I remember, about 8 months after arriving in Korea, a friend telling me that one of her students was absent from school because she was being “stretched”. Having never heard of this term before I asked her what she meant. She explained that the elementary school girl was gone to have a surgery that would make her taller in the future. I’ll spare you the gruesome details but you can read it yourself at this link, http://indianapublicmedia.org/amomentofscience/a-painful-way-to-grow-taller/. At that time, I remember thinking “what kind of parents would 1) waste that much money and 2) put that young girl through all that pain and suffering for some ridiculous non-essential surgery. To say I was totally shocked by the story is an understatement. As time went by, however, I started to notice beauty more and now there’s not a day that goes by that I’m not bombarded with beauty related advertising.
First, let’s look at the most superficial beauty and that’s cosmetics.The cosmetics market in Korea is worth 8.9 trillion won, about 7.9 million dollars. Koreans are obsessed. I was going to type Korean women but stopped because men here wear B.B. cream and use all kinds of cosmetic products.
Foreign cosmetics brands, which dominate the ground floor of every department store, are at the highest price in Korea. Koreans will spend any amount of money on cosmetics. There are products for everything, the most popular being the “whitening” products. Koreans are obsessed with white skin. B.B. creams, hand creams, foundations, moisturizer, everything promises a whiter skin. In every town , no matter how small, the street is lined with different stores all selling lotions and potions to give you the most beautiful white skin, Etude House, Inisfree, Tony Moly, The Faceshop, the list goes on and on.
I teach kindergarten and have children at school who have lotion rubbed on their skin twice a day, not for any medicinal purposes but solely for cosmetic reasons. My oldest student is our age 6.
You can then move to the more dramatic form of beauty, plastic surgery. A short trip on the bus or subway exposes you to a bombardment of advertisements for plastic surgery, anything from breast enhancement to nose jobs to double eyelid surgery. One in every five women in Seoul have undergone plastic surgery. The International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery suggesting that taking population into account, South Korea is the world’s largest market for plastic surgery. This kind of surgery is now, not only more affordable but more easily accessed. Entire areas of Seoul, like Apgujong, are almost exclusively dedicated to plastic surgery.
In my circle of Korean friends, I have known fellow teachers to spend summer vacation time “getting a new nose”. I and I’m sure other foreign girls here in Korea, have had my teachers touch, poke examine and pictures of my nose so they can “tell the doctor the type they want”.
But, what does this artificial, superficial idea of beauty do to Koreans and especially young Koreans? I recently watched a video http://www.koreanhighschool.com/index.html. It’s interesting how the girl makes the link between stress and the idea of beauty in Korea. The effects of this on young girls and the consequences is a trend we’re seeing now in South Korea. What the society here makes of beauty and expects from women is beyond belief. The idea that beauty comes from within doesn’t particularly exist in Korea and if you’re not aesthetically beautiful here, the notion is, that you’ll never stand out from the crowd.
Two years later, if I were to hear the stretching story now, I wouldn’t be in the slightest bit shocked. When we connect the pressure of being beautiful with the pressure of study, work, parenting on women here, is it any wonder Korea has one of the highest female suicide rates in the world?