South Korean culture is known for its deeply ingrained seniority system and respecting your elders, however just under the surface, Korea is also brimming with ageism
“Suzy’s face is so pale. My face is dark so even if I pat this onto my face forever, it’d just be a waste of product,” remarks 72-year-old Park Mak Rae a.k.a. the ‘Korean Grandma’ sarcastically as she tries to emulate the make-up look of a popular Korean idol Suzy (24), who is celebrated for her glassy, glowing, youthful skin. Park first became an internet sensation in 2017 after posting her everyday make-up tutorial which now has nearly 2.5 million views. In the video Park shares her daily routine - no filter - and some golden advice such as, “Others don’t care about your eyebrows so don’t stress too much and just do your make-up.” Charming and witty, Park’s videos have since gained her a following of more than 700k people. But as well as offering an intimate portrait of her life, her videos highlight the uncomfortable relationship Korea has with age, particularly within the beauty industry.
South Korean culture is known for its deeply ingrained seniority system, whereby respect is always shown toward elders. From the workplace to one’s private life, the way you treat your seonbae (senior) is always different from the way you treat people the same age as you. A younger person grills the meat, pours the shots of soju, and drinks their first drink facing sideways as a sign of respect to someone older than them. The way you speak to people, too, depends on the age of the person you’re talking to, which is why Koreans always ask for your date of birth upon first meeting you. But under the surface, Korea is also brimming with ageism. It is much more difficult for older people to find employment and actively participate in society. According to a 2016 OECD survey, almost half of the elderly population over the age of 65 in South Korea are living in poverty due to unemployment and lack of social security, meanwhile the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) revealed that age discrimination is the third most common reason for petitions submitted to the organisation after disability and sexual harassment.
The Korean entertainment and beauty industries are also notoriously obsessed with youth - a pale, smooth and glowing complexion is a prerequisite for most K-pop idols. In fact, K-pop artists who survive in the industry past the age of thirty are celebrated as rare cases and even then their flawless skin never shows signs of ageing. This has led to a boom of anti-ageing products in the K-beauty industry, all primed to help you achieve that youthful ‘chok chok’ (dewy and bouncy) look - or at least get close. According to Statista, the anti-ageing cosmetic market in South Korea is worth over 1.2 trillion Korean won (almost £800 million), a thirty per cent increase from 2015. Similarly booming, is Korea’s plastic surgery industry; some have suggested that 50% of Korean women have had plastic surgery.
To put it plainly, beauty in South Korea is synonymous with youth, an attitude that has Korea’s elderly population feeling invisible. To challenge this, Park and a growing number of Korean women over 40 have been taking to YouTube to make their views on beauty heard.
Kim Bo Yeon, a 53-year old beauty vlogger, started her YouTube channel to tackle the lack of visibility of women over 40 in the beauty industry. “The skin of women in their 40s, 50s and 60s is different from those in their 20s and 30s, but there are no beauty tutorials for them,” she said in an interview with NAVER. “When you become my age, you get depressed because you feel like you’re losing your beauty and your health. I want to show that this is not true and that there is hope through my content.” Since launching her YouTube channel seven months ago, Kim has gained a following of almost 100,000. Her popularity is a testament to Korea’s appetite for seeing women above the age of 40 represented in both mainstream media and beauty.
And she is by no means the only one trying to make beauty after 40 more visible. A YouTube make-up tutorial by a channel called Be More targeting women in their 40s has nearly a million views and a quick search for ‘40대 메이크업’ or ‘50대 메이크업’ (40s make-up and 50s make-up) reveals numerous other accounts trying to push the age boundaries of K-beauty. One of these people is former Elle Korea Beauty Director, Director Pi (48), who produces the popular Korean beauty TV programme Get It Beauty. Pi uses her YouTube as a platform to celebrate ageing beauty, sharing with her 640K followers advice on how to take care of skin as it ages.
And the overnight success of Korean mature YouTubers is not limited to beauty. Kim Mi Gyeong, who has over 570K followers, features videos on a broad variety of topics ranging from styling to book reviews but all specifically targeted to a 40-plus audience who may otherwise have very limited access of media content catering to their needs. In one of her public talks, Kim argues that Korean society has a stereotype of people in their 50s and 60s being too old to live actively and start new things. Instead, she suggests to her peers to break that image and approach their 60s in the same way as they would their 20s.
The attention these women are getting on their YouTube platforms shows that older Korean women are looking for other spaces to represent them while they are not given enough space in traditional mainstream media. So far, the K-pop and K-beauty industry have turned a blind eye to mature beauty. However, with YouTube and other social media handles up their sleeve, these women fight to have their voices heard, hopefully paving the way for others. They are definitely ones to watch (and subscribe to).