she was reading sounded like this: 


Haein: after the surgery, people said they couldn’t recognize me anymore because I’m a new, different person. And, you know, I got this dream job because of my surgery. I, you know, I met my husband because of my surgery, 


Reema: She spent a year saving up money. $8,000 felt like a small price to pay to feel loved, and to have a better shot at a good job.


Haein: I was just so sick and tired of this poverty. 


Reema: So Haein went ahead with the surgery. 

I was surprised when she told us that she immediately regretted it, from the moment she woke up from the procedure. Sure, it made her jaw smaller but the recovery was incredibly painful and made it difficult to eat. She lost a lot of weight… and was again praised for it. 

Up until that point, no one in Haein’s life, including her, had really questioned these decisions she was making, the money she was spending in the name of self-improvement. But like so much in life, sometimes it just takes a single person to nudge you in a different direction, to show you that a different way of thinking is possible. 

One day, in 2015, Haein was hanging out with a friend in her studio apartment, they were watching a movie from her laptop…when her friend paused it and turned to Haein…and she was like Hey, why do you think we spend so much money on clothes and makeup? 


Haein: And no one really asked me that questions right before. And I’m like, wait, what?


Reema: “Why do you think we’re so obsessed?” her friend asked her. Haein got defensive, I like buying makeup and clothes


Haein: It make me happy. It’s pretty, it make me prettier. It reduces my stress. It helps me a lot. 


Reema: But her friend was like, well, we’re worried about making rent, we’re worried about being able to afford college… meanwhile, we’re throwing thousands of dollars on all this stuff. 


Haein: and I feel so attacked for that. Hey, who do you think you are, right? But later on, later on, as I was more engaging with her, um, in the conversation, I realized that: oh, maybe this is something that I really should have thought about before I, before I make this graduate decisions to spend 8 grand in a jaw surgery, in a plastic surgery.


Reema: Haein walked home that night replaying the conversation in her head.


Haein: That, that seed that my friend planted, it really grew over the time…


Reema: Meanwhile, something else, something much bigger, was brewing in the country… a movement that would change the lives of hundreds of thousands of women, including Haein’s. That’s after the break. 




Reema: While Haein was questioning her relationship to beauty, women in Korea were planting the seeds for what would become a massive movement, a rebellion against the country’s deeply patriarchal society. 

In 2016, Korean women were starting to talk openly online about the punishing beauty standards. The movement would be known as Escape the Corset. 

NPR’s Elise Hu explained it to me: 


Elise: Women were fed up with all of the appearance labor, but also the symbolic corset of how they were supposed to not just look, but also behave in society. And so, on socials, they began hashtagging Escape the Corset, or the translation for Escape the Corset, or proof of discarded corset, with photos like crushed makeup compacts that were in the trash, um, with hair that had been cut off, or videos of them wiping off all the makeup that was on their face, as a symbol for no longer participating in what the Korean women were calling display labor, as if they were put on display.


Reema: And they were tired of the double standard. Korean men also take part in the beauty culture – they’re actually the largest per capita spenders of men’s skincare products in the world – but for women, the standards are way more demanding and punishing.

Haein began to see those images of crushed makeup on her social media. And it made her think back to the time when she dropped her makeup bag


Haein: They did that voluntarily. They, they break those with their wills because they wanted to break free. And that was the moment that really spoke to me that why? Why I was so afraid  of losing them, of breaking them?


Reema: She started to feel inspired.  


Haein: I’ve been hearing so much that if you want it to be pretty, if you want it to be perfect, if you want it to be a beautiful woman, you have to endure a pain. And I didn’t want it to be in pain anymore. 


Reema: At the same time, she was having more conversations with that friend about the larger forces at play. She was using phrases like “the male gaze” and “patriarchal society.” 


Haein: My friend is, you know, throwing a lot of big words to me, and I’m like, wait, what?

Reema: Mm. You’re getting like a crash course. Yeah.

Haein: Yes, I know. I’m like, wait, it’s just too fast.(laughs)


Reema: But Haein picked up quickly. Because in the spring of 2016, a wave of protests erupted after a woman was murdered at a subway station in Seoul. The victim’s name has never been made public. The perpetrator, a 34-year-old man, said he did it because he felt “ignored and belittled” by women. Despite this, law enforcement said the murder was not a hate crime. Here’s Elise: 


Elise: Following it, you had a lot of younger women beginning to organize and participate in marches and protests and demonstrations. Not only to pay tribute to – gosh, that victim was only 23 years old! So not only to pay tribute to the 23-year-old woman who died at the hands of a stranger who killed her because she was a girl, um, but also to raise more attention to the fundamental sort of sexism and misogyny in South Korean society.


Reema: Elise told me that Korea may be one of the richest, most technologically advanced countries, but it has one of the worst women’s rights records in the developed world. Women earn 68 cents to a man’s dollar and hold just 5% of executive seats in South Korean companies. And 90% of the victims of violent crimes in Korea are women.

Watching all of this unfold, Haein, like so many young women, began to rethink her childhood, the way she was raised to see herself as a never ending project. That in order to be loved, she had to change herself. It really did feel like a corset, constricting every breath she took. 

So one day Haein woke up and made a decision: she’d stop wearing lipstick. That didn’t keep people from asking if she’d forgotten her lipstick, if she needed to borrow theirs. But she kept going. Over a few months she dropped more and more products: eyeliner, foundation, concealer, blush. Until one day, she left home with no place to go and nothing on her face but some lotion.


Haein: So not wearing a wake up makeup and just going outside, walking outside. The first time it was just… It’s been so long since my bare skin touched the air.

Reema: hmm.

Haein: And that, the wind, that moment, that atmosphere, I think I will forever remember that this is true me. And I would just walk, and walk, and walk, and I was just looking at the sky and just think that I am missing a lot.


Reema: Over the years, she’d been conditioned to check her reflection while walking around, checking for imperfections. But without beauty products, Haein’s world was opening up to other kinds of beauty. 


Haein: I was more interested in looking at the sky or the other things. Woah, we have flowers here?


Reema: And she was thinking more about the money she’d spent on her looks over the years. Like that $8,000 surgery.


Haein: I wish I could, you know, go back in time and use that money to my tuition.


Reema: Haein still dreamed about going to college. That felt more possible now that she was no longer buying beauty products; she was saving hundreds of dollars a month.

And it wasn’t just her. During the height of the movement, between 2015 and 2018, Korea saw a huge dip in beauty and plastic surgery-related spending, like tens of millions of dollars. More and more women were going barefaced.


Haein says her coworkers gave her a hard time for not wearing makeup, they’d taunt her and question her sexuality. It became easier to just lie, to tell them she was avoiding makeup because of acne treatment. 

Outside of work though, Haein’s life was expanding. She met someone and got married, and was growing more confident in herself.

But she still had one more step to go in her journey to escape the corset: she wanted to cut her hair. As an act of defiance, some Korean women were cutting their hair into a bob or bowl cut, or shaving it completely. The pros and cons weighed on Haein. 


Haein: I felt like if I have a short hair, somehow I will lose all of my values. Inside of myself, I was fighting with me. I was fighting that I want to cut my hair. I want to try that. People say that it’s amazing. People say that, you know, you don’t have to wash your hair for, you know, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, drying your hair, all of that. You know, Haein, you can do other things with that time. And also, I was afraid of what if, what if people will judge me?


Reema: Three different salons refused to cut her hair: you’re going to look like a man, you’re going to regret it, they told her. Finally, she found a place that would. The stylist took a pair of clippers and started to cut. 


Haein: I felt like, oh my God, this is so good. It was my break free moment of my hair. And I realized that it’s just a protein, it’s just a hair, it’s just the hair that will grow back. It means nothing. And when I had that, the clipper going through, zzzz, I’m, I think I’m still addictive to the feelings because I never felt it right?


Reema: She felt good. She celebrated with her friends in the Escape the Corset Movement, who had become something like a family to her. But the reaction from the general public wasn’t so positive


Haein: People will look at my hair, my best friend’s hair, still looking at us, of course, walking down the street and, um, we will hear a lot of: “Well, is she? Well, is he? Is she?” [laughter] And, and we love making that confusion because I think, you know, it makes people uncomfortable.

Reema: I’m curious, how are your parents reacting to all of these changes you’re making?

Haein: Oh, they don’t like that at all. They don’t like it at all. And I remember, I think it was one of my early days when I cut my hair short, um, they wouldn’t, they wouldn’t take me to the family reunion. Because I was a shame for them.

Reema: I’m sorry, that’s terrible. What did they say exactly? 

Haein: I was already married, but a lot of my family members will tell me that your husband’s going to leave you because, um, you’re not pretty anymore, because you’re not beautiful anymore, because you’re not skinny anymore, because you’re not… But. if this person will actually leave me because of my appearance, I’d rather…

Reema: Then so be it!

Haein: So be it! I’d rather not have that person in my life. 


Reema: Haein no longer has a relationship with her parents. 


Haein: I think that’s the reason why I was so upset at my parents because, you know, if In this world, if someone would love me with unconditionally, it should be you two.


Reema: She accepted that she can’t change them, just like they can’t change her. So there was backlash from strangers– not so bad. And from her family, which was deeply painful. But Haein also had to confront what her appearance would mean for potential employers.


Haein: People are asking me: “Well, are you a feminist? Well, are you interested in feminism?” A lot of political statements, like: “What do you think about the reproductive rights?” And I’m like, “Well, I just wanted to get a part time job here.”

Reema: You’re like, I just want some money.

Haein: Yeah, I mean, like, can I just work at this convenience store, right? 


Reema: Haein wanted to use the money she was saving on makeup and procedures to finally go to college, and qualify for higher paying jobs. But her friends in the Escape the Corset movement with college degrees were having a hard time finding work, too. Just being suspected of being a feminist was enough to knock them out of the running for a competitive job. Elise also told us she spoke with dozens of women who’ve gotten fired for not being feminine enough. Haein felt conflicted about what to do. 


Haein: I really wanted to stay in Korea, but I couldn’t, I didn’t want to.

Reema: Why not?

Haein: Because I couldn’t bear with myself that change is coming so slowly. And I knew that America was not perfect. I knew that. It was far, far away from perfect.

Reema: Right, right.

Haein: but at least I can, I can be myself.


Reema: She and her husband, who’s American, moved to California. She enrolled in community college, with a full scholarship. 

Since the movement, Koreans have seen some signs of change. In 2018, inspired by the MeToo movement, Korean women held huge protests, the largest feminist rallies the country’s ever seen. Hundreds of thousands of Korean women flooded the streets demanding an end to inequality. 


Leader: Me Too!

Crowd: Me too!

Leader: [Korean]

Crowd: [Korean]


Reema: And there’s also been pretty big shifts within pop culture. You now see some K-pop singers going on TV without any makeup. There are more books and movies featuring the stories of Korean women. And there are more women, like Haein, unabashedly being themselves. 

But at the same time, a lot of things haven’t improved, and in some cases, they’ve gotten worse. Several Escape the Corset activists who we interviewed for this story wouldn’t go on the record, for fear of harassment and violence. And the backlash to the feminist movement showed up in the last presidential election. The winner, Korea’s now President Yoon Sung-y’all says sexism is not an issue, and has called to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. Thousands of Koreans have been protesting the plan. And feminists in Korea are taking action in new ways: there’s a growing social movement that’s pretty radical. It calls for a boycott of romantic relationships with men and of childbirth.

Even though Haein lives in the States, she’s still connected to what’s happening in Korea. 


Haein: My feminist sisters are still fighting. And not everyone has that options to leave or, you know, I, I understand my privilege that I had an option to leave. I’m going to continue to, to be in the movement because it gave me the life that I always, always wanted, but like never even imagined. Because of the Escape the Corset Movement, I was able to focus on my success and my, my career and my study that I will continue, and no one can take away from me.


Reema: Today Haein is working on a documentary about global femicide, making art about the Escape the Corset Movement, and she’s going to enroll at Stanford University next fall, with a full ride. 

While working on this episode, I found myself reflecting more deeply on my relationship with beauty. I had multiple conversations with friends and coworkers about the insidious ways we all feel pressured to look good, about the billions of dollars being made off our self-doubts, and just how hard it can be to discern whether we’re indulging in beauty consumerism because we want to or because we feel like we need to. Because at the end of the day when we’re chasing beauty, what we’re really chasing is belonging and connection. 

Which is why I found Haein’s story to be especially compelling. Her pursuit wasn’t just about belonging, it was a matter of economic survival. When South Korea’s government decided to invest in the cosmetics industry, it set up a dynamic where women’s beauty work is never complete, there’s always a new procedure or a new product to buy. And in an economy where high paying jobs are in short supply, it makes sense that Korean women would feel like not only their self-worth, but also their net-worth, is at stake. 

Early in my conversation with Haein, I asked her a question about her life before Escape the Corset, at the peak of her beauty obsession. 


Reema: If I were to see an old picture of you during this time, what would I see exactly?


Reema: I expected her to give a physical description: long hair, full face of make-up. 


Haein: You would just see a… you would just see a person that has nothing to be fixed.

Reema: Mm.

Haein: Me looking back, honestly, it really makes me tear up because I, I looked back and I, after that movement, I, I looked back, and there were nothing wrong with me. 


Reema: When Haein pictures her “old” self, she doesn’t judge her for wearing make up or getting cosmetic surgery. Instead, she sees someone who, despite what everyone and everything around her said, was enough exactly as she was. 

Alright that’s all for our show. In our newsletter this week we’re sharing some books by Korean women who helped shape this episode, and some of our favorite feminist K-POP songs. If you’re not already subscribed, you can do that at marketplace dot org slash comfort. 

And if any of this resonated with you or sparked a memory that you’d like to share with us, or if you have a completely different thing you want to talk to us about, you can always email us at uncomfortable at marketplace dot org 


Marika Proctor: This episode was lead-produced by Alice Wilder and hosted by Reema Khrais. They wrote the script together. Additional support from producer Hannah Harris Green and our intern, that’s me, Marika Proctor. Zoë Saunders is our senior producer. Jasmine Romero and Hannah Bae edited this episode. Sound design and audio engineering by Drew Jostad. Bridget Bodnar is Marketplace’s Director of Podcasts. Francesca Levy is the Executive Director of Digital. Neal Scarbrough is Vice President and general manager of Marketplace. And our theme music is by Wonderly. Special thanks to all of the Escape the Corset Activists who spoke to us and shared their stories. 


Reema: Alright, we’ll catch y’all next week.

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