Guest post from Ashley at Two Eyes in the Mirror: Beauty in Korea

18 Apr

This is the first in a series of five guest posts by the delightful Ashley from Two Eyes in the Mirror, discussing beauty in Korea. Different phenomenons, crazes, stats and the beauty dictatorship. Come back tomorrow for part two!

Beauty in Korea: An Introduction & Skin Lightening

If you live in the so-called “Western World,” you know that, much of the time, the “ideal appearance” of a woman is akin to a Mattel Barbie doll: blonde hair, blue eyes, and big boobs. Being tall, thin, and tan doesn’t hurt, either. Plastic surgery is common in the United States, with operations for breast enlargement leading the pack, followed by lipsuction. 1 We often hear debates about celebrities and their plastic surgery adventures. Did Lindsay get a boob job? How much surgery did Megan Fox have? Did Tyra Banks have her nose done? We listen to it all the time. But could you imagine living in a culture where plastic surgery was the norm for just about everyone? Meet Korea.

Estimates range that 50-75% of South Korean women in their 20s have undergone some form of cosmetic surgery. 1, 2 Researchers have found that 8 out of 10 women over the age of 18 feel that they need plastic surgery to improve their appearance. 3 These “facts” may be somewhat exaggerated, but it is no secret that many, many Koreans are fixated on their appearance. Most celebrities have gone under the knife, and instead of discussing whether Pamela Anderson got her boobs done again, Koreans are debating whether Kim Ah Joong had her jaw surgically reduced or if Kim Yu-Na (remember the winter Olympics last year?) could possibly be so naturally beautiful.

Welcome to a series of posts focused on Korean Beauty. Throughout the week, we will be focusing on various topics related to the cultural standard of beauty in Korea. None of these posts are meant to be conclusive discussions of the matter; the issues are far too complex for that. The posting schedule will be as follows:

  • Part 1: Introduction & Skin Lightening
  • Part 2: “The Eyes Have It:” Big Eyes in Korea
  • Part 3: The Small-Face Phenomenon
  • Part 4: Thin is In
  • Part 5: Discussion and Conclusion

We’re going to jump right in today and begin discussing skin lightening.

Why Light?

According to research, in the tradition of Korean shamanism, white skin is respected. Korean shamanism-legend has it that the first superhuman was born white. People with white skin in Korea have long been thought of as “noble,” and Koreans have been trying to lighten their skin since the Koyrŏ dynasty, which began around the year 918. 4

You’ve likely heard in one of your history classes that, in the past, being tan was associated with being poor, since poor people worked in the fields under the hot sun, thus bronzing their skin. The upper class, however, stayed happily inside or in the shade, allowing their skin to remain the palest shade of white. Although this has changed in modern-day Western culture (tanning booth, anyone?), it has not changed in Korea, and the media only supports this notion. 5 A survey found that most advertisements for beauty products in Korea featured a light-skinned, Caucasian model. 6 Girls as young as preschool-age already have it embedded into their minds that dark is ugly and white is beautiful. 7


Korean celebrities at SK-II Whitening “Celebration” Party. SK-II products can be found at Saks Fifth Avenue.

How to Skin Lighten

Skin lightening is an estimated $18 billion market in Asia. Some surveys estimate that 4 in 10 women in Asian countries use a skin lightening cream. Lightening the skin can be achieved in several ways.  Creams are one popular option, as are pills, laser treatments, and injections.  This is not risk-free; some poorer women use illegal chemicals to whiten their skin, which harm and disfigure them, and even some of the government-sanctioned skin lightening products contain dangerous levels of mercury. In addition, skin lightening can cause the loss of melanin, which leaves the skin more susceptible to skin damage and cancer. 8, 9

Putting it in Perspective
In the United States, the indoor tanning industry is worth an estimated $5 billion. 10 The population of the U.S. is about 310 million, so you can roughly figure that 2 out of any 10 U.S. women go tanning, as opposed to the 4 out of 10 women that use skin lightening cream in Asian countries. Although statistics are not available for Korea, the skin lightening market in neighboring Japan was worth about $6 billion in 2001, whose population is around 125 million. The skin lightening market in Korea is growing by at least 10% every year. 11 The bottom line? Koreans spend a lot of money on skin lightening products and procedures.

Do you care about how tan or light you are? Would you spend your money on products to make your skin darker or lighter? How far would you go?

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6 Responses to “Guest post from Ashley at Two Eyes in the Mirror: Beauty in Korea”

  1. Dimi April 19, 2011 at 4:20 pm #

    Very interesting post! I’m a firm believer that “Beauty comes from the inside”, so no, I don’t care about skin colour!

  2. Dahl April 19, 2011 at 8:00 pm #

    Wow this is pretty interesting! Crazy how on one side of the globe people long for a tan, and on the other side it’s the opposite!

  3. Evelina April 20, 2011 at 9:10 pm #

    This reminds me of how confused I was when I came back to the US, from Taiwan – since this definitely holds true in Taiwan as well. I remember people having parasols to shield UV rays from the light (so people would walk around on a sunny day carrying umbrellas), people wearing visors to shield the sun when they’re on their scooters, SK-II commercials on TV, etc…

    As for me currently, I’m just trying to maintain my skin’s natural color, though I do put self tanner on my legs transitioning into summer, since the color of my legs is in sharp contrast to my face, haha.

    • Ashley April 21, 2011 at 1:17 am #

      Thanks so much for your input! It’s strange how one thing can be valued in one place, but absolutely loathed in the other. I suppose, really, American culture is the oddball here, since being tan hasn’t ever really been valued before or for that long in history. I think the most important thing is that, whether you’re trying to achieve light skin or dark skin, you’re going about it in a safe manner. Tanning booths are soooo dangerous, and these skin lightening creams and procedures aren’t risk-free, either. Like you, I use self tanner in the spring and darker foundation on my face in the summer, but I don’t go all out!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Two Eyes in the Mirror Discusses Beauty in Korea, Part 2: The Eyes Have It « - April 19, 2011

    […] Different phenomenons, crazes, stats and the beauty dictatorship. You can see a list of contents in the introduction post. Come back tomorrow for part […]

  2. Two Eyes in the Mirror Discusses Beauty in Korea, Part 3: The Small-Face Phenomenon. « - April 20, 2011

    […] Different phenomenons, crazes, stats and the beauty dictatorship. You can see a list of contents in the introduction post. Come back tomorrow for part […]

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