K-beauty and the Korean War, Retinol-A and Agent Orange, glycerin and the weaponization of water? Participants in Col(LAB) 2.0 “Strange Life: Beauty, Race, and War” investigated these seemingly incongruous pairings — encounters between favorite day-to-day beauty products and the darkest moments of war and global crisis — to delve into untold stories of race, class, science, and violence in the American cosmetics industry. The two-day conversation sent faculty, scholars, artists, and students — me among them — on an interdisciplinary journey, through the world of beauty and skin from packaged products on drugstore shelves to fluids and vials on laboratory counters.
On Tuesday, October 15, 2019, the group of “col(LAB)orators” gathered in the CoLab space of the Lewis Arts Complex for an artist walk-through of Universal Skin Salvation, a solo exhibition by Brooklyn-based artist Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin. Examining the connections (and disconnect) between the rising K(orean)-beauty industry and the racialized history of Korean food and medicine, Shin’s installation featured serums, lotions, and hydrating sprays that the artist created using lactic acid, an organic substance which can be synthetically processed for beauty products, but can also be produced via fermentation.
Walking us through the exhibit, Shin related her story of emigrating from South Korea to Canada as a child, and eating fermented Korean foods such as kimchi to increase gut health while being exposed to a foreign diet. Intrigued by the emergence of lactic acid packaged as a K-beauty staple, Shin began investigating the erasure of Korean tradition, personhood, and history in contemporary beauty trends fetishizing “Korean skin” and its constructed whiteness, flawlessness, and gloss.
After demonstrating several of her products, Shin talked about her photographs (printed in large dimensions and hung on the walls à la Sephora) and how they tried to capture the sense of disembodiment in K-beauty. Korean personhood was rendered invisible, and thoroughly alienated from the cosmetic product, in Shin’s parodies of K-beauty product images: a hand holding a face mask, a cheek glossed up with lotion, fingers pressing down on a mist spray.
During the Q&A session following the walk-through, I asked Shin what this phenomenon of alienation might mean in the context of K-pop, another “K-trend” that conversely celebrates specific Korean faces, names, and personalities in music and entertainment. Shin pointed out that, despite the popularity of Korean faces (whether named and humanized in K-pop, or unnamed and disembodied in K-beauty), not many American consumers of this trend are aware of the history of commodified and traumatized Korean beauty in America — from the mid-century yanggongju (Korean War brides), to the recent American fetish for porcelain-like Korean skin.
Anne Cheng, professor of English and American studies and director of the Program in American Studies, added that perhaps the abbreviation of “Korea” in both “K-pop” and “K-beauty” suppresses the complexity of Korean personhood behind these trends of Koreamania. I sure felt this disparity between the racialized “funk” of kimchi and the neatness of abbreviated, curated, and commodified “K-being,” as I saw the hefty yellow vats of lactic acid that Shin had arranged next to spick-and-span beauty emporium-style counters of cosmetic products.
The next day, we took these questions about racialized beauty to the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, where we continued to think about beauty, skin, and race, from a pharma-cosmetic perspective. The laboratory module began with a seminar discussion led by Cheng; Lynn Loo, the Theodora D. ’78 and William H. Walton III ’74 Professor in Engineering, and director of the Andlinger Center; and Thuy Linh Tu, associate professor of Asian Pacific American studies at New York University.
We opened conversation by introducing our favorite skin products that we had been asked to bring. The round of show-and-tell featured a variety of personal “must-haves” ranging from hydrating serums to water-trapping petroleum jelly. It was fascinating to see the sheer diversity of experiences with the pharma-cosmetics industry and its products. To name a few: encounters with magazine ads trumpeting the power of hyaluronic acid; childhoods under Asian mothers struggling to maintain the glossiness and fairness of their daughters’ skin; and eczema medications that were incompatible with Korean makeup products.
We then used these anecdotes to think about intersections between beauty and larger power structures of race, war, gender, and class. The questions we raised were informed by the assigned pre-reads, which included Tu’s study of the Vietnam War and the abuse of Black skin in the laboratory testing of Retinol-A [“The Beautiful Life of Agent Orange,” in “Experiments in Skin: Race and Beauty in the Shadow of Vietnam,” forthcoming], and Erin Sheehy’s essay on the miracle of glycerin and the privilege of hydration [“Glycerin,” in Facility 1, no. 1, November 2019: 38-40]. How can conceptions of skin be racialized and weaponized? What do American pop culture phenomena such as race-(in)sensitive lighting in Hollywood, or the appropriation of Black skin and Black culture by the Kardashians, tell us about race and beauty, attraction and disgust? Will skin hydration become a class marker? Is American racial whiteness an effective paradigm with which to analyze Asian trends of whitening? Does the American fascination with twenty-something-step Asian skin care routines betray a modern-day Orientalist fetish?
These questions in mind, we went into the laboratory for a hands-on pharma-cosmetic adventure led by Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin. Using materials including lactic acid, hyaluronic acid, glycerin, l-arginine, and leucidal, we created our own cosmetic products: a 5% lactic acid serum and a 5% lactic acid toner. Carefully following Shin’s recipe, measuring the ingredients, combining them, gauging their pH, and so on, I realized how oblivious I had been to the various substances going into my everyday cosmetic products, not to mention their racialized, gendered, and political histories. The laboratory experience will also go down as one of my most interdisciplinary experiences at Princeton. (It was my first — and will be perhaps my only — time putting on a lab coat in college. And who would have guessed that I would team up with my English professor and politics-majoring friend to tare digital scales and stir beakers?)
Col(LAB) 2.0 allowed me to engage with great minds across diverse fields, and offered creative and insightful ways to contemplate the troubling nexus of beauty and violence. The sequence has taught me how (to borrow a Korean idiom) “close to my skin” processes of war-making and nation-making are in reality. I will never be able to apply a toner on my face without thinking about the Korean War. What strange lives we lead!
Eunice Lee, a member of the Class of 2020, is concentrating in English and pursuing certificates in creative writing and translation and intercultural communication.