The Asian Century: Skincare Edition

Skincare is about more than just the science and there's a significance to the rise of Asian brands vs Europeans brands.

3 years ago

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One of my favorite childhood memories, one I come back to time and time again in adulthood to find more meaning each time as I get older, is the memory of spending time with my mother while she performed all her womanly rituals. Of course, as a child, I was just interested in the shiny bottles, the mysterious heavy scents, the creamy textures, and most likely ruined a lot of private time as a result. At no point in my childhood did I ever wonder about the why of it all. All I needed to know was that my mother, the cornerstone of my life, spent a lot of her time doing some truly nonsensical things like lighting candles strong enough to choke a cathedral, using all the hot water in the house for a bath, and then spending a truly ungodly amount of time marinating in expensive smelling brine. And those were just Sundays.

Her daily ritual had all the meaning of a religious ceremony in its consistency and rhythm — every day without fail, she walked through the same steps in the same order. My mother, then a newly tenured professor rising through the ranks and already an accomplished businesswoman, would walk through the door, shoes already in hand and hair shaken out, to change into her gloriously comfortable and sloppy home uniform and sit me on the bathroom counter while she seemed to wash the outside world off her skin and out of her soul, at least for the evening. Jars of LaMer, Sisley, Erno Laszlo lined the counter in their proper order, heavy glass jars quietly shimmering with some secret that belonged to the world of grown women. Often, she would pull out far less glamorous tubes and pots that were normally hidden from view, tacky bottles covered with Korean or Japanese lettering purchased from the back aisles of Asian grocery stores, not Neiman Marcus, yet fiercely treasured and zealously guarded secrets nonetheless. She would ask me about my day in a far-off daze while layers of foundation, eyeshadow, lipstick, and blush melted off until her “secret face,” the one only us family ever saw, came out and she finally shed the crisp professional veneer she put on every morning and came back to being Mom again.

Many years have gone by since I last sat on that bathroom counter watching my mother go through her rituals. Over the years, she has quietly gifted me many jars of the same creams she used, but I left them unopened in the back of my closet, disregarded as senseless frivolity tainted with more than a whiff of patriarchal beauty standards. It took years of buffeting in the adult world for me — probably by the same forces that drove my mother in her young professional years to put on her lipstick like armor in the morning and shed her outside life like dead skin when she finally made it back home — to one day sink into a warm bath she drew for me and suddenly feel better. And here was the secret: I didn’t feel more beautiful, skinnier, more powerful. It was 60 moist, fragrant minutes of just feeling less angry, less bitter. These rituals are powerful in their promises of transformation, but in practice really what they do is just…help you fucking deal.

These days, I pretty much follow in my mother’s footsteps. I primp and groom according to the standards of the professional life I live like she did. I shed my outside life as soon as I get through the door and find hedonistic joy in my own collection of pots and jars promising all manner of total bullshit. I still feel the weight of all that bore down on her — all the weight of unfair beauty standards, pressure to assimilate yet individuate in carefully scripted amounts, the desire to fake it til we make it. Yet at the same time everything has changed too.

Photo of skincare products
Basically what my shelf looks like. Pic via The Baller On A Budget

The lineup on my bathroom counter looks nothing like my mom’s. She used the highest end products that money could buy in the States, which in the 80s and 90s invariably meant French, Swiss, or at the very least American that tried to pass as French. The Secret Stash of Korean and Japanese products — the scrubs strong enough to exfoliate sin itself, cleansers smelling of the sort of good green tea only Asians would be able to discern — were relegated to getting tossed in bins under the sink, pulled out for use when needed. And they were needed often. Whatever else was being peddled in those heavy glass jars, quality skincare often was not it. Tokens of luxury, a psychological cocoon, a tangible sign of privilege, of finally belonging — these were what my mom really bought with her hard earned money in the heated years of the Reagan and Bush administrations. And let’s face it, all the “good” stuff was incredibly, starkly, white people stuff.

I can remember the exact moment I realized the world was suddenly a much different place than the one I thought I knew. No, not the Trump election. It was 2015 and I was walking through my local, all-American mall and came face to face with a giant ad in Sephora suddenly announcing the launch of Korean beauty, or as the Girl World calls it, “K-Beauty.” A glossy, perky, Korean face stared at me blown up bigger than life to showcase all the bottles of quirky potions my mom spent my childhood years hiding away. It was more than worlds colliding; it was a veil being lifted between the worlds I spent my adult life navigating between — shopping at the same mix of Neiman Marcus and Asian grocery stores my mom did, and realizing that their value and meaning were completely reversed. In the years since, I’ve had to confront the psychological weirdness of hearing white girls from Iowa rave about the benefits of snail mucus and unironically drop words like “chok chok” in their skincare reviews on YouTube, while the value of “prestige” names, the French (or French-sounding) brands women of my mother’s generation automatically equated with quality, plummeted.

These days, I still have the brands my mom favored. But they stay crammed in the bottom of my bathroom cabinets while the daily lineup, the lineup I rely on to unwind and quietly indulge myself, are unabashedly and proudly Asian. It feels like coming home.


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Jess Rhee

Published 3 years ago