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Burning Seoul Photo: Justin De La Ornellas

It’d been a good night in Itaewon, one of Seoul, South Korea’s busiest nightspots.

I’D POTENTIALLY MADE a new friend to guide me through the city. Even better, I was dancing with an attractive girl. We moved closer together and she put her arms around my waist. She stopped dancing and smiled.

“What’s this?” she teased, grabbing at my several pounds of excess fat.

“Uh … well, me,” I replied, surprised and embarrassed.

What did one say? She’d picked out one of my flaws and told me all about it. Thanks for the observation? Unsurprisingly enough, things with that girl never went beyond the platonic. I had just learned my first lesson on the importance of looks in Korea.

In any subway car you will see young Korean women checking their hair and makeup in mirrors that come attached to their cell phones. For those with less image-savvy devices, the windows provide ample reflection for women to fretfully fix stray stands of hair or rouge streaks of foundation.

Wondergirls Press Conference Photo: DekOow

This preoccupation with beauty is no less reflected in how many Korean women dress. High heels, mini skirts and frilled blouses are not reserved for nights out on the town – they are the norm for many women going about their daily business.

But Korean’s quest for beauty often leads them to take drastic, more permanent measures. The number of women who get some form of cosmetic surgery is nothing short of astounding. Conservative estimates put the figure at 50 percent of women in their twenties. Equally striking, one newspaper poll carried out last year suggested that almost 90 percent of Korean women have thought about getting work done.

By far the most common procedure is double eyelid surgery, which involves putting an extra fold in the eyelid, making the patient’s eyes seem bigger. Nose jobs and liposuction are also popular.

While looking good is a matter of boosting self-esteem for many women, there are often more practical reasons for going under the knife. A lot of women believe that their chances of employment are largely dependent on their looks and will improve significantly after a cosmetic touch-up. In this highly competitive society, where it is routine to send your photo attached to your resume, a pretty face can give you the edge in a job or college interview.

Such is the pressure to succeed that some parents even pay for their daughter’s procedures. It is not uncommon for high school girls to have their surgery paid for as a graduation present. And with many Korean celebrities getting surgery, the pressure to look a certain way comes from outside the home as well as within.

Asian Art Festival Photo: Stinkie Pinkie

Even politics is far from immune from the beauty obsession. Recently, one South Korean politician who had judged at a college debating competition raised eyebrows when he gave a group of students his view on how to win a debate.

“When we have a debate competition, judges don’t really pay attention to the debate. They are actually interested in how participants’ faces look,” the politician was quoted as saying.

At the same gathering he was reported as telling an aspiring news anchorwoman, “You will have to give ‘everything.’ Can you still do it?” “Everything,” one can assume, was not an innocent reference to plain determination and hard work.

Shortly after my lesson in appearances at the nightclub, I saw an online advert for free weekend Korean lessons. I went without hesitation, eager to pick up a few phrases in a country where English-speakers are firmly in the minority. The lessons were being provided by a group of young Koreans, who were keen to improve their English.

They invited me to lunch after the first class. The conversation turned to pop music. Before long, one of the girls produced her phone to show me a photo of the “Wondergirls,” one of Korea’s biggest girl groups. She wanted to know which one of the girls I thought was the most beautiful. I pointed out my favorite. I had good taste, my new friend told me.

Of course I did. I’d already learned what it meant to be beautiful here.

Culture + Religion


About The Author

John Francis Power

John Power is a 22-year-old freelance writer and copy-editor from Ireland, currently trying to navigate Seoul, South Korea. When not writing, he likes to sit outside 7/11s with a cold bottle of makgeolli and talk to strangers.

  • Eric

    Vainest society ever. People here can’t stop looking in mirrors no matter where they go.

  • Amanda

    Yes and as an American woman here in Korea, it’s even harder.
    I cannot buy pants, skirts, shoes, bras or underwear here.
    When I walk into stores, I am met with stares; eyes that say, “Nuh-uh, no way honey!” When I ask about larger sized shoes (anything bigger than a US size 8), I am laughed at.
    I do find that Korean women are high-maintenance and judge them for that. But at the same time, I also feel sorry for them. While they are checking their hair in every mirror, I am able to sweep mine into a ponytail and get on my way.

  • Anne M

    It’s so interesting to hear the standards of Korean beauty from a male’s point of view.

    I’m curious about whether the looks issue is limited to Korean women. It seems to me that Korean men put a lot more thought into fashion than males from other countries.

    I always assumed they were just having fun with aesthetics, but your article makes me wonder if Korean men feel pressure to take these drastic measures too. I’ve seen a lot of little boys with highlights and perms…

    • Turner

      I think that’s becoming more true in all cultures, at least ones with more exposure to mass media. Women aren’t the only ones who get insecure about their looks when they see a bikini model on a magazine cover.

  • Robin

    If you watch those Korean movie stars, they all look so similar… Even some Korean men would have the surgery.

  • Kelly

    I was able to buy size 16 jeans in a store near Itaewon, so all is not lost in Seoul.

    I also noticed how insanely high the women’s shoes are there. I went to Yonggungsa, a temple in Busan, renowned for its 100 stone steps, and women were practically running up and down them in stilettos. I asked a Korean friend why this was, and she said she thought it was bc they all felt so short. I asked an American friend how living in Korea made her feel, and she said at first it was really hard on her self-esteem but eventually that she learned to get over feeling large all of the time. Me, Im not so sure I could do it.

  • Candice

    A side of Korea I never knew.

  • Karen Lac

    Yeah a lot of the women (and men to a smaller extent) get the eyelid surgery done. Always funny to see how the girl has different eyes from her dad and brother.


  • Charlie

    Great post! That kind of directness can really catch you off guard sometimes.

  • Albert C

    I lived and worked in Korea for a year so I can definitely vouch for everything said in this article. Looks are everything in this society. While some women in the states get surgery to attract men, women in Korea also do it for everything else. This includes job interviews, promotions at the work place, acceptance from others, etc. It might seem bizarre to most but looking slightly better can mean a better career.
    It is so ingrained that parents pay for their daughter or even son’s surgery as a graduation gift.

  • Alice M

    Korea has such a different perception of beauty to Western countries. I work in a clothing shop in Australia where a lot of Korean and Malaysian women shop. I’m certainly not considered a beauty in Australia, but at least once a week a woman tells me I’m gorgeous. Funny that what most Australians see as skinny, flat chested, pale and reasonably plain, they think is amazing.

    • Rebekah

      I find I share similar views of beauty with Asian cultures and to me you sound gorgeous. It’s to do with perception. They don’t see as skinny and pale and flat chested, they see it as a delicate, petit and elegant body, beautiful natural pale skin and simple elegant features which are just stunning.

  • EvaSandoval

    I also appreciate hearing about this from a male’s point of view. Sorry you were made to feel less than beautiful, John! I lived in Japan for 2 years and while my height was average, I took a “large” in pants and underwear. In America, I wear 0 or XS. Talk about your mindbenders.

    Agree with Turner, too, about how obsession over one’s looks is leaking into many cultures due to media exposure and the need to be “perfect.” If you look at movies from any culture, you’ll usually only see the most “perfect” or most “beautiful” examples of their population. Imagine someone growing up watching Hollywood movies; they’d get the idea that all Americans look like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

    The other week, I bought an Italian magazine called Tu Style. There was a beauty feature that emphasized strong, colorful eyes and lips but bare skin. I noticed that for that particular shoot, they’d chosen models who were on the pretty side of average, but not stunning. They also had not airbrushed their skin; I could see pores and shine. For the first time, I could read a beauty article without feeling bad about myself. These women were not put on those pages to make me feel imperfect; they were just showing me how to wear the new fall trends.

  • Roxy

    I just moved to South Korea from America, and I must say that out of all the plastic surgery/body modifications the one that still sounds the strangest to me is skin bleaching. It had never even occurred to me before moving here that it would be something worth doing, but I know of a couple of Korean Americans who have moved here for marriage and their Korean in-laws will give them the money for skin bleaching as a wedding gift.

  • Brittany

    If I hear my Korean co-workers refer to another by the term “the fat lady”, or get asked by a student if I weigh “like a billion pounds” again I may scream…..

  • Lynn

    I’ve considered eyelid surgery because of racism in America.
    White kids will make fun of me because i had small eyes.
    if no one in my life pointed out that i was flawed because of my eyes.
    i would have never considered surgery

    • Crazyedcarrot23

      why get eyelid surgery…i am jealous of Korean eyes i love them  ^^
         And who cares what us white people say about your eyes  trust me not a lot of white people have lives all they think about is football ( for a guy ) and for a girl is all about how skinny and beautiful they look i mean come on they need to get a life. <33

    • Lukhi_midnight

      Please don’t worry about your eye-lids. honestly people would give you more crap about it if you changed them. Who cares what those people think, people with small eyes can get surgery to make them look bigger. But people with big eyes can’t get surgery to make their eyes smaller. So in effect, you frickin rock!!!

  • oolung

    Eyelids are fine compared to the leg-extension operation some girls in China have. That really scared me: to voluntarily risk becoming a cripple just to gain a few inches? Maybe centuries of bound feet give you an embedded disregard for your means of walking…

    And if we say all this about Korea, then what about South America where girls supposedly get boob jobs and nose jobs for their 18 birthday?

  • Tom

    The looks issue is INSANE here.

    From the 6th grade of elementary school and upwards, my students are obsessed with looks.

    Boys dye their hair and girls are glued to their mirrors.

    One of my middle school boys wrote in an essay that he wished he was thinner and wanted to lose weight, when it was simply a matter of a 13 year old boy having a bit of puppy fat. Hardly a case of childhood obesity.

    My male students who are regarded as “handsome” are also the laziest. This is because they know they can simply use their looks to get by in Korean society.

    The surgery to reduce face size – where bones in the face are literally chiselled away – is another worrying trend. The make-up containing skin bleaching products and the “perfect” looking popstars who look like a vastly different person from video to video.

    My partner wants a nose job. When I ask why, he says it’s because he feels his nose isn’t perfect. When I explain that the popstars and celebrities he sees have all had surgery and that it’s not natural, he ignores it. He says he knows, but it doesn’t register. Koreans seem to aspire to be something that they can simply never be without going under the knife.

    I love Korea, but this aspect of society disturbs me a lot.

  • Wheee =D

    I never knew that… I’m Korean but I was born in the US…… I don’t have a whole lot of self esteem… but…. I never would’ve considered plastic surgery… that just seems….. wrong to me….. =/ and…. my Korean friends who’ve moved here from Korea have never considered it either…. is it really like that?  I hope to visit Korea one day and see if its true…. if it is… thats just so sad….. =(((

  • Tiffany Cho


  • Tiffany Cho

    sigh…oh Korea, makes me sick in the stomach.

    • Alexander Hyun

      ah yes…the most hypocritical country in the world….

  • Elizabeth Angel Lopez-Hayward

    I’m so glad I read this…..I always got compliments on my looks-especially my body shape in USA and Venezuela. I moved to Turkey and didn’t get ANY compliments or I got negative ones. Then I went to Puerto Rico and got sooooo many comnpliments again.After an emotional roller coaster ride over my self esteem, I have finally decided I will look good for me because I am beautiful the way I am and I want to look pretty…not to impress anyone but for me!

  • Lori

    Sad, how can there be any desire for raising to a higher spiritual consciousness if your so deeply obsessed with the external?

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