The Breakdown is a Tempest exclusive series that attempts to tackle issues, concepts, terms, and histories that are relevant and intrinsic to conversations about social justice. This is our version of a 101 on Social Justice, with a grassroot level approach that hopes to simplify and make political and cultural conversations accessible in a global level.

I recently watched the newest installment of K-Pop group BTS’ docu-film, Break The Silence: The Movie, which included documentary-styled interviews of BTS members and a closer glimpse into their lives during their 2019 Love Yourself: Speak Yourself World Tour. 

One of the members of BTS, RM, gave a speech to a crowd of fans during their tour and stated how he viewed his self-worth as less because of his dark skin. This was a striking statement to me because he is only slightly tan in complexion. Yet, his slightly tanned skin was enough to make him feel unworthy. This is a clear testament to the rigid Korean beauty standards that many celebrities and Korean society at large are forced to adhere to. In fact, it is so common for Korean artists to undergo plastic surgery before their debut if their natural looks do not fit into the Korean beauty model. 

Porcelain, pale skin. Double lid eyelids with larger eyes. V-shaped jaw. Slim figure. This is Korean beauty standards. But where did it come from? The preference for fair skin can be traced back to it being a symbol of status. South Korea was an agricultural society, where privileged classes didn’t work under the sun and therefore had lighter complexions. Due to this divisive and classist view, darker-skinned Koreans are often associated with being a lower class. K-Pop stars reinforce these narrow beauty standards that many South Koreans idolize. Watch a K-Drama or a K-Pop music video and you are sure to see the images of fair-skinned, slim, double-eyelid, large-eyed entertainers. It is even common practice to bring photos of favorite K-Pop idols to plastic surgery consultations. 

South Korea’s strict and sometimes concerning beauty standards are often attributed to lookism, a term defined as discrimination or prejudice based on physical appearance that usually doesn’t fit societal notions of beauty. The societal pressure to look beautiful and ‘above normal’ fosters an environment that can be dangerous, both physically and mentally. In a 2017 study, it was found that in South Korean adults, a higher weight status often lead to more depressive symptoms. The reasons for these results were related to concerns about being overweight and fearing body-related stigma. The oppressive standards of beauty and appearance leave many with feelings of inadequacy. Even in the case of South Korean celebrities like RM. 

South Korea has the world’s largest number of plastic surgery procedures per capita. Thousands of South Koreans undergo double-eyelid surgery, and procedures to slim their face and noses. It is so common, that many teenagers are gifted cosmetic surgery as graduation gifts. Interestingly, plastic surgery itself doesn’t have a stigma attached to it in South Korea, unlike in many other countries. It is merely seen as an extension of beauty treatments. This only highlights an obsession with appearance which can have detrimental effects on notions of self-esteem and self-worth. 

A further example of the severity of South Korean beauty standards is the 50 kg myth, which is an ideal created by the media that shames women who weigh over 50 kgs. This ideal is perpetuated by idolized Korean celebrities who openly discuss weighing 40-something kgs. The media glorifies under-weight celebrities who subject themselves to unhealthy and often dangerous diets, such as the paper-cup diet. In addition to this, most Korean clothing stores carry a “free size” which is essentially a “one size fits all”. Of course, this one size is always a small.

Media consumption is what impacts Korean beauty standards the most. Images from advertisements, movies, television, magazines to music videos perpetuate the model of Korean beauty. Celebrities undergo cosmetic surgery and disturbing diets to maintain the narrow Korean beauty standard. When you are constantly bombarded with a very specific look and told this is what is considered beautiful and acceptable, it creates the desire to belong. You then transform yourself into a person that fits the societal notions of beauty. These restrictive ideals of beauty can become a choke-hold that leads to self-hatred, depression, and eating disorders.

However, there is a growing feminist movement in South Korea where women are rejecting the rigid beauty standards imposed onto them by society. Many women shave their long hair. go make-up free, and post it on social media as part of the “escape the corset” movement. The movement brings freedom to South Korean women who have been constrained by a patriarchal society and the impossible standard of flawless beauty. In doing so, they are able to address the unequal power structures in South Korea which oppress women.

South Korean obsession with a certain ideal of beauty and appearance, looks concerning from foreign eyes. Although, many South Koreans do not see the fuss, especially if it benefits them. If you fit Korean beauty standards, it lands you jobs and success. However, I can’t imagine the immense pressures to appear flawless, slim, pale, and above normal constantly. Lookism leads to a highly-critical view of self and others around you. As normalized as it is, what happens to those who can’t afford cosmetic procedures? Are all the procedures, diets, and beauty treatments ever enough? Or is it a continuous hyper-critical view of yourself and your perceived flaws, as well as a constant need to improve to fit the societal ideal of beauty? These are concerning thoughts, however the brewing pushback from the “escape the corset” movement is a necessary step towards self-acceptance and powerful resistance that demonstrates hope for change.

Get The Tempest in your inbox. Read more exclusives like this in our weekly newsletter!