K-Beauty has been the “hot in-thing” on the beauty market for the last few years, each year growing exponentially more popular. People are going crazy for the various face masks, lotions, BB cream, dark spot treatment, CC cream, and many other products that hold a reputation for giving you a “dewy, young-looking face”. Youtubers and beauty bloggers only add to this craze, providing yearly top tens and list of best products. Now, in just about every pharmacy or beauty store, you’ll find a section devoted purely to Korean beauty and Korean companies.
But as with anything, the world of K-beauty has a vicious dark side. But this dark side isn’t an international issue. It only extends to the edges of the South Korean borders.
What do I mean by this? South Korea has interestingly harsh beauty standards, which can range anywhere from having a thin figure to having a certain face shape. Yes, a certain face shape. South Korea is currently known as the “plastic surgery capital of the world”, having the highest rates of plastic surgery per capita of any other country, with over 980,000 operations reported in 2014 (Business Insider, 2015) . The country also attracts hundreds of thousands of “medical tourists”, most of whom come to get cosmetic procedures, according a report by Chang-Won Koh (2017).
No, this isn’t the most alarming thing in the world. Despite the rather high levels of plastic surgery, South Korea ranks third in terms of the total number of plastic surgeries, trailing behind the US and Brazil by over 1,000,000 procedures (WorldAtlas, 2015). But you also have to consider that the population of South Korea ranges just around 55 million people, versus the 325 million in the US and the 209 million in Brazil. But I digress. It’s not so much the plastic surgery itself that’s the issue. It’s the culture surrounding it.
This culture is incredibly strict, and applies much more the girls than boys (although boys are not unaffected). The beauty culture actually even expects people to get plastic surgery to fit an impossible beauty ideal, with the most famous examples of this occurring being the fact that in just about every long-term K-pop idol contract, plastic surgery is one of the requirements.
But the beauty culture doesn’t just stop at plastic surgery. Skin bleaching is also a common problem, with illegal skin bleaching products flooding the beauty market every year in South Korea. There is a harsh expectation to be as white as possible (a result of a long-standing social issue where the nobility were white-skinned while the peasantry were dark-skinned from working in the sun). This expectation doesn’t just exist in South Korea (it exists throughout all of Asia, Africa, and Latin America), but South Korea is known for promoting ads that claim that being dark-skinned is being a failure in life (which has attracted much international backlash). The skin bleaching, which is known to break down melanin and leave skin much more likely to get skin cancer, can be compared to excessive tanning, which also leaves people at risk of the same effects.
But I can’t get on South Korea too harshly. The West also has incredibly high beauty standards, though with slightly less restrictions than South Korea. As I said earlier, the US ranks number one in terms of total amount of plastic surgery per year, having over 4 million procedures in 2015 alone. We also have a problem with tanning products, with products all over the market claiming to let you tan yourself from home, and tanning places existing all over the place. Are we really any better than South Korea?