Beauty Standards in Korea (1 of 3): The Ugly

This post has been a long time coming. I finally sat down to write and was overwhelmed by how much I had to say. So we’ll break this topic into bite-sized posts and see where it takes us.

Everything culminated my first winter in Korea.

If I heard someone or something labeled “pretty” or “ugly” one more time, I might explode. It was winter break, and after a period of indecision, I high-tailed it to Japan for a week.

I stayed with a friend teaching English there, and for the next few days, whenever I opened my mouth to speak about Korea, negativity poured out. I didn’t realize this until one day she offhandedly remarked that she didn’t know much about Korea at all.

Immediately I felt a sort of guilt mingled with a sense of responsibility toward the country that had been my home for six months. I tried from then on to portray some of the positives of the country, but am convinced I fell short.

Up until that point, I’d lived in Korea just going along with whatever came my way.



I’d altered my makeup, started using Korean skin care, ate more (in accordance with my host family’s wishes) and tried everything, both in terms of food and experience.

The thing is, I loved it.

Everything was new and exciting.

I let go of my reservations and preferences. When something began to bother me, I simply brushed it off or ignored it.

But by winter I was so tired. And the thing about Korea that wore me down the most was its beauty standards.

Coming to Korea on a Fulbright teaching grant, you’re primed to expect comments about appearance. The orientation team tells you that people will be blunt, speak openly about your weight and that plastic surgery is commonplace, even among students.

collar-selfieYou hear that Korean women, and even some men, always wear makeup when they go out.

You’re taught that one day your coworkers might tell you outright that you look bad or that “you look tired today,” which is just code for “bad.”

Those who have been down the path of Fulbright Korea inform you that commenting on physical appearance is common and not really rude in this culture.


So I strode into Korean society prepared, knowing exactly what was in store for me in the beauty standards department. Except that I wasn’t. And even though I brushed them away, a barrage of comments continued to pile up.

“You look better with makeup.”

“Your thighs are a little big.”

“You’ve gained weight.”

“You’re getting fat.”

American that I am, these comments were shocking. I laughed sometimes, was quietly indignant at times, and simply distracted myself with something else the rest of the time.


The shocking comments continued, not just about me but others:

“She’s ugly.”

“Wow, he’s really ugly.”

“She had plastic surgery, but she’s still so ugly.”

“That baby was REALLY ugly.”

A baby? Really?! I don’t think I’d ever heard the word “ugly” as many times in my life as I had after a few months in Korea.


It’s wasn’t just the ugly. The compliments flowed in too. The word “pretty” was grossly overused. And while I didn’t mind at first, the constant labeling of the people and things around me as “pretty” or “ugly” became disconcerting.

“You’re so pretty.”

“She’s so pretty.”

“He’s pretty.”

“Aren’t they a pretty couple?”

“That car color is so pretty.”

Really? It’s a car. Machinery. It can’t be pretty. But I kept my increasingly-furious thoughts to myself.

If I heard the word pretty one more time, I’d snap.


Read parts 2 and 3 here:

Beauty Standards in Korea 2: Just the Way It Is

Beauty Standards in Korea 3: Adaptation is Not All It Seems

Letter From My Past Self

Last Friday (4/17), Ms Kim placed a letter on my desk.

“Mail for you.”

“Oh wow,” was my response rather than “thank you.” I was surprised to be getting any mail at all, and curious about what the Fulbright office would be sending me, especially through snail mail. Something about renewal maybe?

I opened the envelope to reveal purple letter paper. It was folded so that “Monica” and a smiley in my handwriting peeked out. The letter to my future self that Fulbright had us write. I opened it, and the writing looked only vaguely familiar. Ah, this is from Gyeongju conference last October, was my first thought. Then I looked more carefully at the cutesy design, and felt a sudden jerk of surprise – no, this is from orientation.

I’m easily distracted at work. I flit from one activity halfway done, to another, and then back. So after opening the letter, I folded it back up, thinking, wait, I’ll finish what I’m doing before reading it. And I guess I wanted the moment to last longer.

I kept wondering what I’d said – what if it wasn’t even encouraging? During Gyeongju conference we received copies of our statements of purpose – submitted when applying to Fulbright. Although it was supposed to be inspirational and remind us of our original goals and dreams, all I saw was a carefully crafted document tailored to what I thought and was told Fulbright would want to hear – to say what I needed to maximize my chances of getting in. Sure, it contained some hopes and dreams, ones rigidly constricted by bureaucratic demands. I remembered how painful it was and how much I stressed when writing this statement.

What if my letter was like that? What the words just rang hollow? I guess it wouldn’t matter in any case. I’d just move on with my day slightly annoyed at my past self.

So I opened the letter. Dear Monica, it began. Look at you! You’re a teacher! I went on to give myself encouragement – not in any particularly moving language, but hey, I’d been under time restraints and had no chance to edit.

In the letter, I admitted to my nervousness, both about teaching and meeting my extended family. I’d forgotten that I was nervous about this from the very beginning. There was also the reminder to study Korean everyday…oops. I was doing pretty well for a while – I promise!

I was proud to see that many aspects of this year lined up with what I was hoping for. Past self, I did find a good church and supportive community. And although you were worried about it, and it’s something I’m still working on, I haven’t let go of art, but that dedication was spurred by things unexpected: the Ferguson non-indictment and my time in Japan.

However, like you predicted, I’m still not so great at keeping in touch with people back home. I still think Skype is awkward, but I’ve used it more this year than I ever have in my life (although that’s not saying much). But don’t worry, I’ve still got another year up ahead. And a little purple letter to remind me when I forget.