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 and 29 said they’ve had cosmetic surgery. The survey also found that nine out of 10 adults there believe a person’s looks matter in life.
“There is a saying in Korea that ‘your beauty is your ability,’” Celine Hong, a Korean photographer and videographer, told i-D last year. “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.”
Indeed, many companies in South Korea do ask potential employees to attach a headshot to their resumes. This was the case back in 2006 when I applied for a job teaching English in Korea after college. I had to email a recruiter a photo just to be considered for an interview.
Being a member of an appearance-obsessed culture is mentally exhausting — and I usually only have to deal with that world by way of my mother. Not long after I declined her offer to rid me of the blemishes on my face, she started lecturing me as a teen about wearing shorts or skirts in public because she thought my calves were “too big” — a not-so-subtle dig at my weight. For my 30th birthday, she gifted me a pre-packaged, multi-step skincare regimen that included two different facial toners in an effort to keep me “looking young.” And when I was pregnant a few years ago, she bought me jars of “brightening cream” because she noticed a few new dark spots near my hairline.
I try not to think too much about my mom’s comments about my skin and body — I’ve had to live with them my whole life. But sometimes it feels like she’s telling me I’ve still got work to do if I ever want to be considered pretty.
Broadly, Asian and Asian American women often don’t talk about what it feels like to not measure up to certain societal expectations about how we should look. We’re taught to respect our parents even when they perpetuate harmful ideas and to swallow our emotions. (It’s probably why our community is the least likely to seek mental health services.) But when we get together with one another, it’s an issue many of us can relate to.
“My Asian mom influence [was] so strong,” Maiko Moriya Soares says. The 38-year-old, who grew up in Brazil with a Japanese mother (and learned later in life that her grandfather was Korean), says she has always felt like an outsider for having such an ethnically diverse background. It didn’t help that her mom found opportunities to criticize her appearance, particularly her complexion.
“Every time she caught me tanning, she’d make comments like, ‘You’re never gonna get married this tanned’ or that I ‘look like a rice farmer,’” recalls Moriya Soares, who moved to the United States more than 20 years ago. “I have no issues with my body image now, but it was rough growing up. I don’t have children but if I [ever] do, I’m going to work hard to monitor that.”
Myungsun Shin, 46, says her Korean mother put similar pressures on her. Not only did her mom offer to pay for cosmetic surgery, but she also often demanded Shin put on makeup before leaving the house.
The impact of those types of comments stayed with Shin. Even now, she always makes sure her makeup is on point when she goes to work, though she says she’s becoming more relaxed about it at other times. “If I go around town for errands when I am off, I can deal with [not] drawing [on my] eyebrows,” she says.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to feel beautiful. But when beauty is based on an extreme and narrow definition and being seen that way is essential to social and professional success (as it is in South Korea and other Asian countries), it’s clear these standards are harmful.
Ideas about who is considered beautiful persist today among Asians and Asian Americans, and are often handed down by relatives.
Dr. Teresa Mok is an Illinois-based licensed clinical psychologist who has studied Asian American mental health. As a second-generation Chinese American, she understands many of these issues both professionally and personally. In a 1998 journal article she published in Cultural Diversity and Mental Health, she pointed out that, according to the results of several experimental studies, Asian Americans may be “deleteriously affected by racially biased standards of beauty and attractiveness” and usually reported poorer body image than white Americans.
Mok says ideas about who is considered beautiful persist today among Asians and Asian Americans, and are often handed down by relatives. If you grew up hearing certain comments about your appearance and what you’re supposed to look like, it makes sense that you would internalize those ideas.
It’s painful to feel “consistently devalued” by how you look, Mok says. That, in turn, can translate to low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and even body dysphoria. In fact, a 2017 study published in International Journal for Equity in Health found that young Koreans who experienced discrimination based on their physical looks (also called “lookism”) were more likely to report poor self-rated health.
For those who do find themselves preoccupied with unrealistic beauty standards and thus feel unhappy about their appearance, Mok suggests working to change your mindset about what beauty looks like by making small but intentional changes, such as rethinking some of your role models or finding spaces where more people look like you. It may also be helpful to address some of the comments you’ve heard from family members or others, if it makes sense culturally to do so.
But, Mok adds, there’s no easy answer to figuring out how to deal with the impact of extreme beauty standards. Everyone’s experience with them is different, spanning an array of cultures and countries. And while there is a growing movement in South Korea, for example, to challenge these long-held standards for women, the global popularity of K-beauty products suggests the expectation to stay flawless is here to stay.
Because those ideals are so deeply ingrained, I expect my mom to also continue working to enhance not only her appearance but mine as well. Recently, at her request, I drove her to a new skincare clinic. A red-headed white woman had apparently recommended the place after my mom had approached her to ask what she’d done to make her skin so white. “You could hardly see her freckles,” my mom said.
After talking to the skin consultant, we learned the red-headed woman had most likely gotten a chemical peel. My mom turned to me excitedly and asked: “Do you want one too? I’ll pay for it.”
I politely declined.