For many women maintaining a beauty image is considered an essential part of portraying one’s beautiful side. I do believe there is some truth to this, but I do not believe that beauty is only visible from the outside.
For centuries, however, (if I am not mistaken) women have been viewed as beautiful for their features first and foremost than their for their characters. In the U.S. beauty is seen in multiple ways in the eye of the beholder. While modern U.S. beauty culture remains focused on custom shapes, curves, and cuts – the acceptance of vast forms of beauty has emerged. However, while living in South Korea for the past three years, I was confronted with the former beauty portrayal on a daily basis.
Being a black female in a majorly homogeneous country I was not judged or subjected to the preferred style of beauty culture inside of Korea. However, being submerged in the environment frequently made me question my own definition of beauty. Since I started wearing make-up and visiting the dermatologist in high-school I was always conscientious of looking neat and clean. Attending a private school helped a lot during this phase. Even though girls at my high-school were permitted to wear as much make-up as they liked they were restricted if they showed off too much. Due to lesser competition in a sense wearing light to no make-up was the norm. In college, however, being different and standing out was acceptable. During those years I too tried to experiment with my own beauty image. But, towards the end of my four years I liked using as little make-up as possible daily, and focused on setting an image for myself based on my wardrobe.
But living in Korea made me re-think my make-up regiment, hair styles, facial features, and body size. All things that I had never really focused on to much, with the exception of my black hair. I started to re-think about my own beauty image almost everyday. One reason was due to my (new) graduate school & Korean friends whom I met, all followed a customized beauty regiment – of strong make-up, pin straight hair, matching outfit attire to amplify their small sleek bodies. All of my friends (even my Korean-American friends who returned to Korea) followed this standard norm.
In South Korea, women are viewed as beautiful strictly based on looks first. Due to this many corrective measures such as beauty/skin/ make-up regiments, as well as, plastic surgery clinics have become quite successful in Korea’s growing market. From young ages Korean girls look up to Korean idols who 9 times out of 10 have gone through multiple beauty/skin/ make-up regiments and possibly plastic surgery in their careers.
Beauty in South Korea is a defining part of a person. In school, in the office, and outside the office (*depending on outside engagements). One’s make-up regiment, hair style, facial features, and body size play a defining role in how an individual might be viewed by their classmates, co-workers, family, and general public. No wonder there are so many mirrors all over Seoul. No matter what time of day you might see a man or woman making sure they look presentable (*at a mirror in the subway, through their reflection outside a building, or inside a bathroom in a public space) before they arrive at their appointments.
As a black female my experience with beauty image in South Korea led me astray during my first year. I already knew before arriving that Korea would not have much make-up that would cater to a darker-skin individual (i.e. concealers, powders, etc.) But, I still often went to the department stores with my Korean friends to buy make-up. However, just like in my college days I chose to not wear too much make-up. I still preferred the casual look. Many of my Korean and Korean-American friends followed with the standard norm in Korea. I did not, not just because I did not want to, but because I did not see a reason to conform when being different should be seen as a beauty too. As a black female, just by my skin color I was different. The same for my facial features, hair-styles, and body size/curves. Being different was pretty to me because I knew I did not want to change.
I did not want to use BB Cream (*a skin whitening cream popular in Asian countries) to lighten my skin as some darker-skin foreigners and even darker-skin Koreans were doing. I did not want to get a Japanese perm done and permanently straighten my hair to look more Asian as some foreigners had done. I did not want to visit any plastic surgery clinics for consultations on how to change my facial features to look more White or Asian. And I did not want to go onto any strict weight-loss diets like many of my friends in order to become super-skinny. For all of my did nots I knew that I did not want to lose myself. But, I did falter with these did nots when an ex-bf broke up with me (in Korea), when some classmates made derogatory racial remarks about my skin color in front of me, when my Korean friends hung out with me less due to me not fitting into their Korean social circles, when I failed to pass the 1st stage of my job interviews after some Korean companies realized I was black(*since I did not include a general photo in my applications), when I received countless stares while riding the subway, and when I visited the immigration office and received somewhat stronger scrutiny with my application paperwork. In these instances I sometimes wished that I could viewed as beautiful in the eyes of the people who negatively viewed me.
That wish has never gone away, but has stuck with me with every new friend, new acquaintance, new co-worker, new classmate, and new-neighbor I have met since I graduated from school, worked as an ESL teacher, moved around to new neighborhoods in Seoul, and traveled around Korea. In my personal view beauty is skin deep. But, this is one view out of 7 billion people in the world. I fully understand that each and every country as well as every society views or judges beauty differently. That being said how we view things can change, and one day maybe all people will accept vast forms beauty images within their countries, societies, and among their people.