In South Korea, ‘Lookism’ Is ‘Enforced With Open Discrimination’

When she was posted to Seoul, journalist Elise Hu was bowled over by the beauty industry's dominance—and impossible-to-escape standards.

In South Korea, ‘Lookism’ Is ‘Enforced With Open Discrimination’
Photo:Dutton; Emily Cummings

The following is an excerpt from Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital by Elise Hu, which came out on Tuesday. You can buy it at Bookshop and Amazon.

In retrospect, I began to understand the monumental labor of appearance work while I was in labor. Surely, there was air-conditioning in that birthing suite, but I couldn’t feel it anymore at the pushing stage. The sun had come down, sending long shadows into the room. My hair dripped with sweat. I wanted all my clothes off and stripped down to only my bra, out of a primal instinct to be naked. But the midwife kept covering me up with a blanket. Modesty in the delivery room?! No one was there besides the midwife, my husband, and eventually my ob-gyn, who had seen about 80,000 vaginas by then, given his line of work. I’d toss off the blanket the midwife draped over my lower half; she’d cover me back up. This back-and-forth continued a few times, even as I could feel the excruciating pressure of a small human emerging from between my legs. Finally in desperation I shouted, “Stop covering me up!” And she relented.

Later, I would come to see that unpleasant standoff as emblematic of a prevailing attitude about women’s bodies: that in their most “natural” state, when bodies are naked and not prettified, they should be hidden. The idea that femininity should be cultivated and our bodies somehow cleaned up for presentation is something I’d already been picking up from Korean beauty culture. But our bodies at their most naked can already come with confusion or shame. Having to wage a battle to be naked during an experience shared by women across time and space? It registered as wrong, even as I winced and wailed through the last few moments of labor.

In the weeks and months after we brought Isa home, I learned to censor my postpartum body. Isa’s early summer birth meant that during the first few months of her life, my skin beaded with sweat every time I stepped from the steaminess outside onto the air-conditioned subway. The extra heat that comes with nonstop lactation didn’t help. One September morning I let myself don a sleeveless V-neck dress as I took Eva to school via subway. It proved to be a quick and demeaning lesson on how not to appear in public. My nursing breasts meant I was naturally bustier, and the dress revealed a hint of cleavage. (Though not much—even my nursing breasts don’t fill more than a B cup.) I remember stepping onto a subway car and finding a spot standing next to the metal pole near the doors. But between that stop and the next one, the subway car’s entire middle area had cleared away from me. Those in the seats along the sides shot me looks of disapproval and puzzled disdain. People had moved so far away from my modest cleavage that I might as well have been loudly farting on the subway. Or naked.

Bare arms were a no-no—you’ll notice that Korean women wear cardigans over their camisoles or tank tops even in the height of summer—and cleavage seemed to scare people off. These norms were among the countless invisible appearance rules I didn’t know about until I broke them. My Korean girlfriends later told me that it’s frowned upon to so much as duck downstairs to the convenience store without makeup on. For most, it’s not worth flouting such rules because they’re enforced with open discrimination. There’s even a name for it: lookism.

In Korean, the term is oemo jisang juui, which translates to “looks are supreme.” Lookism describes the stubborn social prejudice against those who fail to meet certain appearance standards.

Even the Ministry of Employment and Labor once shared a link on Twitter, encouraging job seekers to mind their looks and asking what type of face companies preferred for its applicants.

Despite lookism being forbidden in Korea by a 1995 law, appearance-based discrimination is a cultural norm. “When you meet someone, the first thing you say is about their looks,” says Hellen Choo, a Seoul-based Korean beauty entrepreneur. “Like, ‘Oh my god, look at your eyes.’ Or, ‘You have nice eyebrows.’ ‘Look at your skin.’ ‘Wow, you’re so thin.’ It’s something that people can’t really understand when you’re from overseas and you get offended. But it’s very, very common here.”

Lookism is prevalent in the professional sphere. A 2017 South Korean poll found that nearly 40 percent of respondents experienced discrimination based on their appearance when applying for jobs. South Korea’s job boards were filled with listings that instructed applicants to attach photographs until a 2019 law forbid it. Still, listings will use terms like neat and beautiful to describe ideal candidates, and mustaches and tattoos are explicitly prohibited. Meanwhile, a post on a jobs blog said that big firms prefer “pretty eyes” and that government bosses like “high noses.” Even the Ministry of Employment and Labor once shared a link on Twitter, encouraging job seekers to mind their looks, suggesting “cosmetic surgery has become one of the seven credentials needed for employment,” and asking what type of face companies preferred for its applicants. (It’s since been removed.) That head shots and often height and weight are required for employment that doesn’t involve acting or modeling is a practice unthinkable in the United States unless you’re daring people to sue you.

In my interviews, women who were just entering the job market or in the early stages of their career told me repeatedly that they simply can’t afford not to improve their looks, for financial and social reasons. Their families insist on it. Their prospective employers expect it. At high school graduation time, just after the national college entrance exam, students are commonly given cosmetic surgery gift certificates by their parents and grandparents. Hair and makeup salons offer college graduation packages for young people entering the job market. Dermatology and plastic surgery apps offer discounts to recent high school grads of 50 to 70 percent in a “three-pack” of the most popular procedures for young Koreans—eyelid surgery, nose jobs, and Botox for facial contouring of the jawline. Korean women get Botox by their early 20s, because looking “pretty” (as defined by that youthful glow) isn’t just important, it’s the price of entry in the labor market.

It’s not hard to draw a line from unchecked lookism to the rapid ascent of the most extreme beauty culture in the world. For a cocktail of reasons, many Koreans today believe beauty work—the work you do on your outer shell—is the same as self-improvement. Consuming makeup and skin- care, as well as availing yourself of cosmetic services and procedures, is understood as a matter of self-respect, per- sonal management, and respect for the community. The surface of the body, writes University of Hawaii professor Sharon Heijin Lee, is “a space of modernizing labor in and of itself, a site where buying and selling, loving and coercing, freedom and power all coalesce.”15 The body is an instru- ment you take to work in order to earn a paycheck. It is also a worksite of its own, open 24/7. Whether it’s work we do to our bodies or the work performed by our bodies, it’s a whole lotta labor.

From Flawless by Elise Hu with permission from Dutton, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Elise Hu.

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