Finding Myself In The Korean Beauty Aisle

One writer’s journey to self-acceptance starts in Seoul.

by Bo Ren
Sophia Hsin - Stocksy/Getty Images/Shutterstock
Collage of a Seoul street, body oil bottles, and back of a naked woman

My mother’s morning skin care routine is my first self-care memory. Wash with water. Pat dry. Press a layer of rice water into the skin, then scrub face with the inside of a banana peel. Next, a layer of L’Oréal moisturizer, followed by sunscreen, always. These steps were soothing — a solace even — amidst the ever-changing tumult of my teenage years. My mom taught me her routine, and it became my ritual too, sans banana peel.

I eventually expanded my routine and ventured into Sephora — the mecca of beauty. Self-conscious of my oily T-zone, I combed the Sephora aisles for the perfect moisturizer to balance my oily-combination skin. And through this process, I began to see how the American beauty industry wasn’t designed for people like me. During college, I went to buy my first high-end tinted moisturizer and, despite the fact that I have fair pink undertones, the sales associate insisted on color-matching me to a yellow tone. I read about the miracle of acid toners on beauty websites, and purchased multiple, dousing my sensitive skin with harsh toners and peels. Hives ensued. It wasn’t until I got a facial in China that I learned Asian skin has a thinner statum corneum than Caucasian skin, which makes it more vulnerable to scarring.

As I entered my 30s, I began to get targeted Instagram ads about “clean beauty” brands. Paraben-free, sulfate-free, non-toxic — I believed these marketing claims, seduced by the allure of the aspirational, Goop-y lifestyle that accompanied them.

When I started earning more discretionary income, I immediately used it to splurge on these luxury “clean” products. Secretly, I thought buying these products would grant me the rich white woman lifestyle — an aspirational, unreachable state of bliss and wellness. But as I purchased the products, I felt uneasy. The uneasiness stemmed from the cognitive dissonance of supporting beauty brands that did not value me as their ideal customer, often alienating me in their stores and campaigns. Walking into luxury beauty retail spaces, sales associates would often scan me up and down, discerning if I was worth their time, or if they should ignore me completely. In those humiliating moments, I felt a compulsion to spend money to prove them wrong — to prove that I wasn’t small, broke, and helpless. Those experiences only left me feeling more empty, confused, and angry. Soon, I realized the brands I coveted were often created by, and for, wealthy white women who had no intention of building brands that spoke to anyone who didn’t look like them.

Fed up, I began to look for alternatives outside of white beauty spaces. My roommate introduced me to Korean beauty through online retailers such as oo35mm, Stylevana, and Peach and Lily. And after a trip to Seoul's Myeong-dong district, I experienced a whole new world of beauty that welcomed me. The customer service at Korean beauty counters was welcoming and kind. Every shade of foundation, blush, and lipstick matched me perfectly. No one was trying to convince me that my skin tone was yellow, just because of my ethnicity.

In Seoul, I suddenly experienced a beauty ecosystem that was designed for people like me — and it felt like a homecoming. Korean sales associates spoke to me in Mandarin, owing to the influx of Chinese tourists who became a growing and valued part of their customer base. I no longer felt small or powerless, but was instead treated with respect. As I started to go to Korea for work more, I would bring back suitcases full of Korean face masks, serums, and makeup.

Like many women of color, I don’t feel seen by the clean beauty and luxury wellness industry. My petite body, curly Asian hair texture, and skin tone were not typically reflected in the high-fidelity Instagram ads on my feed.

The clearest way to know we’ve been existing in spaces that aren’t for us, is to move to those that are.

Connecting to Korean beauty helped me find self-acceptance and reconnect me with my Asian heritage. As I discovered systems and spaces that were designed for me, I no longer felt the need to beat down doors to “exclusive” spaces that did not value me as an individual or as a customer. I didn’t have to subject myself to expensive products from Western beauty brands that didn’t show models who looked like me in their campaigns, or to their poor treatment by their staff. Korean beauty was also more accessible financially: the products worked as efficaciously as the products I used to covet, at a fraction of the price.

The clearest way to know we’ve been existing in spaces that aren’t for us, is to move to those that are.
kokouu/Getty Images

My K-beauty epiphany led me to look for other ways Western culture was not serving my needs. After experiencing a mysterious bout of chronic fatigue, I sought out the support of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a medicinal practice utilized for thousands of years in China. While Western doctors were perplexed with my condition and dismissed it as “somatic symptoms,” my acupuncturist viewed my symptoms holistically and shared with me that disease comes from a “dis-ease” of the mind and body.

Ironically, I largely rejected my mom’s teaching around Traditional Chinese Medicine when I was younger. I used to hate it when she told me to eat food as medicine, pressed on my acupressure points to relieve nausea, constipation, and anxiety, or forced me to drink bitter herbal teas. I wrote her suggestions off as pseudoscience.

But this bout with chronic fatigue encouraged me to revisit this ancient wisdom. I began incorporating elements of my mom’s practices into my daily routine: I drank warm ginseng lemon water to increase my yang chi and energy, and made silkie chicken to fortify my body. I started buying meat at the Deluxe Meat Market in Chinatown (getting yelled at by the butcher in Mandarin made me feel at home). My acupuncturist recommended that I steam my face with this Mugwort root mask during the summer to lower “excess heat” in my body — a TCM term that approximates to inflammation. And slowly, my body began to heal.

As I healed outwardly, I’ve discovered a new spaciousness that only comes from self-acceptance open up within me. I no longer support beauty and wellness spaces that are not designed for me. I vote with my dollars to support Asian and BIPOC brands that align with my values. I am far more discerning about a brand’s values instead of false marketing promises, researching ingredients and claims with the help of friends like Charlotte Palermino, who educate consumers on the perils of clean-washing and pseudoscience in beauty.

I’ll still occasionally splurge on a shiny new product, intrigued by its packaging or promise of results. But I am much more cognizant of my shopping habits. Spiritually and financially aligning myself to brands and spaces that are designed for me has helped me discover a belonging and self-acceptance I never knew — a feeling that even the most beautifully packaged product could never produce.