K-Beauty: An Ugly Manifestation of South Korea's Obsession With Beauty
Fri, December 9, 2022

K-Beauty: An Ugly Manifestation of South Korea's Obsession With Beauty

A 2017 report by global market intelligence agency Mintel revealed that the K-beauty market ranks among the top 10 in the world. / Photo by: ronstik via 123rf


Everyone wants to look good. We want to be the best versions of ourselves in all aspects to fit in society. Generally, those who are good-looking based on societal beauty standards are more accepted, granted more opportunities, and live a better life than the rest. This is why the Korean beauty or K-beauty industry is considered a heavenly gift for all women.

South Korea has succeeded in establishing a name for itself, not only in music with its K-pop but also in the beauty industry. A 2017 report by global market intelligence agency Mintel revealed that the K-beauty market ranks among the top 10 in the world. It has an estimated worth of over $13.1 billion in sales in 2018. Every month, the top K-beauty companies in the country launch about 20 to 30 new products, which is a lot compared to Western brands that release 10 to 30 products annually.

To keep up with the demand and the intense competition, K-beauty companies spend millions on research and development. AmorePacific, one of Korea’s largest beauty companies, spends $100 million a year for this alone. These companies also come up with more innovations faster than anywhere else in the world. It’s no wonder South Korean women are not only hooked with the idea of being beautiful, but a lot of them are obsessed over it. 

According to CNN, an American news-based pay television channel owned by AT&T's WarnerMedia, South Korean women are very keen to try new trends on K-beauty. They want to try everything that comes out because they don’t want to be left out of the loop when all their friends are using a new product.

The rise of K-beauty is truly phenomenal since France and Japan have been considered as the leaders in the cosmetics business worldwide for a long time. But South Korea has been able to catch up, thanks to the development of its relevant industries in chemistry and bioscience and the emergence of the Korean Wave culture.

Additionally, South Korea has become the testbed for many world-famous cosmetic companies. "Korean consumers are very knowledgeable about different cosmetic types and ingredients, and they are picky. They are early adopters of new products, and cosmetic trend comes and goes at a very fast rate in Korea, partly due to the ubiquitous high-speed internet and heavy use of social media,” said Dr. Soyun Cho, a dermatology professor at Seoul National University.

South Korea’s Obsession with Beauty

For most South Korean women, keeping up with the latest trends in beauty is not a luxury but a fact of life. This kind of mindset dates back to ancient times when fair, luminous skin meant that women don’t have to work in the fields for a living. For them, beauty isn’t just about looks, it’s about self-esteem, diligence, and self-worth. This is why they spend a large amount of money on hairstyling, skin treatments, body hair removal treatments, and other aesthetic procedures. 

In a lot of societies, good looks have been proven to be a useful ingredient in having money, a high social position, and even love. Although this idea is oppressive and discriminatory, it is still widely practiced and valued by many people.

Among many South Korean women, the pursuit of beauty is often an expectation, especially for those who seek social and professional success. Such ideals are rooted in a patriarchal system. Patriarchy has assigned values to women according to a culturally imposed physical standard. 

“It is an expression of power relations in which women must unnaturally compete for resources that men have appropriated for themselves,” author Naomi Wolf said in her book “The Beauty Myth.”

South Korea has also been widely considered the “plastic surgery capital” of the world. Reports showed that the country has the highest number of cosmetic procedures per capita worldwide, with more than 600 clinics in Seoul alone. The country’s international plastic surgery clientele has also significantly expanded. Last year, about 50,000 foreign patients have received plastic surgery, paying a collective sum of $189 million for double jaw surgeries, double eyelid surgeries, and other various facial and body modifications.


South Korea has also been widely considered the “plastic surgery capital” of the world. / Photo by: Gergely Zsolnai via 123rf


Today, plastic surgery has become embedded in urban South Korean culture. According to HuffPost, the destination for UK news, blogs, and original content offering coverage of British politics, entertainment, style, world news, technology, and comedy, it’s not surprising that a lot of today’s young women in the country are aiming to undergo cosmetic surgery. In fact, high school and college students often receive plastic surgery as gifts when they graduate. 

According to Vice, an award-winning international network of digital content, this is because South Korean companies require photos on resumes. This means looks do matter in finding a job. “There is a saying in Korea that ‘your beauty is your ability.’ The younger generation who have just graduated tend to get plastic surgery so that they can get a better job. Your beauty is a kind of CV,” said Celine Hong, a Korean photographer and videographer. 

Experts attributed the popularity of plastic surgery in the country to the residual effects of imperialism. According to them, South Korean women have learned to do whatever it takes to appear more white. 

Escape the Corset Movement

Societal beauty standards continue to hinder a lot of women from living freely without worrying about their looks. Fortunately, more and more South Koreans are learning to ditch all these beauty standards through the Escape the Corset movement. Last year, thousands of posts on social media showing women smashing their cosmetics as a way of rejecting mainstream ideas of beauty proved how women are resisting the age-old belief. 

According to The Guardian, an online British site, Lee Na-Young, a women’s studies professor at Chung-Ang University in Seoul, stated that the movement aims to challenge the sexual objectification of women as well as change the status of women as subordinate to men. The term “corset-free” came from the idea attributing societal oppression of women to being bound in a corset. It’s now a movement of women against the unrealistic beauty standards requiring them to spend hours applying makeup and following an extensive skincare regimen. 

Indeed, women shouldn’t conform to beauty standards and norms that are not only oppressive but also regard them as mere objects. Women across the world should look beyond the limited and conventional standards of beauty demanded by traditional society.