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Is There a Dark Side to Korean Beauty?

Names have been changed for the sake of protecting identities.

One of the best parts about going to college is meeting people from all over the world. During my first semester of college, I bonded with a girl named Kwan who came from Korea. And because of Kwan, I was exposed to the world of Korean beauty.

She gave me my first snail face mask and introduced me to a variety of Korean makeup brands like Too Cool for School and Aritaum. I learned that the Korean style of contouring was different than the American style (they put darker shades on their jawline and cheekbones to make them less pronounced) and that while many Americans prefer arched eyebrows, Koreans tend to favor straight ones.

But, like with most things, the positives of Korean beauty came with some more disturbing details. My Chinese American friend Rachel told me that when she visited a Korean beauty store, she could not find one foundation that matched her skin tone. Rachel has peach-like coloring, so I was surprised that she would not be able to find an appropriate match.

Kwan explained that Koreans favor light skin, and they tend to purchase foundation a shade lighter than their actual skin tone. Because of this, Korean makeup stores will only carry foundations on the pale end of skin tone spectrum, meaning even Rachel, who was far from being considered dark by American standards, would never be able to purchase a foundation in a Korean beauty store.

When Kwan told me this, memories of fairness creams and “let’s scrub out the tan” came flooding back. As an Indian girl, I was often exposed to the cultural preference of light skin and knew that the desire to maintain such a complexion came from the need to look as white as possible (which, into itself, stemmed from years of white domination).

I was curious if Korean beauty standards also originated from this type of thought. Double eyelid surgeries are becoming increasingly common. Kwan recalled that some of her friends had the procedure done when they were in high school (though many others had the surgery done the summer before they started college). Nose jobs are also popular in South Korea, usually with the goal of making the nose higher and narrower (which, in my mind, registered as looking more European).

Photo Via List Top 10.

But, after doing some research, I found that Korean beauty standards do not stem from being Eurocentric beliefs. Instead, they come from the country’s rich history. Pale skin has always been associated with wealth, as people who worked outside were likely to be tanner. The double eyelid surgeries are done because double eyelids were rare in Asia and therefore are considered to be more desirable. The double eyelid surgeries done tend to replicate the natural double eyelids some Asians have, not the Caucasian one. The nose bridge requested by South Koreans in rhinoplasty is much different from the one found in Western ideals.

Moreover, Kwan showed me that the Korean style of makeup is different. As mentioned before, the contouring style in Korea is much different than the American version, as Koreans do not want stronger jawlines or cheekbones and instead want a slimmer face. While Americans favor the large lip look, Koreans do not, and have different styles of lip makeup like gradient lips (where concealer is placed on the edges of the lip while putting lipstick in the inner area).

Picture Showing the Difference Between Korean and American Contouring Via Fabbon.

Like all beauty industries, there is always concern for overemphasis on looks and the dangers of insecurity. But seeing Asian beauty thrive in a space traditionally dominated by Eurocentric ideals is step towards a more an inclusive future. The increase of Asian beauty products in the global market proves that the world is ready for more than one version of “beautiful.”

Image from Daily Vanity.


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Born in raised in Middletown, New Jersey, Maya Shah is a writer, film enthusiast, and superhero at heart. In addition to journalism, Maya has written her first novel, The Demon's Angel and will be speaking at the Collingswood Book Festival this October. In her spare time, Maya loves running, reading, and rewatching Marvel movies.

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