what it’s like growing up with korean beauty standards

The pressure felt by women to conform to beauty ideals is obviously experienced across many cultures, but South Korea does have a particularly narrow standard.

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May 26 2016, 2:30pm

still from i-D's beyond beauty

The make-up artist was really struggling with the eyeliner. I was in a Korean beauty salon in the suburbs of Toronto, and as a bridesmaid at my cousin's wedding, getting dutifully made up. "Why don't you just get the surgery?" she said to me, rather loudly and plainly exasperated.

"Get the surgery!"
"Why haven't you had the surgery???"
"You'd look so pretty!"
"Everyone's had the surgery."

My cousin, aunt, other bridesmaids, the small army of hairstylists and make-up artists present, all of Korean heritage, were pressuring me (Canadian-born and raised, but also of Korean heritage). And sure enough, my cousin, aunt, the other bridesmaids and the small army of hairstylists and make-up artists present all had the "double eyelid" surgery —or Asian blepharoplasty — to create a crease in the eyelid when you don't have one to begin with. I looked at my mother in the chair next to me. She was the only other person in the room with monolids (the charming term for lids without the crease). All she could muster was a quiet "Nooooooo…"

I finished the makeup myself. Blush wasn't necessary because I was already naturally flushed by anger and shame. I was 27 and still couldn't feel at ease with my appearance or escape scrutiny, even from strangers. Welcome to one of many K-dramas.

As pointed out in the opening of Beyond Beauty with Grace Neutral, the pressure felt by women to conform to beauty ideals is obviously experienced across many cultures, but South Korea does have a particularly narrow standard.

As pointed out in the opening of Beyond Beauty with Grace Neutral, the pressure felt by women to conform to beauty ideals is obviously experienced across many cultures, but South Korea does have a particularly narrow standard. It could be summarized as large eyes (with a crease, of course), straight, small nose, V-shaped jawline, and poreless, porcelain skin. But that's just the face. You'll also need to be thin and tanned skin is frowned upon — though currently, the trend is also to be more muscular in a subtle, sculpted way.

Much has been made in the last five years or so about the prevalence of plastic surgery in South Korea. Surpassing Brazil for the highest ratio of plastic surgery per capita, stakes garnered interest from the likes of The New Yorker, Buzzfeed and The Daily Mail, plus all corners of the internet. Most articles focused on the desire to emulate K-pop stars or look Western. While the influence of modern K-pop has been massive, I remember growing up in the 80s — way before the rise of hallyu (the popularity of South Korean culture in other countries) — with my mother actively pushing what would be recognized as today's Korean beauty ideal, despite us living on the other side of the world.

She would tug on the tip of my nose to stretch it somehow. She talked a lot about how it was necessary to be pretty and smart in order to succeed. She delighted in the fact that I didn't have a flat face and that I already had relatively large eyes, despite the mono lids. She kept me out of the sun. As I became a teenager, weight became a concern for her even though I was slim. "Be careful, the Shim family genes means you'll be fat," she regularly warned. I was immediately sent to a dermatologist once I started getting spots. She bought me "brightening" (ie, lightening) skincare products. Needless to say, my self-esteem became a little fragile.

By the time I was on the verge of university in the late 90s, I started noticing and hearing about girls being whisked away to Korea for eyelid surgery mainly, but also nose jobs, if necessary. I only heard about jaw-slimming surgery (to get that V-shape) in the mid-00s. Last year, it was estimated that between one-fifth to one-third of women in Seoul have had plastic surgery. A poll reported by the BBC put the figure at 50% for women in their 20s. Much to my eternal relief, my mother never encouraged plastic surgery, nor had ever gone under the knife herself, though when I was around 20, she had her eyebrows, eyeliner and lipliner tattooed. Not that she called it that, since tattoos as we knew them were (and still are) taboo.

When I was 23, I moved to the UK for postgraduate studies. Upon returning home for Christmas, she was horrified by my slight weight gain (I think I went from a 26 to 27 waist). Emboldened by distance, I called them my "freedom pounds." She was not amused. Thereafter, our weekly long-distance phone calls would always start with: "Have you gained any more weight?" "No." "Are you sure?" "Yes." "I'll be the judge of that when I see you next." Fifteen years later and this exact telephone exchange hasn't stopped. I used to cry after putting down the phone; now I laugh. Real freedom did eventually come.

Last year, it was estimated that between one-fifth to one-third of women in Seoul have had plastic surgery. A poll reported by the BBC put the figure at 50% for women in their 20s.

At first, I found it helped to simply blot out the remarks about my appearance, and eventually, anything about Korea in my life (save the food, because damn, I love kimchi). I vowed never to set foot in the country that gave rise to such beauty ideals and I refused to get caught up with hallyu. Ironically, this was only a cosmetic solution. So I tried to understand where my mother — and by extension an entire country — was coming from.

I delved deeper into issues involving Confucianism, Korea's wrought history, how individualism takes a backseat, the rapid rate of industrialization and technology after the Korean War, economics, and the role of society in private lives. And in the end, standing in this busy intersection, I came to the following forehead-slapping conclusion: my mother obviously tried to instill in me the only value system she knew. But I didn't have to accept these values wholesale, especially since neither of us have set foot in South Korea since 1979. In some strange way, we were both clinging to something that was essentially alien — me, any notion of having an exclusively Korean identity; her, a daughter who happened to be a complete foreigner.

Now that I'm closer to 40 than I am 30, I'm generally at peace with what I look like and more importantly, who I've become. But in a bid to make up for lost time of sorts, I have in recent years fervently adopted the notorious 10-step Korean skincare regime (double-cleanse, essence, toners, serums, face masks, oils, eye creams, moisturizers, etc) and become hopelessly attached to Big Bang, especially G-Dragon. And I plan to end my self-imposed exile from Seoul soon. Which may just complicate things further yet. But, hey, at least I'll have lovely skin.

As we share the first series of Beyond Beauty with Grace Neutral in full, follow us deeper into the world of alternative beauty. From the unorthodox to the obscure and the weird to the wonderful, we're celebrating the people, subcultures, treatments, and trends helping to redefine beauty.

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Text Sabrina Shim

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