If you ever thought the topic of beauty products was frivolous, think again.  When women are willing to risk their freedom to smuggle or wear beauty products in totalitarian regimes, then you know it’s no small thing.  

In the recent story by Lexy Lebsack, Lipstick, Hair Dye, & Power — How Beauty Is Fuelling A Revolution In North Korea, women, such as Danbi Kim, share their stories of risking imprisonment in prisoner camps in N. Korea in order to offer people smuggled beauty products. But this pursuit isn’t just a way to make money, it’s a form of political and cultural resistance.  “Products and styles from South Korea, whether it was unlawful lipstick or banned apparel, began to signify a shared disobedience against the North Korean regime and an unspoken nod that the wearer had seen a glimpse of the outside world and was willing to get in trouble to show it.”   How so? North Korea’s regime dictates much of everyday life, including how women should appear in public.  There is even “beauty police” to ensure enforcement of these rules. Punishment for defying the rules includes public humiliation, “confessions” to local authorities and people cutting off hair and clothes as the “offender” passes by.

Beauty and fashion aren’t just a means to defy certain laws, though.  They represent forms of self-expression — exactly what a totalitarian regime abhors.  And exposure to beauty products opens a desire for expertise with them which then leads to a whole new industry for women:“…saving up hair straighteners, makeup, or nail supplies has opened a door for microeconomics among women who otherwise would have no income stream.”  Finally, the exposure to these new products, looks and images of glamour, opens people’s eyes to a world beyond the borders of North Korea.  This exposure — this taste for something beyond — compels people to push for change.  And the governments know this. In fact, Dr. Sung-wook Nam, chair of the department of North Korean studies at Korea University in Seoul points out that “beauty products are just the latest focus in a chess match between the two Koreas. He’s quoted as saying, “’South Korean K-beauty is a threat to the Kim Jong-un regime and the control of the system’”.

This story reminds me of a study I conducted while at college with Russian immigrants living Israel back in the mid-90’s.  I was studying social anthropology and wanted a way to get to Israel to see my long-distance, Israeli boyfriend.  Merging my studies, with my love for beauty and need to go to Israel, I pushed to secure a grant to study Russian women’s view on beauty.  I wasn’t really sure what I would get other than a free ride.  But I didn’t come up short.  What I remember most vividly (after all it was a long time ago) is that while in the Soviet Union, Russian women were so desperate for beauty products that they would save up their lunch money for days on end to buy a simple lipstick.  Beauty was deemed a frivolous pursuit by the Soviet regime and cosmetics were hard to come by.  But that wouldn’t stop Russian women from finding ways to outsmart the system and look beautiful.

This is not the first time I’ve written about the liberating power of beauty and fashion.  In Clothing is Power I share the story of Jasvinder Sanghera who expressed her freedom from her abusive husband via her highly feminine mode of dress, and in Fashionable Protests: The Unexpected Source of Saudi Women’s Independence I raise the possibility of Saudi lingerie shops as the spark to greater women’s empowerment.  Why is fashion, and, particularly, beauty products and ritual especially triggering of rebellion?  First, for women beauty has often been “our world,” i.e. something that we can claim greater use and understanding of — whether because of male objectification or not.  Second, I believe beauty holds so much power because it is so central to our bodies.  Beauty products literally become part of who we are each and everyday.  Creams, colors, scents blend with our skin and our hair, integrating with our physical selves.  They reflect what we feel, they show our sense of imagination (who do want to look like today?) and what were willing to fight for.  They excite us and give us confidence.  No wonder people have created, traded or smuggled beauty products for centuries.

Beauty may be superficial to some, but for so many of us, it’s a key part of who we are.  Of course there are still some social norms about how much to wear or in what ways to wear it. But, for the most part, we have the freedom to enjoy it.  Let’s appreciate that most of us can put on blush or spritz some perfume any time we want.  Let’s celebrate that we can look beautiful — or not –and no one can stop us.  As this is Memorial Day weekend in the U.S., how fitting it is to celebrate the freedoms — both large and seemingly small — brought to us by fallen soldiers, including the freedom to look buy, apply and wear in public any kind of cosmetics EVERY SINGLE DAY.

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