Homogeneity in Seoul Made Me Appreciate the Diversity We Do Have Here

Members of South Korean girl group Sistar.

I spent last week in Seoul, the modern cultural hub of South Korea, where international sensation Psy first made his mark.  It’s a crowded city plastered with images of celebrities on buses, billboards, storefronts, giant windows, and any other usable space.  As I traversed the city, one thing that struck me was how uniform all their faces were: big eyes, white skin, raised nose bridges. 

As the modeling industry here is accused of conforming to a white, northern European look as the standard of beauty, South Korea seems to be chasing a different ideal: a generic Caucasian look.

I noticed this also in Psy’s latest music video for “Gentleman.”  The female lead—whom he first encounters at the gym—has giant eyes, a high nose bridge, and dyed light hair.  I’m not saying there is any implied meaning about having dyed hair (I myself have light streaks that I got because I thought they bring out my skin tone, not because I want to look like a white girl) but what I want to point out is how uncharacteristic these features are for a typical Asian.  

My relatives also complain about their children having noses that are too flat, eyes that are too wide.  It’s a frequent lament among Koreans in general, who have the world’s highest rate of plastic surgery.  There’s even a joke about it: Chinese people save their money for their kids’ education, Koreans save to get them plastic surgery.  Based on what I’ve seen in South Korea and heard from family members, this joke does have a kernel of truth to it.
Right after I came back from Seoul, I went to a casting call in L.A., where the models’ appearances were considerably more varied. Not only did I see different types of white girls (well, as different as current industry standards go figure-wise), but I also saw different types of Asian girls!  None of the bubbly-eyed looks of the South Korean models I saw, but different features, different faces, different types of beauty.  It made me realize that despite the huge diversity issues we have in terms of body type, size, and ethnicity, we also have a comparably individualistic environment. America has a very narrow vision of mainstream beauty—South Korea’s seems to be even narrower. 
What makes the American modeling scene more diverse than South Korea’s?  Granted, Koreans are an ethnically homogenous group of people whereas Americans are nation of immigrants that is full of different of races and ethnicities; what I’m pointing out, then, is the general absense of a diversity of typically Korean features (i.e. eyes without a double-eyelid) among its celebrities. 

As in other Asian countries with Confucian traditions, South Korea puts the collective before the individual. You can see this in the case of families, where the well-being of the whole family is placed above individual desires.  When I’m there, I often get extremely frustrated by the expectation that I must follow what everyone else—namely, anyone older than me—wants to do before I even consider my own plans for the day.  In such a culture of following tradition, it is no surprise that many will adhere to a single ideal of beauty. 

The origination of this ideal of a doe-eyed beauty, though, is not a passed-down tradition but rather the result of the Westernization of South Korea in the past century.  As in the rest of the world, whiteness sells.  So South Koreans, being the newly skilled capitalists of one of the Four Asian Tigers, have latched on the image of a generic Caucasian face (big eyes, high nose, fair complexion) and adapted it for their own faces to sell, sell, sell.   
Such a trend will be difficult to reverse, and it must start from the South Koreans themselves once they realize that beauty comes in many shapes and forms.   
Perhaps because we are a society that prizes the individual, American models and actresses are celebrated for the little quirks that set them apart.  Take Julia Roberts, Taylor Swift, and Angelina Jolie, for instance—all are (white) celebrities widely acknowledged as being beautiful, but all have very different features.  In South Korea, on the other hand, I was rather shocked by the uniform set of features—smaller nose tip, raised bridge, big eyes, white skin—that seemed to be the requirement for models and actresses.

There is still a long way to go in terms of making our movies, TV shows, and magazines fully reflective of the entire American population, but it was good for me to recognize that, to a certain extent, American culture values individualism among its pretty faces. 


Photo courtesy of Plasa 21.

by Yoonj Kim
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3 Comments Have Been Posted

It's a bit of a paradox since

It's a bit of a paradox since they are a highly advanced country rising up in the world. All this surgery implies they hate themselves.

By the way, I've got to point out "collective" does not always mean restrictive or traditional or whatever. Look at the Nordic countries.

White women in the US have to

White women in the US have to tan, diet, and exercise--does this mean that US white women hate themselves as well? I'd argue that modifying / controlling your appearance is used as a marker of wealth and social status, and not necessarily related to internalized racism/occidentocentrism. This is not a critique of the article, by the way--unlike the writer I'm not Korean so I have no place to make any opinion on S. Korean beauty standards.

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