South Korea is a country which stereotyped by the rest of the world thanks to its eccentric K-Pop and unique beauty standards. It has a 6 billion dollar beauty industry with Korean women spending twice as much as American women on beauty products and 60% of women in their 20’s have had plastic surgery. Despite growing up in Australia, I have become aware of the desired Korean look and the rapid growth of cosmetic procedures thanks to television and the internet.
Being part of the generation which grew up with the internet, it is only natural that I spend most of my days browsing the internet and across numerous platforms, most of which are social media or content sharing platforms which breed a notion of interconnectivity and transglobal communication. YouTube is a space where citizen journalism is heavily evident thanks to its user generated content so this allows for many opinions to be shared and discussed. With anyone being able to both upload and view videos, it is easy for audiences to consume digital media produced all over the world.
In May this year, i-D (a sub-channel of VICE) uploaded a half-hour documentary to YouTube called “Grace Neutral Explores Korea’s Illegal Beauty Scene” and it is Grace Neutral’s autoethnographic take on South Korea and its beauty industry. She explores how younger generations are challenging traditional views around body image via the country’s underground tattoo scene, gang culture and the influence of mainstream K-Pop and plastic surgery.
I find it to be a very intriguing video because the interviewer, Grace Neutral is herself an interesting character. Having both face and eye modifications which make her highly recognisable, her whole body is also fully tattooed which only adds to her uniqueness. Her aesthetic alone does not conform into what the West deems as traditionally ‘beautiful’ even though she herself grew up with these traditional ideals. She is a tattoo artist from London who is open minded and willing to learn about the Korean culture but still rooted in her are the traditional Western standards and views which is interesting considering she herself does not conform to these.
She talks to many women about their views on particularly plastic surgery and one young Korean woman says “Society hasn’t pressured me or encouraged me. It’s done because we feel like we can improve our looks with surgery.” With an Australian understanding of beauty and surgery, I feel like because plastic surgery is so common in Korea, having a procedure done isn’t considered abnormal and so that is why she views that society hasn’t pressured her and it’s ingrained into her that surgery isn’t “different”. In Australia, whilst surgery is common, to me is seems that many young women undergo less dramatic surgeries and often opt for procedures which enhance their existing features such as lip injections and breast enlargements. I this differs to Korean surgeries as many are done to literally change the face so it looks completely different rather than enhanced.
Grace herself shares my opinion and has the stand that girls are conforming to the societal pressures to look a certain and follow the aesthetics of K-Pop stars. We share a common opinion due to our similar Western cultures, values and standards. This contrasts with the Korean girl who genuinely believes that women do not bow down to societal pressures but rather all happen to get surgery because they want to make themselves look better. Grace’s view after her numerous interviews with people is that Korean mainstream culture makes people feel uncomfortable if their beauty ideals expressed don’t fit in with the traditional standards of beauty.
In another documentary video produced by VICE and uploaded onto YouTube called “Seoul Fashion Week – K-Pop to Double Eyelid Surgery”, it follows the British host Charlet Duboc around Seoul Fashion Week as she interviews and hangs out with various people ranging from an eclectic fashion designer to a heavily tattooed, punk hair barber. When talking with a young Korean fashion student, the student says “sometimes I think what it would be like to have double eyelids, especially because I see many of my friends getting them done. I think our desire to look like celebrities is far greater than any other country.” This really struck me because she, as a young Korean female could admit to considering surgery to conform and also the huge influence celebrities have. During another interview, a Korean model says that people are coming from abroad because of K-Pop to have plastic surgery.
The branding power of K-Pop appears to be very dominant and thanks to the advance globalised world, it is only easier for cultures to spread via media content. In Western culture, the only thing close to this is beauty phenomenon is Kylie Jenner popularising lip injections which led to the Kylie Jenner Lip Challenge and subsequently her releasing her own make-up line, Kylie Cosmetics, with her signature Lip-Kits. Thanks to her, the movement towards having big, full lips began.
Recently my friend had her lips done and I saw her the day after she got them done. They were swollen, bruised around her mouth and looked uncomfortable. She said that the procedure was also a bit painful. I asked her why she got them done and she replied “I dunno, just for a change.” Lip injections cost around $389, that’s not spare money (unless you’re a millionaire +) so to me I think that she either was not telling me the whole story or it was something subconscious which she didn’t even realise. I think that having your lips done is an increasing trend amongst young females today as I have also heard many others considering the procedure as well as seeing YouTube beauty bloggers getting it done. In the Western environment, there is a trend towards the normalisation of surgery like that in Korea but perhaps not to that extent just yet – Charlet makes the analogy that “getting double eyelid surgery is as common practice as going to the dentist.”
Megan Bowen is an African-American who moved to Korea in around 2012 and started a YouTube channel dedicated to blogging her new life, tips for others, Korean culture and lifestyle. She uploaded a humorous video called “Koreans React to American Female Celebrities” where participants are recorded reacting to the images and making comments on the physical appearance of female American Celebrities.
The first celebrity they reacted to was Beyonce, an African-American woman with a tall and curvy body. It was interesting to note that the female respondents found her “pretty” and one even commenting that her skin tone was nice. A male respondent even said she had a nice tan and when told that she was actually “black” (Megan’s words) then he was surprised. This was a different response to what I would have expected as my understanding of the ideal Korean look values pale skin. One guy even likened her body to a mannequin which stereotypically in every country has the proportions of a model, tall and thin. Another guy stated that she looks like she works out and has thick legs and he prefers slim, skinny girls. These are two differing opinions of the same photo and body despite both men being Korean and supposedly holding Korean beauty standards.
Another celebrity which they reacted to was Taylor Swift, a tall, slim, blonde hair blue eyed woman of Anglo-Saxon decent. Many noted her strong eyes and eyebrows (one referred to them as “angry eyebrows” which I thought was cute) with one guy in particular saying that “she has sharp features and her eyebrows are strong”- both are things which are current trends in the Western make-up world – and 4 guys on different occasions say that “she looks scary”. The difference in preferred make-up styles between cultures is clearly evident here.
From my research as well as these videos, I can deduce that overall yes there is one ideal Korean look for females but of course each person has their own preferences, it is just that many in Korea share the same ones. Growing up in Australia, despite being a nation built on multiculturalism, there is a dominant Western culture similar to that of America and the UK and so the beauty ideals reflect that. Australians tend to value sun-kissed, tan skin, a strong athletic body with an emphasis on a bigger butt and thick legs, full lips and heavy make-up. As I am Asian (Korean DNA but Chinese heritage) and having grown up in Australia my whole life, I definitely find myself adhering to the Western beauty standards because I genuinely find them more attractive although this has been ingrained in me since childhood with television and magazines, western celebrities and even my peers and others in society. I do appreciate Korean beauty and sometimes I do take on a make-up or fashion trend but I certainly don’t want to be as stereotypically pale or even care about plastic surgery. Due to ease of access to things such as the internet and sharing media content, there is the ability for cultures to become transglobal and therefore citizens of the world are influenced by more and more. Ultimately though where you grow up impacts your values and beliefs the most, no matter whether you accept or reject them.