Beauty Ideals in South Korea

From UBC Wiki

Beauty Ideals in South Korea are defined as the highly homogenized mold of features that is seen as the ultimate beauty standard in South Korea. Facial beauty is defined by the following features: Pale flawless skin, double eyelids, double lidded eyes called sangapul in Korean [1], v-line face shape with a small chin, and a nose with a thin bridge. In terms of body-shape, women are also preferred to have a tall and thin figure. In this consumerist society, many purchase and use skin lightening products with UV protection products, and there is an obsession for clear and pale looking skin; thus, colorism is rampant. There is also a particular doll-like makeup style Korean women wear called Ulzzang, where the eyes are enhanced to look larger, and the skin paler with light-toned foundation, and the lips are painted to look smaller.

Image of a Korean woman's before and after cosmetic surgery

The standard form of beauty, is displayed through the type of celebrities that appear in Kpop and Kdramas., and a Photogrammetric Facial Analysis done shows the same facial features of the beauty standard mentioned above and the features individuals desire and pay money to get surgery done for. [2]

People, especially women in Korea, consider being beautiful as a great significance; the neoliberal notion of both South Korea's free market economy and the importance of individual empowerment increases the rate of cosmetic surgery in women. Because of this, there is a vast amount of younger women who spend money on cosmetic surgery every year.[3] It has become a norm for parents to give daughters cosmetic surgery as a "graduation gift", to prepare them for society. The free market economy benefits the cosmetic surgery industry in South Korea, which is highly unregulated with low costs, hence there is an increasing demand for more clinics and cheaper procedures. [4]


Socioeconomic Statuses

The cultural values in South Korea show that cosmetic surgery can boost one's socio-economic status by increasing the chance of them marrying wealthier partners. [4] Having paler skin has historically been an indication for one's socio-economic class as well, and it has stuck to the beauty ideals today. [5] Additionally, physiognomy comes into play, with the belief that there is a connection between one's fortune and their facial attractiveness. The consumption of cosmetic surgery is driven by a belief that “a new nose with a straight bridge and distinct nodules, a slightly wide and protruding forehead, or sufficient cheekbones will bring wealth and the drive to take charge of their lives”. [5]

Early Western Influences

The aesthetics and the standardization of beauty ideals in South Korea can be traced back to colonial history. There were cosmetic surgery available to Japanese and Korean elites in order for them to look more European, and U.S. doctors gave surgeries to Koreans to change their East-Asian eyes into a more western looking one after the Korean war as a "Cold war Humanitarian Effort". [6] This was said to be an “imperial racial formation”. [7] [6] These forms of cosmetic surgery offered to Korean elites at the time may have pioneered the Eurocentric beauty standard, it being pale skin and big double-lidded eyes, that is seen everywhere in Korea today.

Media Representations

South Korean Media Portrayal

Research into the subject has revealed an association between consumption of cosmetic surgery and factors such as: media message internalization, celebrity worship, materialistic values, and conformity. More importantly, media exposure seems to increase the consumption of cosmetic surgery as well. [4]

In the film 200 Pounds of Beauty, an enormous blockbuster success in South Korea being the third best selling Korean film ever, the main character goes through a full body cosmetic surgery transformation, thus achieving her dream of becoming a pop-star and being loved by a man. She is only seen as beautiful and accepted to appear in public after her transformation, and cosmetic surgery is seen as a positive decision in the film.

Movie Poster from 200 Pounds of Beauty

In 1994, there was a change in the law that allowed for foreign celebrities and models to appear in Korean advertisements. Products from the west as well as domestic products were marketed with the face of European models. From this, there was an proliferation of Western Influence in the beauty standards.[8] A popular journal, Saemi kip’˘un mul, even criticized the "particular features of Korean women – short legs, big face, yellow skin"[8] and gave women advice to look more European, calling Korean women's bodies disordered but something that can be rearranged to conceal flaws. [8]

Western Media Portrayal

With the increase in Korea's obsession with beauty and cosmetic surgery over the last few decades, western media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal in 1993 have reported that Koreans wanted to achieve the “Anglo’ with Caucasoid features.” [9] and called this trend the "New Korea". [9] On the Oprah Winfrey Show, Oprah Winfrey brought up the prevalence of the double-eye lid surgery in South Korea and stated, ‘‘So is the idea not to look Asian?...I’m looking at those women. They still look Korean. That would be like me having surgery to not look black ...I don’t get it.’’[1] The topic of the cosmetic surgery trend in South Korea has been featured on as a documentary on Vice as well, with the European narrator criticizing the Korean women who appeared in the documentary, saying that they wanted to look like her. [10]


Neoliberal Feminism

After South Korea's financial crisis in 1887 and the following of liberation from Japanese colonial rule, the neoliberal system was taken into place which resulted in more autonomy for women, with them having more jobs, higher divorce rates, and lower fertility rates. [8] This brought focus to individuals and their uniqueness, which increased the penchant for gaining body attractiveness. This is a display of empowerment for women, choosing to get cosmetic surgery and bringing focus to their individuality in terms of attractiveness. With Korea swaying away from the Neo-Confucian ideals, they celebrated the female form, for women to be appreciated and observed in the public. [8]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Lee, Sharon Heijin. "Lessons from “Around the World with Oprah”: Neoliberalism, race, and the (geo) politics of beauty." Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory 18.1 (2008): 25-41.
  2. Rhee, Seung Chul, Eun Sang Dhong, and Eul Sik Yoon. "Photogrammetric facial analysis of attractive Korean entertainers." Aesthetic plastic surgery 33.2 (2009): 167.
  3. Swami, Viren, Choon-Sup Hwang, and Jaehee Jung. "Factor structure and correlates of the acceptance of cosmetic surgery scale among South Korean university students." Aesthetic Surgery Journal 32.2 (2012): 220-229.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Swami, Viren, Choon-Sup Hwang, and Jaehee Jung. "Factor structure and correlates of the acceptance of cosmetic surgery scale among South Korean university students." Aesthetic Surgery Journal 32.2 (2012): 220-229.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Researchers state that the upper class during the Goryeo dynasty used to “wash their faces with peach flower water to make their skin clean, white, and transparent”. Wang, Yuqing. Behind South Korean cosmetic surgery: its historical causes and its intertwined relationship with Korean pop culture. Diss. University of Delaware, 2015.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Lee, Sharon Heijin. The (geo) politics of beauty: Race, transnationalism, and neoliberalism in South Korean beauty culture. Diss. University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, 2012.
  7. Nadia Kim, Imperial Citizens: Koreans and Race from Seoul to LA, (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2008), 56.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 Kim, Taeyon. "Neo-Confucian body techniques: women's bodies in Korea's consumer society." Body & Society 9.2 (2003): 97-113.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Steve Glain, “Cosmetic Surgery Goes Hand in Glove With the New Korea,” The Wall Street Journal, November 23, 1993.
  10. Duboc, Charlet. Vice. "Seoul Fashion Week." Vice. 23 October 2012. Youtube Video. 9 April 2017.