Beauty Standards in Korea (3 of 3): Adaptation Is Not All It Seems

This is the last post in my beauty standards series, and it was the toughest one for me to write. My relationship with beauty standards in Korea is complicated, and now I’m finally getting into the thick of it.

I was tempted to throw a poem at you and run for it. But then what would be the point of this post? The poem I’m talking about is already published. You can find it here, or read it in its original formatting below.

I promise I’ll still be here after you read it.


Ah, poetry. An abstract way to express my thoughts and feelings without fully explaining them. Because it’s up to you to interpret them. Then you can come away feeling wise and cultured.

Are you ready?




Or were you just waiting for me to just explain it already?


I assume that you’ve gathered (from the title) that this post is about adaptation. That seems like a nice topic for a resolution. But actually, I’m going to talk about the complications that arose when I tried to adapt to Korean beauty standards.

First and foremost, I was successful.

I mastered it.

I mean, sure I could have lost some weight, gotten rid of my glasses, and fixed my teeth. If I’d stayed in Korea long enough, who knows, I might have done those things. After all, LASIK is really cheap there.

But no, my beauty was passable without these things. I’ll lay them out for you, so you can even follow this model for yourself.

Things that Made Monica Beautiful Enough For Korea

  1. A small face or that coveted “V-line” jaw shape
  2. A “high nose” or high nose bridge (aka not an Asian nose)
  3. Relatively light skin
  4. Relatively thin
  5. Korean skin care products
  6. Korean makeup, especially a BB cushion that’s too light for your skin tone
  7. Whatever fashion trends are popular at the time (just step outside, and you’ll figure this out soon enough. Or step into any clothing store.)

Bam! Seven easy steps!

Actually, I was surprised that people complimented my appearance so much. Because in America, I’d rarely felt beautiful.

There’s another list that’s more personal, because it’s less of a joke. It would be titled something like: The List of Things that Prevented Monica from Feeling Beautiful in America.

Even though this list causes me some discomfort, I’ll share it with you anyway. Because parts of this series, like posting weird selfies of myself, has already made uncomfortable. And because discomfort isn’t always a bad thing.

Things that Made Monica Feel UnBeautiful in America

  1. Being short
  2. Wearing glasses
  3. Failing to have Victoria’s Secret model curves
  4. Crooked teeth
  5. Not good at makeup
  6. Not good at taming hair
  7. Not stylish

This list seems a little silly. Why would these things make me feel like I couldn’t be attractive? That answer is long, complicated, and has a lot to do with the media and advertising industry in the US.

What I want to point out is that many of the things that made me feel unattractive in America didn’t seem to matter so much in Korea. And that was what affected my self-image the most.

Korea Negates My American Flaws


Being short wasn’t a big deal in Korea. A lot of people were short. Instead, I felt about average height.

In contrast, some of my taller/average-American-height friends often felt they were too tall for South Korea. (The placement of this link makes it look like I’m friends with EatYourKimchi, which, well, could be possibly true since we met once.)

Visual Impairment

Wearing glasses didn’t matter much either. A lot of people also wore glasses. And even though I was constantly told that I should get LASIK, simply seeing so many people with glasses around me kind of negated the impact of those comments.


The next item is curves. Well, Korea has different expectations for curves. The ideal Korean girl doesn’t need to have a big chest and butt to be sexy. Actually, women are usually infantilized, which is another serious problem. Showing too much chest is seen as promiscuous (while any amount of leg is fair game).

So I didn’t feel unattractive for being relatively flat.

Sure, Koreans still talk about attractive women having an “S-line” body, but let’s face it, their definition of an S is a lot straighter than the typical American.

A Kpop video about big booties made me laugh; I could have starred in that video myself.

All the Trappings

Makeup, hair, and fashion in Korea were easy. Just follow what everyone else is doing. There are only a few mainstream fashion trends going on in Korea at any given time. As long as you spend any time outside your home, you’ll figure them out pretty quickly.

Once a trend is popular, it’ll be everywhere. The stores all seem to sell the same styles, whether they’re cheap, discount stores or high-end department store brands. So not only is keeping up fashion trends easy, it’s fairly affordable.

As much as we value individuality here in America, it was fun to be “in the know” for a time. And watching the trends was entertaining. At one time, banana-printed clothing was really popular.

And so, I began to feel like maybe I really was attractive, at least in Korea.

Being Attractive

This is the part where I feel awkward, because I’m calling myself attractive, and that seems arrogant and unpalatable, but hey, I gotta tell it like it is.

The thing about knowing people think you’re attractive is that it feels pretty good. You stand straighter. Lift your head higher. Walk with more – dare I say it – confidence. Which finally brings us back to that poem:

“I Learned How to Be Confident in Korea”

Obviously, I’m not really suggesting that attractiveness and beauty equal confidence, but I was forced to confront the ugly and unstable relationship between the two.

That’s what I’m trying to say in the poem. (I sure made you wait for the answer.)

I was doing this cultural adaptation thing so well, and it felt great. I was not only attuned to Korean culture and getting along with natives, but I was letting Korea shape too much. Shaping my physical appearance was okay; it helped me blend in and feel less like a foreigner.

What I underestimated was how my physical changes (and consistent praise for my physical features) would affect me mentally.

So What’s the Big Deal?

Did I turn into some monster diva?

Did I obsess over appearance at the expense of the more important things in life?

Not at all. The changes really felt positive. I distinctly remember striding through a subway station on my way to school one day in high heeled boots. And those boots were loud. They echoed so much that anyone could hear me coming a mile away.

Normally I’d try to walk more quietly. I’m not a fan of noisy shoes. I don’t like causing a disruption, apparently even if that disruption is disrupting no one.

But by that morning, I’d internalized all the compliments on my appearance. I was attractive. I was powerful. I felt, maybe for the first time, truly FIERCE.

I stomped through that subway station, announcing my presence with pride.

But if someone had laughed or pointed out a flaw, would I have quieted my steps? Would I have hunched over and hurried to work, ashamed?

I was confident that day because of my accumulated compliments, but I’d also done an internal check from head to toe.

  • Hair smooth and not frizzy today? Check.
  • Stylish coat? Check.
  • Stylish bag? Check.
  • Boots matching my outfit? Check.
  • Makeup done well? Check.

That confidence was contingent on all the boxes being checked. And even though I loved this new “confidence,” I had to confront the reality that it wasn’t confidence at all.

Read parts 1 and 2 here:

Beauty Standards in Korea 1: The Ugly

Beauty Standards in Korea 2: Just the Way It Is

Beauty Standards in Korea (2 of 3): Just the Way It Is


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.


Bet you can’t find me!

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.


We don’t even know these people. But they wanted a picture and we said why not?

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.

beautyplus-filter-poseRemember 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.

Cultural Impasse

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.


Look at this conformist!

Because I was beautiful enough for Korea. And that starts doing things to your head.

Read parts 1 and 3 here:

Beauty Standards in Korea 1: The Ugly

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