Upon interviewing Grace Cho regarding her opinions and thoughts about South Korea’s cultural beauty standards, I was able to include a massive amount of insight into this article. Her expertise in psychology was also imperative in helping me formulate many of the ideas that are included in this article.
South Korea is notoriously known for its hyper fixation on outward appearances and cosmetic surgery. The extreme focus on appearance pressures women and men to conform to societal expectations and spend a relatively significant amount of money to undergo cosmetic surgery procedures. The glorification of certain facial and body features can cause individuals to feel ashamed of their natural features, which could lead to lower levels of self-esteem. This is problematic considering that many institutions in South Korea reinforce a one-dimensional and uniform image of beauty- it is truly an epidemic and I am calling it out for what it is. Although tending to one’s appearance could be important for self-care, I would argue that obsessing over it is more harmful than it is helpful. I suggest that the strain of meeting South Korea’s beauty standards is due to South Korea’s embedded “listening culture” and social conformity. Many women and men become self-critical and as a result which contributes to the vicious cycle of feeling a low sense of self-worth and wanting to resort to cosmetic surgery. The reason why I believe cosmetic surgery may be more harmful than it is helpful is that even after spending a significant amount of money to change one’s features to “fit in” with everyone else, it does nothing to repair the internal feelings of insecurity and inferiority. It is only a mask that provides a false and shallow sense of confidence and only adds onto the cycle of being self-critical in the long run.
I identify as a Korean American woman, and if there is anything about Korean culture that I am most familiar with, it is the homogenous beauty standards. Ever since I was a middle school student, I had always felt a great amount of insecurity about my facial features. I desperately wanted to feel beautiful and admired. In South Korea, while having double eyelids may not be the normality, it is certainly the standard. Double eyelids are idolized by many South Korean people since they make people’s eyes appear rounder and bigger, a look that is considered beautiful in South Korean culture. I grew up with monolids, and this feature was a major cause behind my low confidence levels. It is difficult to believe that something as minor as creases on one’s eyes would affect someone so deeply; however, it was a burden I carried for years on end. I heard numerous stories of girls from various age groups, celebrities, and even boys getting double eyelid surgery to appear more attractive. Undergoing the double eyelid surgery procedure was clearly very prevalent to the point where it was almost normalized- and their stories were like a nagging voice that would not leave me alone.
Unfortunately, in South Korea, there is very little room for appearing different or having unique features considering that South Korea’s culture is blinded to a very one-dimensional and homogenous view of beauty. Trends are important to follow, and individuality is not typically glorified or positively reinforced in the same way that it is in the United States. Additionally, considering that South Korea is a very classist country, appearing “upper class” and elite is the ultimate beauty standard to achieve. For example, pale skin is considered to be beautiful because people from higher socioeconomic statuses naturally avoided the sun since they did not have to carry out laborious and outdoors-y jobs. That being said, darker skin is associated with “lower class.” Many may argue that many cultures are appearance-conscious- that it is human nature to be attracted to certain looks. However, the prevalent appearance-consciousness of South Koreans is deeply embedded into their culture- it is a matter of being presentable. Being presentable is considered to be a sign of respect and not being lazy. In fact, it is actually considered rude to not present oneself in a way that is favorable or attractive. To highlight this point further, South Koreans are required to submit a photo of themselves when applying to schools or jobs. Additionally, if you were to get on a plane from Korean Air or Asiana airlines, you will most likely notice that all the flight attendants- yes, every single one, are attractive, clean, and polite, perhaps even robotic. However, you should be aware that that is no coincidence. South Koreans take great pride in being presentable and it is clear in every aspect of South Korean culture.
Aforementioned earlier, a major beauty standard in South Korea is having pale skin, since lighter skin equates to not having to work outdoors, which in turn, is associated with higher social statuses. Contrastingly, individuals with darker skin were associated to having to work outside under the sun. Even when examining South Korean cosmetic products, their foundations cater to a very specific type of skin tone: light. It is rare for South Korean cosmetic companies to manufacture and produce products for darker skin tones. In fact, there is even a product that claims to whiten skin with a quick spray to the face and body. Having seen people use this product, I have witnessed that it changed people’s skin from a neutral and pale color to a noticeably white, porcelain, and flawless look. Having grown up in the United States, I can confirm that the image of appearing innocent and youthful is not common among teenagers. In fact, most teenage girls I grew up with wanted to appear older and more mature. However, South Koreans are generally strongly opposed to this type of image, which is why there is a strong emphasis on looking youthful and innocent. Skincare in South Korea is a ten-step process with products that cost an absurd amount of money- there is a product for every “problem” and every little feature is meticulously fixed to perfection.
I worry for the children and future of South Korea as a society. The emphasis on appearing outwardly beautiful is still very prevalent and pervasive. Korean Pop singers are a part of a powerful and influential industry. Chances are that these Korean Pop singers underwent multiple cosmetic procedures to cater to a certain image that appeals to their music labels. Considering that their fan bases typically consist of younger people, it is sensible to think that teenagers who view their idols on magazines and television shows will quickly associate being important with looking beautiful. Once again, this pattern perpetuates the idea that being beautiful will equate to being more successful. Unfortunately, it does not stop there. Once someone wants a job or attend a university, photos are required to be included in the applications. While this may not seem like not a big deal at first glance, it is clearly evident that prospective employees and students feel pressure to market a certain image of themselves, knowing it will be criticized and judged. The fact that appearance is even something that is scrutinized throughout the application and admissions process demonstrates just how appearance-driven South Korea’s society is.
In South Korea, it is very common to compare one’s features to others at a young age- it is a “normal” part of casual conversations. These patterns and habits carry throughout adulthood, where past insecurities are more likely than not, already internalized. Subsequently, this contributes to feelings of obsession in appearance rather than other attributes of a person, such as character or intellect. Considering that internalization can manifest and project in subtle ways, I believe this could lead to poor judgment and decision making throughout one’s life. For example, in terms of social relationships, people may choose their friends based on how attractive they are rather than the contents of their character. Seemingly small things like this can actually have a very significant impact on someone’s life. Therefore, it is very important to speak about this epidemic and bring it to light rather than bottling it inside, where it is bound to be internalized.
If South Korea did not reinforce its people to carry such intense pressure to appear a certain way that satisfies its beauty standards, women and men may feel as if they could walk out the door without any makeup- without feelings of unworthiness and pressures to undergo cosmetic procedures. There would be a collective shift of focus from appearance to character. Focusing and glorifying character could encourage people to want to improve themselves in ways that can improve the quality of their lives rather than wanting to change their faces. Changing one’s appearance due to feelings of unworthiness is a very damaging cycle and that painful insecurity may never be alleviated, even with a significant amount of money. However, improving one’s character is a very rewarding outcome. It may even overpower the effects that appearances currently have. It could potentially motivate people to care more about things within their control, such as their decisions and behavior. This could hopefully pave a brighter path for a more transparent and progressive society- and I look forward for that day to come.