Never before was I bombarded with pressure to look attractive than when I lived in Seoul.
I say Seoul specifically, because it seems that, out of all other cities I visited in South Korea, judgment on one’s looks is the most suffocating there. Unless you shop at the Western franchises like Forever 21 or H&M, you’d be hard-pressed to find clothing that accommodates larger than a size 6. Subway advertisements show images of women (and men) before and after plastic surgery: larger-than-life sized posters with close-ups of eyelids, stomachs, hips and thighs, cheekbones and complexions. Parts of your body you never thought to scrutinize before are laid out in painstaking close-up detail. So I started to scrutinize parts of my body and notice things I never imagined before could be a problem.
In Seoul, I was constantly bombarded with the “ideal” image of beautiful. There is ONE standard of beauty for Korean women to fit into…and it’s an ideal that, for nearly ALL Korean women, cannot be achieved without surgical enhancement. Slender frame, with a butt that’s not TOO large, C-cup bust size, milky white blemish-free skin, long pin-straight hair, large eyes framed by a prominent eyelid crease, a high nose bridge, prominent cheekbones, and a V-line (a chin that comes to a distinct point).
Plus-sized figures, beauty marks, body hair, tanned skin, rounded cheeks, naturally curly hair—not only are these traits completely absent from the typical South Korean beauty advertisement, but they’re relentlessly criticized and stigmatized.
The “before-and-after” images on these advertisements are relentless. A sad, gloomy expression haunts the “before” photos; women with their blemishes, small eyes, and flat, round faces seem to be looking into the camera with no confidence, no hopes of being beautiful. They’re miserable faces indeed. But after! They’re smiling into the camera with their sparkly new veneers, cheek implants, and shaved-down chins to match that beautiful, perfect standard.
If you start feeling a bit self-conscious when you start comparing yourself to these images: Not to worry! Those adverts tell you exactly where to go if you want to change anything that doesn’t match that robotic, freakishly unnatural standard to a T. In the bottom corners of those advertisements, some doctor and his/her team of cosmetic surgery experts wear idiotic smiles and point you in the right direction to their clinic. Come on in, we’ll turn that frown upside-down, they promise. Here’s a handy map in case you get lost—hurry on down today!
To me, the “after” images are more depressing than the “befores.” Congratulations, you’ve given your hard-earned money to another clinic that has successfully pumped out one more plastic mannequin to parade around downtown. You’ve bought your confidence from one of those smiling doctors, and you’re fit to take on the world now!
“Beautiful people are successful people,” my students would tell me. I found there was a woeful lack of dialogue on acceptance, on natural beauty, on the possibility of loving yourself and being confident in rejecting that impossible standard of beauty.
So for as Eurocentric and warped as the American standard of beauty is, it pales in comparison to what I saw in Seoul. At least here in the States, there are more and more women of color, curvaceous figures, and natural hairstyles being shown in beauty advertisements and in the media. There is plenty more improvement to be made, but at least those images are out there. In Seoul, it’s not just limited; it seemed to be absent altogether.