It is not beautiful and not acceptable unless it passes the standards!
Koreans view beauty in a very specific way such as having a slim figure, v-shaped jaw, pale and smooth skin, straight eyebrows, and large eyes. Not having these features would automatically categorize a Korean man or woman under “ugly”. Being “ugly” in South Korea means experiencing lookism, or appearance discrimination, which, in most cases, means a low chance of success in life, in love and even in landing good jobs.
Since the consequences of not passing the strict beauty standard means mistreatment, most Koreans are urged to alter their looks by going under the knife. In the 2021 International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS) report, Korea ranked first for having the highest number of plastic surgery cases per capita in the world. Based on this report, 22% of Korean women did surgery. This huge market is the main reason why the country houses more than 4,000 surgery clinics and is the leading destination for people who want to get surgeries, such as Blepharoplasty (eyelid surgery), nose jobs, face lifts, and liposuction (removal of fats).
Not everyone, though, has the money or courage to have an operation. In this case, some Koreans spend a lot on skin care and make-up. Korea is known for its 10-step skin care that its citizens do religiously, and what’s surprising is that it is not done by women only; skincare and make up is also a common habit practiced by Korean men even when it is viewed by some cultures as an act of crossing gender stereotypes.
The main reason behind this strong desire, almost an obsession to be beautiful, is directly related to lookism. In a study conducted in 2022 alone, 24% of 3117 adolescents reported having experienced lookism, or appearance discrimination in school or at work. Of this number, 60% said that they were urged to have an operation because of self-dissatisfaction, while 20% stated that it was because of their parents’ influence.
Being beautiful or handsome in Korea also means having a high chance of success in landing on their dream jobs. There is a saying in Korea, “The good-looking wins over half” and in a very competitive society, having an edge is very important. People based their trust on the looks of a person, so companies are more likely to hire applicants who have pleasing appearance.
For the simple fact that the status of lookism in Korea is extreme, it has become understandable why so many people are pushed to alter their looks, whether it is by having a surgery, or by putting on makeup. The reality is that it is hard to be “ugly” in Korea. Finding a friend, a classmate, or a coworker to hang around with for a person considered “ugly” is really hard. In most cases, they are isolated, and turned into what Koreans call, “wang-ta”, or the class reject.
In fact, the ubiquity of lookism is so deeply rooted in Koreans that it is even reflected in their Korean media. A variety show called “Let Me In,” for one, has gained its popularity by helping “ugly” people get surgery to alter their looks to the acceptable level so that they can live normal lives. In this show, it could be seen how lookism has ruined their victim’s self-confidence, life, and career, to the point that they could not live a normal life anymore that they even need to change their looks just to have as basic a peaceful life. This fact should be a reality check for the kind of life Koreans are building, the kind that people cannot even live a normal life without having a pretty or handsome face. How shallow can people be?
Lookism is also present in the Korean dramas that tackle the lives of people who have surgeries and show their lives before and after. An example of this is the drama series, “My ID is Gangnam Beauty”. Here, a girl who was bullied for her looks had an operation when she was still in middle school. However, even when she did this, she still struggled to live as some people who knew her past tried to bully her again, and the fear and emotional damage these bullies left her was so deep that she still felt threatened by them when they approached her. The truth is that bullies leave a big scar on the bullied individuals. It is worse when a person is bullied because of his or her appearance. In this drama, one can see how bad it is to be “ugly” when a middle school student is urged to get an operation. Isn’t this the reflection of a rotting society that is on the verge of losing its morals?
Similarly, in the webtoon, “True Beauty”, a bullied high school girl was urged to drastically change her looks by putting on thick makeup in order to avoid bullies. In an episode of this drama, she was very scared of her bullies even though she knew that they could not recognize her. This high school girl needed to change her look drastically to the point that she is unrecognizable when she removes her makeup, and she was doing this to look pretty because beautiful girls are treated differently in Korean society. When she changed her looks she gained attention, got social media fame, obtained friends, was offered career opportunities, and even had boyfriends. These perks of possessing beauty are the very reasons most Koreans are inclined to change their looks. Believe it or not, beauty works differently in Korea. It is like having an upper hand in almost everything nice.
The frequent use of lookism as genres in these forms of media is enough proof that the issue has gone out of hand already. There is nothing wrong with wanting to improve one’s looks, but it becomes a malady when the purpose is to please society. It is already bad enough that society judges others based plainly on looks, but it is a worse case when people try to aggressively push others to change their looks before they become accepted.
The current generation of Koreans has become overboard by showing apathy towards those they do not find physically pleasing. Beauty has become the most important quality over basic manners. Most Koreans are jumping into the jargon failing to see real beauty. Social media is not making it easier for anyone, too. Platforms, such as Instagram and Facebook, were designed to gain likes and heart for pictures that are pleasing to the eyes. It is often that people are shamed when they try to be themselves. Netizens judge their looks and openly leave critical remarks that could often hit the spot of the people receiving them. Sadly, even those who already have a good face and body like the celebrities are also criticized by the public. The pressure for them to be perfect is higher, and this usually pushes them to feel very uncomfortable even to their own body. Some even go to as far as committing suicide because what the people say about them is too much for them to handle. The mean words they get from their bashers negatively affect their physical and mental health.
Korea’s lookist culture makes it hard for people to love their own unique physicalities . Many are forced to go under the knife to change their lives and the way people treat them. It is a sad reality and an utter display of the ill of the current society.
If this kind of culture continues, self-love and self-acceptance would be so hard for a Korean to achieve. It will not be easy to alter this kind of culture, but one thing is for sure, something has to be done, and it should start now. Otherwise, Koreans would continue living in society full of cold-blooded critics and insecure victims.