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02/04/2018 Special > Special


What is More than Meeting the Eye

A recent reflection on Korean lookism


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Lookism is defined as a “discriminatory treatment toward physically unattractive people.” This stereotype is spread throughout all sorts of social settings, and affects an individual in the important parts of their lives as in employment, romantic relationships, and so on. The term “lookism” was coined in the 1970s, and despite that, the word came into being quite recently, the phenomenon had been existent since human interaction. Criticism concerning appearance-oriented preference dates back to ancient and medieval records, from a wide array of scholars and religious figures. However, a new word having been coined to dedicate itself to this issue well describes how much the society has grown to become aware of it in recent times. Korea is a country that has not escaped this phenomenon. In fact, it is one of the most deeply influenced countries with lookism, being a mecca of plastic surgery and a massive consumer of cosmetic goods.


Teen lookism

As a fair indicator of lookism, sales of beauty products for teenagers have grown substantially in recent years. According to data provided by SK Planet, which operates a major platform for online commerce, the overall sale of beauty products increased by 29 percent in 2017. The growth percentage had recorded 251 percent rise in the previous year. One of the most dramatic rises in sales was in lip products such as lipsticks or liptints targeted towards teenagers, which rose by 549 percent. Cosmetics, as a long held subject of consumption for women, has transcended to men, and now even to young children. A result of a survey conducted by the Korea Citation Index reported that 42.4 percent of elementary school students wear makeup, and 43.4 percent of them began applying makeup in the fifth grade. Children's cosmetic usage has become so prevalent that the South Korean government is under discussion to create a new cosmetic's category to monitor and mandate children's products under stricter standards for their safety. 


An array of self teaching contents can be accessed on the internet
(Photo courtesy of Youtube)

This increased focus on beauty products and appearance has diverse contributing factors. For one, the advanced telecommunication technology provides a means of advertisement more pervasive and aggressive than ever, and the increased number of media outlets sheds light on a plethora of celebrities or Youtube stars that teenagers look up to and mimic. Furthermore, e-commerce platforms and numerous blogs and videos regarding makeup tips and recommendations lowers the entry barrier of purchasing and learning to apply makeup. This and the perennial desire of teenagers to appear as adults provides the driving force for the surge in cosmetic sales.

Lookism for the 20s

According to a market report done by a professional market research firm, Trendmonitor, among Korea, China, and Taiwan, Koreans in their 20s to 30s have expressed the lowest satisfaction towards their appearance. This may suggest that Koreans have a higher standard of beauty, or a somewhat higher level of inferiority. Whatever the reason may be, Korean youth spend countless hours and money on their appearance. Aside from cosmetics, plastic surgery is definitely one of the most common means that Koreans turn to for aesthetic improvement. According to the Economist, although Korea came in 7th place when it comes to the absolute number of plastic surgery done, the number of plastic surgeries in ratio to the population was by far the highest.

A curious phenomenon in Korea is “employment plastic surgery,” illustrating the growing group of people going under the knife to increase their chances of getting employed. Another growing field of aesthetic consumption is hair loss treatment for men. Although the issue is not much of a problem for women, it has become a critical problem for young men. The treatment cost for hair loss targeting men in their 20s has risen by 34.2 percent during the past 5 years, surpassing that of men in their 30s and even 40s. In addition to hair treatment, Korean men have maintained the highest rate of individual cosmetic spending since 2014, according to the Wall Street Journal. This suggests that Lookism affects both genders with growing intensity.


An iconic image that illustrates the prevalence of plastic surgery in Korea (Photo courtesy of Allkpop)

Spending for the older generations

A new consumer group dubbed the “young forty” has received focus in 2017 with people in their late 30s to 40s spending more on their looks and interests. In addition to this trend, the idea of “You Only Live Once” (YOLO) has pervaded through to the late generation. Although YOLO, a term and idea that began in the United States, originally referred to the youth who take risks and adventures, the term has taken a slight turn in Korea. It has caught the attention of older people who have taken it as a reminder that the time to enjoy life is limited, and that it is “never too late" to do anything. As a result, the national spending on traveling, sports, entertainment, and of course, looks, have increased profoundly by people in their 40s. Furthermore, plastic surgery, especially those targeting the eyes, has become popular for people in their 40s to 50s. As for people in their 30s, a growing number of people invest in their looks as an outlet of their desire to stand out. As the majority of workers in their 30s live a somewhat uniform life, working in offices in similar outfits, their desire to be noticed as original and unique has led to increased spending on clothes, cosmetics, and plastic surgery. Their financial capacity allows them to indulge in their desires without too much financial pressure.

Young forty is a term coined and popularized here in Korea. (Photo courtesy of Mediask)

The implications of Lookism


One of the things that make lookism so hard to criticize and contain is that it is deeply inherent for us to be drawn to people who possess physically desirable traits. However, in the social realm, this instinctive preference that once may have been related to survival has now become harder to defend. With increased awareness of equality and materialism, there is now a definitive breach of morals when lookism prevails in a certain social interaction. Although romantic relationships are still a large part of personal preference, opportunities of employment and education should never be hindered by lookism. The mandate of “blind recruitment,” the receiving of resumes that do not contain photos, is a recent and a rather very late change that Korea has taken to address this issue.

On the other hand, another critical and complicated issue of lookism is the problem of who gets to decide the standard of beauty. So far, conglomerates of cosmetic products and media outlets have massively influenced the public ideal and standards of beauty. But then again, if being plump and healthy had been a standard of physical epitome in medieval times, is it so wrong for the standard to now be skinny and tall? Historically, it has been proven that an appearance-oriented preference has existed with or without conglomerates and businesses. Although the public and society subject lookism under a negative light, it is an issue that has been created by, and can only be solved through individual choices. One small, yet critical step that we could take is to become more aware of the choices we make even if we do indulge in lookism. Regardless of whether we believe that lookism is immoral or natural, thinking about how large of a factor physical appearance plays in our individual social interactions will eventually help us define how we want to address this issue.

Lee Changhyun

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