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)