It’s not a secret that appearances are one of the most highly regarded parts of a person’s life in South Korea. Women and men alike go to great lengths to keep in line with the social beauty norms of the country. Everyday life here is saturated with how you should or shouldn’t look, and people spend copious amounts of time and money to make sure that they make the cut. When I first moved here, I will admit to being just the slightest bit intimidated when every woman in Seoul seemed to be sporting flawless makeup on the subway in the middle of the day.
It’s not just that people want to be beautiful, it’s that people here want to fit into a very small sect of “classic” beauty that is just not possible. The typical standard here, though it varies from person to person, is having big eyes, a thin body, a small face and, of course, pale skin. Height certainly doesn’t hurt your chances of success, and having your makeup done on a daily basis is all but a requirement in both the work place and everyday life.
The beauty product market has been booming for the past several years with no signs of slowing down. Seoul is now considered the “World Capital of Plastic Surgery”. There are dozens of mainstream makeup and skin care brands, and, whether celebrity endorsed or not, they make an absolute killing selling everything from face masks, to whitening products, to creams for any part of your body you can think of. Mirrors are strategically placed on even the busiest of streets, littered throughout the subway tunnels, noticeable even inside bars and restaurants. There are entire TV shows dedicated to teaching women how to cover blemishes, showing which workouts will keep men and women in shape, dozens of commercials showing every hour the best lotions to make you look younger.
After your actual facial features and all of the extras that go along with making that look good, weight is the second biggest (no pun intended) hot topic here in Korea. And I’m not just talking about, “I want to be thin!”, it’s “I’m going to skip entire meals today because I had a big breakfast and I don’t want to gain any weight”. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard my Korean co-teachers tell me they’re “just not going to eat” so they don’t gain any weight. No matter how much we’ve told them that they are absolutely, 100% healthy and fine, “I want to lose my weight” is the most common phrase I’ve heard out of any woman’s mouth since I moved here.
Korean diet trends here can be outright dangerous, but because people look at the celebrities here and think, “I need to look like that to fit in, to not stick out”, it becomes normalized. There are celebrities who are revered in this country for going on insane diets, including the Sweet Potato diet that popular singer and actress IU reportedly went on to lose weight a couple years ago. She’s certainly not the only one that I’ve side eyed like, “Girl, you crazy!”. The ‘One Meal a Day’ trend is popular even among non-celebrities, but I’ve also seen crazy diets where singers especially have declared they only eat 1500 calories a DAY, or lose outrageous amounts of weight in just a few weeks or even days.
I didn’t come to South Korea with any small amount of confidence, but seeing the obsession around being stereotypically beautiful here it was easy to start asking myself, “Am I good enough…?”. I am a 5 foot 2 African-American, with boobs, who didn’t even learn how to put on eyeliner properly until I was 22 so, clearly, I was not in my element upon arrival. Still, against all odds, I’ve actually found more confidence living here for the past year than I did in all the years I lived in my own country. This honestly had a lot more to do with other people than it ever had to do with me.
Maybe because they can be so critical about themselves and everyone else, people here are also quick to point out things about others that they appreciate, or are even envious of. Sure, there are days when my co-teachers will straight up be like, “Damn you look a mess today, you going through a breakup?!?” But there have also been multiple instances where they’ve praised little things I didn’t even know about myself. The fact that I have a “small face” never even occurred to me before I moved here. I was extra terrified of not being pale and, thus, unwanted in a country full of whitening products. Yet, I’ve had students who were tanned that told me I was beautiful because I was brown, that they knew they were beautiful too.
I’ll admit that there are still some times when I want to be able to look as nice in a skirt as the girl on TV, or even just want to fit in despite my foreigner status. But I’ve come to realize by watching all of these people who are obsessed with keeping their skin lighter, their waists slimmer or their eyeliner on point I just want them to embrace themselves as perfect the way they are. So often I tell my younger students to go against the crowd and be themselves, and I’ve slowly but surely come to find peace because I have to practice what I preach.