Living in a Country with a culture so different to your own is always going to come with its share of ups and downs. There are so many things I love about South Korea but ultimately, the one thing that I will never be able to come to terms with is the country’s unattainable beauty standards and the extreme pressures that are put on young women to conform to them.
Growing up in the West, though there are societal pressures on Women to take care of their appearance, it is also instilled in us from a young age that it is what is inside that counts – that physical beauty, though appreciated, can only get you so far.
Indeed, when it comes to choosing a Partner in the West, physical attraction is only one piece of the puzzle. Lord knows I appreciate a hunky bloke that’s nice to look at but if he has no element of a brain or no depth to his personality then I won’t be sticking around for long.
In South Korea, physical appearance is everything; Koreans strive for perfection in all that they do and their looks are no exception to this rule. Cosmetic surgery in Korea does not have the same stigma attached to it as it does in the West – the mentality is more that of “surgery is cheap enough, so please fix X so that the rest of us don’t have to look at it”.
Seoul is known as the plastic surgery capital of the World and for good reason.
Sure, plastic surgery is big in image conscious places like Los Angeles yet its popularity is restricted to the wealthy and jet set few. Korea has the most plastic surgeries per capita in the World – it is pretty much considered a staple. Popping out to get botox or a nose job is no different to popping out to get a Starbucks and no one bats an eyelid when you walk through Gangnam and are faced with women on their way back from their latest surgery, their faces still wrapped in bandages.
Every day I am faced with some of the most stunning women I have seen in my life. Rows of identical looking women with Westernised eyes, small upturned noses and pointed chins fill the streets. Were they born like this? Of course not. Double eyelid surgery, nose jobs and jaw reconstruction to achieve a more “Western” look are typical procedures in Korea, with one in five women going under the knife. These surgical procedures are often given to young women as graduation presents by their parents if they do well in school.
With the Korean cosmetic market valued at over $13bn dollars, beauty stores are booming here and they can be found on as many street corners as Starbucks branches. There are some areas, like Myeongdong in Seoul where tens of them are lined back to back.
Each to their own right? Not exactly; Korea is the only place I have travelled where your physical appearance determines how you are treated. Beauty is as much a status symbol as wealth or career success. Even when you apply for a job in Korea, you have to submit multiple photos of yourself for consideration along with your resume.
Koreans are very blunt and have no inhibitions about approaching you to point out a perceived flaw or issue with your appearance. I have some scarring on my cheeks from suffering acne as a teenager and since moving here, I have experienced colleagues and acquaintances approaching me to suggest products, dermatologists and cosmetic surgeons to help me “fix” my skin problems.
This came as quite a shock to me at first as at home in the UK it would be considered extremely rude to approach someone and start making comments on their appearance.
As the importance of being beautiful is drilled into Koreans’ minds from such a young age, it is not uncommon for children as young as 5 or 6 to make derogatory comments about the appearances of others, or for people to constantly put themselves down because they don’t think that they are good enough.
Teaching English in Korea, I have watched as sweet, beautiful little girls sit and stretch their eyes with their fingers to try and make them look like mine, telling me proudly that if they do well in their exams, their parents will pay for them to have double eyelid surgery to give them westernised eyes. That is just about the most heartbreaking thing to me – the fact not only that girls feel that they have to go to such drastic measures to change their appearance and hide their ethnicity, but that their parents support and encourage their decision to do so.
It is surprising to me that in 2016, girls are not encouraged to be successful so that they can pursue careers or be recognised for their knowledge and achievements, but that their self worth is measured purely by their beauty.
My attempts at trying to assure my students that they are beautiful, and that a nice personality is much more attractive than simply a pretty face have been met with blank stares and frowns as though I was on crack.
It seems that “inner beauty” is just one thing that does not translate…
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