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Guest Post – This blog was inspired by a very misinformed post about Korean culture and its looks, and while I don’t deny that we are a sensationalist culture focused on the superficial, I felt it was my duty to shed some light on the far-eastern ways of life. I will be leaving the underlying issue of morality at bay, and focus on giving you as in-depth of a tour of the Korean mindset as I can. I will be focusing on looks in particular in this blog.
For those of you not familiar with Korean history, let me give a you a brief snapshot of the more recent part of it, so you have enough historical context before diving into this blog. Post WW2, our country was shit. And by that I mean literally shit-shit. 99% (Source: my brain, probably lower, but not by much) of the population consisted of farmers. They planted shit to feed themselves and their families each year, and bartered whatever was left, which was usually not much, if any. The majority of the population was malnourished, and there were still people living in these 초갓집’s that are houses made of mud and wood, with straw for their roofs (surprisingly they didn’t leak… much).
The stereotypical 초갓집, which still exist to this day in rural areas
Fast forward 60ish years, and you get modern day Korea where it is arguably the most technologically advanced country in the world. GDP is up, economy is booming, and living standards are much higher to say the least. The thing you should take away from this brief introduction is that Koreans haven’t had this sort of lifestyle for very long at all, and things are still moving at a rapid pace. We, as a whole, are still struggling to find cultural identity in this world that is so different from 60 years ago. A huge generational gap exists between the older and younger population, and a lot of old cultural elements, such as sexism, still remain in today’s society, so balancing the old elements from our 5000-year-old history with the new is another puzzle for us to solve.
Night-time view of Seoul city
So what does all this have to do with looks in Korea? Well, I promise it all ties into what I’m about to say, but for now just keep all that in your mind as you read on.
Outward looks play a huge role in any culture; you would be lying to refute that. For example, I know when I step into a job interview, the (usually Caucasian) interviewer has already developed a mental image of what kind of person I am based on my looks: Asian, male, average height. If I had to guess, the mental image would be somewhat along the lines of, ‘Good at math, bad at English, and lacks confidence.’ The whole interview I battle with that ghost using a slew of techniques: I add a slight southern drawl to my English, make sure to have a firm handshake and great eye contact, and project my voice. The moment they realize I don’t have an Asian accent, I see their eyes light up and it’s as if I can almost hear them think, ‘Oh, he’s one of us!’ Personal anecdotes aside, we make judgments based on appearance, and whether it’s right or wrong, it’s an undeniable truth.
The difference between Koreans and Westerners is that there is a lot less variation in looks compared to what is oft referred to as the ‘cultural melting pot’ (yuck, I hate cliches). You see white, black, brown, yellow, and even orange people with all sorts of different builds and complexions in the US. In Korea, you will almost ALWAYS see black-eyed, black-haired, slender builds with similar complexions. I can’t tell you which caused which to come into existence, but a sort of mob mentality exists in the Korean mind, where if you are different by even a little bit, you will be cast out. So Koreans do everything in their power to fit in, and look like everybody else. You dress the same, talk and act the same, and listen to the same music, and because everybody is so similar to each other, even the slightest differences are very noticeable.
The fine-print to this, though, is that Koreans have an innate inferiority complex. Everybody is in competition against everybody else in everything imaginable, whether it is grades, height, social status, girlfriend/boyfriend, drinking, sports, etc. Still, you can’t be too obvious about this tacit agreement: you have to stand out without throwing yourself completely out there. The answer is to do everything within the same rules, but slightly better. You don’t dress completely different, but you perhaps buy clothes from nicer brands, or coordinate the same pieces into an outfit that looks a little better. Maybe you throw in a small accessory like a necklace to accentuate the whole outfit. Keep these in mind when reading ahead. Without further ado, I bring you the insider view to this mysterious, xenophobic culture.
Where it all began
The hottest issue when it comes to outward appearance in modern day Korea is height and body proportions, more-so for guys than girls. Some of you may already be familiar with the “loser” scandal, but to recap it for those of you who aren’t, basically this rich but stupid girl said ‘Aren’t guys below 5’11″(~180cm) all losers?’ With the national male average height being closer to 174cm, this set off a major outcry from the public, but people couldn’t deny that there was a bit of truth to her statement: girls look for taller guys, and in Korea’s nightlife, where most girls are just looking for fun, if you can’t look the part, you kind of are a loser.
강동원, the god of body proportions. Images like these are pretty common
Now even if you are tall, there is one more examination you must pass before entering the realm of the physically gifted: body proportions. Whereas the issue of height primarily applies to males, the rule of body proportions applies to both genders. The body proportion we speak of here is the ratio of head length to height.
강동원 and 조인성 are two of the most talked about celebrities when it comes to body proportions; guess which two they are
Most westerners have a ratio close to 1 : 7.5, where as the average for Koreans is between 1 : 6~6.5. Koreans often drool over western models that we Americans feel are too lanky, because they have amazing ratios surpassing 1 : 8 (=8등신), the ‘golden ratio’ of all head to body ratios. Only when your ratio has surpassed 1 : 7 can you call yourself a true royalty of the nightlife, and perhaps have a shot at being cast as a model or celebrity trainee. A more relevant example to us TLer’s would be RuBy‘s switch to an acting career after being un-drafted coming off of Airforce ACE. Even when he was a progamer, he was hailed for his tall height (183.2cm ~ 6″) and optimal head to body ratio. From what I’ve seen on TV, Ruby can’t be good at acting; he was casted purely due to his looks.
Ruby’s superior 기럭지
Because height and head-to-body ratio is so important, people have found ways to combat any innate deficiencies they may have. Girls wear 킬힐’s (kill-heel’s, usually around 12~14cm or 5~6″ American) and guys wear 깔창 (height boosting soles). Girls sometimes where 깔창 too when they opt for sneakers or Uggs. Heels are pretty common in the western world, so I won’t go into them, but not many outside of Korea are familiar with the phenomenon of 깔창. Most males in Korea wear them, even if you are tall, because of the head-to-body ratio: you boost your height without increasing your head length, and your ratio naturally goes down. It is a must-have item for the shorter male celebrities.
Hail G-dragon, master of all 깔창-bearer’s
깔창’s vary in shape and height, and some even come attached to shoes. For example, my dress shoes have a 3.8cm heel, and I have soles that are about 3cm as well, so that’s almost a 3-inch boost. I usually don’t wear them together, because it kills my toes, except during job interviews, where every inch in your first impression counts. Not only does it make you look more aesthetically pleasing, it gives you a confidence boost. They are dirt cheap as well: any street vendor will sell you a set of 1, 2 and 3cm (they have these notches that allow them to stack as well, sort of like legos, so you can adjust the height depending on your taste) 깔창’s for around $5 USD.
원빈: short but shmexy
Your complexion is just as important, if not more important, than your height and body proportions; even if you are short, with a good complexion you can make up for it. For example, the celebrity pictured above is almost unanimously agreed upon as the best looking male Korean celebrity, even though his height barely pushes 5’9″. In the male celebrity world, where 6’1″~6’2″ is common, 5’9″ is like Frodo Baggins status. Complexion plays a big part in the impression you make on people, and people in Korea sometimes go as far as characterize your personality based on your looks. I feel like this is a natural tendency regardless of your heritage, but in Korea, people are pretty blunt about it. If you are ugly, people will tell you that you are one ugly looking mother. The face can be roughly divided into two big elements: your features such as your eyes, nose and mouth, and your skin.
Your facial features include anything from your eyes, nose, ears and mouth, to your jawbones and forehead. Plastic surgery has become a HUGE phenomenon in Korea over the past 5 or so years, and nowadays you will be hard-pressed to find a girl who is past her teens and hasn’t gotten some kind of surgery done. If you are looking in from a western perspective, honestly, it can be strange, but to Koreans, it’s becoming accepted as mainstream due to several reasons. First, your marriage prospects open up, especially if you are a girl. Getting married to a good person is extremely important in Korea, as your social status is tied to your spouse’s, and girls will do anything to upgrade their pool of potential husbands. Their career outlook also depends heavily on their looks, as Koreans still have very weak discrimination laws, and their superiors can hire the prettier one without as much as giving a second thought.
Sup, pre surgery SNSD (although to be fair this is their pre-surgery faces photoshopped onto a recent photo)
For an industry to grow, there must be supply where there is demand, and boy is there supply. Most med school students in Korea dream of being plastic surgeons or dermatologists, because they are the most high paying jobs with minimal hours and no risk of serious complications. Only the cream of the crop are selected from the national medical examination to become plastic surgeons, and the rest go into other fields in medicine. For example, my dermatologist, who is also a plastic surgeon, was literally the highest scorer on the national medical exam her year, and her husband, who is also a dermatologist/plastic surgeon, did pretty well on his exam as well. With such stiff competition, prices have been slashed, and technology has developed rapidly to the point that Korea has now become a plastic surgery-powerhouse.
With the surgeries becoming less and less invasive, and the prices dropping lower and lower, more and more people started getting it, to the point where eye and nose surgery is as common as getting braces. They don’t even use knives for the eyes anymore: they use lasers and it takes less than 15 minutes. People started questioning what’s the big deal, and to be honest, I personally don’t see the difference between getting braces and a nose-job. Both alter your appearance through artificial means, and are minimally intrusive; if anything, I think braces are more invasive than lasers or electric hammers that cause micro-fractures all over your nose, which then heal into the shape you want. Anyway, that’s just my two cents, and I’ll stop there.
Even guys these days are getting plastic surgery: you can bet about half the male celebrities you see on TV got some kind of minor job done. I will just explain each feature in terms of surgeries you can get done on it, because that helps me outline the important facial features systematically.
박민영’s journey through time
First, your eyes, there are four common surgeries you can get done: 앞트임, 뒷트임, 쌍꺼풀 and 애교살. 앞트임 and 뒷트임 lengthen your eye horizontally, while 쌍꺼풀 creates a double-eyelid, and 애교살 is the little bag under your eye that girls often get to emphasize their cuteness. You can also enhance your eyes in a non-surgical way through circle lens, which increase the radius of your iris and make you look more innocent. These days, guys without double eyelids are in, because it looks more manly, but big (or should I say long) eyes are still a plus so you can see a lot of guys getting 앞트임 and 뒷트임.
The next feature is the nose, where thin, sharp noses with a high nose-bridge are ideal. Honestly, there isn’t an ideal shape, but just take a look at some celebrity shots and you’ll know. It is probably one of the more important features on your face, because it is popular belief that having a big nose indicates that you are clumsy and dim-witted. Most of them got their noses done so you will quickly sense that they look very similar to one another. There are also non-surgical products that are aimed at altering the shape of your nose, but they are mostly scams. Surgery is the surefire way to go here.
Then there is your jaw, which requires heavy surgery. Your jawline determines the size and shape of your face, and this again ties back to the head-to-body ratio: having a smaller face is crucial, so girls will get this despite its relatively high costs ($20000+ USD) compared to other minor surgeries. The doctors literally take a saw to your jawbone and trim it off, so you can only eat through a straw the first few weeks after surgery, and the pain is overwhelming, apparently. Still, the effects are pretty dramatic, and I’ve seen girls turn their lives around with just one jaw surgery. There are also other minor surgeries that you can do on your forehead, your cheekbones and 팔자주름 (=lines on the sides of your mouth/nose).
One interesting side-note on the jawline, however: there are these specialized massages called 경락 where the masseuse squeezes muscles on your face over a period of 10 or so hour-long sessions, and the size of your face reduces dramatically. I didn’t believe it until I saw it, and it really makes a big difference. Girls who don’t want surgery often go for these massages, as they’re not that expensive, either. I heard it hurts like hell the first few times, however. My mom came back home with tear-streaks the first time she got it from crying the whole hour.
Stork and acne-stork. Also notice his hairstyle change from shaggy to dandy, which I’ll cover in a bit
Then there’s skin. I can’t stress this enough: having good skin is VERY important. You can be the best looking guy/girl in Korea, but if you have massive acne, you will join the ranks of other 오크녀/오크남’s (=she-orks/he-orks). It’s pretty common even in the western world for girls to seemingly use a billion facial products, ranging from cleanser, toner, astringent, moisturizing cream, sun block, eye cream, anti aging cream, mist, etc etc. However, it might come off as a surprise that guys in Korea use a similar array of products to take care of their skin. It’s also pretty standard for guys to use this cream called BB cream (stands for Bobbi Brown I think) which makes your skin tone even and whiter. Now it’s up to you to decide whether that’s “gay” but I can assure you that none of my friends are homosexual and they all take good care of their skin (nor am I). The general rule of thumb is having fair (somewhat white), even-toned skin with minimal oil is the best skin. Koreans don’t like to tan as they discriminate against darker skinned folks, such as southeast Asians, Indians, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis for looking “poor” (=빈티난다). Also, UV rays cause aging as well as spotting, so you will sometimes see 아줌마’s parading the streets equipped in these Arabian looking masks in the summer:
I convinced my mom to opt for a hat and regular looking mask over this atrocity
The final piece of outward appearance can be summed up as everything else. I tried to spearate them but ended up lumping them all together because they are all things that can be altered pretty easily. First, there’s the hair-do, and I will only be focusing on male hair since I am a guy and girl hair I don’t really know/care. The trends in hairstyle change very quickly, and if you walked down the streets in a shaggy cut or wolf cut that was popular in the mid 2000’s, people would laugh at you, sometimes inside, and sometimes outright.
A walk down memory lane. This is the Wolf-cut, popular around 2003~2006
So what’s the haircuts that are ‘in’ these days? There are only a few: there’s the dandy, asymmetrical dandy, two-block, soft Mohican, bowl-cut (to emphasize cuteness), and regent-cut. If you have curly hair, you can just do whatever as long as it’s not too all-over the place. Then the rare tied back hair if you can rock it, which not many can. Anything else and you look like shit. Why? Because the Korean populace as a whole decided so. I will include each haircut in the spoiler below, but overall, you can see a move away from the just-woke-up, all-over-the-place messiness and long pieces of hair sticking out into a neater, more classical look.
Of course, you can’t just get the right haircut, because it will still look like shit. You have to style it properly using a combination of perms, blow-drying techniques, wax, and sometimes dyeing your hair. Most Koreans have straight hair that sticks up when short, so they get these perms called down-perms, which just make your sides and back go down instead of up. Also, to texturize the top of your hair, you can get a volume-magic perm, which, as the name implies, adds volume to it. Perms honestly make a big difference and many many guys get it. It runs up about $30~100 each time, and you get it renewed every 3~4 months. There are also blow drying techniques and apparel that help you achieve perm-like results, but they don’t work very well and there is no substitution for getting a real perm. Once your hair is nicely permed, you shape it with wax. If you mess up and your hair looks oily/clumps up, you’re fucked – you start the process over by washing it out, blow-drying your hair, and applying wax again.
This is a tool to keep your sideburns from sticking up. You put it on in the morning and take it off at work
Then comes body-type. For girls, skinny is the way to go. There is no other body-type. Get skinny or be prepared to have guys call you fat. For guys, it’s a little more complex, because we have to work out and build muscle in key areas. The preferred body-type is still slender, but with some muscle tone and a little bulk. Wide shoulders are key. There’s a popular turn of phrase 태평양어깨, which means shoulders as wide as the pacific ocean. The thing is, though, you can’t have Dwight Howard-like shoulders; the ideal body frame is wide from the front and back but has a thin profile. Abs are always nice, and lean legs too. Some muscle tone in the arms and chest, along with bulk, but don’t over-do it. One area to avoid bulking up at all costs: traps. Koreans will NOT work their traps, because it makes your body look bigger and thus fatter. This phenomenon of 짐승남(=beasty boy) over 꽃미남(=flowery boy) only started a few years back with the arrival of Rain and some other hunky kpop stars, and nowadays there are more females that seek manly guys than there are who seek flowery/pretty boys. Male celebrities these days are pretty much expected to have well-defined abs, barring a few that made it big with their ‘fat’ character.
원조짐승남, original beasty boy
Clothes are very much important, and the trend has always been fitted clothes – no matter how expensive the clothes are, how well the colors go well together, if they are not fitted, you look like shit (says the collective Korean populace). Even the clothes they call “baggy” are only baggy in certain areas, and fitted everywhere else. For example, baggy pants have loose crotch areas but tight fitting ankles and calves. The recent trend in male fashion has been casual-dandy, and I’m not sure what that translates into in English, but basically it’s business casual with a slight emphasis on casual. Pea coats, one button blazers, button down shirts, cardigans, nice slacks and boat shoes or nice oxfords have been popular for a while now. More casual wear that is popular includes varsity baseball jackets, 야상잠바’s (dunno how to translate this.. it’s like a long-ish jacket that looks rugged – I’ll include a picture), knits and sweaters, nice jeans, converse sneakers and baseball caps.
댄디룩 – Casual-dandy
Brand names are important, and this ties back to the mob mentality and superiority complex in Koreans – you do everything the same, yet try to one-up each other, which results in the “standards” for being in the upper echelon society being set quite high. For example, there is this stupid North face jacket that comes in red blue yellow green and black (I think) that literally EVERY middle and high school student in Korea must own. It is like it’s a uniform, and it costs around $250. If you don’t have one, you come from a poor family, so parents buy them one regardless of whether it’s a smart financial decision for them to make or not. Same goes for the 아줌마’s with their Louis Vuitton bags – gotta have one or you’re “that” 아줌마 that’s too poor to afford the niceties that life has to offer. It’s probably a bad thing that any sense of individuality is lost within this movement to fit into the norm, but I gotta admit it sure is nice to not have to think about what clothes to pick out and just buy what every other person on the street wears.
Some high schoolers chillin like a pack of Skittles
Well, that’s all I can think of for now. I think that gives you a comprehensive outline on the rules associated with outward appearance in Korean society. Hope you enjoyed this mini-tour into the mind of a Korean. I’ll be happy to answer any questions.