The Troubling State of Korean Beauty Standards

December 5, 2012
The Troubling State of Korean Beauty Standards

“Teacher look, she is beautiful!” uttered a student from an afternoon class, as she fawned over a Korean pop star on her cell phone.


“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 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.


Photo credit for The Troubling State of Korean Beauty Standards by Unsplash. 

About Kathleen Becker

I am a semi-permanent expat who changes location more than my hair. I spent three years living in Japan, about 6 months living in Sydney and am now teaching adorable kids in South Korea.

6 thoughts on “The Troubling State of Korean Beauty Standards

  1. Elise Louie
    July 15, 2013

    Hmm, I disagree with the thought that all Koreans or all Asians desire double eyelids to be like Caucasians or African or Western or whatever you want to brand it. Some do, but a lot of those who get surgery opt for tapered double eyelids which is generally the more Asian looking option (sometimes I think people forget that there are Asians have double eyelids, and not just from India or Thailand or Philippines etc. but in Japan, China and Korea too).

    If they’re looking for the double eyelids that are more common with
    non-Asian races (parallel double eyelids) then they would get surgery for eyes like that instead

    ^_^ really, Korean beauty standards are just the product of general ideals and prefefences- some people with a particularly visible jawline or monolids can still be considered attractive in Korea, it’s just not as common ~

  2. May 4, 2013

    One thing always pisses me off. Double eyelids aren’t a Caucasian thing, all Africans have double eyelids, yet people never accuse the Koreans of wanting “big african eyes”. Some white people just really want to believe everyone wants to look like them. Geez.

    • Kat
      May 5, 2013

      This is interesting point, but I disagree. Korean culture is uncomfortable with all minorities, but notably more uncomfortable with non-white minorities.

    • May 5, 2013

      The point I was trying to make is that the double eyelids aren’t to look Caucasian, but to simply have bigger eyes, considering ALL non-Asian races have double lids.

    • Philema
      July 6, 2013

      i see what your saying and this is true but of course they wouldnt say big African eyes because the first thing intheir mind is black and they hate darker skin so they wouldn’t say it and also just because tour african doesn’t mean your black white people live in africa so their classifyed as African there ETHNICITY

  3. March 24, 2013

    In Thailand, the girls are the same – and the boys for that matter to. They have to have white skin and by products that make these promises. The tourist come here to get darker.

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