Beauty standards in Korea

Beauty Standards in Korea

Quick story time: Last year, I was on the subway to head to the city center. The subway route I was on travelled through the busiest parts of Seoul, therefore, naturally had advertisements targeted towards the vulnerable yet active consumers. I was doing what any commuter would do when they run out of things to do while waiting to get to their destination: actually reading the ads. Most were hit-or-miss type of ads in my book. However, one sure left a deep impression in my head. Not in a good way, either.

 Absurd Korean plastic surgery advertisement

This was the exact ad I saw on the subway. The content of the advertisement is a dialogue between a child and a mother. The child asks, “Mom, I heard you become prettier when you’re older. Where do you go to become pretty? (emphasis on ‘where do you go,’ har har)” And the mom says, “let’s go.” I assumed from this conversation that the magical place the mother was referring to was a plastic surgery clinic. If you also assumed the same thing, the ad has done its job. (If you want to see similar ads, see them here.)

If you know Korea well, you’ll be able to read between the lines in this twisted piece of advertisement. For those who might not be familiar, let me give you guys a quick breakdown. Approximately one-third of women in Korea has gone under the knife, making Korea the country with the highest rate of plastic surgery per capita in the world. (source: The New Yorker) Over the years, Korea has built a cosmetology empire in the East that lures thousands of tourists every year from all corners of Asia, who hope to come back as beautiful as Korean celebrities or faces plastered all over the billboards and posters on the streets of Seoul.

The obsession with plastic surgery not only permeated horizontally across other nations but also vertically to the younger generation. Because appearance carries a very high value in Korea, it has become synonymous to career, marital, and social success. Such implications have become deeply rooted in Korean culture and consequentially seeded some bizarre outcomes. Many kids in Korea grow up without acknowledging the seriousness of plastic surgery. Parents don’t step up to curb their kid’s desire to get plastic surgery; if anything, some parents encourage the drastic option. Many students receive plastic surgery as “graduation gifts” from their parents, so they can have a “fresh start” to college.

Before I go on, let me just make it clear that beauty standards are everywhere, no matter what culture or nation. For instance, let’s take a look at a very recent beauty phenomenon circulating in the U.S.: Kylie Jenner lips. We all know Kylie’s lip game, which has caused a shortage of MAC’s Whirl lip liner (which I’m still trying to get my hands on, btw…), is above anything else. The hunt for the perfect lip shade concoction to replicate Kylie’s lip has spread like wildfire, and the pout trend went as far as to people doing something like this:

My point is, beauty standards and trends will never fully go away and people will take measures to satisfy their needs. However, to what extent is considered reasonable or when are you crossing the line to extremity? From my observations, Korea has already crossed the line and the magnitude of going under the knife has lost its severity. If encouraging your child to get plastic surgery to make their eyes bigger doesn’t prove this point, I don’t know what else will.

It sure is a disturbing and grim reality. It makes me uncomfortable being around people who are so open about spending a fortune to alter their appearance to fit a cookie-cutter standard that rejects uniqueness.

What inner-beauty?

I feel like there’s an underlying problem in Korea that has not been fully scrutinized. That problem is the lack of narrative about appreciating inner beauty or being happy in your own skin. While I’ve seen countless campaigns on the importance of loving yourself for who you are in the West, (check out the Dove commercial above – it’s amazing!) I rarely ever came across a Korean counterpart. And this sure is depressing – that the Korean people are continuously living with the pressure to pursue an ideal appearance through an extreme method. With the media infiltrating the daily lives of ordinary people with images of beautifully sculpted celebrities who embody the ideal appearance, it’s kind of hard not to have second thoughts about how you look, driving one to the point of considering cosmetic surgery.

Picture of Miss Korea contestants who, I promise, are not twins.

Picture of Miss Korea contestants who, I promise, are not twins.

It really sickens me to hear mothers tell their young daughter that she has an ugly nose and that “mommy will ‘fix’ that for you when you’re older.” I can’t un-hear young women giddily talking about which clinic has the most renowned surgeon or the discounts offered if they bring a friend. (Real friends get plastic surgery together…?) There’s a huge void of conversation regarding inner beauty. It’s a colossal elephant in the room. I have initiated the talk with other Koreans before and had been shut down many times. Plastic surgery is the answer to a happier life, why would they want to hear a dissenting opinion, right?

I truly think Korean people are beautiful. I’m not talking about the cosmetically altered Koreans. Call me old-fashioned, but I’m talking about the natural facial structure Koreans are born with. I have seen pictures of my parents and grandparents from the past before plastic surgery was rampant. Sure, they had flaws here and there, but overall, they still looked beautiful. They all had a distinctive Korean look but still stood out as individuals. It was something I don’t see as commonly anymore.

I’m cautious as I write this post because I, too, am a vulnerable victim of beauty standards. I love makeup, I workout to obtain a specific body figure, I wear push-up bras… The list goes on. I think everyone has the right to feel beautiful. However, when something as extreme as plastic surgery becomes a social norm, people are willing to spend a large sum of money to risk their health to achieve a cookie-cutter standard, I think that is a critical problem. Koreans have become desensitized to the severity of plastic surgery and choose the method as a go-to solution to iron out any flaws.

I don’t usually write something this heavy. However, as a TCK who is seeing my mother culture with a different set of lenses, it’s hard to ignore such a blaring phenomenon. I simply wanted to bring light upon this issue and start a conversation. Also, I hope you understand that I’m not generalizing the entire population. I acknowledge that there are people in Korea who are against the popular attitude towards plastic surgery and do support inner beauty. But the number of members who are pro-plastic surgery is unusually high for me to not point out.

I would love to hear your take on this matter. What is your opinion on Korea’s obsession with plastic surgery? Let me know in the comments!

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6 thoughts on “Beauty standards in Korea

  1. sileas says:

    Very interesting read! I think their development is quite worrisome. Instead of diversity and uniqueness, it’s one uniform look everybody is striving for. That must cause a lot of pressure on young people…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Somin Bach says:

      It’s already easy for young people to feel insecure about their appearance. But it’s sad to know that they know there’s a “light at the end of the tunnel” aka plastic surgery…


  2. Antonio V. says:

    I was traveling with my family last week and I heard about this on NPR. I had no idea that it was serious, but I don’t think it was really prominent when I left in 2002. I hope the culture changes and these women find they are beautiful in their own way. They don’t need to look like anyone else but themselves. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Footsteps of JP says:

    I visited first Korea in 2012 and I had the impression that women are beautiful. In 2014, I visited Korea for the third time and stayed for two months. I became interested in Korean culture and even enrolled to learn the language. I was surprised to say the least that my teacher would often relate the topics on how Korean society is obssessed with beauty and plastic surgery. I did ask some of my Korean friends about it and most of them told me that they are not interested undergoing plastic surgery. To be honest, I think my Korean friends are beautiful although they don’t possess celebrity looks. Certainly, they are not ugly. I’m not sure if they are only shy about telling a foreign guy if they have undergone surgery or admitted being interested in it to say the least. Personally, I think undergoing surgery is a very personal choice. One should do it according to her or own decision but should never do it just because of pressure from society.

    Liked by 1 person

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