[Originally posted in r/MakeupAddiction as a single post and also as comments in the comment section, this post was re-construed to make one article here for coherency.]
Growing up in Korea there is one thing I knew about being pretty. I wasn’t it. Whatever pretty was, it was a very narrow hoop to jump through, and I was born not fitting into it. That was presented to me as a fact, and it was something that I had to struggle to accept as a truth.
Moving away from Korea, I didn’t know what to do with any compliment. I spent 20 years of my life slowly becoming semi-okay with the fact that I wasn’t pretty, and that was that. It was an adjustment to realize that maybe it was wrong, to begin with, that there was only one way of being pretty. Maybe it was wrong that a culture forced young people like me to believe something so rigid as an absolute truth.
K-Beauty has been all the rage for a while now in the United States, and it gives me such mixed feelings. I’m someone who was born and raised in Korea for 20 years and then moved away for good. It’s probably super fascinating from the outside, but as someone who grew up in Korea and suffered so much because of their impossible, rigid standards of beauty that stem partly from racism and partly from sexism, it makes me scared to see another culture so casually applaud it, even though I know that there are Korean bloggers and marketers who encourage that. It gives the Korean culture a face that they want; diligent with beauty, fast with technology, producing many visionaries.
But that’s not how I experienced “Korean beauty” as a Korean girl growing up in Korea. The reason why Korean beauty products work so well is that most of them have whitening components in it, and this is because darker skin is considered not beautiful. They don’t even usually sell more than one or two colors for a foundation in Korea. All women are pretty much forced to be under 50kg, which is 110lbs, regardless of shape, height, or structure. Celebrities who are dangerously underweight are applauded on TV all the time, and they proudly share tips about not eating and starving. People who don’t wear makeup to work are often called unprofessional. And despite what so many people in the culture like to defend, it is a culture laden with plastic surgery which roots from patriarchal ideas and sexism. It is a normal rite of passage for women to get double lid surgery, often as a high school graduation present.
It is dangerous to praise such rigid standards of beauty without realizing what drives the culture to be so diligent about beauty. I like that we are starting to understand various definitions of beauty, but growing up there was only one “standard” of beauty and it sure as hell wasn’t about diversity.
Now, every time I go outside or walk into a makeup store in America, people usually start talking to me about “how much they love K-Beauty” when they figure out that I was born in Korea. And to be honest, I have nothing nice to say. It’s kind of awkward, and kind of weird, when I think of all the girls (including myself) who have been bullied and wanted to die because of not fitting into this double-lidded, light skinned ideal and harsh expectations on women’s clothes and their bodies, and how that’s not at all what the world sees. And some do view this K-Beauty craze in almost an alienating lens, as in, “Wow! Look at these totally different, weird, exotic Korean things! How different, and how weird!” which is downright fetishizing.
As a professional translator/interpreter, I still often get not so nice comments from Korean people I come in contact with about my “weird” and “strong” makeup. I always hear from them “You’re not a pretty girl, but you can be attractive!” I mean thanks? I didn’t ask?
The “unwelcome commenting” definitely happens in an almost creepy competition way even for thin people, almost as an essential part of Korean culture to indicate closeness. It is precisely why many Korean women are so diligent and downright paranoid about clothes and makeup. I’m a small gal, and I get all sorts of weird comments in Korea. People grab me, grab my arms and waist without my permission, and think that it’s a compliment for being so small. But then they also make a weird comment about how my face is still fat (?) I was also once told to lose a small patch of fat above my hip bone, I didn’t even know I have to think about that before (?) All sorts of things about female body is fair game in scrutiny within Korean culture - the ever-present debate about “proportion,” the ratio of my thighs and calves, the length of my waist, things that people never even think twice about outside the culture.
This, of course, did not help while I was living in Korea because I have body dysmorphia. I also used to suffer from intense orthorexia as a teen, and the funny thing is I was really, really sick, down to 76lbs, and people in Korea told me that they were “jealous of me” which made me even sicker. And although my struggles weren’t entirely externally influenced, society and culture did play a big part. The societal ideals exist in U.S. too, but I healed a lot through studying bodily agency in feminism and learning to voice myself. Feminism, unfortunately, is still a pejorative in Korea.
This is also not just something that plagues “the outsiders.” It is apparently kind of a problem in Korea among Korean women themselves, that when they go to the dept store to get a foundation match, they are always recommended something way too light for their own skin (“lighter is better”) causing this “different colored face and neck” situation. I’ve read a lot of blog posts and comments by Korean girls saying that even they don’t have foundation match for themselves even though they are only slightly tan. But I’ve given up trying to discuss it in actual Korean forums because I get the whole “You’re too American, go back to America” comment, and “How could you be so critical of Korean culture when you’re Korean yourself” comment.
Of course, talking about these cultural norms is hard, and I would never want it to turn into sort of a white-supremacist, “U.S is so much better than Asia, Asia is horrible” kind of a statement. However, as someone who has been born and raised in Korea and still consumes some Korean/Japanese/Chinese culture, I think the general censorship atmosphere and hush-hush around speaking up in Korea hurts the Korean culture internally. And how the K-Beauty culture is packaged in the U.S, and how it is in return fetishized, to me is something that doesn’t help anyone.
As I detailed above, there is a general idea that no one can openly critique Korea, and you get a lot of “Leave this country then!” “Traitor/일빠/매국노” “U.S/Japan/Other countries are worse too!” comments if you openly discuss. So there already is a resistance within the culture to grow, by saying that they are still OK as long as other countries are shitty too. I doubt that I would get that much venom in the U.S for saying why certain things within the country could improve.
This post was my intention to speak up about being a more informed consumer of a culture instead of a blind worship. People who are already keen on generalizations and racism will be that way regardless of my post, and if there are people who disagree with me or do not feel that it is dangerous or skewed, then I respect their own experience. However, clearly as vouched by other Koreans on the interweb, this is not just a single experience that only I had, it’s something that is very prevalent. I personally would like to break that hush-hush atmosphere, whether in Korea or in the U.S and speak up about something that does not sit right with me. U.S is certainly not always better about beauty ideals, but what I’m mainly trying to argue here is not the comparison of Asian representations, but rather the danger of blindly worshipping something that is seemingly innocent. If anything, as I mentioned, the U.S has a huge problem with fetishizing Asian culture and Korean women already, and as my title indicates, I am trying to say that such is not O.K, not that U.S. is all glory and better.
There are always unfair standards everywhere, but I think saying such also silences voices every time something is discussed within a culture or a group as “problematic.” Relatively speaking, there will be problematic aspects everywhere in everything, but that doesn’t take away from a certain problem within a particular culture and how it hinders that culture’s growth, such as in Korea. Taking something like that as a given and being complicit in it because it has been established so ubiquitously everywhere in the world is unsettling to me. At the very least, it will continue to be silenced and stay that way for sure if no one addresses it for the fear that nothing will ever change and it will always be unfair everywhere else. Maybe it will be, but that doesn’t mean we have to be OK with it, right?