“Society hasn’t pressured or encouraged me…”

As my topic is an exploration of not so much facts and statistics, but rather of shared opinions which dictate social norms and the mainstream, a platform which really offers a greater insight into the opinions of the general public is video content on YouTube. YouTube is literally a hub where anyone, anywhere can upload a video which contains any form of content such as comedy skits, cooking tutorials and real life news content completely at their own discretion (although with some regulations regarding copyright and sensitive topics). This therefore allows for greater citizen journalism on every topic imaginable and with this comes more opinion and more instances of autoethnography to be evident.

In my trawling through the endless videos available on YouTube, I came across this highly fascinating video called “Grace Neutral Explores Korea’s Illegal Beauty Scene” which is a half-hour documentary produced with i-D – a sub-channel of VICE. It was uploaded in May this year and the entire documentary is Grace Neutral’s autoethnography of Korea and its beauty industry. She explores how younger generations are challenging traditional views around body image in South Korea via the country’s underground tattoo scene, gang culture, the mainstream influences of K-Pop and plastic surgery.

I found to be a really enthralling 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 tattooed which even further adds to her uniqueness. She is a tattoo artist from London who is open minded and willing to learn about the Korea culture but still deep down retains her Western standards and views.

She explains how

  • South Korea has a 6 million dollar beauty industry
  • Has the world’s fastest growing and technically advanced beauty industry
  • Korean women spend twice as much as American women on beauty products
  • 60% of women’s in their 20’s have had plastic surgery

She spends a day with a young Korean woman who said something that really struck me –

“Society hasn’t pressured 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 surgery is so common, surgery isn’t considered abnormal so that why she views that society hasn’t pressured her and it’s ingrained into her that surgery isn’t “different” to the norm. In Australia, whilst surgery is common, 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 find this differs to Korean surgeries as many are done to literally change the face so it looks different rather than enhanced.

Grace herself even shares my opinion and has the stance that girls are conforming to the societal pressure to look a certain way and follow the aesthetics of K-Pop stars. We both share this 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. She thinks that in Korea mainstream culture makes people feel uncomfortable if their beauty ideals expressed don’t fit in with the traditional standards or beauty.


As my research is progressing, I’m finding it increasingly hard to categorise Korean beauty standards by make-up trends alone and have found that it encompasses much more. I want to step away from purely comparing and contrasting Eastern vs. Western beauty trends and go deeper into South Korean beauty ideals, the influences and movements shaping the current standards, its reception by different audiences and in what ways this differs from the West.

The main areas which I will be exploring are:

Body Image – body shape and skin tone

Surgery – Celebrity culture influence and the normalisation of surgery

Make-up – Cute vs. Sexy/ East vs. West

Due to my research and cultural awareness, in my understanding the ideal Korean woman is:

  • Tall and slim body
  • Pale skin tone
  • Double eyelids for the effect of larger eyes (often achieved through surgery)
  • Slim chin (also often achieved through surgery)
  • Cute and youthful looking – more commonly seen in make-up

This contrasts with the ideal Western woman who is:

  • Strong, toned and fit body
  • Tan and ‘sunkissed’
  • Greater emphasis on having a larger bum and lips (evident through celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and KylieJenner)
  • Greater focus on fitness and health (seen in the latest social media boom of the fitness industry)

To gather my research I will be looking to YouTube as mentioned before but I will also be looking at social media and analysing where audience, reach and interaction is coming from for certain content e.g. popular influencers and brands as this is honest and current trends and opinions.


Korean VS. Western beauty ideals

For my major project, my area of interest is in comparing Korean beauty ideals and Western beauty standards and exploring how cultures impact an individual’s perceptions of beauty. As a beauty and cosmetics fanatic, I can be found in my room religiously watching YouTube beauty tutorials, reading articles about the latest looks and items which are trending, laughing at the memes circulating social media or in store at Mecca Cosmetica with my hand covered in lipstick swatches. Make-up has become such a priority for me that I even want to dedicate my life to working in the head office of a global cosmetics house.

Due to this constant immersion into the beauty realm, I was particularly drawn to one social trend which blew up online and that was the rise of Korean beauty ideals. These ideals were gaining attention and giving rise to ‘Korean Inspired’ beauty tutorials online, more articles outlining how to achieve such a look and also the increase of cosmetic surgeries in Eastern countries, especially regarding the double eyelid procedure.

My blood is 100% Korean but I was born and raised in Australia so my identity is heavily influenced by both Eastern traditions and methods as well as Western ways of thought. Being raised in the Australian lifestyle, having gone through the schooling system from the age of 4 until this day and my friends all being brought up in the Western culture (although they too might have a different cultural background), it is only natural that I too adopt predominantly Westernised values, including beauty ideals. When Korean beauty ideals started trending, it made me realise how separate and ignorant I really was from my background.

The rise of Korean beauty as a trend in the Western world can definitely be attributed to the popularisation of the music genre, K-Pop. The K-Pop phenomenon put the Korean music scene on the global map, made Korean stars international stars and lead to international tours and fans. Like any celebrity, fans and the public look up to them as figures, for inspiration, for fashion ideas and beauty trends. Because the Korean look can be categorised so easily due to the uniform look, Western audiences soon too noticed the simplicity in the same beauty look every star – even the males – were wearing (although the process to achieve this is far less simple). YouTube tutorials started appearing with titles such as “How to Look Like a K-Pop Star” and “Kpop Star Makeup Tutorial” and even to this day beauty bloggers like Shaaanxo (from New Zealand) who just last month, uploaded a Korean beauty haul video.

      My sister-in-law was born in South Korea and then moved to New Zealand when she was 12. Despite going through adolescence to adulthood in a Westernised society, she still maintains many Korean beauty standards because they are engrained in her from a young age and also due to the influence of her mum and older sister who hold the same view. She values having pale skin and consciously does not go out in to the sun for prolonged periods of time and she uses make up to enhance the size of her eyes. She has even gone to the extent of having laser surgery to remove her facial freckles and has an intense everyday skincare routine. She made me realise that we were so different, I like having a slight tan so I don’t look transparent and I enjoy going outdoors in the sun, I don’t consider my freckles an imperfection and I like to play around with my make-up looks.

Interactions with her also made me think about how growing up in a certain environment can seriously shape one’s perception. The more I thought about it the more I realised that Korean beauty standards seemingly idealises Western qualities such as big eyes and white skin but also retains its own cultural individuality such as looking younger rather than older, using less makeup to achieve a more natural look, and trying to look cute rather than sexy.

     To complete this investigation into differing beauty standards based on cultural values I will utilise different research methods including:

  • My own observations and interpretation of the differences and similarities between cultures
  • Interviewing and gathering the opinions of people from various other cultural backgrounds
  • Analysing academic sources to help back my own opinion as well as provide facts

This work will be what Ellis (2011) calls a Narrative Ethnography whereby it will incorporate my own experiences in the analysis of others. There will be encounters and interactions with members of the groups being studied such as those who adhere to either beauty ideal and this will shape my own observations of those involved.

Autoethnography: A personal account

Autoethnographies are the result of merging autobiographies, where an author recounts their past experiences and ethnography, the study of a culture and what defines it and its members (such as values, beliefs and practices) for the purpose of educating others.

Ellis (2011) defines autoethnography as an approach to texts and situations that aim to examine personal experience in order to understand cultural experience. This unconventional approach challenges the norm when it comes to research as well as adding an emotional element in the representation of others and culture. Autoethnographies are written to produce didactic and confrontational content regarding personal and interpersonal experiences to educate and enlighten audiences.

Autoethnographies can be viewed as the relationship between authors and audiences via texts and stories that are complex and meaningful to teach morals, unique ways of thinking and help people make sense of themselves and others.

‘Akira’ (1998) is an animation, action, sci-fi film directed by Katsuhiro Otomo and a movie which I found highly engaging at that. It is not a movie that I would generally be interested in due to its manga style animation although its dystopic setting is amongst my favourite genres. In my viewing of the film, I found it hard to apply an autoethnographic approach as I could not identify anything  about it as personal to me.

Reasons I found the film hard to relate to:

  • The story line was interesting but at times I found not chronological and therefore hard to follow and understand which detracted from my ability to relate to characters.
  • The Japanese Manga style of animation also encapsulates extreme graphic visuals which are not human such as tentacles and uncanny human features so this also made me find the text “weird”. This has a direct correlation though with my heavily Westernised way of thought and what I deem as normal or weird.
  • The film also doesn’t show equality amongst genders with males being both the protagonist and antagonist and women playing supporting roles to the strong, heroic men. The character Kaneda is the strongest female character in the entire film and is still sexualised as Kei’s love interest. This is a common theme that also is prominent in Western texts.

Upon watching this film, it only reinforced my pre-existing view of what Japanese culture is which I have formed through, word of mouth, popular culture and mostly through online content such as YouTube videos and articles. As a stereotype, the Japanese are known for their gentle nature but extremely out their interests such as Lolita’s, music genres, game shows and hentai. I find that I am still not drawn to Japanese texts such as these although it was highly engaging, educational and entertaining.