Does K-Beauty really need more Diversity?

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Disclaimer time. As many of you know, I am a white chick, married to a Korean, living in Korea, being fluent in Korean. As you may also be aware, this is a beauty blog and I try to keep it light-hearted and stay focussed on my goal of reviewing K-beauty products. But here’s this topic that I have been mulling over for some time, that I wanted to discuss. It’s basically me thinking out loud. I don’t know everything, and I don’t have all the answers.

Just as a quick aside. I might be completely wrong with what I am going to put forward. I am happy for you to call me out and/or tell me where I am wrong. I look forward to constructive discussions in the comments. 🙂

The Criticisms leveled at K-Beauty

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Unless you have been living under a rock, you’ll be aware that there are a whole lot of discussions going on around race, diversity, inclusivity. I am keeping an open mind, I want to learn and I want to be more aware of what is going on in the world. I try to question my own beliefs and values, and I try to be better and do better.

At the same time, I have been noticing this trend as of late. There are open letters to Korean cosmetics companies, urging them to be more inclusive. K-Beauty is being petitioned to diversify and to be more accommodating of people of colour (POC). Some of those open letters can come across as kind of nasty and accusing, and it rattles me just a bit, because Korea is my adopted home country now, as well as my husband’s native country. I’m feeling kind of protective of Korea in that regard.

In particular, K-beauty is being called out for their sunscreens, many of which have a tone-up effect (read: white cast), or which are mineral based and thus create ashy tones or an aforementioned (but not marketed as such) white cast, which is perceived as unflattering on darker skin tones.

There are also products purported to be brightening, which is considered to be part of colourism. Do note that bright skin does not equal white(r) skin though! It’s also possible that perhaps, some words get lost in translation.

Furthermore, many articles that I see popping up online are critical of the shade range of Korean base products (foundations, BB creams, concealers, powders and makeup cushions), most of which range from fair to light to medium shades but usually don’t include shades for darker skin tones.

Who’s Criticising Who?

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First off, look at who is criticising who. From what I can tell, lots of white people seem to be levelling criticism at Korean beauty companies. It’s not really the POCs that seem to be screaming the loudest; as far as I can tell, it’s white people who are – patronisingly – assuming that they have to tear down Korean companies because only they can protect the poor POCs from those horrible racist Koreans. (In case you couldn’t tell, I am being sarcastic here).

Ok, so one more time, to recap.

White people… telling Asian people… what to do… while also assuming themselves… to be White Knights™. Oh the irony!

Can we, for once, just let Koreans be? Can we just let Asians be?

It’s not always About Caucasian-ness, Stop Making it All About You

What’s missing from the conversation for me is that, as far as I can tell, it’s not always about wanting to be white, either. Asians in general, and Koreans in particular, like to be fair-skinned, that is true – but don’t forget that there might be a cultural element here at play, too.

Fair skin in Korea, in the past, meant that you were privileged enough to stay indoors rather than work outdoors in the fields. Which, by the way, is the same beauty ideal of Europeans living in the Middle Ages. If you were fair 500 years ago, you were considered to be more attractive, because you were a member of the royal family or the gentry or some other kind of nobility or elite group or upper class.

So, perhaps the aspirations for fairer skin that Korea undoubtedly has might not just be rooted in wanting to be white / colonialism / white supremacy, but rather/also in some traditional Asian cultural heritage, where lighter skin meant higher socioeconomic status?

K-Beauty: Skincare over Makeup

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If you know anything at all about Korean beauty, you’ll know that skincare, much more so than makeup, takes centre stage. And it makes sense. To look your best, start with the basics and get the foundation right, which in this case is beautiful, glowy, hydrated, smooth skin.

And is that not something that can be appreciated by anyone, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or how they identify? In that regard, I feel that K-beauty is inclusive already, because it promotes beautiful skin and holistic beauty rituals – which can be enjoyed by anyone. Diversity is built-in when it comes to Korean skincare, implicitly.

K-Beauty… it’s in the Name.

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Lastly, let’s have a little bird’s eye view from high up above. Korean beauty companies manufacture products in Korea, made for Koreans in particular.

Korea as a country is made up of 96.8% homogenous, ethnic Koreans. The other 3.2% are split as follows – as you can see, out of those 3.2% of foreign nationals, a whopping 65% are other Asian nationals. So roughly speaking, 98-99% of the people of living in Korea are Asians. And while certainly there may be darker skinned nationals amongst them, it helps explain the shade range – or lack thereof.

Source: Statistics Korea

Companies, including Korean cosmetics companies, are businesses, not charities. They will manufacture shades that are deemed to be profitable to produce.

Currently, they have limited shade ranges that, according to their market research, will help them succeed in the market place. Can you really blame a business… for going about their business?

Now you may argue that in recent years, K-beauty has seen large followings all around the world. To that I answer, yes, great! At the same time, many black-owned businesses, other Asian cosmetics and other POC-owned cosmetics companies have come forward to serve darker-skinned customers, especially following the seminal splash that Fenty Beauty made on the scene a few years back. And don’t we all want black-owned and POC-owned businesses to succeed?

So then why don’t we give them our money instead and lift up such businesses that truly deserve our support – rather than go about endlessly criticising Korean companies?

There’s this old adage that goes something along the lines of, ‘Extinguishing someone else’s flame is not going to make yours shine brighter’. Cheesy, I know, but it’s the first that sprung to mind when I thought about this.

Perhaps, in the future, if the demand is there, Korean companies may join such businesses and promote greater shade range.

Final Takeaways

The argument that I was trying to make is that perhaps, K-Beauty is being unfairly criticised for their business strategies. Again, I might be completely wrong and off the mark. Feel free to tell me your thoughts and opinions in the comments.

© 2020 The Empties Diaries All Rights Reserved

12 thoughts on “Does K-Beauty really need more Diversity?

  1. This is such an interesting topic that has many angles to it, we could talk about it for hours :D. The tone-up sunscreens I also don’t see as a problem as it’s not intended for darker skin tones in the first place and Korea has a lot of amazing chemical and hybrid sunscreens that are suitable anyway. In terms of foundation shades, in recent years I’ve seen a lot of K-beauty companies be more inclusive with shades they offer for people who aren’t Korean but even for Korean people, as there are Koreans who are naturally more tanned than foundation shades once available. K-beauty’s main demographic is Korean people so it makes sense for them to cater to their own country first before thinking of others and now that many brands are increasingly popular worldwide, eventually many will release more shades if they believe people will buy them. On the other hand, I do think marketing can do with being more inclusive in future though when it comes to the k-beauty brands that do cater for darker skin tones; if they go about it the right way and are mindful that would be great 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “They will manufacture shades that are deemed to be profitable to produce.” What you said here is the most likely answer. The U.S. tends to be VERY sensitive about race, so people often assign malice instantly.

    I’m not from the U.S. I grew up in the Caribbean, where there are dark-skinned people, blondes, brunettes, redheads, light skin, medium-tones… pretty much everything and everyone, and I’ve yet to see a more racially-charged placed as the U.S. (especially in 2020).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Seeing hate and racism in everyone and always assuming the worst is a very sad way to live and it seems (from a European outsiders perspective) that that is something a lot of people – media people? – in the US seem to live by.

      E.g. The whole concept of micro aggressions has me reeling.

      Hopefully we can all come back to a place where we presume innocence or at least don’t think everyone’s coming from a bad place.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree with the points you’ve made on this post. The whole whitening effect etc is more about glow and brightness rather than the colour of the skin itself. How ever, there are also Korean people who have darker skin tones and I see them settling for shades that are much MUCH lighter than their actual skin tone… I wanna look juicy not crusty dusty. Which is why I’m happy to see that there is more diversity within their own community on the different types of skin tones. With people such as hwasa breaking the mold and setting her own standard, it’s honestly refreshing. Hopefully in the years to come, we become more accepting of each other.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If you check the comment section – someone mentioned this too and to opinion was my last stance, as well.

      Agreed – Korean foundation shades could be a bit more diverse overall, but then again I am already seeing darker shades available in the shops (at least where I live – Seoul).

      I think Clio for example has more shade ranges? I’ve seen other companies too but can’t remember what brands now exactly.

      What annoys me I guess is white people telling Koreans what to do. Making mountains out of molehills. Hoping to score SJW/wokeness brownie points. Wanting all companies to be everything for everyone.


      1. Lol true, It’s really annoying when some people don’t bother to do any research and accuse people without asking a simple ‘why does this happen’.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Very interesting topic. I agree with your point of view. K-beauty industry is being unfairly criticised for not being diverse enough, but you are with no doubt a K-beauty expert and a real insider and know better than that. The problem is that nowadays everything seems to be under questioning and overcriticed and most of times criticism is done without really knowing much about it.


    1. Thank you! I’m not an expert though, just close to the source I guess 😆

      Though as some commenters have pointed out – and I agree – there could be more foundation shades as even among Koreans – the main target demographic – I can see some people on the street (maybe 5-10%) where I feel they might have difficulty finding a foundation shade that matches their tone.

      However I would consider this lack of shades purely due to to economic factors – if only 5-10% of your customers would buy a certain shade, then it might not always make financial sense for all cosmetics companies, especially smaller ones with smaller budgets, to manufacture those shades.

      Larger companies could have more shades though I guess.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, this point makes a lot of sense. Let’s hope in the near future some companies see that small demographic gap as a business opportunity. And keep sharing your knowledge on K-beauty, all your input is truly valuable for those who, myself included, feel passionate about beauty.

        Liked by 1 person

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