Being Beautiful in Korea

“Teacher! You look like Emma Watson! Beautiful!”

I burst out laughing.

“Have you ever seen a photo of Emma Watson?” I thought to myself.

I know this may come as a shock to some…but I do not look like Emma Watson. Besides being white women with brown hair, that’s pretty much where me and Ms. Watson’s similarities begin and end.

But I’ve come to find that comparing me to Emma Watson is less about me and Hermione looking the same but more about what Koreans find beautiful in foreigners.

Preface, all of my research on Korea told me to expect a completely different reaction. As a girl who isn’t exactly Kate Moss thin…why beat around the bush…as a girl who is overweight, I was told to expect harsh remarks based upon my appearance. Things like:

“You would be so much prettier if you lost weight!” or “You won’t find a husband being so fat!”

Yet I have gotten neither of those types of statements. In fact I really have only gotten compliments based on how pretty I am (???? I know! I am just as confused as you are!)

Some examples:

  • When telling my co-teacher I didn’t date too much back home she responded with “What? Is every one blind?” and was honestly SHOCKED.
  • After spending time with my Korean friend he told me he was “proud” to hang out with me in public places because I’m so “beautiful.”
  • Cashiers, waiters, random people on the street, will stop and take time out of their day to tell me I am pretty. This happens at least once a day. I figured it would stop once I’d been here a while. It’s month four. And it still happens with regularity.

Now, is this because I am some sort of drop-dead gorgeous Aphrodite type goddess that all of you just have been missing out on back home? No. Of course not. Far from it.14696881_1841992812711032_69001836_n

It all has to do with KOREAN views on what WESTERN beauty standards should be. So by USA standards I may not have everything that’s totally desirable, but if you take the same logic and apply Korean beauty standards to my face, I come out looking (and feeling) pretty good.

So I have put together a small list (no where near comprehensive) of what Koreans view as beautiful. Please take this with a grain of salt, I am vastly generalizing and by no means saying that everyone finds THIS EXACT LIST to be the most attractive. It is solely based on what I have observed/experienced since living in Korea:

  • Having a small face
    • If you can put a CD up to your face and all of your features fit behind the CD this is considered having a small face. What it really means is that you proportional/symmetrical.
    • I do not have a “small face.”
  • Big eyes
    • To quote Anna Faris in the cinematic masterpiece House Bunny:Eyes-Nipples.gifKoreans do put a lot of focus on the eyes, the bigger the eyes the prettier you may seem. Same goes for if you have a double eye-lid and/or light colored eyes. Those are three things I naturally have, so I guess that helps me.
  • Being pale
    • The sun is seen as evil here. Koreans caught on quickly that the sun causes wrinkles and premature old-aging. Koreans are always super impressed with how pale my skin is, and my students are constantly comparing our skin tones. It is amazing to them that it’s almost June and I am still ghostly white.
  • High bridged small noses
    • Did you know Korea gets more nose jobs done than any other country in the world?! The beauty standards here are no joke, it goes for men and women. And wide flat noses are so undesirable it is not uncommon to see children as young as 10 or 11 recovering from rhinoplasty. Personally I have always thought I was given a great nose by Western standards, but I have literally had people in Korea STOP me on the street and ask to take a photo of my nose to show their surgeon. Flattering? Sort-of. Creepy? Most definitely.
  • Clear skin
    • Acne and blemishes? Same as the States, viewed as flawed.
  • V-Shape
    • This is about your jaw line, any jaw line that does not taper off into a point at your chin is seen as undesirable. I didn’t think I had a V-line jaw until a co-worker told me she was jealous of my V-line? Which just goes to show how oblivious I really am to these kinds of things.

Now on a good day, I guess I have most of these things, which is what has lead to the numerous compliments, random requests for photos and  overall self-esteem boost I have received since living in Korea.

And while it may be easy to make light of the beauty standards I conform with so well here, it is not the same for the everyday Korean. Pressure on appearance in Korea is HIGH. Quite honestly the pressure to be beautiful in Korea is unlike anything I have ever seen or witnessed. Korea has the highest rate of plastic surgery in the world, and it’s not uncommon for my little 3rd graders to come to me and tell me they can’t wait to get eyelid surgery. Boys and girls. These kids are 7 years-old.

How important is appearance?

I have a 4th grader who’s behavior is atrocious, when talking to my co-teacher about what we should do, she said “Nothing, because she is beautiful. We do not discipline beauty.” No, I am not kidding.

To be honest, while that may seem jarring I truly believe people in the US behave the same way, giving privileges to so-called “beautiful” people, but Americans maybe aren’t as honest about their reasoning.

So what are my final thoughts on all this?

  1.  Korea is a high stakes place. Pressure to conform to certain beauty standards is very intense here and can be seen even in young children.
  2. Beauty standards for white women in Korea are fairly low, and you can get away with a lot if you just have blue eyes.
  3.  And finally being in Korea has really shown me that ALL beauty standards, American, or Korean or whoever’s are really just cultivated media images. Why is it I get more compliments here? Did the 14 hour plane ride scramble my face? No. It’s because I happen to fit to what they are TOLD is beautiful here. Even if I didn’t fit to that image, that doesn’t mean I am not beautiful. It is an important lesson I will take back home with me, and honestly I wasn’t truly aware of how much the western media formulated my perception of “pretty” until I was out of that culture. It’s quite a wake-up call to realize that the only reason you think something is beautiful is because for 22 years your environment has been telling you it is beautiful. And without that environment factor your perception of beauty might be something different entirely.
  4. Last and most importantly: My high school boys think I look like Emma Watson.



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