Korean Sociological Image #39: Why are Koreans so into their Looks?

Arirang TV (아리랑 TV) has a deserved reputation for presenting an overly positive image of Korea to the world, so I was pleasantly surprised by this segment from Monday’s Arirang Today that acknowledges the huge pressures Korean women face to have unnecessary cosmetic surgery for job interviews and marriage prospects, and without presenting them as mere mindless followers of fashions in the process. Only 7 minutes long, it’s a good short introduction to the topic (via: pompeiigranate).

(For all posts in the Korean Sociological Images series, see here)



31 thoughts on “Korean Sociological Image #39: Why are Koreans so into their Looks?

  1. Thanks for the post, James. I noticed that weight standards are lower for Koreans than for Americans. Our BMI tips into the overweight category at 25. Amazing to see a slim woman getting lipo on her thighs. I expected that she might be bottom-heavy with mudari despite her low BMI, but that did not appear to be the case. Her legs looked slender to my American eyes but apparently they weren’t skinny enough to meet the bony, spindly ideal of Koreans.


    1. I have to admit that I’ve come across so many skinny Korean women that think they’re fat, including otherwise extremely intelligent and socially-conscious friends of mine that I thought would be immune to that sort of thing, that I wasn’t surprised at all. This literally happened to me (again) just last week, with a 170cm friend who’s (naturally) only 57kg, and so I’ve been meaning to find a graph of average weights and heights for Korean women since to try and persuade her that she’s not fat. Sigh.

      Still, however naive of me it may be to think so, I wonder if any diet/fat clinics have some sort of ethical code or policy of refusing service to already underweight clients, like tattooists refusing to work on someone who’s drunk?

      p. s. Not surprised at those differences with the BMI categories between America and Korea! ;)


      1. That’s exactly what I was wondering. I couldn’t believe them telling the girl she wasn’t actually fat, but they could cut off a bit of her legs if she wanted. And the guy talking about “the modern look”… for faces! Faces! At what point did it become acceptable to talk about people’s faces as fashion items? If anything, it seems like these supposed professionals are only encouraging the public’s paranoia and insecurities about their appearance, regardless of how ridiculous they can be.


      2. I wonder how much the desire for extreme thinness is female-driven versus male-driven. I recall Korean university co-eds and single and married women friends sharing with me critical comments made by their boyfriends, husbands, and mothers. Is it really a case of these critics thinking these young women were too fat or are there underlying motives? I suspect that men in particular use negative comments about their partner’s appearance as a way of making these women feel less attractive to other men, less secure, and thus more likely to put up with their current mates. in the case of mothers, sisters, or friends, they may fear that a rounded body isn’t appealing to men.


        1. Both certainly makes a lot of sense, yes. I have heard though, that the vast majority of negative comments women receive about their bodies is from other women: would you say that’s true?


          1. I think more a problem that the vast majority of comments women receive about their bodies from men and women are negative, period.

            That said, is it just me or has fashion changed enough to accomodate much bigger women wearing short skirts/shorts? I’ve kind of noticed that this spring/summer — women with what Westerners would consider normal or even thick/fat legs seem to be much more willing to walk around showing those legs now, when my impression was in the past nobody wore such stuff unless she was practically gaunt.

            Which seems to me a change for the positive. (Any reduction in shame and self-loathing is a positive thing.)


  2. Hi James,

    I really enjoyed this post and I hope you don’t mind that I embed that video onto my blog. I found it really interesting!

    I’ve been following this blog for a while, and I really enjoy what you bring to light on Korean society. Thanks a lot and keep it up!



  3. Oh, Arirang . . . my descent into madness will be narrated by your voice-overs!
    My worry is that this overwhelming preoccupation with appearances will NOT be a temporary thing. Obsession with a much narrower range of “beauty” is already stronger than just about anywhere else I’ve ever lived, and is obviously resulting in really, really unhealthy habits, particularly among young women.


  4. Hello collective delusion and stupidity. Another example of how you can get people to believe just about anything.

    How bizarre that the lady who wanted to lose weight looked, if anything, undernourished and in need of a good feed. I have doubts that this is a short term trend, it seems to be getting even worse. All that photoshopping of celebs is just part of the cycle. It also is an indictment on the culture and society that there is such an obsession with superficiality.

    And those procedures looked very odd (not to mention painful), I wonder how effective they actually are. James, do you have any idea how large the SK weight loss/cosmetic surgery industry is? I wonder how comparatively large it is.

    I pity women over there, they are under such extreme pressure from family, friends and society to look like a generally unattainable standard. There must be vast numbers of women with psychological issues.

    James, get the kids out ASAP!


  5. The professor in the video is wrong when he says no long term consequences. Women stressing about unachievable ideals will pass that on to their daughters. Until the mainstream ideal is changed it will leave a dent on the future generation as well.

    On the other hand, we see how in western countries procedures like facelifts are being mocked as the long term results are now clearly wrong (wind-blown look, lack of expression…) and younger generations prefer less invasive and drastic options. We can hope that the same will happen in Korea as people the long term downsides of popular procedures.

    Love your blog! I keep recommending it to friends!


  6. I absolutely love this blog and I cannot agree more… their perception of beauty is sooo distorted…I just can’t even begin to fathom how plastic surgery became such a social norm, crazy!!!


  7. That was a very good video. Honestly, I was very appalled at the behavior of those people, especially at that guy who was talking about people like food dishes.

    I understand their feelings, considering the image saturated society that they live in, but it just amazes me how people in Korea don’t find this kind of idea extremely problematic enough to try to stop perpetuating it.


  8. Overall, I liked the video. But I did have two issues with it. The use of BMI (highly inaccurate and very outdated way of discovering if someone is under/overweight) and the professor who claimed there would be no long-term consequences! My jaw dropped when he said that.

    But either way, at least *some* program is acknowledging they have an obsession with physical qualities.


    1. When he said there was no long term consequences, he might have meant that your live wouldn’t become any better by having cosmetic surgery. If you listen to it in context I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt and interpret it this way, since he later he says that in the long run, personality and personal skills are more important.

      What I found most disturbing was the woman who was underweight but had a too high fat percentage. The program was made so it seemed like cosmetic surgery was the right solution, while most sensible doctors would have asked her to start exercising.


      1. You think so? When I was listening I just took it at face value and didn’t think he could he meant it along those lines. I’d hope that was what he meant, anyway, considering he’s supposed to be the educated voice in that clip. Thanks for pointing it out to me.


      2. SO TRUE, im amaze how doctors keep doing these instead of refusing these types of patient that only need to start working out!!! GOSH!


  9. Hi,

    I’ve been a silent reader for quite a while now, but this just stood out the most to me. It is really sad to see how Koreans are heading down that road with weight obsession. I recently did a research study about eating disorders and it’s so scary with how the numbers are raising in Asian countries especially South Korea.


  10. So we’ve learnt that plastic surgery is a HUGELY negative part of Korean society at the moment. BUT I don’t hear anyone suggesting possible methods to stunt this modern korean concept that beauty is everything. As mentioned in arirang’s documentary, many Koreans these days have resorted to surgery to heighten their chances of employment. Of course, the very fact that appearance gets in the way of a person’s ability for employment goes against all human rights issues us westerners have fought to change and are used to. However, I thought to myself… If I had grown up and was stuck in Korea’s society, and I was competing for a good job that would sustain a secure, comfortable and bright future, and I was told that if my looks were tip top I’d land the job in an instant, I’d probably have to opt for the surgery. You know, pay a little get a lot etc.. Obviously this goes against all of my morals. But if this is the norm in their society who are we to criticize and downsize it all so abruptly, without considering that plastic surgery is now becoming a Requirement in korean society rather than a choice? I hate to say it, but in Korea, looks get you to the top (with a brain of course).
    I’m not against your arguments but I hear all the time only skepticism on this matter and would like to hear, if any, suggestions about what could be done to reduce the mental and social desire for plastic surgery that is becoming deeply ingrained in Koreans. (avoiding the obvious issue, which is the influence from the media and celebrities). What could be changed at the social level? in the workplace? in schools? etc, etc..

    Anyway. I didn’t introduce myself earlier. I, like francis above, am also a silent reader of your blog. You always popped a light bulb of thought in me regarding some of the issues you’ve raised throughout this blog but I’ve never had the impetus to reply due to laziness. But thank you for your thrilling reads. They help bring alive issues in the classroom. Oh yeah, I’m a korean studies student by the way.



    1. Thanks everyone for the compliments about my blog. And of course you too N, but to be honest I simply don’t understand your main points. For instance, yes, no-one seems to be suggesting possible methods to overcome modern Koreans’ obsession with beauty, including myself, but then – forgive me if this sounds patronizing – most are perfectly obvious, and don’t need spelling out every time Korean’s obsession with cosmetic surgery is mentioned on the blog. Coming up with ideas on how to get Koreans to actually adopt them though? Well, if that is as easy as you seem to imply, then by all means be my guest, but in reality there are severe limitations on the extent to which outsiders in any society can influence it, let alone one that creates such artificial binary opposites with insiders like Korea does.

      Granted, if I wrote in Korean then this blog would certainly have more of an impact on Koreans than it does at the moment, and so perhaps ultimately I should. But in English it already takes up literally all of my free time, and it would probably take a good couple of years of writing in Korean before I’m not simply laughed at for it! Still something to think about for the future though…

      But allso, I’m confused by your raising the point that “if this is the norm in their society who are we to criticize and downsize it all so abruptly, without considering that plastic surgery is now becoming a requirement in Korean society rather than a choice”, as I have repeatedly said the latter for, well, at least the last 18 months (albeit since other commenters taught me the error of my ways), and indeed I say pretty much the same again in the text to the post. I can understand if you’re doing so in response to other commenters though(?), or even just frustration over typical off-the-cuff critiques by other expats or the expat blogosphere as a whole, but just in case in fact you are actually saying that us Westerners can’t critique the norms of other societies, ipso facto because they are norms, then I have to say that I’m completely against culturally relativist arguments like that (ever since reading this classic short article in 1999 by the way – well worth the 5 min read if anyone’s interested).

      Sorry, if that’s a complete misinterpretation of what you were trying to say, but, well, that was my first impression of what your wrote. Don’t think so anymore though, but, well, just in case! And sorry if it feels like I’m picking on you! :)


      1. You can say that an individual’s decision to participate in a socially normative activity may be rational, but that doesn’t make it either healthy for the individual or a rational norm for society to perpetuate. Female genital mutilation makes rational sense to the parents who inflict it on their daughters, who thereby ensure their daughter’s ability to participate as a normative member of society. However, few people would argue that submitting a child or young woman to a painful, permanently physically debilitating, possibly lethal, and medically unnecessary surgery is a healthy decision for either the individual and the society, no matter how established.

        Add to this that the decision to get plastic surgery is not an uncoerced one and focused almost entirely on policing the looks of a single gender, and you have a deeply problematic social custom. It’s also a social custom under considerable debate among Koreans themselves, so it’s not like the big bad Westerners are coming by just to tsk tsk at the silly Asian custom.


  11. I agree with Gomushin Girl that this obsession with appearance and plastic surgery is most definitely not a temporary fixation. My friend teaches high school girls and a lot of them already talk about how much money they’re going to spend on plastic surgery after graduation in order to secure a job and a husband.

    I had no idea that by coming here (2 months ago) I was going to be seen as “good” at everything for being “attractive” by Korean standards. It makes me feel ridiculously uncomfortable but every time I try to talk about this with my other foreign friends they usually just gush about how great they have it. Thank you so much for keeping up such an intelligent, well-written blog. I’m a big fan.


  12. very interesting video!

    thanks for putting up a one-man show worth of 10 years on culture & advertising! i always find myself with 12 open tabs and too little time to finish reading them all. your excellent writing backed up by profound research is appreciated and will be missed. i’ll take your resting time to catch up on the older articles. have a nice vacation!


  13. Great blog!
    What the Arirang video doesn’t talk about is the superb contrast in Korea society regarding the VERY un-Korean beauty standards VS the obsession with racial purity… The results of most plastic surgery performed in Korea tend to give patients a more Western look (pointy nose, smaller jaw, double eyelids, pale skin, etc.) Basically, they could look like they had some Western ancestry. Yet, people of mixed blood are poorly perceived here, let alone Western people… People of ‘pure’ Korean ancestry tend to have the opposite of all the above mentioned characteristics… Go figure!!!


    1. Thanks, and I agree about the contrast and the irony of it. One thing I should point out though, is that you’ll find very few Koreans who would admit that the choices of cosmetic surgery performed in Korea (like you mention) tend to give the recipient a more Western look, even if (and this may well be the majority of cases) they personally neither consciously nor even subconsciously want one.

      If you’re interested in reading more about that, see here for my last big post on cosmetic surgery in Korea.


  14. Why are Koreans so into their looks? Well, it could be a form of overcompensation, since, you know, let’s be frank, they are UGLY (all caps). It was as if God had hit their faces with a flat frying pan and cut little slits for eyes.


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