Thursday, July 13, 2006

Euro-centrism and Beauty...What's Too Much?

There is a blog called the Yangpa. "양파" or "yangpa" is onion in Korea, if you know the Onion website you already have a strong idea what the site is about. If you don't, let me just say that it is a parody in written in a journalistic style that publishes satirical pieces on modern life in Korea.

Here is a post from that website that is hilarious:

Our whitening cream provides maximum whitening for any type of asian skin. It contains special Whitecules that go deep into your body to provide a full whitening experience. After just a few applications, you'll make Drew Barrymore look like Fu Manchu!

Possible side effects include:

* Sudden cravings for milk and cheese

* Tendency to vote Republican

* Desire to watch hockey

* Inexplicable waves of guilt

Okay, so it's a harsh satire to say the least, but it brings up an interesting topic that is discussed in Korea but is also prevalent discussion in all ethnic minorities in this age of affordable plastic surgery, botox, hair weaves, skin lightening creams, etc.

The question is usually framed as "when does grooming and self-improvement shift from a choice to a manifestation of self-loathing or a quest to be whiter" with the poster child for this question being Michael Jackson.

However, it's not literally white as the picture above shows. It's usually the quest to zap the ethnic features off in preference for something more mainstream. What "mainstream" seems to mean is eurocentric or white as you usually don't see people wearing afro wigs except during Halloween.

This manifests itself in many ethnic minorities.

In Korea, it means that skin whitening products are guaranteed fast sellers for cosmetic companies and that the double-eyelid surgery is one of the most popular. In India, it means that they have categories and descriptions for brown that I've never heard of and would most likely be shocked at the depth and detail of the distinctions. In African-American culture, it's the prevalence of chemically relaxed hair and hair weaves.

Now before people start commenting and pointing the obvious that not only Asian women get double-eyelid surgery, not that only Indians have issues with having lighter skin or that black women aren't the only ones relaxing or weaving their hair, I KNOW THIS. I'm generalizing for the sake of discussion. I realize there are exceptions. Hell, I'm one of them, and I know there are many other exceptions. However, considering how much money is made off of ethnic beauty it's a question that should be discussed because too many people reduce it to a choice when we all know more is going on here.

In fact, there was a news story about how more black women are choosing to wear the natural textures (there are many) of their hair rather than straighten: Returning to Roots.

It just seems that now that it's easier, cheaper and more accessible for everyone to get wider eyes, lighter skin or longer more flowing locks that people have lost sight of balance in the quest for "beauty". I put it in quotes because I don't think it's beautiful to look like everyone else. I certainly don't think it's beautiful to have the same pair of eyes that the girl next to you has or to have so much fake hair on your head that you resemble a thoroughbred. I also think that if everyone jumps through all of these whoops then "beauty" is nothing more than a cookie-cutter aesthetic.

This subject can be a book, and, for that reason, I'm going to stop and just say I think that it would be so much better to channel that money into therapy so that people can learn to love themselves as they are. That's not to say I'm saying the hell with grooming. I'm all about getting a manicure and pedicure. I'm all about finding a new lipstick color that accentuates my lips. I'm all about twisting my hair so that it cutely coils in all sorts of directions. I'm not even saying the hell with hair weaves as why not if you want it?

However, I'm looking at what motivates it. For some it probably is trying something new and having fun. For some certain looks are simply what they prefer. But when you refuse to leave the house rather than show the world the natural texture of your hair then something is amiss. If you think the girl with the wide eyes is sexy and you're not simply because your eyes aren't as wide something is amiss. When you think you aren't as beautiful because you're the color of rich dark chocolate something is amiss. I'm all for looking my best. I'm just not for paying money for someone to carve on me, apply chemicals on me or otherwise tinker with me to overpower my DNA code.

I know I can't control others, and I don't want to because embracing yourself as you are is a choice just as thinking your beauty is less than others is ultimately a choice too.

It's just that with all the obvious and fake alterations, it's a natural question to ponder.

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  1. I was amused a few months ago when I found out that there was skin bleach readily available in India and some African countries. I actually couldn't believe it. Now look, I've never been one of those people who hang out in the sun, mainly because nature means bugs and I don't do bugs. But what is you take on the long standing desire for whiteys to get a tan? I know it is actually nothing to skin whitening, but what about the underlying desire to darken their skin?

  2. To answer your question, I think a desire to darken can be distinguished from what’s going on with ethnicities wanting a more Eurocentric look. I don’t think most whites who tan are doing it to achieve Negroid features. They’re not doing it to hide their ethnic features. However, some black girls or Asian girls go nuts. I was just browsing around on MySpace and saw the most insane photo of this Asian girl who had blue contacts, bleached hair, and the mark of eye surgery (but it was hard to tell from the picture). It was sad.

    Your question proves to me that I've thought like this for a long, long time. I grew up in L.A. where sun-worship and being looks obsessed is a lifestyle for a lot of people. I remember working in a clothing store when I was a teenager. We were cool. We were cute. We had a cool work address - The Beverly Center: I had a cool red sports car with a sunroof. We were the shit or so we thought.

    I spent that summer hanging out with my cute friends in our cute clothes in West L.A. There were two girls with similar coloring as both were blond haired and blue-eyed.

    One girl was addicted to tanning. So much so that even at our young ages she had yellowish/orange undertone to her skin. In contrast, the other girl was religious about applying sunscreen and keeping sunning at a minimum.

    Guess who had the most beautiful skin? The girl who avoided the sun did. Her skin was just diaphanously luminous. Years down the line, I'm sure the tan addict has premature wrinkles and might even be fearful of skin cancer. I’d also bet that the girl who avoided the sun has aged quite well and is still quite beautiful.

    Clearly, I'm a purist, and I have a bias. In general, I just think all the hoopla over looks neglects what really matters which is your soul. Looks fade and even if all your plastic features caught that fine guy, ultimately you’re going to have to talk to him and he’s going to want to know more about you.

    Again, I’m not saying shun self-grooming, but it just seems that society is absolutely over the top with the emphasis put on looks. The funny thing is most of these people still look decidedly average or ridiculously plastic.

    I just think when it’s an attempt to hide or change your ethnic features, it’s a big problem. I also think people of any race addicted to plastic surgery are sick and need therapy.

    I think doing the best with what you were given is a route to nurturing your soul and is 100% better than all the superficial madness. I'm a plastic surgeon’s and cosmetic's company's nightmare.

    See what happens when you grow up in L.A.? This is backlash at its fullest ;-)

  3. Good answer - and while I agree with almost everything - I'd love to get rid of the stretch marks my little darlings gave me. While my sexiness is hardly contingent on them, I really don't like them. On the other hand I've had a lot more time to get used to the rest of my body's marks... On the other hand, me staying out of the sun for my whole life means that I don't look old enough to have kids and when they aren't around, my stretch marks are my proof...

  4. Ha...well, this really is me laying out what I think.

    However, I haven't had children, and it has occurred to me whether I'd be so hardcore about this if my breasts were at my navel. I’ll be honest and say my tune just might change. ;-)

    It's my 2 cents, but, clearly, most people would disagree (just look at shows like The Swan or Extreme Makeover). At least, that's how it seems.

  5. Look, with the degrees you are racking up behind your name, and obviously the knowledge to go with it - by the time your tits are at your belt line, you will have a job that pays you enough to have someone correct that without making it to obvious. And don't worry - we won't hold it against you!

  6. Good, because the thought of having National Geographic boobies scares me.

    I’m a non-PC hypocrite.

  7. You said, "I don't think it's beautiful to look like everyone else." That is SO on point. I wish I'd learned it at an earlier age than I did but I'm glad I learned it eventually. :)

    That IndiaParenting article...whoa. :(

  8. It takes awhile. I think I got a head start because my parents were always cooing over me. It probably irritated the hell out of everyone else, but it helped me.

    The India Parenting article is scary, isn't it? The comments are just terrifying.

    BTW, thanks for stopping by and commenting! I love comments!

  9. there could be eurocentrism when it comes to the eyelid surgery thing in korea. which, in my opinion, is overhyped. I worked there as a teacher for 6 years (I just came back this December) and many of the children were naturally double lidded and I could tell the difference between natural and fake. regardless. you DO know that koreans prized light skin even BEFORE the general korean society came into contact with Europeans. I personally don't think its a matter of eurocentrism in that instance. For thousands of years, light skin was seen to something richer people, who stayed out of the sun, had. It was also a sign of beauty. And now it's considered simply a sign of beauty. Also, the smoother your skin is, the younger you tend to look. Thus why Koreans don't invest into botox nearly as much as Americans.

  10. Yes, I know that light skin was a sign of status and richness. If you're outside working in the rice fields or wherever you're going to turn brown. If you're part of the royal court you're not.

    Thanks because, however, unlikely maybe it's possible that's something I didn't figure out.

    As to your last point, I think you mean why Koreans don't invest in botox nearly as much as Americans who overexpose themselves to the sun. I'm from California, and I know of quite a few Asians who tan way too much too. They're definitely getting botox and other treatments now.

  11. This is a great post. I wish I could get my kids to read it. My eldest had pretty blonde hair (not from me: she's a real throwback). It is now BLUE. That's right: turquoise, to be precise. I could weep.

    A good friend of mine in Japan was an ophthamologist and she used to perform hundreds of those eyelid surgeries. Honestly, I could cry: I think Asian eyes are beautiful. If I had them, I'd keep them. And if I had nappy hair, I'd keep that too, and wear it with pride. What a waste of money 'fixing' your eyelids; what a waste of time and money frying your hair. And what a stupid message to pass on to your kids -- that you're not beautiful as it is. (Allow me to point out that I don't have blue hair!)

    I don't do well with heat or the sun, and even though I tan nicely, I stay covered up as much as possible. I had friends who fried their skin so badly they really did age before their time, but quite apart from the health concern, I don't understand why people feel they need to modify their appearance to such a degree. You would not believe how much money people here in the U.K. drop at sun tanning salons. Maybe I'm just too lazy for my own good -- or too cheap.

  12. LOL...sorry about your daughter's turquiose hair, but I think that's mos def experimentation on her part.

    I helped a friend dye his hair green back in the day, so I kinda get it. I also remember shaving my hair off down to my scalp in college. My mother was NOT happy ;)

    At this point, it's going to take a collective shift in how people view beauty. It's amazing the stuff women here will do. It's amazing the stuff woman back home will do. I'm just glad it's not me.

  13. I want to shave my head! I support the charity 'Locks of Love' and I'm getting ready to make a donation. I could use a dramatic change, and I figure why not go whole hog and have my whole head shaved? I mentioned this to my eldest and she practically frothed at the mouth. Both kids have said that if I have my head shaved, they won't walk down the street with me. And yet they have the gall to call me hypocritical. S i g h.

    I wish there were a magazine for girls that would encourage them to go for natural beauty -- the kind where they don't have to spend every dime they have on beauty products. Of course, that will never happen: no sponsors.

  14. Hahahahaha. Well, that is hypocritical. For me, it was also the first step into going natural regarding my hair. It wouldn't happen until years later, but my relaxed hair was so damaged that I just said "cut it all off."

    But yeah, if your girls are walking around with technicolor hair, I don't see what's wrong with you shaving yours off. I mean it does grow back.

    That magazine would fail completely and that's sad.

  15. Jane, I don't think a natural beauty magazine would fail. It would probably be very refreshing. Its success might depend on the marketing though. It probably wouldn't do so well if it was aimed exclusively at women. It would need to be promoted at sites where men who prefer natural women go as well.

    Ya and non dieting is actually a fetish now. That's kinda sad...cute, but sad.

  16. It's possible.

    It seems, however, that men mostly are interested in beauty, period. They're not very disturbed if that beauty is natural or manufactured. Some might be more particular regarding it, but if most men cared about it a lot of popular female celebs wouldn't have their huge male fanbase.

  17. I've read different articles and opinions about eyelid surgeries among Asians, but I haven't been able to tell if it's really from European-influenced aesthetics or just about having bigger eyes, which can be seen as more feminine (since women have proportionally bigger eyes than men on average) or more expressive. About half of Asians already have natural double lids, which look pretty different from Caucasian double lids, but the trait is not as common in Korea (~25%) and Japan as it is in southern China and Southeast Asia (~70%). The eyelid surgeries done on Asians that I've seen in pictures usually seem to try to imitate the Asian double lid. Also, fair skin and larger eyes seem to have been historically regarded as more beautiful in multiple Asian countries, back to ancient times.

    So maybe they want bigger but still Asian-looking eyes? But then again, breast enhancement and raised nose bridges seem to be pretty popular, and those don't have a long history of being beautiful traits in Asia. Could you discern at all what Koreans really want their eyes to look like, from living among them?

  18. depends on the korean, but it seems to be an issue of wanting to be able to play around with make-up on the lid which you cannot really pull off well so they say without the crease and also it is to have a big eye. i get people telling me my eyes are beautiful all the time in korea and i think it is simply because i have got big brown eyes.

  19. Hi Regina,
    I googled "black people in Korea" and came across your blog (and the podcast) and am SO GLAD I did. I'll be heading to Daegu to teach English in July and will probably be referring to your blog like my bible in the next few weeks, lol. It's great to see other black women (happily) in Korea. I'm not so excited about your comments on dating, but it will be an experience I'm sure. By the way, I'm also from a big city, NYC to be specific, so I value your comments that much more! Thanks for the insight...keep it coming!


  20. Glad to here you found me and are glad you found me. Believe me other demographics sometimes wish they hadn't ;)

    Just don't take everything I've said as gospel, your mileage may vary and it pretty much depends on your attitude. However, enjoy it, it's a fun ride.

  21. I forgot to mention one thing under my sixth point (hehe). I think what you said about "zapping the ethnic features off in favor of something more mainstream" was witty and interesting. But I'm not sure how accurate we would be if we were to equate the mainstream idea of beauty with the Euro-centric look. If the current mainstream look in Korea favors such facial characteristics that happen to be shared by many Caucasians, I don’t think it’s because Koreans want to copy them. Koreans simply don’t look the way they did a hundred years ago, and I’m not talking about the plastic ones. Changes in diet and lifestyle, as well as other factors, have caused the overall Korean population to be taller and to look much different from the way they used to. You see more young Koreans these days with naturally bigger eyes, prominent noses, etc. Hmm, I’m wondering if all this might be a by-product of a different Western influence: increased American fast-food intake among the younger generation. But anyway, what I want to say is, the perception of Korean beauty has changed over the years partly because their living conditions and way of life have simply changed. Again, I'm not trying to justify their actions, nor am I saying that they aren't influenced by Western culture, because they are, to a certain extent. I just don't think that saying "Koreans favor the mainstream look, and since the current mainstream look happens to be 'white,' Koreans must want to look white" is an accurate description of what's really going on in Korea.

  22. Well, first, there aren't points 1-5, so I'm assuming those got lost somewhere in cyberspace.

    Everyone's perception of beauty has changed over the years. One time in history you had paintings of beautiful women that today would straight up be called fat and sent off for a makeover and liposuction.

    Whatever you want to call the look so many modern Koreans seek, it's not Asian and it's not reminiscent of any other minority features either. It might be a misnomer to label it as trying to be white. I doubt it. Maybe it's not to be white but instead to look like Japanese cartoon characters. Whatever it is, maybe the point I didn't articulate is it's just not pretty.

    Evolution and DNA control how you look. There are spontaneous changes too, but I can't agree that in one generation eyes have suddenly just happened to widen or noses just happened to get more prominent. That seems to be a bit naive at best.

    Just as the phenomenon of the slim hipped woman with huge breasts is 100% due to plastic surgery, so are these two features you've mentioned.

    Those lidded big eyes and prominent noses we see in South Korea aren't just a new natural evolution. Plastic surgeons are so ubiquitous here that they have advertisements on subway trains.

    So, although I've not thought about this much in a couple of years, lifestyle is tied to economics. People here have more time and money to fret over how they look. The looks they're emulating aren't Korean ones, so call it what you want, but ethnocentric isn't the goal here.

  23. Thanks, ExpatJane, for your post. I know what you're saying, and I can definitely see why you would say that. And I think your point may be valid, but only to a certain extent (meaning it only applies to certain people and certain cases). I think it's a bit of a stereotype to say that all Asians are supposed to have small, narrow, slanted eyes w/ no double eyelids and flat noses, and actually, I think part of the reason why so many of us attribute these characteristics to Asians is because that's always how Western media has portrayed us. But the truth is, there have always been MANY Asians, including Koreans, with big, double-lidded eyes and prominent noses. They just don't happen to be portrayed in Western media because we think they don't look "Asian" enough, at least in our Westernized minds. Entertainment industry execs, for instance, often pick Asian and Asian American actors/actresses that conform to what we Westerners typically think of as looking exotic and "Asian." So now when we go to Korea or other Asian countries and see so many Asians with facial characteristics that we haven't been used to associating w/ Asian people, we automatically think this was something that happened overnight and say, "Oh, wow, that person doesn't look Asian. She's probably had plastic surgery." Yes, there are many Koreans who do get plastic surgery, but I don't think it's as common as you seem to be suggesting. And many, if not most, of those who do get plastic surgery just get double eyelids, and I've described some of the reasons why they get double eyelids below. Also, there are many countries (including the US) with much higher rates of plastic surgery per capita than South Korea. Here's the link to a website with statistics: Although the numbers are from 2002, and I think the figures are somewhat underestimated, I think it gives you a general idea. Also, Koreans, I think, tend to be more open about discussing whether or not they've had cosmetic surgery (at least more so than certain other countries like Japan), so it adds to the impression that so many Koreans get plastic surgery, which also stigmatizes the rest of us who haven't had (nor plan to have) plastic surgery. And let me just add, just as there are many blacks with so many different facial features and other physical characteristics that you can't simply assign a single set of characteristics to describe them all, same thing applies to Asians (and whites and other races)--you can't necessarily say that small, single-lidded eyes and flat noses, for instance, are the defining characteristics of Asians. Yes, they are for some, but not for all, and I'm not talking about the ones who've had plastic surgery, b/c there are plenty who haven't had any and just naturally have big eyes and what have you. Take my family for instance. Most of us (but not me) have NATURAL double eyelids, and almost all of us (including me) have big eyes and prominent noses. It's just in our DNA, I guess. And I know a lot of other Korean families who look that way, without having had anything done. Also, about the point I made earlier about how looks tend to change over time, I did NOT mean that looks spontaneously change over just one generation. Like I said, there have ALWAYS been MANY Koreans with big eyes and big noses, but I think the overall percentage of the population with such features has generally increased over time, and NOT solely due to plastic surgery. Better nutrition, changes in diet and lifestyle, different environment, etc. also contribute in more ways that one might think. And there are some trends that have occurred naturally over the course of just one generation. For instance, the average height of Koreans has dramatically increased since the 1950's and 1960's, when many Koreans didn't even have enough to eat during and after the Korean War and were constantly malnourished.

  24. Ok, this was supposed to be my first post, the one that got lost in cyberspace. Here it is (it's pretty long, btw, but I wrote it in answer to your question about what motivates Koreans to get these surgeries and buy skin creams). I'm too lazy to rewrite all of it, so I'm just going to copy and paste it here. I might've already mentioned some of it, but, anyway, here it is:

    Hi, is your name Regina? Your blogger ID says "ExpatJane" but I thought I saw a previous poster use the name "Regina." Anyway, if your name's Regina, that's cool b/c that's my name too!

    I just came across your blog today (while taking a much-needed break from writing my essays for master's programs in international relations--a common interest we seem to have!). I've only read a couple of entries so far, but I've already found a lot of the stuff to be interesting. I think it's great that you've been writing about your experiences in Korea b/c as a Korean-American and a minority here in the States, I've always wondered what it would be like for non-Koreans or non-Korean-Americans living in Korea.

    In case you happen to read this (b/c I know this blog entry was written a long time ago!), I just wanted to make a few comments about people's perception of "beauty" in Korea (and I think this could apply to Japan and other Asian countries as well). I recently came back from a year-long stay in Korea, and although I know that that's nowhere near as long as you or some of the other expats mentioned here have stayed, I often discussed these things with my family, friends and co-workers while I was there. And having been raised by Korean parents, I think I've also learned a lot of this stuff over the years, so I do think there is some truth in what I'm about to say.

    Now, let me be clear from the outset that I'm not condoning any form of plastic surgery whatsoever. I do agree with you that being truly beautiful is all about embracing yourself, as you said earlier, and accentuating your natural and unique qualities. But I think there are so many different reasons (some of them quite logical, in my opinion) why some Koreans get double-eyelid surgery (and possibly other forms of plastic surgery) and buy skin-whitening creams. And just labeling their actions as being "Euro-centric" can be overly simplistic and even dangerous, in my opinion.

    For the sake of brevity and clarity, I think I'll just list the reasons I can think of off the top of my head. You're probably already aware of many of these, but I'm citing them all because I think when taken together, they help to explain some of the logic behind all this.

    Double-eyelid [and other plastic] surgeries:
    1. Studies have shown that people naturally prefer women with big eyes. Men (no matter what their race) prefer women with big eyes (I learned this in my cog sci class; supposedly men instinctively prefer big eyes b/c they're an indicator of the woman's overall health and fertility). And women also think that women with big eyes tend to be more "beautiful" than those with smaller eyes. I think many Korean women realize this, whether or not they're aware of the underlying biological factors, so they opt for double eyelid surgery, which "opens up" their eyes and makes them bigger and more "beautiful." Most of them don't do it b/c they want to look "less Asian." It's just a matter of general preference. And, as previously noted, there are many Asians with natural double eyelids.

    2. Some Koreans, both young and old, men AND women, want to have double eyelids because if they don't have double eyelids, their eyelids tend to droop as they age. This can cause, among other things, some of their eyelashes to poke their eyes, which results in constant irritation of the eyes and other possible side effects which I won't mention here.

    3. I'm not sure how prevalent this third factor is, but I know it does play a role in the decision of some women (and men) to undergo double eyelid surgery (and possibly other forms of plastic surgery). In Korea, candidates for a job have to go through a job interview, and usually, before they even get job interviews, they have to submit a paper application with their photo attached. Now, I don't think companies would turn down an applicant if he/she is "bad-looking" (though there's no way to prove this), but I've been told there have been cases in which applicants were turned down because they looked "too mean" and "unapproachable" and thus "perhaps difficult to work with." Many Koreans care a lot about facial impressions and think that a person's character can be judged to a certain extent by his/her overall facial impression. If the job position requires dealing with a lot of clients face-to-face and/or going on overseas business trips to represent the company, the employers want to make sure that they have people who are most likely to leave a good impression on their clients. Some people get double eyelids because they think having larger, rounder eyes makes them look friendlier and more approachable than having smaller, narrow (and perhaps upward-slanted) eyes. And in Korea's ridiculously tough and highly competitive job market, where you might have like 100 applicants vying for a single post, and many of them already hold master's degrees and/or Ph.D's and have passed the company's entrance exam and have similar levels of experience, you want to make sure you do everything you can to enhance your application and have an edge over your competition, and sometimes having a good facial impression can certainly help.

    4. I know this was mentioned before, but I just want to reiterate that many Korean women get double-eyelids partly b/c it makes it SOOO much easier to put on eye makeup, and thus it's easier to draw attention to the eyes. It's probably something that people who've always had double eyelids wouldn't fully understand. I don't have double eyelids (nor do I plan on getting them), but sometimes I wish I did because I can never put on eyeliner on my eyelids so that it looks beautiful and natural (other people have tried on me and all have failed). So I never wear any eye makeup these days, which is fine with me b/c I usually don't wear any makeup anyway. Of course, there are some Asians with no double eyelids who have succeeded (thanks to patience and practice, I guess). But contrast my case with a Korean friend of mine who had double eyelid surgery; she told me that whereas it used to take her at least 10-15 minutes to put on eyeliner before, after having her eyelids done, she now takes like only a minute or two to do her eye makeup, and it always looks absolutely stunning.

    5. This sort of ties in earlier with what I said about facial impressions. Here in the States, I dare say that there's a higher ratio of women who receive breast implants and other body modifications vs. women who have plastic surgeries done on their face (I'm not including Botox). In Korea, the ratio is reversed; women are much more likely to have something done on their faces but not their bodies. I remember reading somewhere online that many American women have less qualms about getting breast implants because they view them as mere body modifications that don't change who they essentially are, whereas many of them would be more reluctant about changing their faces because they see their faces as what makes them unique and who they are. But many Korean women see it differently. Most of the time when you're meeting people, your face is the first (and sometimes the only, like when you're chatting online) part of you they see. People tend to concentrate on your face when you're talking to them; they're not going to concentrate on your arms, your butt, or your boobs (or at least, hopefully not!). So it's important to have a face that would please others as well as yourself; and having such a face that has a good effect on other people can boost one's self-esteem and self-confidence, esp. in public.

    6. Ok, this is the last reason I'm going to list b/c this is getting awfully long, but I blame the increasing prevalence of plastic surgery in Korea partly on the celebrities, or rather, perhaps more accurately, on their agents who tell them to "fix their faces" so they look more presentable and likable on TV. Every Korean knows that many Korean celebrities undergo plastic surgery to make themselves look more "beautiful," so they might think, "Well, if they can do it and doing so has brought them much success, why can't I? And so many celebrities who do it end up looking better, and there's nothing wrong with wanting to make yourself look good or better..." Especially since plastic surgery can be done quite well and cheaply these days, I think many Koreans find it easier on their conscience (and wallet) to undergo plastic surgery. Also, you have to keep in mind that the Korean society is a very group-oriented, collectivist society, and people tend to be quite competitive, as I'm sure you've noticed. If a neighbor gets a new BMW, I have to get a Porsche. If my neighbor's kid takes piano and ballet lessons, well then, my kid needs to take piano, ballet, AND violin lessons. This type of thinking can apply to beauty as well. If I think my friend looks hotter because she got a nose job, well, maybe I should get a nose job as well. And so on. Ok, I know those were generalizations and that many exceptions do exist, but I think the overall principle is correct in many cases. I don't think these women are doing it just because they want to look more "white" or whatever; sometimes they might do it b/c they've seen that it looks good on a friend and think it might work for them as well. After all, there are many people in every race (including Asian) that naturally have such characteristics as high noses, big eyes, etc. I don't think any of these features are strictly limited to whites, including white skin, which I will discuss below. Also, if the current mainstream look in Korea favors such facial characteristics that happen to be shared by many Caucasians, I don’t think it’s because Koreans want to copy them. Koreans simply don’t look the way they did a hundred years ago, and I’m not talking about the plastic ones. Changes in diet and lifestyle, as well as other factors, have caused the overall Korean population to be taller and to look much different from the way they used to. You see more young Koreans these days with naturally bigger eyes, prominent noses, etc. Hmm, I’m wondering if all this might be a by-product of a different Western influence: increased American fast-food intake among the younger generation. Besides, there are certain things that most Koreans these days find beautiful but that Westerners might find a bit baffling: for example, the preference for a small face, which, in our standards, means more like tiny. I think most Hollywood celebrities would be considered as having big faces by Korean standards. But no one accuses Angeline Jolie of being ugly or any less beautiful because she has a huge face! I’d bet many of us didn’t even notice it before; I sure didn’t, or even if I did, I didn’t think much of it until I came back from Korea. Yet Koreans seem to not care so much about the facial size of Hollywood celebrities as they do about their own celebrities. To me, this seems to imply that Koreans apply a different set of criteria when judging Western beauty vs. Asian beauty, which in turn implies that it doesn’t make much sense to say that Korean women are striving to look more white. Maybe to look more like some Korean celebrities, but I think white might be going too far.

    7. Having said ALL that, I'd just like to point out one last thing about plastic surgery in Korea. I think its prevalence tends to be a bit exaggerated in the media, and many people, both Koreans and non-Koreans, tend to overestimate the rate of plastic surgery in Korea. Some Korean celebrities have been rumored to have undergone plastic surgery (though they firmly deny it, and I believe some of them, though not all) simply because people think they're "too good-looking to be natural." Which I think is really sad. Although I really do think plastic surgery in Korea is not as common as some people say it is, it does say a lot, I think, when it's gotten to a point where many people question whether a person's "fake" or not simply because he/she looks good, or simply above-average. While double eyelid surgery is quite common in Korea, I think other types of surgery are nowhere near as common, at least that's what I've gathered from my experiences with the people I encountered there.

    Ok, now about skin whitening creams (this will, thankfully, be much shorter):

    1. I didn't know this until I was in Korea and one of my cousins freaked out when she saw me going outside on a sunny day with no sunscreen on. She told me that Asians naturally have thinner skin than other people, so if we're not careful, we can get freckles, wrinkles, sunburns--you name it--more easily and quickly than other people do (yes, including whites). Hmm, and all this time I was wondering where all my freckles and moles came from...

    Anyway, so I listened to my cousin's advice and started applying sunscreen to my face every day. I don't know if that sunscreen contained some chemicals intended to whiten your skin, but my face got visibly whiter in less than a month. But not only did it get whiter, more importantly, it looked CLEANER. Somehow the sunscreen seemed to hide all the blemishes on my face. Maybe it contained some sort of concealer, I don't know. Out of curiosity, I tried some of the regular skin whitening creams (they all happened to have UV protection too), and found that they basically did the same thing--hide my blemishes--while making my skin whiter at the same time. I think "light" and "clean-looking" just happen to go hand-in-hand for Korean faces. (Of course, I'm just applying this to Koreans.) At first, I too thought it was absurd that Koreans would care so much about making their faces whiter, but after experiencing those skin whitening creams myself, I've realized that it does enhance the overall appearance of my face by making my face look smoother and cleaner.

    2. ...which leads me to my second reason: having a whiter face enhances a Korean's facial features. It's not something anyone has told me, but instead it's something I noticed while I was there, so I can't say for sure whether Koreans really do take this into consideration when buying these creams. I guess it might be because most Koreans have relatively delicate facial features, which can be somewhat hard to enhance if their complexion is dark. And, in my opinion, makeup tends to look better on a Korean woman with a lighter complexion than on a Korean woman who is naturally just as beautiful but has a darker skin tone. Sometimes you can't even see the makeup if her face is dark. Occasionally you might encounter a Korean woman who attempts to make up for this (no pun intended) by wearing lots of makeup on her face, but then she looks like one of those Tokyo girls with fake tans and hideously bright eyeshadow and orange hair. Ok, maybe not as bad, but still, it usually doesn't look so good, in my opinion.

    I think I had a third reason, but I forgot it b/c this post has gotten much, much longer than I originally intended. I can't say that what I've just written applies to all or even most cases, but it's a collection of ideas I've gathered on this subject while working in Korea. I hope you and your readers will find my comments somewhat useful (if you've had the time to read all of them, that is!). And again, these are all my thoughts on the subject based on observations I made and conversations I had with some Koreans, so I can't say that my views are those of the majority of the Korean population. But if anything, I hope this helps non-Koreans realize that although there might be some things Koreans do that might seem a bit strange or even irrational to us Americans, there are almost always many complex and interacting factors behind their decisions, many of which, I think, Koreans don't even bother to convey to others sometimes because they simply take it for granted that their decision is a "logical" one and don't stop to think how things might work differently in foreign countries. And I think when non-Koreans see that, don't venture to ask those Koreans why, and just make their own conclusions based on their own ideas and preconceptions, it just perpetuates this lack of mutual cultural understanding. I'm not pointing the finger at anyone; I'm just saying that I feel there has been a general lack of effort and communication about cultural differences on both sides up to present. I mean, it's easy for us to say, "Oh, they're doing this because they want to look more Caucasian" or whatever, because that's how WE see it in our AMERICAN culture and that's what we've often been told by American (and other Western) media, but have we really talked with some actual Korean people to verify this claim? And yes, I realize that even if it were true for some Koreans, they probably wouldn't say so. But I think just attributing these beauty phenomena to a single, overriding cause oversimplifies the situation and unfairly leaves out those people who don't see it that way.

  25. Yeah, this is one time I'm not going to reply to a comment in detail.

    But the first point stands out in stark contrast to what I've noticed about a lot of Westerners. Most Westerners don't even realize what the issue is re the lack of a fold. In fact, I had to have a student sit me down and explain it and I was truly shocked. Who cares?

    Most Westerners are shocked to find out that Koreans talk about that particular facial feature quite a bit.

    I can't even remember the name of the fold, but I recall it starts with an "e". I learned that while living here.

    Just as my race has issues we need to accept and take ownership of (one being our morbid obsession with our hair texture) the better off we'll be, I think the same applies here 'cause it's the rare Westerner that cares about Asian eyelids. That's an Asian preoccupation:
    Asian-Americans Criticize Eyelid Surgery Craze

  26. Wow, that was a quick reply. Did you actually read everything I wrote? Because I think what I wrote (the really long post) explains a lot about why some Koreans choose to undergo double-eyelid surgery and buy skin-whitening creams. It's such a complex issue that can't easily be summarized in a few sentences, which explains the length of my post. I read the article you posted, and what really got my attention was that everything was expressed from an Asian-AMERICAN point of view. Here, many Asian-Americans see the plastic surgery phenomenon in Korea as buying into the Caucasian perception of beauty, but most Koreans don't seem to see it that way (at least not the ones I've talked to while in Korea). I read a previous comment posted by one of your readers saying that big eyes were always favored in Korea, and to my knowledge, that is true, long before any Western influence. The purpose of getting double eyelid surgery (in Korean, it's called "ssang-keobpul soo-sul") is to make the eyes look bigger, though having the crease can make it easier to put on makeup and reduce the risk of having your eyelashes poke your eyes, as I previously mentioned. And most Koreans who opt for the surgery want bigger, Asian-looking eyes. Besides, double eyelids are not solely characteristic of Caucasians--blacks have them, Hispanics have them, and some Asians have them.

    I don't know of any Korean parent who's suggested double eyelid surgery for their kids b/c it would make their eyes look "more Caucasian." They wouldn't say that--they would state other reasons that are much more valid. Those Chinese immigrant parents who said that in the article have been living in the States, so I'm guessing they're directly influenced by American culture and figure that since their daughter is being influenced by it too, she might be more inclined to take them up on their suggestion if they stated it that way, if that makes sense. This whole idea that Asian double-eyelid surgery is trying to make Asians look more Caucasian is something that many Asian-AMERICANS have expressed, but it doesn't reflect what many actual Asians think. I think as Americans, when we go to Korea or any other foreign country, our perception of that country's culture tends to be colored by our preconceptions and we try to match what we see with what we can glean from our own culture and our own understanding.

    And about your comment that most Westerners are unaware of this whole double-eyelid issue, are you referring to Westerners who've actually been to Korea or who've never visited an Asian country before? While I was in Korea, many of the Westerners I talked with acknowledged that many Koreans looked different from what they expected them to look, though I think many of them couldn't point out the individual differences and just noted the difference in general appearance.

    Well, think what you want, but I've tried my best to answer your question about what motivates these Koreans to undergo surgery and whatnot. It's all there in my previous posts. I guess it's up to you whether you want to read it or not. I'm not trying to convince you or anyone else to give up your own position on this issue, I'm just offering alternative explanations that I think are just as valid as, if not more than, opinions that are commonly expressed by Asian Americans and Westerners who have visited Korea.

  27. No, I didn't read it all. I said I was grading. I responded to your first point only.

    Beyond that, I'll have to read it later.

  28. I'll just add one more thing. Yes, you're probably right in saying that most Westerners don't care about or even are aware of the whole double eyelid thing. But I've found it interesting that most fellow Americans I've known seem to think that the prettiest Asians are the ones with the small, slanted eyes, extremely yellow complexion, angular faces, and flat noses--characteristics that Koreans overall have NEVER considered to be the epitome of beauty in the history of their country. I don't know, I guess we Westerners are used to thinking that that's what Asians are supposed to look like. I mean, growing up, some people thought I looked "weird" for an Asian because I don't fit any of that description. I guess here in the States, if you're Asian, the more "exotic"-looking you are, the prettier you are considered to be, b/c that's probably what we've been taught, whether we're aware of it or not. I think the old saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder definitely holds true.

  29. Ok, that's cool. I don't know if you're still in Korea, but if you are, you might want to talk with a lot of Koreans about this issue, if you haven't done so already. The things I've said are all based on my own conversation with other Koreans (not Korean-Americans), so it'd be interesting to know if they tell you different things.

    Before going to Korea, I used to also think that Koreans were getting double eyelids and buying whitening creams to make themselves look less Asian and more Caucasian. My parents told me otherwise, but I didn't really believe them until I actually got there and starting talking to a lot of people about it (I guess these sorts of seemingly shallow topics interest me a lot). Many of them seemed surprised or even shocked and offended when I told them what I thought and were quick to come up with their own reasons. I don't know, I guess it's possible that some of them were just in denial, but I don't think this is the case after spending time there and getting to know the people and the culture more thoroughly. It really dispelled a lot of the preconceptions I had about Koreans (and confirmed some others, like how insanely competitive they are) and changed my way of thinking about other cultures.

  30. --Oh yeah, I now remember what my third point under skin-whitening creams was. I can’t believe I left out this one; it’s the most obvious one and I guess I just took it too much for granted. Well, like it or not, having milky white, luminous skin (NOT a pale and pasty white, btw) has always been a trademark of Korean beauty, dating back to the Choseon era, if not earlier. Korean women (and sometimes men) always strove to have creamy white skin, and those who had such skin were praised for it. You can see it depicted in ancient Korean paintings and literature—all the so-called “beautiful” Korean women are described as having white skin.

    --And about the whole nose thing, let me just point out that no matter how prominent an Asian nose may be, it’s almost always NOT going to be as prominent as a typical Caucasian nose. And the overall look and shape tend to be a bit different too. Koreans who get nose jobs don’t want a white person’s nose, they want a higher but still Asian-looking nose. I guess it’s kind of like the eye surgery thing—they get double eyelids because they want bigger yet Asian-looking eyes, not Caucasian-looking ones (though a few may do so for the latter reason, but you can usually tell them apart because they look downright scary). Their goal when getting these surgeries is to make themselves become the “best-looking Asian” they can be, not the “best-looking Caucasian” they can be. And like white skin, having big eyes and somewhat high noses (especially the ones that are slightly upturned, for women) are features that have always been prized in Korean society (though probably not as commonly found as they are now, partly due to, yes, the advent of cheap plastic surgery). Many Caucasians also happen to just fit that description, I guess, but in their own way. That’s why many Koreans, when they first encountered white American soldiers during the Korean War, immediately found many of them to be somewhat handsome but scary-looking at the same time (more so the latter than the former)—the soldiers had some of the desired physical characteristics, but theirs were too extreme (enormous green or hazel eyes and reeeally prominent Roman noses were not exactly their notion of what constituted beauty at that time). At least this is what my parents and aunts and uncles have all told me (they’re all pretty old). Over the past few decades, as Koreans became more open to American culture and became used to seeing more Caucasians, they began to understand what was considered to be the beautiful standard for Caucasians. But in their minds they still draw a distinction between Asian beauty and Caucasian beauty—hence the different set of criteria—and I’m sure most of them would find Asians who’ve really tried to make themselves look Caucasian scary-looking because the two just don’t fit together.

    --And as for what many Americans seem to consider to be beautiful for Asians, let me give a brief anecdote about that. My aunt told me the story of how when she was working as a nurse in post-war Korea, she was surprised to learn that none of the American soldiers thought she was pretty (when she was considered by her fellow Koreans to be the prettiest nurse working at that hospital) but instead showed singular interest in the Korean nurse that most of the Koreans happened to think was the “ugliest.” One of the soldiers thought she was so beautiful that he proposed to her. They got married and moved to the US. Well, good for her, my aunt said, because she probably would’ve had a hard time finding a Korean man who would’ve been interested in her. Go figure. Anyway, I thought it was kind of funny. I think it shows how the general Asian and Western views of Asian beauty have fundamentally differed throughout their history.

    --Btw, I checked out the blog that you referenced in your entry (“the Yangpa”). I know most of what’s written on there is supposed to be satiric and not taken too seriously, but I couldn’t help but notice that most of what’s written on that site (well, technically everything that’s written on there, I guess) is written from a white American expat’s perspective. I mean, the title speaks for itself: “Somewhere between white privilege and rice porridge.” Even for those readers who know the blog’s intent is to be funny, I can’t help but think that it’s still going to affect their perception of Korean society, at least on a subconscious level. And then those expats are going to tell their expat friends what they think of Korea, and then when those expats come back home and tell their friends about it, the overall negative view of Korea many Americans already seem to have will just spread (not to mention the vast amount of negative and biased information that’s already been published online for everyone to see). I don’t know where you get your sources from (I don’t mean that in an offensive way), but I assume that many, if not most, American expats living in Korea (or those preparing to live in Korea) tend to rely on information that’s published or given to them in English, whether it be reading/listening to other expats’ stories, reading English-language newspapers printed in Korea, or perhaps even communicating with some Koreans who happen to know enough English to express themselves to a certain extent. But due to the language and cultural barrier, most Koreans probably won’t be able to communicate all the nuances of their culture and mentality, especially to a foreigner who’s been so used to living in a different culture that s/he probably wouldn’t fully understand what they mean or feel. And even if they are able to, what’s the point? Whatever they say probably won’t greatly affect how Americans perceive their customs and traditions anyway (especially given the history of constant misunderstandings and lack of proper communication between Korea and the US), much like whatever I say probably won’t greatly affect your or anyone else’s view, but I’m just saying it to let people know that there are other explanations and perspectives out there other than this Euro-centric one (that itself is being propagated by Euro-centrists, in my opinion—have you ever considered that possibility?) that we are so accustomed to being exposed to.

    Ok, well, I'm finally done. I've actually posted all this and more on my own blog,, if you want to check it out. I've rambled on about some other stuff there that I won't include here b/c I feel I've already taken up enough of your blog space. :P

  31. Skin whitening creams are more common in India. I had been there and the number of skin whitening crems and treaments promoted is unbelievable and surprising. But, I don't think they are looking for eurocentric look as seen in your post ad. Because, I could virtually see no hair color treatments or hair coloring available apart from the usual grey to black coloring.

    By talking to few Indians, they mentioned the europeans invaded there long ago and are considered socially superior caste are fair in complexion. That is the reason for skin whitening craziness over there. But, I envy most Indians have a lovely brown complexion :)

  32. Actually, skin whitening creams are worldwide. They're here in the USA too.

    I don't know much about Indian culture or the whys behind what they do. I do know that there are many negative examples of colorism in their culture and many products that promise lighter skin. The motivation behind that is probably race-based, but my knowledge of specifics is very limited.

    Thanks for your comment.


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