Discovering Korean perceptions of beauty in Seoul

Whether it is K-pop idols or just normal, everyday K-pop fans, the beauty obsession in South Korea is noticeable when visiting. Throughout my recent trip to Korea I noticed that outward appearance seemed to be a constant preoccupation for women there. From the ones seen sporting high heels and shorts to the high school girls who I spotted stopping to take pictures in the street every few seconds; the need to be seen as appealing high.

I also walked past an astounding amount of cosmetic shops selling products to ‘enhance natural beauty’. Now I’m sure we’ve all heard of some of the unique beauty tips and tricks that South Korea has to offer (with cosmetic surgery being highly sought after) but little things like this made me realise the full extent of people’s desire to be viewed as somewhat ‘perfect’ there.

On a train ride to Hongdae, I spotted two normal young girls happily joking around and drinking banana milk. After a quick glance away, I looked back at them to see that they had both removed their glasses and pulled out tiny mirrors. I watched as one by one they both began to apply eyeliner and put in contact lenses. Although I did find this a little unusual I did not view this as anything different from what I might see young women doing in the UK. What I witnessed next however was somewhat of a culture shock to me. One of the girls proceeded to stick a product that appeared to be a type of glue over her eyelid whilst prodding it; while her friend used a clear tape on her own eyelids and began to do the same. I knew right away that this was so they could give off the illusion of having double eyelids.

It is a common thing all over the world for young people to find ways to change their appearance but actually watching two young girls modifying their looks so openly was not only shocking, but also eye-opening to me. As a young woman myself I know what it feels like to want to change something about one’s appearance in order to feel more acceptable in the eyes of society. But I really feel that all the perfect looking idols and models in Korea are what could be viewed as a somewhat negative effect on today’s youth of Seoul. Or maybe it’s simply a flawed perception of what beauty truly is.
This is part of a series of posts about body image in K-pop and Korean society.

Written by Kim

  • http://twitter.com/chupower Chu~Ƹ̵̡Ӝ̵̨Ʒ

    I think single eyelids are part of Asians charms & beauty being Asian myself I like my eyes the way they are. So, I don’t fit the Korean beauty standards that’s ok I live in France and the beauty standards there I thankfully really different :) Anyway find this article a bit short but pretty interesting ~~ #Hwaiting

  • Jacqueline

    I find this terribly troubling. Asian people are THE most beautiful in the world in my opinion. Yet, I find it sick and sad to constantly hear about Koreans needing to be perfect as if there is something wrong with them to begin with. Who started this? Why is this mentality present there? There are so many naturally beautiful there and the teenage girls aren’t finished developing and get plastic surgery to change themselves before they know what they will look. Don’t they know that plastic surgery doesn’t change what’s inside or even how future children they bear will look. Beauty isn’t on the outside. It’s on the inside. I’ve spent my whole life being called ugly and yet there’s beauty within me. I wish they could see that for themselves instead of chasing it with plastic surgery. How sad.

    • beyondhallyu

      I completely agree with you Jacqueline! It’s very worrying how high levels of plastic surgery are all over East Asia but particularly in SK. I read a very troubling post recently which said that double eyelid surgery was actually developed by an American surgeon after through Korean war because he thought single eyelids looked untrustworthy. Thank you for reading and leaving a comment! I’ve passed it on to the writer. This is definitely a subject we will be exploring further.

      • Jacqueline

        Thank you for continuing on with this topic. I look forward to reading about what is discovered. I wonder if there is any anorexia as well involved along with plastic surgery. Also what is the deal with the bleaching of their skin? Don’t they know about the harm all those chemicals do to skin? Do the men prefer their women to look this way? Wow, there are so many questions.

        Plus to find out that once again, American something is involved in some way in yet another case of us ruining a society. I feel the need to apologize for every ignorant American citizen. I mean do the people of Korea know where this started and why? Do they consider themselves untrustworthy. I know Korea had been invaded many times and her children came back every time after difficult struggles. Yet why further separate from their Native land by becoming Western versions of their original selves? Oh, I trust you will do this subject justice. Thank you again for sharing. I am grateful.

        • beyondhallyu

          They’re some really great questions! I’m not aware of rates of eating disorders in Korea but the openness with which so many Korean celebrities discuss their crazy diets suggests to me that there may be some issues there (the easyness with which this actress discussed starving herself really shocked me: http://www.allkpop.com/2012/10/shin-so-yul-of-reply-1997-reveals-her-weight-loss-story-on-strong-heart). I know that white skin has been valued in Korea for a very long time that predates western intervention but that doesn’t make it healthy at all of course.

          This is something myself and I think some of our other writers are very interested in exploring more and we hope we can spark more discussion and debate! In the meantime if you want to read about it I would really recommend this website: http://thegrandnarrative.com/ He has so much interesting discussion and analysis of beauty ideals and gender issues in Korea. It’s a really great site. There’s also a documentary film being made at the moment about body image and academic pressure on Korean school girls that looks like it’s going to be fascinating: http://www.koreanhighschool.com/

          Thanks again for your support, we really appreciate it.

          • Jacqueline

            Of course! Always. I am so glad that I discovered this. I am often approached and spoken to in Korean and asked if I’m Korean by Korean Americans of all ages. It confuses me because I always thought their skin was pale among other things. I don’t look Asian do I, as you can see. My legs and body shape, if I can describe myself are a lot like G Dragon Kwon Jiyong of Big Bang. I have been told that we are a lot alike personality wise and we walk alike… so forth so on. Yet, this isn’t about him. I don’t know why, however, this subject is near and dear to my heart. I feel this weird connection, this need to help and I don’t know how. I have this desire to help the women and girls in that culture of South Korea. So when I saw this article, it brought tears to my eyes and a great interest. Thank you so much for the information and may you have great success in finding the truth. Please continue your great work.

          • Jacqueline

            Forgot to add my other picture, sorry.

    • http://www.facebook.com/kimnanaSJelf 김나나

      hurmmmm..what to say else….but i believe they their own reason why they did plastic surgery…T.T

    • nobody nobody

      They feel like they don’t measure up because they are constantly told that they need to do better. Notice how in kdramas the way the boss intimidates the worker is to say “Are you sure this is your best?”. I believe that parents there think that kids are capable of more than the kids realize and as a result they push them relentlessly.

      Imagine working really hard and getting a B+ on a difficult subject, only to come home and have your parents yell at you for not getting an A? I’ve had that done a few times in my life and it was awful. Imagine living with that all your life and not knowing anything different?

      At the end of the day isn’t the fact that weakness is not respected in Korea (so be as strong as possible!) and that you have about one shot in life to be anything (the college exams) what is undermining Korean peoples’ self esteem?

      I heard a joke : What is the difference between baseball in Korea and baseball in the US? In Korea it’s one strike and you’re out.

      • Jacqueline

        That all sounds so terrible. However, yes I do know about the grade thing. I could never please my father and step mom. a B+ or A- wasn’t good enough. What about that perfect A+?

        I often hear that men don’t cry in Korea which to me is stupid. It’s better that they do cry than hold it in to only let it out later in a more violent way. I so relate and understand what you’re saying. I lived this way and my family is not Korean. Yet, I feel very Korean if that makes any kind of sense. My self esteem has taken a serious beating so I really truly get it.

        I guess maybe the reason it’s that way is because of the history of the country always invaded by some other country which made Korea appear weak. When really in actuality for that country to still be around and somewhat thriving after all it’s been through shows great strength and not weakness.

        Goodness, in my country, I’m not good enough to mix with others. And I hear there I wouldn’t be good enough and considered dirty and not pure. My whole life I’ve been on the outside. Where do I belong?

        Thank you for sharing. I’m sorry that you went through all that you did.

        • nobody nobody

          Sorry I didn’t respond sooner! :) Thanks. Parents think they are making their kids stronger by having such high standards when in fact they are making them more nervous and fearful.

          This is why I’m not irritated when I hear Koreans constantly saying how great they are. They need to pump up their self esteem that has been beaten down by their parents.

          And for what it’s worth, getting a B+ was a great job. You did your best and that’s all that matters.

          If you don’t feel welcomed in your country, come over to the US! We’d love to have you. :) It will be our gain.

          • Jacqueline

            It’s okay. I believe parents do what they knew and so when you know better you do better. I spent my entire childhood stressed out and I ended up growing up much faster than I should have. My mom died when I was young so in the transition of going from one home to the next before getting to my father and stepmother’s home, my self esteem was battered. Then was crushed even more having to live with a stepmom that behaved as though she didn’t want me around. I was treated like an unwanted Korean wife by the family of her husband as a child. to give you an example.

            Yet, through the years, I’ve had to boost my own self esteem and build myself up. It’s been a long challenging journey.

            Honestly, the grades I received mostly B+ and A- were a result of me just doing the work with no effort. Other classes I really had to work on. I hated school. Yet, thanks!

            I’m already in the US. Where subtle racism still exist unfortunately and I heard that in Korea, I wouldn’t be welcomed so that’s what I meant by “where do I belong?” Maybe France, lol.

          • Alma♥(알마)

            I’m an Asian and my parents expect too much from me. When we
            have our family reunion, if you don’t have high grades, they won’t entertain you.
            When I was in high school, my mom will reprimand me if I will go home after
            6pm. She won’t even allow me to go to mall if I don’t have my nanny with me(It’s
            really annoying and embarrassing). So I don’t hang out a lot with my friends
            when I was in High school.

            About beauty, my mom, aunt, grandmother, everyone DEFINITELY
            compare our faces, clothes, EVERYTHING!!! Are we joining a beauty pageant? And
            one thing, if you I try to contradict the elder’s opinion or something like
            that, they will tell me I’m a rebel. Wow! I never saw a rebel who is a consistent
            top notch in her high school life, studying in the best university in their
            country and trying to be pretty every single day. My cousins experienced that
            also and some of my friends’ life is somewhat similar to that.

          • Jacqueline

            Wow, your life sound a lot like mine in some ways. I hope things are much better than they were. I just don’t desire to be judged on superficial things. I would rather be taken seriously, considered intelligent, beautiful in my own way from the inside out, appreciated for all that I do, and that I am loyal.

            Where did all this come from? This need for such standards across the board? It makes us all feel just a bit unsure of ourselves and not quite good enough no mater who we are. oh the crap we put each through in the name of love, family, success, you name it.

  • Theorist

    What sucks that… it has become a part of a sick culture. The need to become perfect by the “standards” that have been set by the society. This is unhealthy, one can have surgery, sure that’s their choice. But having to need one is something to worry about. Have you watch the video, a documentary by the Vice on youtube? Scary but ignorant at some points but it clearly shows the first impression.

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  • ruenesia

    very sad truth :(
    and the more terrible thing is if this sick “concept” or “culture” infect other countries and the hallyu fans as well :(

  • http://www.facebook.com/evie.jeevas Evie Jeevas

    So what they want double eyelids?

  • Sarah

    Very sad…

  • Cassie

    It’s a little sad, I think monolids are adorable and quite charming. So many Korean women are getting double eyelid surgery, even though they look just as beautiful without it.

  • 8Dv

    I don’t think it’s shocking at all. Considering that for them it’s normal and a “must”. In order to fit in they do such things, Which, honestly, is the same in all countries if we think that humans in general want to feel like a part of society (the feeling of belonging somewhere) and so they do things to fit in, to feel accepted.
    Those who go against the crowd often get dirty looks at them. I don’t think it’s surprising at all. It’s always been like this. The “different” is always “wrong”. Not only in South Korea but all around the world.
    If not for beauty standards by other ways people try to fit in. Be it behavior, way of dressing, sexuality, religion and so on…