Last month I had my eyes measured by a 15-year-old boy. “Teacher, big eyes,” he said as he came toward me with a ruler. In a moment of awkward curiosity, I found myself leaning in as he raised the ruler up to my face. According to him, my eyes are 2cm high. “See,” I said, “they aren’t 3cm” — which had been his original estimation. “Yes, but mine are only 1cm,” he said.

Like many Koreans, this boy is preoccupied with his appearance. Most students (both boys and girls) and teachers at my school continually monitor their appearance in a mirror, which they keep on their person or at their desk. Foreigners are initially shocked by this practice, but they soon find that Koreans are generally more frank about their grooming habits and their opinions on beauty. While people around the world use mirrors throughout the day, this is done secretively because public grooming is considered a sign of vanity in many Western cultures. So really, it’s just more acceptable to groom oneself publicly in South Korea.

That said, the social pressure to be beautiful is also heightened because of this frankness. As has been lamented by many a foreigner, Korean people are quick to comment on the appearance of others — even if they’re being critical. Comments such as “Teacher! Small face! Big eyes!” have become the leitmotif of my school days. And it’s not just students that feel comfortable regularly commenting on my appearance. A group of women I have lunch with let me in on the rumour that I’ve had plastic surgery because the bridge of my nose is so high. While being told I’m gorgeous never makes me scowl, it still strikes me as unprofessional, and I feel like I suppose most Koreans do — like my appearance is under constant scrutiny.

Beauty in this country is matter-of-fact.

Once again complimented on my “small face,” I had the following dialogue with a student a couple of weeks ago:

    “Teacher, you are so beautiful!”

    “No, in South Africa I am only so-so.”

    “Yes, but in Korea you are perfect.”

Since, as Korean-American Mama Nabi of the blog Kimchi Mamas says, “Koreans in general have a more objective view of external beauty,” there’s only one standard of beauty here. In contemporary Korea, a perfect face is defined by a combination of the following features: a small face (the measurements for which seem entirely vague), big eyes, pale skin, and — most importantly — 쌍꺼풀. Pronounced “sang-koh-pul,” it refers to the crease or fold that many Asian people do not have in their eyelids.

By my students’ standards, I am perfect. I have a small face, big eyes, sang-koh-pul, and a high nose. The fact that I have blemished skin, skewed teeth, and a bump on my nose seems irrelevant (such things render me rather average-looking where I come from). Either their cultural goggles are so strong that I appear perfect to them, or the way I actually look is irrelevant, since I have fulfilled the necessary criteria for Korean beauty.

Although each culture has its own standard of beauty1, the pressure to conform to the national beauty standard is far more intense here2. To say that looking good is a priority for South Koreans would be an understatement. Beauty is a measure of success, as it is also generally believed that people who conform to these standards of beauty have a better chance at getting a job and finding a spouse. The belief that beautiful people are more successful is not unique to Korea, nor is it recent, but Koreans seem to see little room for debate on the matter, and are more concerned with adapting their bodies to gain an advantage. It is not uncommon, for instance, for people to get plastic surgery in preparation for a job interview. To compete, one needs to be perfect by Korean standards, and this striving for perfection is also the root of the country’s obsession with education.

Beauty Week
    “Teacher, I want to get surgery on my eyes.”

    “But your eyes are beautiful!”

    “No, this is glue3.”

It was conversations like this that sparked my interest in notions of beauty in Korea. Being a high school teacher puts me at the centre of cultural consumption and production, and opinions about beauty in high schools are never going to be watered down. Personally, I remember high school being the pinnacle of my paranoia about my appearance — that was the period in which I felt the most pressure to be beautiful, and I was most aware of beauty trends in popular culture.

So, when doing research for this article, I turned to those I considered experts on the matter: my students, most of whom are girls aged 15-18. For a week, I taught a lesson on beauty and culture to Grade 11 classes4. During the lesson, the students completed a worksheet which asked questions about their perceptions of beauty, their relationship with their parents, and their thoughts on having plastic surgery.

A worksheet I gave out to my students during a lesson on beauty and culture.

Many students responded with attitudes that I consider healthy; while they acknowledged the pressure to have a beautiful appearance, they thought other aspects of one’s personality were as important, if not more so. Their responses also indicated the nature of Korean beauty standards; out of 312 students5, 74 defined beauty as having big eyes and a small face, 37 said it was more important to have a beautiful face than a beautiful personality, 12 have had surgery, and 124 wanted to have surgery in the future6. Of the third that wanted to have surgery, most wanted 쌍술(“sang-sul,” a shortening of 쌍꺼풀 수술, or eyelid surgery / blepharoplasty). It was also the most common amongst those who have had surgery.

I first came across the term sang-sul in Kelley Katzenmeyer’s documentary Korean High School, which focuses on the social pressure to succeed in high schools by analysing educational and beauty practices. I showed my students a clip from the trailer and asked them to compare their experience with those in the film. All my classes said that there were similar issues at our school. For those who don’t live in Korea, it provides important insight.

Plastic surgery as a cultural practice

When a student writing a bucket list said she wanted to get sang-sul when she grows up, this was one of the first signs that South Koreans viewed plastic surgery in ways slightly different than other countries. According to a recent report by The International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, South Korea has the highest cosmetic surgery stats in the world, measured by procedures per capita. One in five women in Seoul have undergone surgery, and the most popular procedures are: lipoplasty, rhinoplasty, and blepharoplasty. A recent trend in jaw surgery — for those in pursuit of a small face or V-line — has led to an increase in more invasive and expensive procedures7. However, eyelid surgery still seems to be the surgery that most people have an opinion on.

Since all Caucasian people have sang-koh-pul naturally, there is debate as to whether Asian women get sang-sul because they believe Caucasian eyes are more beautiful. Some say that, since some Asian races have sang-koh-pul, Asian women are simply trying to conform to a global beauty standard. Others argue that Asian women are striving to appear more Caucasian, since they see this as an ideal form of beauty.

Anna Lee, a Korean woman who wrote a thesis on cosmetic surgery in South Korea, argues that “Korean people are fixing their eyes because they are naturally made to believe that it is flawed.” She looks at the influence of Western ideology that began in the Korean War and gained ground once Western media was consumed more regularly in the digital age, which led Korean people to believe that “their eyes, their facial shape [was] inherently flawed. Their natural features were a defect meant to be fixed.” While women who get sang-sul may not do so in order to look Caucasian, it’s clear that they don’t believe Asian eyes (the majority of which do not have sang-koh-pul) are beautiful.

One of the many adverts for cosmetic surgery in Seoul’s subway network.

Regardless of the motivations for plastic surgery, the practice is now a firm part of national culture. Jean Chung’s short documentary Lookism or Insecurity: Cosmetic Surgery in South Korea provides insight into the phenomenon.

It doesn’t seem very different to the body modification practices such as Ethiopian lip-plates, Victorian corsets, or Burmese neck coils, and it’s as difficult for Korean women to resist the pressure to conform to cultural norms, not least of all because their parents are the first to buy them surgery.

Parents are the beginning and the end.

Since beauty is prioritised by South Koreans, who believe it can be measured objectively, parents approach it as they would any other aspect of their child’s development. They encourage their child to do what it takes to succeed, whether it be studying at a hagwon (private learning academy) until 10pm, or getting sang-sul. Their tendency to be frank also influences their relationship with their children.

Out of the students who filled in my worksheet, 52 said their parents had told them they were unattractive. As Mama Nabi explains, Korean moms are famous for criticising their child’s appearance, and since beauty has only one standard, “many ‘criticisms’ aren’t even considered criticisms but seen as objective observation intended to be helpful.”

I have no doubt that parents are acting out of love when they buy their daughters surgery as a graduation gift or send them to school for 14 hours a day. They probably feel their child will simply fall behind if they don’t. With this in mind, it seems cosmetic surgery will remain a cultural practice until parents stop promoting and funding it.

I will leave you with some quotes from my students:

  • “I think the ability to understand other people make us beautiful. Actually, I have not much the ability. But, I try to have it and be kind.”
  • “My mother says I should plastic surgery.”
  • “makeup, plastic surgery, Big eyes and a small face and high nose are beautiful.”
  • “I don’t know [if I want to have surgery in the future] but my mother recommend it.”
  • “Photoshop and surgery is beautiful.”
  • “It is more important to have a beautiful face because beauty is very important in Korea.”
  • “No, I don’t want to get surgery because I experience pain after I had surgery.”
  • “It is more important to be pretty because future become surgery world everyone become pretty.”
  • “My family think my eyes is beautiful because I had plastic surgery.”
  • “I don’t want to get surgery because I don’t want to be sick for beauty. I want to live my original face.”
  • “If ugly people have kind and funny, they look like beautiful people.”
  • “My mother says I should face-lift.”
  • “a beautiful face can have surgery. But a beautiful personality can’t have surgery.”
  • “Someone is beautiful if they are funny and strong mind.”
  • “my mother tells me I am beautiful, but my father says I should have plastic surgery.”
  • “I may have to say the beautiful personality is more important to be seen as a normal person. But the truth is beautiful face is more important. Though everyone deny, it hide in people’s subconscious.”
  • “Of course I want to have surgery on my eyes.”
  • “No… because if I change my face, I can’t [resemble] my family.”
  • “A person who has a beautiful mind is beautiful.”
  • “I don’t want to get surgery. I don’t want to change my body for beauty.”
  • “Someone is beautiful if they have [a] huge mind.”
  • “Maybe I will have plastic surgery in the summer vacation.”
  • “It is more important to be pretty because beautiful person can live a good life.”
  • “I want to have surgery [all over] my face. I want to be a Kim Tae Hee.”
  • “It is important to have a beautiful personality because outer beauty has a time limit.”

1As I told my students, South Africans construct beauty standards based on — among other things — skin colour. We tend to pursue an ideal, nonexistent skin colour somewhere between midnight black and pale white; black women want to lighten their skin and white women want to darken theirs. Like most countries, South Africa is certainly not exempt from criticism of beauty conventions.

2This is one of the many effects of an ethnically homogeneous society. United in race and language, Korean people tend to encourage conformity and practice collectivism.

3Korean girls often use glue or tape to create a temporary eyelid crease.

4During that week, I tweeted comments by students, which can be found under the hashtag #beautyweek.

5Disclaimer: I am not a quantitative researcher and these are not statistics. These numbers are by no means intended to provide facts about the amount of plastic surgery that is performed in the country, but merely to give the reader a sense of what ideas and conventions about beauty are at work in a public, urban high school in South Korea.

6Only two students mentioned the S-line during the course of the week. On his blog The Grand Narrative, James Turnbull has often mentioned the notion of alphabetized body shapes as a tool for constructing beauty standards. I’m not sure if this mode of judging beauty is losing popular ground, or if people associate it with sexiness rather than beauty. Turnbull, who is one of the English-speaking experts on Korean gender issues and media, would perhaps offer a better explanation.

7Thanks to James Parr at Wet Casements for sending me this link.


Update: Below is a pic of an article that a student of mine wrote for the school’s English newspaper about my class on beauty. Some of the ideas s/he wrote about were not discussed in class. Needless to say I am more than proud of her/him for thinking laterally!

This post was originally published at The Culture Muncher and is reprinted here with permission.