South Korea has the largest and fastest growing beauty industry in the world. To the uninitiated, this fact may come as a surprise but to many –– myself included –– it's no shocker at all; Korean products are AMAZING! (Sidenote: Had a friend bring me back a bottle of Vitamin C serum from Seoul once. I swear on my life, after using it for a week, I looked like a 10 year old! It was the best my skin had ever been! Sadly, no product has come even close to delivering the same results, since.)
What I did not know, however, is that appearances is extremely important in Korean society. Looks affect all facets life and often determine anyting from employment to the people one can date or marry. Looks are so important, young Koreans often resort to extreme measures in order to achieve the cultural ideal –– one , by the way, that is heavily influenced by "western" (northern European) features.
Here are 8 most popular procedures and practices that have made Korea the beauty and plastic surgery mecca of the world:
1.) Skin whitening: In Korea, beauty starts with porcelain white skin, absent of any visible pores. The whiter, the better, and dark skin –– even the slightest tan –– s considered unattractive and undesirable.
2.) Double eyelid surgery: Popular throughout Asia, this is probably the most commonly requested cosmetic procedure, where eyelids are dissected, piece is removed and the remaining lid is sutured back into place. The after effect: a wider, bigger, more "western" set of eyes deemed more attractive.
3.) Jaw surgery: Perhaps the most invasive and risky of them all. Jaw surgery is a common procedure that involves cutting, shaving and re-aligning the jaw-bone. This changes the structure of face, creating the much desired v-shape Koreans adore.
4.) Parents encourage it: Korean society is extremely competitive, and even more so in the job market. Parents commonly gift eyelid surgeries to the children upon high-school graduation. They consider it an investment for their children's future. To Koreans [in Korea], cosmetic surgery is not considered a luxury item but more a perceived necessity.
5.) Discrimination is unofficially ok: As mentioned, the Korean job market is super competitive. Employers openly discriminate based on looks, which, over the years, has further legitimized the desire for surgery as most Koreans find it difficult to get ahead without conforming to these cultural expectations.
6.) Government Aid: Korea's beauty market is so substantial, it generates as much export revenues as its tech industry. In other words, they export as much (or more) beauty creams as Samsung phones. Many cosmetic companies are even subsidized by the government in instances where patent and formulation infringements arise from competing foreign firms.
7.) Eyebrows: Koreans [in Korea] and westerners have drastically different ideas of "brow game strong." While the latest trend in the west celebrates fuller brows with an arch, Koreans prefer them straight with little to no arch at all. Often, eyebrows as visual queues to identify visiting Korean Americans.
8.) Foundation: If you're visiting Korea, take your own foundation (even if you are Korean American). Korean cosmetic stores largely only stock very pale/porcelain-like foundations. It is extremely rare and difficult to find foundations for tanned or darker skin-tones. Part of this is due to its ethnic homogeneity, but also largely due to the cultural belief that beauty equates to fair skin and fair skin only.
Standards of beauty vary drastically throughout the world and are largely dependent on culture. Consequently, examining the subjective nature of beauty is always a touchy subject. The goal here was to present interesting facts about beauty in Korea and not –– in any way shape or form –– an attempt to traduce its culture or norms.
It's also worth noting: in the same light that most westerners would balk at the thought of eyelid and jawbone surgery, on the flip side, most –– perhaps all? –– Koreans [in Korea] would find it equally crazy to have many procedures we in the west find completely "normal." For instance: Butt augmentation is a growing trend in the US and wildly popular in S. America. Most Koreans [in Korea] would think it mental to undergo this procedure or even aspire to have a "big booty."
The point here is: Beauty is highly subjective. Many, perhaps most, beauty ideals and formed opinions of beauty stem from cultural conditioning and preferences. In shining a light on these preferences, we must be mindful that in doing so, we don't impose our own standards by way of criticism.
Wanna see more examples of everyday Koreans' [in Korea] perception of beauty? Hop on to any social media platform and search, "#Ulzzang" (colloquialism for 'ideal beauty' or 'good looking').