Mixed Signals: Race and Beauty in South Korea / Kelly Belter

South Korea in the 1970s was one of the poorest countries - in the world. But in the last forty years, Korea’s economic and social position has been turned on its head: industrialisation, democracy, labour, women’s movements, education. South Korea has flourished and worked itself up to the eleventh highest per-capita income in the world. And with this massive growth has been consequences, especially on women. 

While there have been great improvements in women’s equality over the years, this has been limited. There has been an increase in female objectification and stringent beauty standards. South Korea has one of the highest rates of female education, but socioeconomic theories argue that movements towards gender equality, which threatens patriarchal structures, are related to an increase in unrealistic standards of beauty and more pressure to conform to these standards. Korean women are no longer only wives and mothers; they are educated professionals. Female bodies are no longer confined to childbirth and rearing. But this also means that their bodies have become sites of social value. Bodies are a way to project position and lifestyle. 

Objectification leads to intensified image policing. The female body becomes an internal battlefield, as evinced by recent studies on body monitoring among South Korean undergraduates. Researchers found that women fixated on thinness as well as certain facial features like skin tone, face shape (“v-line”) and a small face size. Whilst these are things which are common in Western beauty standards, the use of advertisements in women’s magazines that focus on models’ faces and bodies is significantly higher than that in the United States. Stroll through Apugujeong, Seoul’s cosmetic surgery paradise, and you’ll see firsthand how rampant plastic surgery advertisements are. The faces in these ads are marked by distinct facial features: double eyelids, high-bridged noses, flawless skin and slim jawlines. Korean women are constantly reminded that they could be better—if they wanted to be. If they cared enough. The volume and constancy of these reminders leads to the internalisation of this “ideal”.

"What are you?"

It’s a question I’ve heard constantly throughout my life, but I can’t get used to it. After moving to Seoul two years ago, it’s become almost omnipresent. I’ve been stopped on the street specifically to answer that question.

Often, I’m in a taxi home, and the driver wants to know where I’m from. He comments with a soft laugh and the tilt of his head that my face looks a little Korean. Am I Japanese? Chinese? Immediately, I feel the need to clarify—I’m American. But my Mom is Korean. I glance out the window and recite my family history, getting the feeling that both of us are a little bored. My voice reassuring us that I know what, or who, I am. That I know my place.

This question, while usually innocent, never fails to bring me to a crossroads of belonging. Despite being half-Korean, I knew I would be an outsider when I came to South Korea itself. I knew that people would probably see me as the "other" in the exact same way. But - I’ve been told multiple times by Korean friends that I’m lucky for “getting the best of both worlds,” that I have “a good mix of Asian and White features.” But if there is a so-called “good mix,” is there also a bad? 

In conversations I’ve had with young women here in South Korea, I’ve discovered the typical shopping-list of flaws which women often find in their appearance. Additionally, it’s telling that beauty standards have pervaded into the professional workplace. Photos are mandatory when submitting any job application, and most photo studios will gratuitously edit these photographs so that you fit the Korean ideal; it will fix your crooked posture here, enlarge your eyes there, and brighten your complexion. One woman who I spoke to—a 24-year old prospective flight attendant—underlined how important image is to succeeding professionally. To be a stewardess for certain airlines, you must be at least 163cm tall and, at that height, cannot weigh more than 50kg. They take your measurements and weigh you at the interview. It suggests that there is a definite standard when it comes to deciding whether someone is beautiful or not. Beauty is not only vanity but it is considered to be self-managagement. It is a method of maintaining and controlling one’s identity. Society convinces women that managing their physical appearance is inevitable if they want to thrive. In a beauty-oriented society, beauty is a pre-requisite. Meanwhile, “unbeautiful” women are seen as lazy or incapable.

Specific races are also preferred as the face of South Korean companies and workplaces. White-mixed celebrities seem the best received. This was not always the case. After the Korean War of 1950, mixed-race individuals were seen as “racially impure” and subjugated to some of the lowest pegs on the social ladder. But since then, ethnic whiteness has evolved to be a marker of desirable beauty. Other mixed-race individuals, such as black-mixed race and Asian-mixed race, do not have this “desirable” mix of exotic whiteness and Korean familiarity. This is reflected in the popularity of white-mixed celebrities. Pull up any list of “hottest mixed-Korean celebrities” and white-mixed stars dominate the roster, followed by a couple of Japanese-Korean mixed people.  

The beauty industry is a major factor in this phenomenon with the notion of “skin beauty”, characterised by light, clear skin. Nearly all of my Korean students and friends have emphasised to me the importance of being light-skinned. Skin colour intersects with nation, race, class and gender; whiteness can also be seen as a traditional marker of “Koreanness” and social status. For example, my grandmother, who grew up apart from Korea’s current media and advertising, was constantly praising me for how white my skin was. When I started to collect more freckles, my mother commented off-handedly how my skin had gotten “so bad.” I remember her turning to a friend of mine and clarifying, “She used to have such clear skin.” Soon after, she gifted me a bag of complexion-brightening products.

My own confusing experience as a Korean-American has to do with the mixture of recognition and “othering” involved. I find myself identity-switching, trying to process the identity I grew up with—being seen as Asian, before anything else. It’s a unique experience to feel as though you are “othered” as a racial minority and assumed to be a non-native in both countries of origin. It is as strange to be valued for the superficial, “exotic” factors of my physical appearance because they conform to certain Korean beauty standards as much as it is to be seen as “exotic” for my Korean features in the US. More than anything, the conflation of race with beauty, and the value of being mixed-race, speaks to the troubling objectification of women—present everywhere but perhaps just more unabashedly so in South Korea. 

Words by Kelly Belter