The Troubling State of Korean Beauty Standards
“She has the important four!” She went on to explain that the woman on her cell phone screen had perfect eyes, mouth, nose, and face shape. To my American eyes, this beautiful young woman was acting very silly. Her cheeks were puffed unnaturally and her hair covered a large portion of her face. Her looks were indeed attractive, but she appeared to be trying to achieve a persona rather than being herself.
Whiteness is constantly fetishized with whitening agents in everything from makeup to hand cream.
This surprising conversation with my student led me to try to navigate the byzantine Korean standards of beauty. They are startingly specific. Big eyes, long nose, fair skin, and a small head. Moreover, there is an obsession with lines: V-line, S-line, O-line to name a few. A V-line refers to a small head with a sharp V shaped chin. According to my students and Korean friends, there is no other attractive face shape. As a result, some Korean women have their chin and cheek bones hammered and contoured away by plastic surgeons to meet a very particular ideal.
Even more troubling is a desire to achieve a more Western appearance. Men and women desire sang-koh-pul or the double eye-lid crease so rare among Asians. Double eyelid surgery is all too common and I see people with eye patches whenever I go out to Seoul’s most popular entertainment districts.
Moreover, whiteness is constantly fetishized with whitening agents in everything from makeup to hand cream. Consequently, compliments on my German-American appearance often give me pause. Are they discounting their own beauty as they compliment what they consider my own attractiveness?
Plastic surgery advertisements are found throughout every crevice of gagnam station in urban Seoul, but not every Korean subscribes to the Korean beauty myth. There are many articles in the Korean expatriate blogosphere lamenting their employing nation’s superficiality. However, I have found this to be overblown. Seoul is full of people who probably have had plastic surgery, but whenever I travel outside of Korea’s capital the vast majority of people have a more down to earth appearance. The notable obsession with beauty and plastic surgery is only a segment of urban and modern Korea, not the foundation of Korean culture.
Are they discounting their own beauty as they compliment what they consider my own attractiveness?
Korean beauty standards seem especially unrealistic and unhealthy, but are Western beauty standards that much different? Websites like skinnyvscurvy.com criticize women who have already been photoshopped to unrecongizable form. Beautiful African-American women like Beyonce Knowles are whitened by computers to meet some bizarre standard. Interestingly, none of these efforts in Korea or the West are making anyone truly happy. Perhaps we all should learn to be a little bit more content with ourselves.