Ups and Downs: What I Learned About Beauty Standards and Self-Image in Korea

I am not fat. Nor am I skinny. I fall right into the sweet spot that we in the West like to call “average.” Like most people, having an average body type has been the main source of insecurity throughout my teenage years and early 20s. It has taken years of endless effort to think of myself positively, remembering that I was not born to merely be pretty but that my purpose as a human being is far beyond something so insignificant.

So, when I moved to the plastic surgery capital of the world, with a population firmly on the smallest end of human sizing, I fully expected the moat of confidence I had carefully crafted to be thoroughly destroyed, and I braced myself for it. However, my experience with Korean beauty standards and self-image was much more complex.

To be honest, there is a strong focus on looks in Korea, but it is seen as natural to elevate the importance of physical appearance. This viewpoint is so entrenched in society that it affects many aspects of daily life, and it can be a difficult adjustment for people. On job applications, a passport photo is required. Apps with incredible editing options are on nearly every phone. Advertisements for plastic surgery clinics are in subway stations. The stranger sitting next to you will unabashedly remark upon the shade of your skin.

In a country where physical appearance is not only of utmost importance but is also considered in this quite matter-of-fact manner, these spoken observations become especially unsurprising to those living in Korea.

However, even if someone is aware of and accustomed to Korean bluntness, the comments naturally have an effect. Therefore, many foreigners feel uncomfortable and take offense upon encountering the ease with which Koreans comment upon physical appearance. Regardless of how many times one is exposed, it is a striking culture shock.

Part of the shock many people feel stems from personal interactions. For example, being turned away from shops or being made aware of a new “flaw” are common occurrences, and they can result in a loss of self-confidence. Some of these “flaws” often include the size of one’s nose, legs, or face. Additionally, many people will recommend skin treatments to burn off freckles. Freckles are generally not considered an attractive feature, despite their recent rise in American fashion, but a blemish.

To make matters worse, many foreigners quite literally cannot buy clothing or shoes in Korea. As most non-Koreans have bigger frames and curves by comparison, and since clothing is made almost exclusively for Korean-sized people, it is a laughable pipe dream to casually stroll down the street in Ehwa or Hongdae and pick up anything that fits. Cheaper clothes are often sold in a “free” size, meaning they should be able to fit whomever (so long as that size is small). Alas, there is a slim chance those items will fit in the intended way on a foreign body. At the end of the day, when subway seats are slightly small and doorways are short, a zipper refusing to close can feel like the last straw.

However, all hope is not lost. The trademark Korean bluntness is truly unpredictable—and neutral—and thus can be quite flattering.

Perhaps the most basic way foreigners feel a boost in self-esteem is via compliments from those around them. Students, coworkers, and passersby will randomly give out a sudden compliment: you’re pretty, that shirt suits you, your height is good. This proclamation, as if fact, soothes the aches from all the unclosed zippers. Fascination with eye and hair colors can also cause a balloon of pride. Foreigners will perpetually stand out and sometimes it is in a positive way.

Besides external factors, life in Korea forces people to look inward and develop strength and perspective; the confidence built from knowing oneself and creating one’s own standards and self-worth. Understanding and making peace with the fact that it is impossible to fit Korean standards is often the first realization to which people come. Following that, any bit of acceptance gained (such as a compliment or fitting into a shirt) is a bonus. On a global scale, fitting into Korean-sized clothing is definitely a self-confidence win for most foreigners.

Furthermore, Korea is homogenous; you already don’t fit in in many other ways, and appearance is the most trivial. Work style, beliefs, social structures, dating styles, friendship, etc. are much more important ways in which to belong. These factors are largely unseen. They are not physical or easily listed out, unlike physical attributes. Nevertheless, they have a constant and pervasive effect on a foreigner’s daily life. In this way, compliments about Korean language ability or knowledge about Korean society, or inclusion in meals or conversations, can have a stronger positive impact on one’s self-esteem. Building self-confidence is extremely difficult, but, with some effort, living in Korea can greatly help increase one’s self-esteem.

After adjusting perspective, foreigners can observe impossible Korean beauty standards from an outside view, which can benefit self-confidence. Armed with the knowledge that they are not, to a certain extent, under these standards makes it easier for foreigners. Not only are there biological differences but many Koreans follow vastly different diets compared to Western ones, such as less bread and smaller portion sizes. Additionally, a huge diet subculture is prevalent, especially among celebrities. These celebrities’ diet regimens are well-documented online and well-known to the public. Perhaps the most common is the IU diet: one apple, sweet potato, and protein drink per day. Therefore, many foreigners experience a sense of relief: that they, at least, are free from these extreme pressures to a certain extent.

Oftentimes, however, in an attempt to protect their own fragile egos, foreigners will develop a superiority complex regarding these standards.

They will latch onto the idea that foreigners are not as shallow as Koreans and that back in their culture, people’s personalities come first. It is easier to forget one’s own flaws and place the fault onto others, and this can function as a sort of coping mechanism for foreigners struggling to accept their social surroundings. Simply shifting the blame onto Korean society lifts some of the pressure.

Still, there is a difference between being aware of diet and standards and feeling superior because of that difference. Ultimately, when foreigners compensate by creating a sense of superiority in order to feel better about themselves, they’re ignoring the confidence issues they’re actually facing, which is where the positive side of visiting such a beauty-conscious nation comes in: it can help foreigners face their insecurities and gradually increase their self-esteem.

Personally, I was surprised to find that my self-esteem was not immediately smashed to bits as soon as the plane touched down at Incheon airport. As a young white woman teaching in a public school, my experience is from a particular perspective, and it is different compared to other foreigners. Nevertheless, the general trend seems to be a yo-yo: self-esteem rises and falls quickly and for the smallest reasons. As previously mentioned, comments from others are the most direct and demonstrative of this yo-yo. Koreans will toss outspoken observations, both positive and negative, randomly. Some common comments often heard include:

“You have big legs.”

“You’ve lost some weight.”

“He said you’re fat.”

“You look pretty today.”

“Too big.”

Self-confidence is delicate; thus, moving to a new country with a different culture, including vastly dissimilar beauty standards, from one’s own can greatly improve or diminish it. But, much like the formation of diamonds, only through extreme circumstances can an unbreakable treasure emerge.

The way one responds to these situations, such as the aforementioned comments, can build or break self-esteem. It can also completely affect the overall experience of living in Korea. In other words, the way we view ourselves has an impact on every aspect of our lives: the jobs we apply for, the partners we feel comfortable with, and the friends we choose to keep all make a difference in our self-worth.

Ultimately, the experience of living in Korea is a particularly defining moment for many foreigners, including me. Regardless of the difficulties, awkward encounters, or hurtful comments, we leave the country richer than before because we have a stronger sense of self-confidence, a more balanced perspective, and the knowledge that if we can fit in here, we can fit in anywhere.



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Fascinated by words and how human stories create our global narratives. All we really have are our stories, and they are consistently what keeps human culture alive. Currently teaching English in South Korea and, in my free time, traveling, writing, prepping for graduate school, and watching Parks and Recreation.

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Ups and Downs: What I Learned About Beauty Standards and Self-Image in Korea

I am not fat. Nor am I skinny. I fall right into the sweet spot that we in the West like to call “average.” Like most people, having an average body type has been the main source of insecurity throughout my teenage years and early 20s. It has taken years of endless effort to think of myself positively, remembering that I was not born to merely be pretty but that my purpose as a human being is far beyond something so insignificant.

So, when I moved to the plastic surgery capital of the world, with a population firmly on the smallest end of human sizing, I fully expected the moat of confidence I had carefully crafted to be thoroughly destroyed, and I braced myself for it. However, my experience with Korean beauty standards and self-image was much more complex.

To be honest, there is a strong focus on looks in Korea, but it is seen as natural to elevate the importance of physical appearance. This viewpoint is so entrenched in society that it affects many aspects of daily life, and it can be a difficult adjustment for people. On job applications, a passport photo is required. Apps with incredible editing options are on nearly every phone. Advertisements for plastic surgery clinics are in subway stations. The stranger sitting next to you will unabashedly remark upon the shade of your skin.

In a country where physical appearance is not only of utmost importance but is also considered in this quite matter-of-fact manner, these spoken observations become especially unsurprising to those living in Korea.

However, even if someone is aware of and accustomed to Korean bluntness, the comments naturally have an effect. Therefore, many foreigners feel uncomfortable and take offense upon encountering the ease with which Koreans comment upon physical appearance. Regardless of how many times one is exposed, it is a striking culture shock.

Part of the shock many people feel stems from personal interactions. For example, being turned away from shops or being made aware of a new “flaw” are common occurrences, and they can result in a loss of self-confidence. Some of these “flaws” often include the size of one’s nose, legs, or face. Additionally, many people will recommend skin treatments to burn off freckles. Freckles are generally not considered an attractive feature, despite their recent rise in American fashion, but a blemish.

To make matters worse, many foreigners quite literally cannot buy clothing or shoes in Korea. As most non-Koreans have bigger frames and curves by comparison, and since clothing is made almost exclusively for Korean-sized people, it is a laughable pipe dream to casually stroll down the street in Ehwa or Hongdae and pick up anything that fits. Cheaper clothes are often sold in a “free” size, meaning they should be able to fit whomever (so long as that size is small). Alas, there is a slim chance those items will fit in the intended way on a foreign body. At the end of the day, when subway seats are slightly small and doorways are short, a zipper refusing to close can feel like the last straw.

However, all hope is not lost. The trademark Korean bluntness is truly unpredictable—and neutral—and thus can be quite flattering.

Perhaps the most basic way foreigners feel a boost in self-esteem is via compliments from those around them. Students, coworkers, and passersby will randomly give out a sudden compliment: you’re pretty, that shirt suits you, your height is good. This proclamation, as if fact, soothes the aches from all the unclosed zippers. Fascination with eye and hair colors can also cause a balloon of pride. Foreigners will perpetually stand out and sometimes it is in a positive way.

Besides external factors, life in Korea forces people to look inward and develop strength and perspective; the confidence built from knowing oneself and creating one’s own standards and self-worth. Understanding and making peace with the fact that it is impossible to fit Korean standards is often the first realization to which people come. Following that, any bit of acceptance gained (such as a compliment or fitting into a shirt) is a bonus. On a global scale, fitting into Korean-sized clothing is definitely a self-confidence win for most foreigners.

Furthermore, Korea is homogenous; you already don’t fit in in many other ways, and appearance is the most trivial. Work style, beliefs, social structures, dating styles, friendship, etc. are much more important ways in which to belong. These factors are largely unseen. They are not physical or easily listed out, unlike physical attributes. Nevertheless, they have a constant and pervasive effect on a foreigner’s daily life. In this way, compliments about Korean language ability or knowledge about Korean society, or inclusion in meals or conversations, can have a stronger positive impact on one’s self-esteem. Building self-confidence is extremely difficult, but, with some effort, living in Korea can greatly help increase one’s self-esteem.

After adjusting perspective, foreigners can observe impossible Korean beauty standards from an outside view, which can benefit self-confidence. Armed with the knowledge that they are not, to a certain extent, under these standards makes it easier for foreigners. Not only are there biological differences but many Koreans follow vastly different diets compared to Western ones, such as less bread and smaller portion sizes. Additionally, a huge diet subculture is prevalent, especially among celebrities. These celebrities’ diet regimens are well-documented online and well-known to the public. Perhaps the most common is the IU diet: one apple, sweet potato, and protein drink per day. Therefore, many foreigners experience a sense of relief: that they, at least, are free from these extreme pressures to a certain extent.

Oftentimes, however, in an attempt to protect their own fragile egos, foreigners will develop a superiority complex regarding these standards.

They will latch onto the idea that foreigners are not as shallow as Koreans and that back in their culture, people’s personalities come first. It is easier to forget one’s own flaws and place the fault onto others, and this can function as a sort of coping mechanism for foreigners struggling to accept their social surroundings. Simply shifting the blame onto Korean society lifts some of the pressure.

Still, there is a difference between being aware of diet and standards and feeling superior because of that difference. Ultimately, when foreigners compensate by creating a sense of superiority in order to feel better about themselves, they’re ignoring the confidence issues they’re actually facing, which is where the positive side of visiting such a beauty-conscious nation comes in: it can help foreigners face their insecurities and gradually increase their self-esteem.

Personally, I was surprised to find that my self-esteem was not immediately smashed to bits as soon as the plane touched down at Incheon airport. As a young white woman teaching in a public school, my experience is from a particular perspective, and it is different compared to other foreigners. Nevertheless, the general trend seems to be a yo-yo: self-esteem rises and falls quickly and for the smallest reasons. As previously mentioned, comments from others are the most direct and demonstrative of this yo-yo. Koreans will toss outspoken observations, both positive and negative, randomly. Some common comments often heard include:

“You have big legs.”

“You’ve lost some weight.”

“He said you’re fat.”

“You look pretty today.”

“Too big.”

Self-confidence is delicate; thus, moving to a new country with a different culture, including vastly dissimilar beauty standards, from one’s own can greatly improve or diminish it. But, much like the formation of diamonds, only through extreme circumstances can an unbreakable treasure emerge.

The way one responds to these situations, such as the aforementioned comments, can build or break self-esteem. It can also completely affect the overall experience of living in Korea. In other words, the way we view ourselves has an impact on every aspect of our lives: the jobs we apply for, the partners we feel comfortable with, and the friends we choose to keep all make a difference in our self-worth.

Ultimately, the experience of living in Korea is a particularly defining moment for many foreigners, including me. Regardless of the difficulties, awkward encounters, or hurtful comments, we leave the country richer than before because we have a stronger sense of self-confidence, a more balanced perspective, and the knowledge that if we can fit in here, we can fit in anywhere.



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