Are You Beautiful Enough To Live In South Korea?

Koreans vain
Are Koreans vain?

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.

Western Vs. Korean Views of Physical Appearance

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”.

Are Koreans Vain?


Seoul is known as the plastic surgery capital of the World and for good reason. Seoul Beauty Treatments stores, spas and plastic surgeons occupy every other street in Seoul.

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.

The Need for a Perfect Appearance

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 $13 billion 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.

Beauty as a Status Symbol

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.

It’s What is Inside That Counts… Or is it?

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 2018, 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…

Are you Pretty Enough for Korea?
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Korean beauty standards


Melissa Douglas

Melissa Douglas is a British Travel Writer and Blogger based in Athens, Greece. She writes for numerous high profile travel publications across the globe - including Forbes Travel Guide, Matador Network, The Times of Israel and The Huffington Post.

5 thoughts on “Are You Beautiful Enough To Live In South Korea?”

  1. Thanks for sharing your experiences on a public forum. I’ve been researching S. Korea intermittently over the past year and a half to try gauge whether or not it is the place to start my ESL career. One of my chief concerns has been the cultural fixation on appearance.

    I’m a 37 female with salt n’ pepper hair. I love my hair, and have never been interested in dying it to cover up grey. I often get compliments on my hair, even from beauticians. My face is youthful and somewhat doll-like. However, given that I’m already a bit outside of the ideal age range (according to some recruiter sites), it seems that it would be a complete waste of time to submit photographs for possible employment without having dyed my hair and plastered my face with cosmetics (did I mention that I don’t wear make-up, either). In your opinion, is it a necessity to be grey-less in order to be employable in ESL in Korea?

    Thank you!


    • Hi Diana, thanks for your comment.
      I don’t think that you will have any major problems in finding work in Korea. Before I came here, I had heard that there had been a decline in the requirement for English teachers in recent years but since arriving, the demand seems to be as big as ever. There are English academies on every corner and demand exceeds supply as far as I have seen so far.
      As far as age and looks go, definitely do not change anything about yourself to get a position – any school or academy that turns you down on a shallow basis isn’t worthy of you as an employee and any hesitation about such matters doesn’t set a good tone for how the conditions could be when you arrive. When I was interviewing for positions, one school rejected me on the basis that I am 26 and the other teachers were 22 – 23 and the recruiter thought that I was too old (pssht!) At my current job, teachers range from early twenties to mid thirties.
      I’ve also seen two instances of young teachers hired and then they realize that they do not want to commit to Korea and wind up leaving mid contract – I think the benefits of being an older applicant is the maturity that comes with it.

      As westerners, we seem to be somewhat exempt from some of the pressures of adhering to a kind of “uniformed” way of looking. I say go ahead and don’t let that worry put you off. You will have a Skype interview with potential employers before you fly to Korea anyway so you will know what you could be letting yourself in for somewhat.

      Please let me know if you have any questions 🙂

      Kind Regards,

  2. I would love to know what they thought of how you looked as a westerner? I lived in Cambodia for several years and while plastic surgery is not a thing there (noone could afford it for a start!) the girls there constantly obsessed over their (and my) appearance. They all wanted ‘V’ chins and pointy noses, and most of all, white skin. It was pretty heartbreaking to see gorgeous girls desperate to look like another ethnicity. Did you get comments about different parts of your appearance? I used to get told I had a lovely chin! All the time! And my milk white skin would get stroked by strangers….pretty bizarre!

    • Ah that’s so sad to hear! Yeah there was a similar obsession with having white skin in Korea as well – I had to be careful what skincare products/sun creams I used because a lot of them contained whitening agents! Koreans find a lot of western traits attractive, especially the eye shape so I received a lot of comments on my eyes. Because people feel under pressure to look so perfect, a lot of people would be on crazy diets or starve themselves because it was considered attractive to be ultra thin so Westerners were also normally looked at as being “too fat” from their perspective. After a while, it made me feel a bit crazy being around it all the time!


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