Korean beauty standards

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Korean beauty standards have become a well known feature of Korean culture. In 2015, a global survey by the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons found that South Korea was the only East Asian country in the top 10 countries[clarification needed] with the highest rate of cosmetic surgeries.[1] Korean beauty standards prioritize a slim figure, small face, v-shaped jaw, pale skin, straight eyebrows, flawless skin, and larger eyes. Beauty standards for the eyes include aegyo-sal, which is a term used in Korea referring to the small fatty deposits underneath the eyes that are said to give a person a more youthful appearance. East Asian blepharoplasty is a surgery to create double eyelids (creates upper eyelid with a crease). Aegyo-sal and blepharoplasty make the eyes appear larger. Korean beauty standards have been influenced largely by those in the media, including actresses, TV personalities, and K-pop stars. The physical appearance of K-pop idols have greatly impacted the beauty standards in Korea.[2]

K-pop idols with slim bodies and pale skin
Physical appearances (slim body and pale skin) of K-pop idols impact Korean beauty standards

Cultural pressure[edit]

A study from 2020 determined that 20 percent of young Korean girls have undergone cosmetic surgery. This is significantly above the average rate in other countries.[3] A more recent survey from Gallup Korea in 2015 determined that approximately one third of South Korean women between 19 and 29 have claimed to have had plastic surgery.[4] A study from 2009 found that Korean women are very critical of their body image and are more prone to lower self-esteem and self-satisfaction compared to women from the United States.[5]

The pressure to uphold a standard of beauty is even felt within the job market. Companies require a photo, height, and sometimes the family background of applicants as a part of the hiring process.[6] Beauty is often seen as a means for socioeconomic success in the rapidly modernized post-war economy of South Korea, which has seen a sluggish job growth rate after its economic boom. This has left Korea with a highly skilled and educated workforce competing for a short supply of job opportunities and chances for upward social mobility. Some Koreans view investments in beauty, such as cosmetic products and medical beauty treatments, such as plastic surgery, dermatology, and cosmetic dentistry, as a means of cultural capital to get an edge over peers for social and economic advancement.[7]

Beauty products[edit]

In 2015 South Korea exported more than $2.64 billion of cosmetic goods[8] compared to around $1.91 billion in 2014.[9] Some of the most popular products used in Korean beauty are blemish balm (BB) creams, color correction (CC) creams, serums, essences, ampoules, seaweed face masks, and scrubs.[10] Korean beauty products contain ingredients not commonly found in Western products such as snail extract. In 2011, BB cream, which was previously only found in China, hit the shelves in America, and by 2014, the US market for BB cream was around $164 million.

Plastic surgery[edit]

Plastic surgery in South Korea is socially accepted. Double-eyelid surgery (also known as blepharoplasty) creates an eyelid crease that makes the eye look bigger and is the most common cosmetic procedure performed in South Korea. Due to the differences in the facial bone structure of Asians, who have a flatter facial bone structure than their Western counterparts, facial bone contouring surgeries are quite popular.[11] V-line surgery (jaw and chin reduction) and cheekbone (zygoma) reduction surgeries are used to change the facial contour. Many celebrities are required to undergo these surgeries to trim their cheekbones, jaw, and chin to create an oval shaped face.

South Korea has also seen an increase in medical tourism from people who seek surgeon expertise in facial bone contouring. Korean surgeons have advanced facial bone contouring with procedures like the osteotomy technique[12][13] and have published the first book on facial bone contouring surgeries.[14] There was a 17 percent increase in the sales of cosmetic surgery from 1999 to 2000, reaching almost ₩170 billion (Korean won) (US$144 million).[15]

Free the corset movement[edit]

After the #MeToo movement, when women shared their sexual assault and harassment stories, Korean women started to question their beauty standards and created the free the corset movement. Its name comes from the idea that societal oppression of women is like being bound in a corset. Korean women have taken to social media in a backlash against unrealistic beauty standards that requires them to spend hours applying makeup and performing extensive skincare regimes, which often involve ten steps or more.[16] Some Korean women have destroyed their makeup, cut their hair, and rejected the pressures of getting surgery.[16][17] The purpose of the movement is to create space for Korean women to feel comfortable with themselves and not have social pressures limit their identity.[18] Critics of the movement think that women can make their own choices to wear makeup or not.[19]

Korean vs. Chinese beauty standards[edit]

Koreans think that beauty is represented by pale skin, a small face, and a slim figure. In China, beauty trends are similar, the skin should "not only be pale, but as white as possible", the face should be small and "shaped like an upside down goose egg", and the body should be slim and "hopefully tall with long legs, small feet and a Pippa Middleton style bottom."[20]

Contemporary Korean beauty standards of eye makeup have shifted from traditional sexy cat eye to a cuter and more innocent puppy eye. According to Allure, "people think it makes your eyes look brighter and more youthful."[21] Likewise, big and cute eyes are popular among Chinese beauty trends. However, since "50 percent of Korean girls have single eyelids, which they consider unattractive,"[22] Korean girls often have eye surgery or use makeup techniques to make their eyes look as large as possible. For eye makeup, Chinese women tend to use darker eyeliners, such as black or dark brown, to exaggerate their eyes, whereas Korean girls tend to pursue a more natural eye makeup by using lighter color eyeliners. Chinese beauty trends also use puppy eyes known as the Wo Can (meaning lying silkworm).[23] It is a 4 to 7-millimeter puff that lies under the eyelashes that look like a silkworm, which is meant to make the girls look cute and sweet when they smile. According to the Chinese traditional face reading, people with Wo Chan are born to have good lives with fortune for their relationships and businesses.

Having a slim figure is one of the most important aspects in both Korean and Chinese beauty standards. However, the ways individuals from these two countries keep fit differ. The famous Korean singer IU is well known for her diet plan, where she has "one apple for breakfast, one sweet potato for lunch, and a cup of protein for dinner."[24] Even though she is already known to the public as slim and tiny (only 162 centimeters tall and weighing around 45 kilograms), before important events she drinks 3 liters of waters for 5 days straight to make her face look small on the 7th day.[25] "And on the seventh day, you are basically a skeleton," she emphasized, adding that "this way, you can go from thin to skeleton-skinny."[25] To look skinny on TV, Korean idols try all kinds of diets to keep their faces small and legs slim, which has influenced many young Korean girls to try and replicate them.

On the other hand, Chinese actress Zheng Shuang is known for her incredibly thin body, being 168 centimeters tall but only weighing around 37 kilograms.[26] According to Chinese beauty standards, women should be as skinny as possible such that people can see their bones. However, instead of eating less, most of the Chinese actresses choose not to eat at all, or only eat 7 grains of rice per day to lose weight. A notable trend was called the A4 waist challenge, or the anti waist challenge, which the women hold up sheets of paper and take selfies. They "win" if the paper entirely obscures their waist, and the standard paper size is only 21 centimetres (8.3 in) across."[27]

Male beauty standards[edit]

While expectations of female beauty usually outweigh male expectations, South Korea is notable for the standards placed on men. South Korea has become one of the beauty capitals of the world for male beauty. Dissimilar to the West, it is still a misconception that the South Korean beauty industry should exclusively focus on women. The standards for male beauty are just as high and very similar to the female standards. Make-up, for example, is not seen as a gendered product and South Korea itself is proud to advertise many brands and products that are available to men. One of the reasons for this standard is the Korean Pop music culture or K-Pop. In the Western hemisphere, the population has an absolute different understanding when it comes to attractiveness and ‘handsomeness’ of a male individual. The contrasting perception of masculine beauty will show after a glimpse at any K-pop band.

It is really common for Korean men to care about a clear, smooth and fair skin. It is also usual to dye and style hair on regular basis.[28] The body shape is expected to appear rather androgyne than too muscular. Men wear sharply stylish cut outfits and double eyelids are really common as a result of cosmetic surgery. Korean men often choose to get surgery to achieve a higher nose along with smaller and slender facial features.[29]

‘Over the past decade South Korean men have become the world's biggest male spenders on skincare and beauty products.’ (The Thaiger, 2019) Between 2011 and 2017, the market alone has grown by 44%. Statistically, 58% of South Korean men stated that they take advantage of beauty or grooming treatments at least once per week, which is almost twice as much as South Korean men overall at 34%.[30] South Koreas's cosmetics industry earns nearly $10 billions in annual sales. The industry is trying to expand its appeal to young men in their twenties. The cosmetic companies’ marketing teams have also developed smart but effective strategies to win new costumers for their always changing product lines. Major sports events such as baseball games are the perfect opportunity to air advertisement for skincare due to the large attendance of potential customers.

In a country where military service is mandatory for all men, even this is used to lure prospective costumer. A South Korean-based company has released a line of face paint for active duty soldiers that include tealeaf extract to sooth and cool the skin.[31]

The general Western conception of males wearing make-up could be mistaken as an act of rebellion against the society rather than a beauty standard. Another reason could be professions in the fashion or entertainment industry. Nevertheless, the conception in the West is changing. Not only because of K-Pop, ‘perfect brows and flawless skin’ (The Thaiger, 2019) are one of the new beauty standards even for the west. Korean Male Beauty sets a high aesthetics’ standard for the paternal population of the world.


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