Teacher Small Face: On Beauty in South Korea

Last month I had my eyes measured by a 15 year old boy. “Teacher, big eyes” he said, as he came toward me with a ruler. In a moment of awkward curiosity, I found myself leaning in as he raised the ruler up to my face. According to him, my eyes are 2cm high. “See,” I said, “they aren’t 3cm” – which had been his original estimation. “Yes, but mine are only 1cm”, he said.

Like many Koreans, this boy is preoccupied with his appearance. Most students (both boys and girls) and teachers at my school continually monitor their appearance in a mirror, which they keep on their person or at their desk. Foreigners are initially shocked by this practice, but they soon find that Koreans are generally more frank about their grooming habits and their opinions on beauty. While people around the world use mirrors throughout the day, this is done secretively because public grooming is considered a sign of vanity in many Western cultures. So really, it’s just more acceptable to groom oneself publicly in South Korea.

That said, the social pressure to be beautiful is also heightened because of this frankness. As has been lamented by many a foreigner, Korean people are quick to comment on the appearance of others – even if they are being critical. Comments such as “Teacher! Small face! Big eyes!” have become the leitmotif of my school days. And it’s not just students that feel comfortable regularly commenting on my appearance. A group of women that I have lunch with let me in on the rumour that I have had plastic surgery because the bridge of my nose is so high. While being told I am gorgeous never makes me scowl, it still strikes me as unprofessional, and I feel like I suppose most Koreans do – like my appearance is under constant scrutiny.

Beauty in this Country is Matter-of-Fact.

Once again complimented on my “small face”, I had the following dialogue with a student a couple of weeks ago:

“Teacher, you are so beautiful!”

“No, in South Africa I am only so-so.”

“Yes, but in Korea you are perfect.”

Since, as Korean-American Mama Nabi of the blog Kimchi Mammas says, “Koreans in general have a more objective view of external beauty”, there is only one standard of beauty here. In contemporary Korea, a perfect face is defined by a combination of the following features: a small face (the measurements for which seem entirely vague), big eyes, pale skin and – most importantly – 쌍꺼풀. Pronounced sang-koh-pul, it refers to the crease or fold that many Korean people do not have in their eyelids.

By my students’ standards, I am perfect. I have a small face, big eyes, sang-koh-pul and a high nose. The fact that I have blemished skin, skew teeth and a bump on my nose seems irrelevant (such things render me rather average-looking where I come from). Either their cultural goggles are so strong that I appear perfect to them, or the way I actually look is irrelevant, since I have fulfilled the necessary criteria for Korean beauty.

Although each culture has its own standard of beauty,[1] the pressure to conform to the national beauty standard is far more intense here.[2] To say that looking good is a priority for South Koreans would be an understatement. Beauty is a measure of success, as it is also generally believed that people who conform to these standards of beauty have a better chance at getting a job and finding a spouse. The belief that beautiful people are more successful is not unique to Korea, nor is it recent, but Koreans seem to see little room for debate on the matter, and are more concerned with adapting their bodies to gain an advantage. It is not uncommon, for instance, for people to get plastic surgery in preparation for a job interview. To compete, one needs to be perfect by Korean standards, and this striving for perfection is also the root of the country’s obsession with education (which I discuss in a previous post).

Beauty Week

“Teacher, I want to get surgery on my eyes”

“But your eyes are beautiful!”

“No, this is glue.”[3]

It was conversations like this that sparked my interest in notions of beauty in Korea. Being a high school teacher puts me at the centre of cultural consumption and production, and opinions about beauty in high schools are never going to be watered down. Personally, I remember high school being the pinnacle of my paranoia about my appearance – that was the period in which I felt the most pressure to be beautiful, and I was most aware of beauty trends in popular culture.

So, when doing research for this article, I turned to those I considered experts on the matter: my students, most of which are girls aged 15-18. For a week, I taught a lesson on beauty and culture to Grade 11 classes.[4] During the lesson, the students completed a worksheet which asked questions about their perceptions of beauty, their relationship with their parents and their thoughts on having plastic surgery.

A worksheet I gave out to my students during a lesson on beauty and culture.

Many students responded with attitudes that I consider healthy: while they acknowledged the pressure to have a beautiful appearance, they thought that other aspects of one’s personality were as important, if not more so. Their responses also indicated the nature of Korean beauty standards: out of 312 students,[5] 74 defined beauty as having big eyes and a small face, 37 said it was more important to have a beautiful face than a beautiful personality, 12 have had surgery and 124 wanted to have surgery in the future.[6] Of the third that wanted to have surgery, most wanted쌍술sang-sul (a shortening of쌍꺼풀 수술 or eyelid surgery/blepharoplasty). It was also the most common amongst those who have had surgery.

I first came across the term sang-sul in Kelley Katzenmeyer’s documentary Korean High School, which focuses on the social pressure to succeed in high schools by analysing educational and beauty practices. I showed my students a clip from the trailer and asked them to compare their experience with those in the film. All my classes said that there were similar issues at our school. For those who don’t live in Korea, it provides important insight.

Plastic Surgery as a Cultural Practice

When a student writing a bucket list said she wanted to get sang-sul when she grows up, this was one of the first signs that South Koreans viewed plastic surgery in ways slightly different than other countries. According to a recent report by The International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, South Korea has the highest cosmetic surgery stats in the world, measured by procedures per capita. One in five women in Seoul have undergone surgery and the most popular procedures are: lipoplasty, rhinoplasty and blepharoplasty. A recent trend in jaw surgery – for those in pursuit of a small face or V-line – has lead to an increase in more invasive and expensive procedures.[7] However, eyelid surgery still seems to be the surgery that most people have an opinion on.

Since all Caucasian people have sang-koh-pul, there is debate as to whether Asian women get sang-sul because they believe that Caucasian eyes are more beautiful. Some say that, since some Asian races have sang-koh-pul, Asian women are simply trying to conform to a global beauty standard. Others argue that Asian women are striving to appear more Caucasian, since they see this as an ideal form of beauty. Anna Lee, a Korean woman who wrote a thesis on cosmetic surgery in South Korea, argues that “Korean people are fixing their eyes because they are naturally made to believe that it is flawed”. She looks at the influence of Western ideology that began in the Korean war and gained ground once Western media was consumed more regularly in the digital age, which led Korean people to believe that “their eyes, their facial shape [was] inherently flawed. Their natural features were a defect meant to be fixed.” While women who get sang-sul may not do so in order to look Caucasian, it’s clear that they don’t believe that Asian eyes (the majority of which do not have sang-koh-pul) are beautiful.

One of the many adverts for cosmetic surgery in Seoul’s subway network.

Regardless of the motivations for plastic surgery, the practice is now a firm part of national culture. Jean Chung’s short documentary Lookism or Insecurity: Cosmetic Surgery in South Korea provides insight into the phenomenon.

http://vimeo.com/41052193

It doesn’t seem very different to the body modification practices such as Ethiopian lip-plates, Victorian corsets or Burmese neck coils, and it is as difficult for Korean women to resist the pressure to conform to cultural norms, not least of all because their parents are the first to buy them surgery.

Parents are at the Beginning and the End

Since beauty is prioritised by South Koreans, who believe it can be measured objectively, parents approach it as they would any other aspect of their child’s development. They encourage their child to do what it takes to succeed, whether it be studying at a hagwon (private learning academy) until 10pm or getting sang-sul. Their tendency to be frank also influences their relationship with their children. Out of the students who filled in my worksheet, 52 said their parents had told them they were unattractive. As Mamma Nabi explains, Korean moms are famous for criticising their child’s appearance, and since beauty has only one standard, “many ‘criticisms’ aren’t even considered criticisms but seen as objective observation intended to be helpful”. I have no doubt that parents are acting out of love when they buy their daughters surgery as a graduation gift or send them to school for 14 hours a day. They probably feel that their child will simply fall behind if they don’t. With this in mind, it seems cosmetic surgery will remain a cultural practice until parents stop promoting and funding it.

I will leave you with some quotes from my students:

“I think the ability to understand other people make us beautiful. Actually, I have not much the ability. But, I try to have it and be kind.”

“My mother says I should plastic surgery.”

“makeup, plastic surgery, Big eyes and a small face and high nose are beautiful.”

“I don’t know [if I want to have surgery in the future] but my mother recommend it.”

“Photoshop and surgery is beautiful.”

“It is more important to have a beautiful face because beauty is very important in Korea.”

“No, I don’t want to get surgery because I experience pain after I had surgery.”

“It is more important to be pretty because future become surgery world everyone become pretty.”

“My family think my eyes is beautiful because I had plastic surgery.”

“I don’t want to get surgery because I don’t want to be sick for beauty. I want to live my original face.”

“If ugly people have kind and funny, they look like beautiful people.”

“My mother says I should face-lift.”

“a beautiful face can have surgery. But a beautiful personality can’t have surgery.” 

“Someone is beautiful if they are funny and strong mind.”

“my mother tells me I am beautiful, but my father says I should have plastic surgery.”

“I may have to say the beautiful personality is more important to be seen as a normal person. But the truth is beautiful face is more important. Though everyone deny, it hide in people’s subconscious.”

“Of course I want to have surgery on my eyes.”

“No… because if I change my face, I can’t [resemble] my family.”

“A person who has a beautiful mind is beautiful.”

” I don’t want to get surgery. I don’t want to change my body for beauty.”

“Someone is beautiful if they have [a] huge mind.”

“Maybe I will have plastic surgery in the summer vacation.”

“It is more important to be pretty because beautiful person can live a good life.”

“I want to have surgery [all over] my face. I want to be a Kim Tae Hee.”

“It is important to have a beautiful personality because outer beauty has a time limit.” 


[1] As I told my students, South Africans construct beauty standards based on – among other things – skin colour. We tend to pursue an ideal, non-existent, skin colour somewhere between midnight black and pale white: black women want to lighten their skin and white women want to darken theirs. Like most countries,South Africa is certainly not exempt from criticism of beauty conventions.

[2] This is one of the many effects of an ethnically homogeneous society. United in race and language, Korean people tend to encourage conformity and practice collectivism.

[3] Korean girls often use glue or tape to create a temporary eyelid crease.

[4] During that week, I tweeted comments by students, which can be found under the hashtag #beautyweek

[5] Disclaimer: I am not a quantitative researcher and these are not statistics. These numbers are by no means intended to provide facts about the amount of plastic surgery that is performed in the country, but merely to give the reader a sense of what ideas and conventions about beauty are at work in a public, urban high school in South Korea.

[6] Only two students mentioned the S-line during the course of the week. On his blog The Grand Narrative, James Turnbull has often mentioned the notion of alphabetized body shapes as a tool for constructing beauty standards. I’m not sure if this mode of judging beauty is losing popular ground, or if people associate it with sexiness rather than beauty. Turnbull, who is one of the English-speaking experts on Korean gender issues and media, would perhaps offer a better explanation.

[7] Thanks to James Parr at Wet Casements for sending me this link.

____________________

Update: Below is a pic of an article that a student of mine wrote for the school’s English newspaper about my class on beauty. Some of the ideas s/he wrote about were not discussed in class. Needless to say I am more than proud of her/him for thinking laterally!

This article was later republished by Matador Network.

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33 responses to “Teacher Small Face: On Beauty in South Korea

  1. I really do appreciate your point about beauty simply being more matter-of-fact in Korea than in other Westernised cultures. This tendency to being honest about looks borders on the side of an obsession in Korea. Especially, as you have mentioned, when beauty is so homogenously constructed, which is also extremely limiting to the public imagination I feel. Some of the quotes from your students left me a bit gobsmacked (especially the ones where parents have recommended plastic surgery).

    • I agree, homogenising beauty limits our perceptions and creative thinking. While many may not agree that beauty is subjective, most are aware that standards of beauty are up for debate.

  2. The only people I have ever heard admitting they were trying to achieve a better S-line (or “line” in general) were adult Korean women… so I think you might be right about sexiness versus beauty.

  3. Love this post. I wish the standard of beauty was different here, and that different kinds of beauty could be accepted. As a guy, I’m not so rigorously scrutinised, but students are always asking if I wear coloured lenses (I have blue-green eyes) and if my hair is a natural colour (dark blond/light brown) and ooh and aah.

    I taught a class on plastic surgery too with my advance 6th grade students. None of the boys wanted surgery, and half the girls did. The girls said that if they didn’t look pretty, they couldn’t be successful. It made me sad.

    • It must have been so interesting to hear the thoughts of 11 year olds about beauty and surgery. It seems that there are few limits to the age that people go under the knife. My colleagues mentioned that many girls have surgery in middle school, which would mean they weren’t even 15 years old yet. Again, this is fully enabled and supported by their parents.

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  5. Good article! I’ve read a lot of articles on this topic but it was nice to see a lot of quotes and thoughts from actual Koreans. I’ve always been wary of assuming that Koreans get the surgeries and beauty treatments that they do to specifically look like white people. It just seems a little arrogant as a white person to think that everyone wants to be like me. I wonder if it’s not so much to look like a white person per se, but to show that you have the financial resources and power to separate yourself from the rest of the pack. Having surgeries and getting beauty treatments is a status symbol I think, and for something to be of value it has to be rare. In the US, thin is not the norm so that is what is valued. In Korea, double eyelids aren’t the norm so that is what is valued. If you have the means to rise above the norm, than that can make you more competitive.

    specifically lo

    • Your point about beauty’s relationship to status is so relevant, since it seems true of most places. South Korea is so fascinating because, as you say, having a rare physical attribute denotes beauty, and yet there is huge pressure to conform. The irony, then, is that double-eyelids will soon become the norm and beauty standards will either solidify or transform. I wonder how beauty will be defined in 50 years!

  6. Asians get eyelid surgery with the goal of having larger eyes. Here is why: larger eyes are more aesthetically pleasing than smaller eyes. (There is a limit, of course, lest one looks like an alien.) Think about it this way: Why are puppies so adorable? Why are babies so adorable? The number one reason is the ratio of eyes to face. Small canvas (face/head, etc.) but huge features. And that is why women wear eyeliner! (to make the eyes appear bigger. Women of all races use eyeliner and mascara- both increase the apparent size of the eye.) Caucasians and most other races have, on average, larger eyes; so naturally we all want to assume that Asians get eye surgery to copy Westerners. Sorry to say, that is not the case.

    If it were true, then you’d have to apply that same flawed logic to all different beauty practices; you would have to accuse a mixed-race American woman putting eyeshadow on her eyelid (increases the appearance of depth in the eye socket) that she is trying to look like a woman of Nordic background (they have deeper set eyes). A white woman getting breast implants is trying to look more Native African. All of these assumptions are ridiculous-sounding, no? (Deeper set eyes are more aesthetically pleasing than eye sockets with no depth, and of course there is a limit on that, but generally Asian women with deeper eye sockets are more attractive than those with very flat features. Why? Again, it goes along with having bigger eyes. A little depth in the eye socket gives shadow inside the concave area, meaning the eye area (as in the eyelid, eye opening, and eyelash range) will appear to be bigger. That is why women wear eye shadow.)

  7. Thanks Deva for this beautiful post. I almost cried when I read your student’s article on beauty. I think more Korean students need to read that article.

    A pretty face does not necessarily make a person beautiful.

    • Thank you Ellie for the compliment – I was so impressed with that student and am a believer in the starfish theory (individual change has an impact).

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  9. I really enjoyed reading this post (then again, I enjoy reading your blog as a whole!). Your researched topics make for informative and interesting reading material that many other expat blogs lack. I am a final year Journalism student and the plans are in place to teach in South Korea next year. I hope to use my own blog as effectively as you have to capture my experiences using audio and images to create soundlisdes.Thanks again :)

    • Thanks Nadia! My blog could definitely use more multimedia posts, so I really look forward to seeing your stuff in the future – good luck!

  10. I wonder if Koreans are more obsessed about beauty or just more open in talking about it.
    I can’t think of a woman in western world who hasn’t been on a diet, and that is reflected in us being bombarded with weight-loss solutions. We just don’t mention it or talk about it, but it’s still there.

  11. As I was reading this, I found myself admiring your ability to research in such detail as well as your comfortable, relatable and cool writing style and when I read that you’re South African I felt a weird sense of pride…then I read your name and realised you are a fellow Rhodent…and then I was like no wonder! What a great article Deva Lee…I am now a firm follower of your blog.

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    • Hi Rose, that podcast was really interesting; thanks for posting the link! I was shocked to hear that there were scales on each floor of her high school because their principal promoted weight loss. This is an extreme symptom of the obsession with success in Korea (a success that is in part defined by appearance). I’m actually moving to Gwangju next month to teach at a university, so I’m interested to see how perceptions of beauty are manifested out there.

  13. i’m feeling bad about korean. i wish they know that many people around the world love they small and cute eyes. why they didn’t think that way ? devastating~

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  16. One thing always pisses me off. DOUBLE EYELIDS IS NOT SOMETHING ONLY ALL CAUCASIANS HAVE. ALL AFRICANS HAVE DOUBLE LIDS TOO. yet nobody claims that the Koreans want to have African eyes, because O M G who would want that. …. do you get my point?

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  18. Some just want big eyes; but others want that as well as an other ‘type’ of assortment of features. Sometimes far from what they originally looked like. It doesn’t have to be white looking but way different.

    The ideals we live with, social, political, Beauty, etc.. are not necessarily made to be mindful of everybody.

    Even if they are not necessarily trying to look white, the ideal trying to be met takes extreme measures. so many people shouldn’t feel the need to change in that way(extreme).

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  23. May I correct something? Not all asian women do not have eyelid or so-called Sang ka pul in Korea. Most of southeast asian women has it. So do I. I say this to you because some blog I’ve read said so. They said asian women mostly do not have eyelid. Indonesia, India and so does arabian girl have it :)

  24. I think Koreans want big eyes because everyone else has them, not some desire to look white. Same with pale skin. Koreans are literally whiter than white people sometimes, they’re not trying to be white by wanting pale skin.

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