Beauty Standards Around The World: Korea

Korean and American beauty standards are vastly different and represent two divergent views on what it means to be truly beautiful.

By Robyn Riley3 min read
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By analyzing the differences between these culturally distinct conceptions of beauty we can uncover the strengths and limitations of each. Certainly, there are things we can learn from both to uncover some universal truths regarding the age-old pursuit of beauty. 

America and Korea Have Opposite Approaches to Beauty

In Korea, the standards of beauty border on the oppressive, where strict rules must be followed exactly if you don’t want to be considered fat or ugly. This results in a very narrow view of what beauty is, which many Korean women feel burdened by. Alternatively, in America, we seem to not really even have standards for beauty anymore; beauty is seen as completely subjective and entirely in the eye of the beholder. We insist on reframing beauty standards to the point of absurdity.

In Korea, the standards of beauty border on the oppressive.

Young women in the West have never been more confused about what it means to be beautiful. Too often they think letting themselves go and not taking care of themselves is just fine because we have “beauty at any size” now. Others look to the over-sexualized celebrity and Instagram culture and think that without looking like the unrealistic images we see on our phones they will never be beautiful. In a word, it’s a mess. So what can we gather by looking to Korea to see if we can find some truth about beauty there?

What Is Beautiful in Korea

In Korea, beauty is defined by certain unchanging standards that define very clearly who is and is not beautiful. In Korea, to be beautiful, you must have fair and flawless skin, be very skinny, have medium to long length hair, straight eyebrows, a small face with big eyes, and have a youthful, healthy, modest femininity. 

An example of a Korean woman who embodies these qualities perfectly would be Lee Ji-eun, also known as IU. She is a fan favorite Kpop star known for her beauty and has an effortlessly natural look. What I personally like about IU as an example is that, if she has had any work done, it’s so minimal you could never tell. She fits the high standards of Korean beauty and makes it look easy.

The desire for perfection is so strong among Korean women that up to 20% of Korean women undergo various types of plastic surgery to narrow their jawbones and widen their eyelids. Sometimes these procedures are done on girls as young as 14. Some Korean women even believe that if they’re even a tiny bit over 100 pounds that they’re fat, and it’s not uncommon for women to severely under-eat in an attempt to maintain a very low percentage of body fat.

Up to 20% of Korean women undergo various types of plastic surgery to meet their culture’s beauty standards.

To Korea’s credit, there’s a lot of emphasis placed on natural beauty and minimalism in doing one’s makeup. Skincare, getting proper sleep, and drinking lots of water are all a part of beauty culture in Korea, and these things are truly great. Modesty and dressing femininely are also essential, and, while the standards for Korean beauty are extreme to some, there’s no denying that what these standards produce is indeed an example of timeless feminine beauty.

Cultural pushback against the rigid standards.

Certainly, this is the opposite extreme of what we see in America. While you can say that skinnier women with particular facial structure are objectively beautiful, the lengths that Korean women are expected to go to attain this level of perfection is unhealthy and unfair, leading to mental illness and much sorrow.

Due to the unrelenting societal pressure on Korean women to beautify themselves to an almost obsessive extent, the “Free the Corset” Movement emerged. The naming of this movement was meant to illustrate how the standards for beauty in Korea were so strict that it makes women feel as if they’re living in a corset. In response to being fed up with these standards, many women have thrown away their make up, cut their hair, and refused to get plastic surgery. 

Women Will Never Stop Caring about Being Beautiful. So What Should We Do?

A charitable interpretation of these two very different beauty cultures would have to include an acceptance that women want to be honest about what beauty is and is not, while simultaneously being allowed to accept themselves for who they are. Denying objective beauty exists isn’t a solution, nor is defining objective beauty so rigidly that women become neurotic, depressed, and obsessed about it. We have to find a middle ground where a range of healthy body types and various facial structures and skin tones can all be seen as beautiful, as long as the woman is healthy and embodying femininity in her style and demeanor. 

Women are never going to stop caring about being beautiful. So we need to find a way to talk about beauty that can provide a framework for women to accentuate and feel confident in their own natural beauty with clear do’s and don’ts that are general enough to cast a wide net that the majority of women can feel included in. It seems to be the fear of exclusion that drives much neurosis around beauty culture which inevitably leads to women throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Denying objective beauty exists isn’t a solution, nor is defining objective beauty so rigidly that women become depressed.

In terms of body size and composition, of course we will always see physically fit and slim women as the epitome of beauty, that’s unlikely to change. But there’s still a wide range of body shapes and sizes that can be considered both healthy and beautiful. Christina Hendricks and Jennifer Lopez come to mind. Both women are nowhere near a skinny body type; both are curvy but are feminine and dress to flatter their body type.

An effort towards a “natural beauty” culture would be beneficial to both Korean and American women, in my opinion, where we can focus on health and accentuating our unique features while sharing universal tips on how to be more feminine, like developing a flattering sense of style and taking our time to always do our hair beautifully the way our grandmothers did. 

Closing Thoughts

Beauty is something we can of course see externally, but it’s also the feminine spirit that brings that beauty to the surface. That feminine spirit is accessible to all women. It would be best if we defined beauty by not only a woman’s outer appearance, though that is important, but also by her graciousness, humility, gentleness, attentiveness, and kindness.

We must ask ourselves, “what makes me feel beautiful?” and seek the guidance of other women to find out. In reality, the standards society sets for us, though they can be a helpful guide or hurtful hindrance, should never be more important than the standards we set for ourselves.