One evening when I was about 10 years old, I found my mom sitting cross-legged on the living room floor by a lamp. She was gazing at herself in a hand mirror, and an open rectangular box wrapped in red satin with Korean writing on the lid sat nearby. As I got closer, I noticed the box contained several vials and a pack of microneedles.
Both fascinated and horrified, I observed in silence as my mom dipped the tip of a needle in the serum, and used it to painstakingly prick a dark spot on her face over and over again. She did the same thing to another spot. Then another. When she stopped to stretch her back, my mom asked if I wanted her to use her “special medicine” to remove the mole on my cheek. I said no, and ran to my room.
That was 25 years ago, and my mom pays just as much attention to her appearance now as she did then. In my eyes, the way she scrutinizes her looks — and the way she’s taught me to think about my own — has a lot to do with the East Asian standards of beauty she grew up with. While all cultures have their own measures of physical attractiveness, South Korea and some of its neighbors set a particularly high bar for women.
In a 2017 study that analyzed perceptions of facial beauty, researchers found that Koreans “still prefer a small face; wide forehead; smooth malar bones; narrow nose; large eyes; narrow, short, and small chin; wide mouth with a thin upper lip; U- or V-shaped lower face; oval-shaped mandible; relatively pale and fair complexion; clear skin; and stereoscopic soft tissue.”
“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.”
Not everyone, of course, is born with dainty features, large eyes, and a porcelain complexion. Rather than embrace a “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” kind of mantra, many Koreans and Korean Americans turn to cosmetic enhancements. According to a recent Gallup Korea survey, one in three South Korean women between the ages of 19…