In post one, we established that I hated Korea’s beauty standards. This is the post where I try to make sense of those standards.
Beauty standards in Korea aren’t a new topic. Articles like “I Wasn’t Beautiful Enough to Live in South Korea” are popular for their shock value, and they’re not untrue.
It’s easy to be shocked.
It’s not so easy to move past the shock.
What’s hard is adapting to a culture, striking a balance between the values of your host country and yourself. But when you live there, it’s a necessary battle.
As I was digging through my travel photos for images to use in my last post, a funny thing happened. My frustration at unjust beauty standards, the anger that was fueling my post, began to fade.
As I scrolled through folder after folder documenting my time in Korea, I found myself smiling and laughing. Anyone who’s ever looked over photos from a vacation or bout of travel can relate. The feelings of nostalgia. Warmth at the recollection of good friends, favorite hangout spots, and for me, coworkers and host families.
A selfie that I initially pegged as a silly example of beauty standards reminded me of how warmly the people of this country treated me. Another one with those ridiculous-looking face masks were reminders of fun times with my host sisters.
There’s one photo of me positioned next to a big sunflower – strategic placement chosen by my host dad to “make me look more beautiful.”
From my American standpoint, I would critique this focus on beauty, the overflow of compliments on physical appearance, and an obsession with pictures.
But just another few seconds with the photo reminds me how my host dad’s insistence on taking a picture that day was sweet. How he captured memories and experiences for me with his smart phone camera, took time out of his weekend to show me a little local festival he’d probably seen a million times already.
I guess I don’t look bad in the picture either.
Pictures, Pictures, Pictures!
Another common critique or laughing point (depending on who you talk to) when it comes to Korea and many East Asian countries is the proliferation of selfies.
Following the lead of (mostly) middle and high school students, I came to understand selfies as an easy form self-expression, at other times just a silly past-time. Almost all of my expat friends in Korea seemed to increase their selfie-taking frequency the longer they stayed in the country.
Once a coteacher asked me, “Why do Americans only take pictures of scenery?”
He had a point. Americans on travel capture sights, Koreans impose their features over those sights.
The infamous travel group photo is something I’ve become used to in Fulbright Korea. For every conference or gathering, we crammed over 100 ETAs and a few office members into the camera frame.
Believe me when I say this takes a while. If you’re one of the unlucky rows stuck in a squat, you’re guaranteed your leg workout for the day.
But then I found that this wasn’t unique to Fulbright. Go hiking with any group in Korea (especially with the middle-aged population) and you’ll end up with photos of smiling faces, victory finger signs, and bodies draped head to toe in hiking gear.
Korea is the land of the selfies. But some of the photos I love the most are candid moments. Nothing is staged, and emotions are raw. As I click through my library of images, these are the ones that make me pause, make me laugh. But I don’t share them.
In Korea, I found that my subjects are embarrassed to be caught in a genuine moment on camera. Case in point: high school students.
Towards the end of my second semester in Korea, I set up a pen pal exchange for my students with students in Malaysia. When we received our first response, I found that the other teacher had included photos of her students with their letters. I showed my students these photos, much to their delight. A photo’s worth a thousand words, right?
Naturally, I pulled out my camera when it was time for them to write their replies. Although they agreed it would be nice to sent photos back, many faces in the room suddenly turned blank and white…
…and rectangular. Students hid behind letters, friends, and chairs. A few groups compromised and allowed me to take photos of their half-covered faces – what is it about mouth and chins (and maybe noses) that they hate so much?
The Law of the Land
An interesting connection that occurred to me is how this culture of selective, carefully-constructed picture-taking is reflected in (or influenced by) Korea’s strict defamation laws. You might have heard of these laws in reference to political freedom – many critique defamation laws as an excuse for the Korean government to crack down on dissenters, a surprising and scary prospect for a modern democracy.
Defamation laws can also apply to images. South Korea even has laws laying out people’s rights to portraits and publicity. I don’t have any expertise on this subject, just observations that line up nicely. Look at the details in Korean society and you’ll see a consistent concern with controlling image and reputation.
On Korean news, the majority of people interviewed have their faces blurred out, and not only in cases where revealing their identity could put them in danger.
When someone who has a committed a major crime appears on screen, they walk through throngs of reporters without any expressions of fear, frustration, or distress. Because you can’t see their face at all.
Defendants in high-profile cases only seem to appear in public with their chin tucked into their collar, a baseball cap pulled low, and face mask over their mouth and nose.
All the Edits
But the smokescreen of choice to hide your face is Photoshop. Of course, Photoshop has a heavy hand in American images too, but there’s a difference in the who and how. Everyone is photoshopped in Korea, and it comes without even having to ask, a complimentary service.
Remember your embarrassing school yearbook photos? Those don’t exist in Korea! Students ID photos are photoshopped to the point where I couldn’t even match the photo to the student.
Professional photos are the same. I wish I had done one so I could post it here. Instead I’ve included a selfie in pajama pants.
All of this isn’t done just for beauty’s sake. Appearance is important for success.
Job applicants include a photograph along with their resumes, so people feel more pressure to conform to standards of beauty. Photoshop can get your resume into the right pile, but it won’t help you in the interview. What then?
You can change the outer trappings with stylish clothes, chemically (or digitally) done hair, the latest makeup. Or you can also change your physical features.
Going Under the Knife
South Korea is known as the plastic surgery capital of the world. It’s a point of pride. When the US ambassador to South Korea survived a knife attack to the face in 2015, someone told me that they patched him right up, because South Korea had some of the best plastic surgeons in the world.
Plastic surgery in Korea starts young. Many students get double eyelid surgery while still in high school. After the long winter break, suddenly the faces in my classroom have changed. Their eyes are larger, sometimes still with tape on the eyelids to heal. A few students personally point out their surgical changes to me when they stop by the English office, proud.
Parents seem to encourage it at times. The double eyelid surgery is a birthday present or gift after graduation. Sometimes it’s not the student who wants the surgery but the parent who wants them to get it done. Students know it and are told often enough, so most of them talk openly about the features they don’t like about themselves.
One of my students would tell me that she wanted to change everything about her face, and seemed to have accepted herself being in some sort of ugly, class clown-type role. She embraced her “ugliness,” made fun of it, and took it on as her identity. And that was how she dealt with her feelings about her appearance. Because she couldn’t escape from it. Yet.
Korea’s beauty standards are enforceable because they’re so uniform. You could argue it’s because of the strong woori or “our” culture, which emphasizes community and connectedness over the individual. I’m not sure America’s ever experienced this type of community.
America was founded on values of freedom and independence, and we’ve steered ourselves in that direction when it comes to beauty too. Freedom of expression also means freedom of appearance. Fortunately, we’ve also developed a movement and rhetoric about not judging others by their appearance.
America is far from perfect when it comes to body image. We body shame celebrities all the time, pay people perceived as fat less income than their slim counterparts, and associate all manner of positive traits with conventionally attractive people, which leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But I think we’re generally aware of this and make attempts to change. To be ourselves and be more accepting of others just trying to be themselves too.
Korea? Not so much, it seems. Individualism just isn’t very high on society’s list of values. The community is more important. And that means anyone going against the grain of society – even in little ways like how they dress – is going to have a hard time.
I didn’t go against the grain. Despite all my critiquing of unjust institutions, calling for transparency, and creating angry, angry political art, I conformed on the beauty front.
Because I was beautiful enough for Korea. And that starts doing things to your head.
Read parts 1 and 3 here: