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Breaking out of K-Beauty Standards

It’s rush hour in Seoul, South Korea, and the subways are packed as always. As I make my way through the crowd, I’m bombarded with images of perfect looking women on posters plastered all around. Each woman looks eerily similar to the last, and all of them possess the same hallmarks of an ‘ideal Korean woman’: fair complexion, dewy natural looking make-up, nonexistent pores, large eyes, V-line face, and slim physique. I suddenly become very aware of my dull skin, small monolid eyes, and extra-large sized body. It doesn’t help that women who have achieved a close imitation to the advertised beauties keep bumping into me as they rush off to their destinations.

I was born with the same genes as these women, but why is it that I look so different from them? I suppose it’s due to my exposure to a completely different culture back in America. In the U.S, beauty ideals have shifted towards a curvier standard along with Instagram worthy makeup looks that are definitely not trying to be subtle. Living in the States for over twenty years, I’d adopted these trends and embraced a strong arched brow, full dark red lip, and crop tops that didn’t let me hide the layer of fat surrounding my waist. Despite being bigger than I would have liked, I was confident and loved to express myself through fashion and make-up. The recent growth of self-love and acceptance also helped to boost my self-esteem.

However, all that confidence seemed to vanish as soon as I moved to Korea. Immediately, I noticed that I looked very different from all the other women on the street, and I could feel everyone’s eyes laser in on my Westernized face and body. My mom, who had already moved back to Korea a few years prior, gave me that look that said, “I told you so.” She had warned me that things were different here, and that the people generally all looked the same. This, of course, stemmed from Korea’s homogenous society, but I guess I didn’t expect it to be this apparent.

For the first few months, I tried to stick it out and be true to who I thought I was. I wore a full beat face of make-up with highlight bright enough to blind anyone who dared to stare at me for too long. Unfortunately, the constant influx of ads telling me I needed to get plastic surgery and buy all these skincare products in order to be beautiful eventually wore out my self-esteem. I was tired of the looks I got and the feeling of inadequacy any time I stood next to a super thin Korean girl with perfectly tinted lips and see-through bangs.

So, I caved. I switched from watching NikkieTutorials to watching PONY Syndrome show me how to achieve the ideal Korean straight brow. I stored my crop tops and bodycon dresses away in a suitcase and bought the same clothes that everyone else and their mom was wearing. By the time I had reached the six months mark, I had completely adopted my Korean roots in terms of beauty and fashion. People no longer confused for me being Chinese, and I was able to blend into the crowd with ease.

It wasn’t over, though. I still felt inadequate because of my weight, and I started to look into clinics where I could get liposuction done at. My mom highly advised me not to get any surgeries done and to just focus on diet and exercise, but I had already tuned her out.

I booked a consultation at a clinic in Gangnam, which is famous for all the plastic surgeries clinics that are there. I was deadset on getting lipo, maybe even a tummy tuck while I was at it, but when I met with the doctors, it turned out I wasn’t the best candidate. You’d think these clinics would just be trying to sell you all these procedures you don’t really need, but my experience was the opposite. The doctor told me that I had too much visceral fat to remove in one session so that if I really wanted to do this, I should work to lose at least 20kgs first.

Are you being serious? 20 KILOGRAMS?? That’s like 44 pounds! I left the clinic that day feeling defeated. How was I ever supposed to get thin? In an attempt to help me, my mom told me about this diet program her friend had gone on with some great results. Hearing that a real person had success gave me hope, and I shelled out over $1,000 for a month’s worth of weight-loss supplements.

Although I was miserable and had insane cravings for the next 30 days, the diet actually worked and I was able to lose 9 kg. Even though I was looking and feeling better, I still kept comparing myself to other women. It seemed as though regardless of how much weight I lost or how good my makeup skills were, I still didn’t feel good enough.

Around this time, the #metoo movement began to catch on in Korea, and along with it came a rise in feminist attitudes. Other women were feeling the same things I was, frustrated at the unattainable beauty standards and overbearing patriarchal society. More and more women were beginning to forego their makeup and skincare routines, letting their natural bare faces see the sunlight for once. It was empowering to see that I wasn’t alone in this inner struggle of self-worth, and I finally started to accept the way I looked, rolls and all.

It wasn’t easy, though. There were many more days where all I wanted to do was hide at home because I felt like I was unfit to be seen in public. But, then there were those rare days where I looked in the mirror and saw someone who was not only worthy of self-love, but also exuded it.

Those rare days became more and more frequent as I actively worked on improving the view I had of myself. I began to share my insecurities and struggles with close girlfriends, and felt strength in a community where we all understood each other. The more I started to love myself for who I was and not just what I looked like, the more I was able to let other people love me as well.

Now, as I watch people bustle about me on their way home from work, I no longer feel a crippling sense of self-worth. Instead, I hold my head high and wait for the next train. It’s finally Friday night, and I’ve got a whole weekend to enjoy.

Ria is a Virtual Assistant that specializes in content creation and project management. She’s been writing in her free time since middle school and has a passion for helping business owners do what they love to do. Currently, she’s based in South Korea with her dog and spends her weekends traveling and checking out new restaurants. You can connect with her on Facebook or Instagram.


30 April 2019

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