Korean Sociological Image #40: As Pretty as a Picture?


As any visitor to the country can tell you, Korea is a society obsessed with appearance.

After all, cosmetic-surgery clinics are everywhere. And where else can you hear of people bothering to photoshop passport photos, or even that it’s completely legal to do so?

But if we accept that obsession as a given, then, whatever its pernicious effects on women (and, of course, it does primarily affect women), it doesn’t mean that Korean consumers are simply dupes. A woman who decides to get breast-enlargement surgery, for instance, isn’t necessarily suffering from something like gong-ju byeong (공주병), or “princess disease.” More likely, she’s making a very rational, informed choice that has a dramatic positive effect on her career opportunities and confidence, more than paying back the initial investment.

And indeed, short of becoming some form of activist, and a poor and frustrated one at that, what exactly can people do when prospective employers require photos with resumes?

Still, as regular commenter Gomushin Girl pointed out in an earlier post:

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. (My emphasis.)

With those negatives in mind, I’m glad to pass on the news that at least one politician is trying to do something about resume photographs:

(Source: Focus Busan, June 9 2010, p. 6.)

Will Photos Be Removed From Resumes?

On the 8th, Grand National Party (한나라당) National Assembly member Jeong Ok-im (photo) pushed for a revision to existing anti-sexual discrimination legislation for it to also prohibit the attachment of photographs to resumes and/or application forms.

According to existing legislation, if employers ask female applicants for details of their looks, height, weight, and other bodily-related facts, and also such things as their marital status, then they can face of a fine of 5 million won.

Jeong aims to add two extra clauses to this. First, that it should not be confined only to “female workers” but should be instead be made applicable to all “workers”; and also, that employers can not demand photos with applications. The reason is that such questions are not just a problem for women, but in fact affect both sexes.


Moreover, Jeong explained that this requirement for photos, reflecting a long-seated overemphasis  on appearance, is not to be found in developed countries like the U.K., U.S., Australia, and Canada. In fact, in the O.E.C.D., only Korea and Japan follow this practice.

Indeed, from the outset employers in those other countries do not request information about such things as your sex, age, body size, weight, and so on, as these are irrelvent to your ability.

Jeong says that “this ‘Perfect Face Culture’ has deep roots in tradition and our patriarchal culture, and it continually distorts the employment market. Hence I have proposed these changes to the legislation to put a stop to it.”

What do you think? Have any readers, and perhaps particularly Gyopo readers, had any negative experiences of being asked questions like the above in interviews, which they would be much less likely to by Western employers?

Of course, I’m not so naive or biased to assume that Western employers don’t sometimes ask inappropriate and/or illegal questions either, but then I doubt they would ever ask details of applicants’ family histories and parents’ jobs for instance, and I imagine that I would be very uncomfortable working for an employer for whom the answers to such questions were important. Indeed, it behooves me to remember how my own work-life as foreign English teacher is really quite isolated from the rest of Korean society in that regard.

But regardless, even if the legislation is revised, it remains to be seen if it is actually enforced: women are still regularly fired for getting pregnant or requesting their legally mandated maternity leave for instance, despite already comprehensive anti-sexual discrimination legislation. But hey: at least it’s a start!


Note: This post is not intended as:

  • An indirect commentary on the attractiveness of the random Korean woman and man above
  • An invitation to question their intelligence and/or mock their decision to have their photos photoshopped
  • Nor an invitation to criticize the random photo studio for providing such a service (with my apologies for using its pictures).

Please: no comments along those lines.

Update: With apologies for overlooking it, Brian in Jeollanam-do also discussed this topic a little last June.

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

28 thoughts on “Korean Sociological Image #40: As Pretty as a Picture?

  1. I’m gyopo. And yes the photo thing really sucks. For gyopo, though, it mainly pertains to english teaching. Mainly, we cant get jobs, although we are, on average, better educated the 99% of the english teachers that come here. WHY? because we’re not white. I’ve been fired and turned down from jobs because I wasn’t “white” and therefore “didn’t really know english”. Funny, last time I checked i got entered my PhD program when I was 21. Hmmm…This goes directly into image and facial looks, as koreans prefer learning english from western people,…pardon me, white people.

    First hand example, I was teaching at a science hagwon in 2008. (I’m a science writer now and thankfully totally do NOT have to deal with all the hagwon shit in korea now). We had two candidates we were interviewing, both korean females. So, we needed a good teacher and she needed to speak english well. Girl #1…studied english in Canada, english not amazing as our own korean teachers, but very good..maybe 7.5 or 8 out of 10. I also thought she was pretty good looking as well. Girl #2…VERY good looking..she was hot~ English maybe 5 or 6 out of 10. She couldn’t teach at all and didn’t prepare anything either. After the interviews, ALL of the teachers (it was a group interview) said girl #1. Seemed simple. Well, our boss (former head of chemistry at SNU no less) simply said one thing…”I like [girl #2 name]’s image!….call her tomorrow, she’s hired”. We were all kinda stunned, and needless to say our korean female coteachers (most of which were good looking) were all kinda embarrassed. Objections were noted, but he really didn’t care.

    So yeah, that shit happens ALL the time. I have dated lots of girls here who got their jobs at LG etc based SOLELY on their looks. I ALSO assert that “living overseas” is another huge plus/factor in getting a job. Anything that has to do with associating with WHITE people.


    1. James, I really don’t want to derail this, and I’ll keep to only one comment on this topic, but to the first commenter . . .

      I know why they require photographs when hiring English teachers, editors, etc., and I know there’s some discrimination against Asians and black teachers. However, I do want to point out that the job description for practically all EFL jobs here is “native speaker English teacher,” so really “qualifications” and teaching ability don’t matter.

      Now, how can you tell if somebody is a native English speaker just by looking at a picture? You can’t, of course. That’s why Asian-Americans (-Canadians, -Australians, 등) sometimes get passed up, and how they end up with Russians, Germans, and Lebanese in English Villages and playing “English teachers” on TV. But, just keep in mind that most employers in the English business here don’t care about “qualifications,” because the only qualification is to be a native English speaker. That’s not really the fault of white people, and Korea ultimately ends up with the teachers it deserves.


      1. It’s so funny because I have been looking for jobs in the States with no luck (damn you recession and not actually physically being there yet *shakes fist*), and it dawned on me the my gender, age, race, marital status (to a Korean man), and nationality make me MORE employable in Korea than my years of experience (6 teaching–3 at a prestigious public high school in the US and 3 in Korea, 2 at a foreign language high school), education (Bachelor’s English, Master’s Writing), and qualifications (top level MD state teacher certification for Secondary English) do in the U.S.

        How ridiculous is that?

        When I was job hunting in Korea, I refused to consider schools that just wanted my picture and were excited I was white, female, and American (and got lots of offers based soley on that–even more now that I’m eligible for F-2 and I’m not even LOOKING in Korea). I only took jobs where they were impressed with my credentials. At my first school, I taught with a filipina-Canadian and I currently work with a Chinese-American. I am so glad I chose schools that cared less about the appearance and more about ability, but it’s rare here. It’s made my teaching life in Korea a LOT better.


        1. Because they were all sort-of related, I’ve moved your comments into this sub-thread Brian and Diana.

          I sympathize with you Andru and Diana, but unfortunately am not particularly surprised, and completely agree with Brian’s points. Actually, I’m pretty close to the frontlines of all that too, as my wife is an English teacher recruiter, and while she has placed hundreds of non-White teachers, the reality is that most hogwans owners simply reject outright non-White teachers that her company sends them the details of, demanding White teachers. Some have changed their minds after my wife and her colleagues have gently tried to persuade them otherwise, but most angrily tell them to stop wasting their time, and to make sure to send them a White teacher next time or they’ll simply find a different recruiter that will.


    2. I’ll only ask in passing how true it is that 99% of gyopo are better-educated than most English teachers here? Most of the foreign-born Koreans I’ve met here had the same education background as the other foreigners: a BA in some random field.

      The real reason I wanted to comment was this: the story of the interview demonstrates something which seems quite apparent, but which leaves me with a bigger question:

      That is, your science hakwon lost out on a quality teacher in favor of a so-so one. However, this means someone else got the potential benefit of a good science teacher. It’s one more example (like firing competent women because of age, marital status, or pregnancy) of the underutilization of skilled women in the workforce.

      But surely a company that took advantage of this rampant stupidity — say, by preferentially hiring competent or outstanding women (in terms of skills and work ability) who were turned down for not being plastic-surgeried beauty queens — would be in a great position, competition wise? After all, they’d have workers with (I imagine) higher levels of loyalty (because they’re being valued for their skills, not some random irrelevant traits) and work satisfaction (because they’re being allowed to make relevant contributions, not just make coffee for the men)…

      So what’s the missing piece of the puzzle? Is it just that the oligopolies make it hard for any smaller business using this strategy to bust in? Is it that the business culture is so retarded across the board that nobody in the big companies has realized this and put it into practice? It baffles me that someone hasn’t discovered this missing puzzle piece.

      Unless I’m missing something else, and it doesn’t exist. (A recent student essay suggested these competent women who don’t wish to be plastic-surgeried and retired to pasture after having a kid are being scooped up by foreign companies, and suggested it will only increase as more such jobs become available.)


      1. I should add — it’s a prevalent belief among young people I know that plastic surgery is almost a necessity for getting a job in the big companies.

        But interestingly, a lot of the most competent women I’ve taught have little or no interest in actually working for those companies, citing sexism, the work culture prevalent among such companies, rates of burnout, and other pretty understandable reasons for wanting either to work in some other sector, or for a foreign company with better working conditions and so on. So maybe it is other sectors and non-Korean companies cashing in on this underutilization of skilled female labor in Korea. Not sure…


  2. Hi, I’m Laila from Spain.

    I’m a secondary student who’s doing a research task to enter the university. At the beggining I was going to do it about agrigulture, but as I found your blog few days ago and it draw my attention, I dedided to change the subject and doing it about sociology in kr. And here is when it comes my announcement. I want you to know that I’m using your blog as a source.
    If you are not agree with something, please send me an e-mail. By the way, I have to say that I just use your blog as a source and I do not copy/paste your articles.


  3. I have not been in that position but honest to the space aliens in the sky, I had a dream yesterday that I’d finally made it to East Asia – this was Japan though. I had decided to wear trousers, flat shows and the black blazer to a job interview. The employees asked me why I did that and I asked “will it be a problem?” they then said “yes, we prefer our women to wear skirts” and I argued and left. Do not know why I was at the interview jobs for a company but yeah. I was disturbed as there was a mouse in my room making noise.

    You already know of my traumatc DOUBLE passport photoshopping. Not once but twice just to make sure my self esteem never rises, sigh. So sad.

    “From August, all new British passports will be “e-passports” with embedded biometric data, based on facial characteristics such as the distances between the eyes, nose, mouth and ears. If you monkey around with them, say by digitally shaving off some avoirdupois gained over Christmas before you posed for your picture, you might also alter those ratios – and make it seem like you have faked your own passport.”

    Yet they happily photoshopped my obviously hideous photo which was already photoshopped by the post office. *cries*


      1. Haha that’s fine! The post office photoshopped it and then the Home Office did it the second time upon sending my application


  4. English teacher here.

    Korea’s national law-making body is not called Congress in English. It is the National Assembly, comprised of Assemblymen and Assemblywomen or Representatives as they are titled in English-language Korean media. Members of the US Congress House of Representatives are Congressmen and Congresswomen or Representatives.

    Back on topic, the photoshopper overdid it with the shiny pupils in the first photo. Her eyes look glassy.


    1. Thanks, I’ve edited it, although I’ve elected (pun intended) to go with “National Assembly member” rather than “Assemblywoman”.

      Agreed about the eyes, although in fact she had one of the least alien-looking “after” pictures of the samples I saw!

      Ooops, just noticed you mentioned “Representative” too, which is also pretty PC too.


  5. Everyone I show my passport photo to (which was taken in Korea), also believe that it was photoshopped…but strangely to look Korean (or at least a Korean concept of what beauty is). I’m a very pale white woman with dyed black hair, and I find that I’m often photoshopped to look a bit more Korean. We’re waiting to get our Korean wedding photos back (married a Korean), and it will be interesting to see what I look like in them, especially as we had a traditional ceremony.


  6. I’ve always thought that Korean adverts on billboards or on the sides of bus stops and so on look like the images are computer generated – the people just look like video game characters. However, considering that photoshopping of photos as illustrated above is so incredibly common, it would probably look out of place to Koreans to see photos that actually looked like people with skin tones, texture etc. Take the first photo above, for example. The eyes, the hair, the skin, it all looks almost as if it was done on a computer from scratch and not from a real photo at all. If that’s the standard for an image that’s supposed to be used for identification, then it’s no wonder that you see images used in adverts that don’t seem like they could possibly be real – and that people don’t react to them.


    1. Well put. And sorry for not giving you credit in the text for telling me about the photoshopping of passport photos in the first place by the way; I wanted to, but I thought it would…well…de-pith the (hopefully) pithy introduction!


  7. The link mentioned British breast reductions but without the facts that explain this trend. The reason why British women prefer breast reductions is that even allowing for differences in weight, we have the biggest breasts relative to the rest of our bodies in the whole of Europe. I am a 34FF, and not fat, but hourglass-shaped. Being less trashy has nothing to do with it, as anyone who has ever seen ‘Page 3’ will attest. Anecdotal evidence from American ex-pats in the UK, and observations of Americans out here, suggests to me we may also have larger breasts on average than our US counterparts. The popular reporting that the average cup size in the UK is a B is incorrect and based on women wearing the wrong size bra, just like the Page 3 model Keeley was before she first took her top off in public. The correct size is estimated to actually be a D. (By the way, I have no intention of EVER getting a reduction.)

    Regarding photoshopping: I’ve had my freckles photoshopped out of a passport photo here. These, to me irrelevant, indicators of my maternal ethnic background are regarded as disfiguring in this country and people find it extremely strange that I am comfortable with them. When I said so, a Korean said, “Yes, but here they are not normal, so we don’t like them.” This assertion – that freckles are abnormal in Korea – isn’t true, and it’s only the photoshopping of images that allows this belief to continue. There are a lot of freckled children at my school, and most of the so-called ‘clear’ skinned people have had minor plastic surgery to remove the odd freckle. You can tell these ones because they suddenly turn up in the school with a piece of sticking plaster on their face in a strange area.

    msleetobe: Your experience relating to a photo where your face was changed to appear more Korean is also that of a friend of mine. I think it’s fairly common.

    Andru, I have a Masters in English from a Russell Group university and I am white. The Russell Group is the UK’s equivalent to the Ivy League.


  8. “According to existing legislation, if employers ask female applicants for details of their looks, height, weight, and other bodily-related facts, and also such things as their marital status, then they can face of a fine of 5 million won.”

    The EPIK applications must also include a photo, marital status, height and weight.
    If this, in theory, is illegal then I’m guessing that almost every female worker in Korea has a case against their employer.


  9. when we get resumes my coworkers always judge them based on their pictures. once a girl was not hired because “she wasn’t a good match” and because she looked 20 pounds thinner on her photoshopped picture. regardless, these kind of things shouldnt matter!


  10. “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.”

    That’s not true. Lots of people would, in fact, for example every proponent of male circumcision, and there’s quite a lot of them in the world.


    1. The documentaries of children running away, suing their parents and getting nasty ass infections from being cut without any form of pain reliever doesn’t really make that comparison believeable to me.

      Only old people who are stuck in traditions believe it’s necessary. It’s illegal ow but some families still force it on their children, they canbe prosecuted if the child manages to run to get help from the appropriate people.

      When a man gets circumcised, nothing is going to come and force open his non existant vagina in some arranged marriage to an older man he doesn’t even love. Sorry maybe I misunderstood what your point was but…………………………………..


  11. But men get circumcised when they’re infants, so they don’t really have the option of running away. (Most forms of female circumsision doesn’t involve suturing of the vagina, either).

    anyhow, it wasn’t my intention to turn this into a circumcision debate, I just tried to use circumcision as an argument to prove that societal norms might, indeed, convince people that a “painful, permanently physically debilitating, possibly lethal, and medically unnecessary surgery” is normal, sound, and healthy. Societal norms are -that- powerful, which history has proven over and over again – just look at footbinding in China, which is probably the most extreme form of body modification practiced by any culture ever; painful and debilitating beyond all reason. Yet, there was, at the time, very strong cultural beliefs and societal arguments keeping it in practice for a thousand years. That was back then, of course, but we’re still not above similarly bizarre social notions in this world. (The proponents of footbinding argued for some “benefits” eerily similar to those attributed to high-heeled shoes in our time, for example).


    1. On the cases of male circumcision… they are usually done in safe, controlled and professional hospitals so I don’t see how the choice to circumcise their child – which doesn’t give any disfiguring outcome and is done under pain killers is a good example. When the circumcised girl comes of age, and gets married, the male will usually just force his way in to the vaginal opening – thus my reference to “forcing open”.

      Medical proof has shown the need for male circumcision in some situations so unless you do not believe in that, then there is a medically necessary use for it. Female, none at all.

      I understand your point but I don’t think male circumcision circumstances weigh up enough to be used as example against the quote “painful, permanently physically debilitating, possibly lethal, and medically unnecessary surgery”.

      Footbinding is a great example however, I always get queezy reading and looking at images about it and I’ve never been fond of high heels, my back already betrays me, why should I help it?! hahahaha xP


  12. I truly love my country, but this is one of the reasons why i don’t wanna get a job here. Hence, moving away :(


  13. I think you should consider that looks are often an important factor in getting a job everywhere, not solely Korea. (But it does seem more pronounced) While applicants do not have to put a photo with their resume’ in the US how you look will have an influence on your interview.
    An example, in college I met a recruiter for Merck Pharmaceuticals who stated: “for at least one-third of my interviewees I have decided if they are getting a second interview before they open their mouth, say hello, and shake my hand.” Why? Because I want to hire somebody who represents Merck. If you don’t look like you fit in at Merck, you are not going to be in Merck.
    The culture of a company is a consideration as well. You could be in the banking industry, but where? If you’re an investment banker, you wear double-breasted suits, commericial lending – single breasted, operations/support staff away from customers you can get away with slacks and a jacket (not necessarily a suit). And you would need to have THAT LOOK (style) at the interview as well.


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