“As if you were on fire from within, the moon lives in the lining of your skin.” —Pablo Neruda
A few weeks ago, I read a Buzzfeed article titled “I Wasn’t Beautiful Enough to Live in South Korea.” Being from South Korea myself, it instantly caught my attention. Since I was adopted when I was six months old , I (obviously) have no memory of anything in Korea, and I have grown up surrounded by American culture. I have a pretty good idea of American beauty standards, but I realized I knew next to nothing about what women in Korea considered beautiful. Naturally, this led me to the question, “How would my appearance be perceived in Korea?” I would highly encourage you to read the full article I linked above, but for those who don’t want to, I’ll try to summarize it as I go.
The article was written a few years ago (2013) by a young, partially-Korean woman named Ashly who moved to Daegu, South Korea for a year to teach English to 2nd-, 3rd-, and 4th-graders. She said that, although she loved her time there, the culture’s “extreme emphasis on young women’s appearance became too much to handle.” Korean beauty standards include pale, blemish-free skin; double eyelids and large eyes; slim, v-shaped faces; and very small, thin waistlines. These may not seem like particularly harmful ideals, but the lengths young Korean women go to to achieve the culturally-ideal appearance are extreme (which I’ll discuss later).
Ashly wrote in her article that in the United States, she is “smaller than the average woman” and generally wears “size 8 bottoms, medium tops, and a size 8.5 shoe.” However, in Korea, she stated that she “truly felt like a whale.” As you can tell from the above pictures, her body is what most Americans would consider to be slim or “fit.” Her height wasn’t specified, but she appears to be around 5’6″, which is above the average height for a Korean woman. Although she is on the smaller end of American clothing sizes, she said she was “always an extra-large” in Korea, if they even carried anything at all that fit her. I wear similar sizes to her, though my shoes are usually size 9 or 10, and I’m about 5’8″. I realize that sizing differs slightly from country to country, but there is something a bit haunting about the fact that a medium-sized shirt in the U.S. is classified as an extra-large in Korea. Asian countries also have a pretty high prevalence of eating disorders and low self-esteem, which really comes as no surprise to me considering the unattainable standards.
On top of that, Ashly said that the pressure for plastic surgery in Korea was outrageous. She wrote that high school students would often “get handed pamphlets on plastic surgery as they left school.” Could you imagine what kind of parental uproar would occur if American schools started handing out fliers for cosmetic surgery? But in Korea, that is considered “normal” and acceptable. After graduating high school in America, many students’ parents give them a laptop, jewelry, a Bible, gift cards, or something else useful or meaningful. But in Korea, paying for cosmetic surgery is not an uncommon graduation gift from parents to children.
(A side note in their defense: Parents’ intentions with paying for plastic surgery are usually good ones. Meeting the standards of beauty and fitting cultural definitions of attractiveness are equated with higher levels of success and prosperity. When Korean relatives or parents suggest plastic surgery to young adults, they are, in their own culture’s way, wishing them success and wealth in life. A nice sentiment that most parents wish for their children, but in my opinion, the appearance-centered way of expressing it is kind of messed up.)
In a culture that is not shy about suggesting plastic surgery to anyone and everyone, it’s not surprising that many people have gone under the knife. In fact, South Korea has the highest rate of plastic surgery for women per capita, and “roughly one in five women ages 19 to 49 has undergone plastic surgery.” A blepharoplasty (double eyelid surgery) is the most common, as the majority of Koreans (and Asians in general) are born with a monolid and desire the wider, creased look most Caucasians possess. Other popular cosmetic surgeries are the epicanthoplasty (eye-widening often done in conjunction with blepharoplasties), rhinoplasty (aka a nose job, for a more pointed look), and jaw shaving (to achieve a slimmer, v-shaped jawline).
Now this post is not me talking smack about the country I was born in, nor am I saying this is what all Korean women deal with all the time. I would absolutely love to travel to South Korea, and in fact, visiting there is one of the top things on my bucket list. I think it would be wonderful to be able to see the area in which I was born and witness the amazing culture of Korea, because even though I didn’t grow up there, it is and always will be a little part of who I am.
The reason I wanted to write about and post this is because it really opened my eyes to beauty standards different than the ones I grew up with—standards I could have grown up with had it not been for adoption. I’ve spent the last 20 years growing up in the U.S. and seeing myself and my body through an Americanized lens. I have insecurities like everyone else, but in general, I am happy with how I look and, more importantly, who I am as a person. One of the saddest things about that article to me was that the students Ashly worked with did not seem to know what “inner beauty” was or meant, as she was “met with nothing but blank stares” when she told her students they were “all beautiful on the inside.”
Although there is pressure in every country to look a certain way, I am incredibly blessed to have grown up in a place where inner beauty is valued. I was raised in an environment that built up my confidence—not only externally, but internally as well. And for that, I will always be thankful.