For better or worse, looks matter in Korea. I mean, looks really matter. Regardless of where you go, you’ll see girls on the subway, in their cars, at a crosswalk, restaurant tables and anywhere else looking into the little tiny mirrors that seem to be customary cell phone compliments. If anything is out of place, it gets fixed, then and there. If anything is too out of place, well that’s just cause to break whatever had been on the day’s agenda and head home to get it sorted.
In a country that thrives on pressure, and even breeds it as a national sport, women always need to be on their “A” game. It’s too cold for that mini skirt? Wear some tights underneath. You will be walking a lot and don’t want to wear those stilettos? Tough, do it anyway.
Alarmingly, this pressure to appear perfect doesn’t stay limited to portable mirrors and choice of attire. Cosmetic surgery is so commonplace here that there seems to be a doctor offering it on every corner, and all of them stay busy. Conservative estimates suggest that half of women in their twenties have had some surgery done, in many cases several, and most anyone here knows that number is actually much higher. There is even such an obsession with angular-shaped faces here that cosmetic surgeons can essentially shave jawlines.
Eyelid surgery is most common, because Korean women all seem to be mortified that they don’t have a natural fold in their eyelids combined with a fascination for large eyes. But for women who have put on a few extra pounds, liposuction tends to be the preferred solution as opposed to exercise, and nose jobs are highly common as well.
I’m all for people doing what they wish to do with their bodies—want to cover it in tattoos? Do whatever makes you happy. The problem I have here in Korea, however, is that in spending enough time around these people, you get the sense that in most cases, the work that is done is not even necessarily because the girl herself wants it. Instead, she feels pressure from society, perhaps even subconsciously due to the importance put on the standard of ‘perfection’ here. Indeed, this is a country where photos are still attached to job or college applications, and most people believe that looks can be not only a deciding factor, but an absolute essential to even garner consideration.
What’s worse is that these unrealistic ideals are confirmed even in the home, where it is common for parents to pay for cosmetic surgery on their teenage girls. Can you imagine actually wanting your own child, the fruit of your loins, to be put under the knife because she isn’t good enough?
At some point, this has to stop if Korea is to continue its growth as a major player in the world economy. Pressure to be beautiful isn’t on the radar of human rights watchdogs yet, but at the rate Korea is going, it could soon be. Jobs and promotions are still won and lost based on willingness to perform sexual favors in this still male-dominated society, as the suicide case of actress Jang Ja-yeon, who was sexually abused by several entertainment executives, shed light on. Along those same lines, it was news recently when a local politician was quoted as telling a group of students that debate judges, of which he was one, “don’t really pay attention to the debate. They are actually interested in how participants’ faces look.”
Quite simply, the combination having males still highly dominant in this society, and the lack of any cultural theme that beauty comes in different shapes and sizes and colors, or is in the beauty of the beholder, makes for a potentially major social issue in Korea.
Don’t tell me what is or isn’t beautiful unless you want a smack in the jaw.