Korean beauty standards and the colorism issue

“Prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group1“ is the definition of colorism. Why am I talking about this? It is because colorism is a crucial topic to be discussed in Korean pop culture as well as in many East Asian societies. In South Korea, fair and flawless skin are considered as beautiful. Of course, it is still important to note that South Korean society is quite homogenous as 96 % of the population is ethnically Korean. Therefore, considering whiter and fairer skin tone more beautiful is not necessarily related to white supremacy ideas. However, as Korean beauty standards are meeting more and more global audiences, a critical reflection of the existing Korean beauty standards seem to be necessary.

Is K-Beauty reinforcing colorism?

As mentioned in my recent article, K-pop industries should be understood as a whole cultural phenomenon, including the projection of certain looks presented by the K-pop idols and celebrities. The makeup style and appearance of Korean celebrities are becoming desirable among many Korean pop culture followers. This popularity has boosted Korean beauty industries, like cosmetics and plastic surgery market in South Korea. There is even this term, “K-Beauty”, which is referring to Korean makeup and skincare style. 

So then, what kind of beauty standards are representing the so-called K-Beauty? K-Beauty emphasizes clean and flawless skin. Many Korean cosmetic brands pursue light and natural makeup, focusing more on the inner skincare rather than covering the skin. Also, Koreans love glowy and dewy skin, without any spots on the face. Needless to say, they prefer ‘brighter’ and ‘whiter’ skin tone, and many cosmetic products emphasize their so-called ‘whitening’ effect, although it is different from bleaching products that are popular in some African or Asian countries. As a result, you can see that usually there are only a few foundation colors in Korean beauty brands, and you are recommended to use brighter foundation color than your actual skin tone.

Strict beauty standards in Korean society are harmful

The beauty norms in Korean society are quite strict and it is normalized to comment on other people’s appearances. One of the reasons why I felt often uncomfortable in Korea was the constant societal pressure of coping with those beauty standards, especially as a woman. I feel way more liberated in Germany, in that regard.

As Korean pop culture is becoming more present in the mainstream culture, especially in many other Asian countries, it is the time to be critical about its obvious colorism problem. I remember one of my friends from the Philippines who grew up in a predominantly East Asian community and is a huge fan of Korean culture, struggled with coping with those beauty norms because of her different looks. It is so harmful to project those colorism ideas onto so many global audiences. Korean pop culture needs to be more inclusive and sensitive. 


[1] The definition of colorism
Image 1 : A screenshot from the CBS this morning, K-pop star Amber Liu on the pressures of the industry
Image 2: A screenshot from IU’s MV, Twenty-three

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