Women in Korea: Why are women subject to unrealistic beauty standards?

By Lisa Twang, Mar 13, 2020

In the fourth and final part of our series on gender inequality around the world, we explore beauty standards in South Korea — a country ranked 115 of 149 countries on gender equality in 2018 by the World Economic Forum. With few women in high positions at work and unequal wages between men and women, South Korean President Moon Jae-in described the country's gender gap as "our shameful reality."

Seoul is often dubbed the ‘plastic surgery capital’ of the world, and has the highest number of cosmetic procedures per capita worldwide. Most of those plastic surgery patients are women, and at least one in three South Korean women between 19 and 29 have gone under the knife. 

More so than other countries, good looks in South Korea determine your job prospects, social standing, and confidence. Through our chat with Seoul native Hee Jae Kim, we find out more about Korea’s incredibly high beauty standards, why some Korean women are rejecting them through the Escape the Corset movement, and how the gender gap can be closed as ideals for women’s bodies become more realistic over time.

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My name is Hee Jae, and I’m 26 years old. 

Last year, K-pop star Sulli from f(x) committed suicide, and one of the reasons for her depression was that she was cyberbullied for refusing to wear a bra, and having a nip slip on an Instagram Live post.

In Korea, it’s sometimes seen as a bad thing if you stand out as a woman. Social norms and our culture limits females from being treated as individuals: there’s a lot of pressure on women to look perfect, and to be quiet and demure. Sulli was not afraid to voice her opinion that bras were restrictive for women but she was slutshamed for having an opinion, which was one of many factors that led to her death. 

Most women would hesitate to describe themselves as ‘feminists’ because that label can be controversial in Korea - feminists are viewed as rebels. Even if we believe in women’s rights, it’s hard for us to call ourselves feminists. 

In other cultures, being a rebel can be seen as a good thing. But in Korea, our society encourages us to be harmonious, to blend in with the rest of the community. People who stand out are generally not welcomed, and can be labelled as outsiders. As much as many of us would like to speak out against the country’s beauty norms, this culture makes it difficult to. 

In Korea, society tells women that looks are everything, and our beauty standards are so strict that it puts too much unnecessary stress on women.

We’re expected to look pretty and doll-like: fair, perfect skin, big eyes, a sharp nose, V-shaped face, and be very thin (below 50kg regardless of your height). I’d say hallyu has played a role in elevating Korea’s beauty standards, because the pressure to look perfect intensifies when we see more celebrities who look this way on TV. 

Most K-pop celebs are trained and managed in special agencies to manage their looks. In many countries, it’s expected for celebrities to look good, but the difference in Korea is that everyday women like us also feel pressured to look the same way. The celebrity standard is the ideal standard that we must follow. 

I’ve heard stories about how a lot of K-pop stars go under the knife, get injections, or go on diet medication, or even extreme diets to maintain their figures. And it takes a team of makeup artists, stylists, professional trainers to help them look ‘perfect’. Everyday women like my friends and I don’t have professional help to look good, but we’re expected to look as good as them whenever we go out, which is unrealistic.

Plastic surgery is one way Korean women fit into the ‘ideal look’. Here, it’s common for girls to receive plastic surgery as a graduation present from their parents, and one out of three girls would have had surgery by the time they’re in their 20s and 30s.

Cosmetic surgery is popular in Korea, but it’s like an open secret. Every day we’re flooded with ads for plastic surgery, and many women do procedures like liposuction and get fillers and Botox at lunchtime. But it’s weird that while many Koreans get surgery, society still expects us to look ‘natural’. Even K-pop celebs would only admit they have had surgery if they are directly asked, and there are also who some would deny it. Here, women who’ve had surgery fear that they’ll be judged for not being a ‘natural’ beauty. 

Around five years ago, there was a popular Korean reality TV show called Let Me In, where women were given plastic surgery makeovers. It was criticised for showing that the ‘before surgery’ look was unattractive, and the ‘after surgery’ look was ideal. 

Personally, I felt that Let Me In sent the wrong message that plastic surgery could solve all your problems. It implied that the women on the show had miserable lives before surgery, and that somehow with the help of the plastic surgeons and their new good-looking faces, they became much happier and successful.

To fit the ideal standard of Korean beauty, we also spend a lot of time and money on beauty products and dieting. I wish I didn’t have to do this, but it’s hard not to when everyone around you is doing the same and expects you to as well.

It’s common for women here to have 13-step beauty routines, which means we have a lot of cream! Personally, I spend a big portion of my salary (around 30 per cent) on cosmetics and clothes.

Many Korean girls are on a diet 24/7. It doesn’t matter how thin you are; most girls are always trying to lose weight. Dieting is something I talk to my friends and colleagues about almost every day, and taking slimming pills is pretty common. I’ve tried extreme diets like only eating vegetables or fruit, or even fasting for an entire day. Women here also spend a lot on keeping fit and losing weight: pilates, yoga, personal training and gym memberships.

I never really thought about how strict Korean beauty standards were until I went to Singapore, on a university exchange programme.

Eating bak kut teh in my university canteen.

Eating bak kut teh in my university canteen.

What I liked about living in Singapore was that I didn’t have to care so intensely about my appearance. I felt like in Singapore, girls were more free to choose whether they wanted to look prettier or more natural. Half the girls I met were interested in cosmetics and wanted to be fashionable and pretty, but half of them were not. They also talked less about fashion, beauty and diets, which I found refreshing.

That was the biggest difference: that in Singapore, looking pretty felt like a choice. In Korea, it feels like a must.

Even if some of us are not interested in makeup, we may feel forced to use it because society expects us to. It’s considered lazy if we don’t put on a full face of makeup, as if we’re not putting in enough effort. 

While in Singapore, I started dressing down, and I really enjoyed not having to spend so much time and effort on my looks. But it’s not realistic for me to do the same in Seoul because people will judge me for not ‘taking care of myself’. 

If we go for job interviews, even for jobs that are not based on looks, companies would rather pick a girl who is slim and beautiful over one who is not.

Providing good service is equated with being good-looking in Korea. Even when hiring a cashier at the cinema ticket office, one of the most important hiring criteria is the candidate’s looks. Everyone here has heard stories about how a candidate might not be selected for a job interview if she is overweight or not good-looking enough, so it’s common for women to diet before their interviews to give a better impression. 

Most Korean women will get their hair and makeup professionally done for job interviews, to improve the impression we will give the company. Sometimes, if they go to five job interviews, they will get a professional makeover done five times, for each meeting. 

Up to about 10 years ago, it was common for companies to ask for a photo of job applicants along with their height, weight, and age. For men, they worried about being judged for being too short. For women, we worried about being judged based on our weight and appearance. Even with a university degree, experience and hard work, women still have to stress about our looks affecting our career, which shouldn’t be the case. 

Last year, a new law was passed which bans companies from asking questions related to appearance, like height and weight, if it is not relevant to the job. Companies are starting to hold blind interviews, where we don’t have to submit our photos with our resumes. I think this is a good change: it’s more fair to be chosen for a job based on my skills, and not just how I look.

Around 2018, Korean women started rejecting unrealistic beauty standards through the Escape the Corset movement. They cut off their long hair, destroyed their makeup, and dressed in a more masculine way, so they could feel more free.

Escape the Corset was part of the feminist #MeToo movement in Korea, which encouraged women to speak out about sexual harassment and misogyny. The movement began with some female YouTubers protesting Korea’s beauty standards, and some celebrities like Sulli and Hwasa from Mamamoo joined in, which gave it more publicity. 

While Sulli has since passed away, Hwasa is very successful as a K-pop celebrity who looks different from the norm. While she’s still slim and beautiful, Hwasa stands out from the typical K-pop star because of her darker skin and smaller eyes. She also doesn’t always wear a bra and is not afraid to speak her mind. It’s refreshing to see someone like her who doesn’t conform, and doesn’t fit the typical doll-like look of most K-pop stars.

The changing faces of K-pop: Yoona from Girls' Generation and Hwasa from Mamamoo.

The changing faces of K-pop: Yoona from Girls' Generation and Hwasa from Mamamoo.

I think the Escape the Corset movement is a great thing for women’s rights in Korea. It is still small now, but it’s growing and changing the way women feel about beauty. 

We don’t all have to stop having long hair or wearing makeup, but I think it’s good to celebrate our diversity and feel beautiful in our own unique ways. We shouldn’t feel like we have to look perfect all the time, and be free to choose how we look instead of conforming to society’s ideal.

International Women’s Day isn’t celebrated in Korea, but I hope Korean women will be aware of it in future, because I think International Women’s Day could be a chance for us to think about what it means to be a woman, and our role in society.

There’s an old Korean saying that “Men are valued by how much money they have, and women by their beauty”. But I think this idea is changing now, and people are starting to reject the idea that women must be judged only on their looks. Sales of cosmetics to Korean women in their 20s have gone down by 53.5 billion Korean won (US$44.8 million) between 2016 and 2018, and plastic surgery sales have declined by 64.4 billion won (US$53.9 million). I think this means many women are silently supporting the Escape the Corset movement in our own ways. 

People are also speaking up against plastic surgery ads and their voices are being heard. Seoul subway stations decreased the number of ads, and it has been reported that by 2022, all commercial ads for plastic surgery will be banned from stations. I think this is a step in the right direction because the media and advertising industry also has a role to play in helping to make beauty standards more realistic. 

Over time, I’m learning that how others look at me is not as important as how I look at myself. This International Women’s Day, I hope more people in Korea will also see that inner beauty is more important than looks, and be valued for who they are — not just how they look.

Pictures by Hee Jae Kim, and @girlsgeneration and @mamamoohwasa on Instagram.


This story is the fourth part of a series titled: ‘What gender inequality looks like in my country’. Over four stories, this series aims to shed light on the rights that women are fighting for around the world.

The first story about balancing parenting in Japan can be read here: https://dayre.me/story/f6483a70fc

The second story about what happens to educated women in India can be read here: https://dayre.me/story/0ebd8279d7

The third story about the state of female reproductive healthcare in the United States can be read here: https://dayre.me/story/b290d326ef


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