K-Beauty and the Dark Side Foreigners Face in Korea

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I honestly don’t think I’ve come across a post like this before.

It was nearing the end of my 2nd year of teaching English in South Korea and both my close friend and I felt that we were “in too deep”.

To give you an idea of what our life was like, we were working at an English village,camp-style, high energy, lots of fun and at the time, a great work environment. After work we’d stuff our faces at the village cafeteria and hop on the subway to get to dance class. I love dance. We both do! We’d take classes for 3 hours, grab a meal after (and a ice cold beer on the tough days), then hop back on the subway to commute home.

Our days were packed and we were always moving! There were even times when we’d have night practices from 12am to 5am for a dance video shoot, sleep 0-45minutes and then start the next day.

Everyday I was learning Korean since I was immersed in a hobby that forced me to take directions in Korean.

At the time we were also instructing a KPOP Dance English class on the weekends (I taught Saturdays and she taught Sundays).

It was a chaotic time in my life but it was the DREAM.

Yet I was burning myself out physically AND psychologically.

Practically living in a KPOP dance studio meant I was living in KPOP.

It’s a fun, colorful world but it comes with crazy expectations.

As a dancer, you obviously need to focus on your body but in Korea it’s on a whole different level. Our fellow Korean dance-mates would come to classes lethargically and push their bodies beyond limits, gloating about having eaten just one piece of bread that day (and nothing else).

The “good” dancers came to class wearing the latest fashion trends paired with a fresh haircut and color that always looked pristine.

Dance students fan-girled/fan-boyed over the dance insturctors. A typical class involved doe-eyed looks, gasps, screams, and even little presents for the instructors.

The messages we got in the dance studio were also present outside of the studio, just in a less congested space. Emphasis on superficial looks, being skinny and pretty, alcohol consumption and having deathly work ethic are everywhere.

And with the studio being in Gangnam, on our walk to class it was very common to see the bandaged up faces fresh out of plastic surgery.

Yup, there’s a dark side to Korea.

I feel weird writing this, but I know that moving there was one of the best decisions I ever made.

If you’re reading this feeling scared shitless now of moving to Korea, think for a second about your home country. What dirty, ugly and maybe not so secret aspects of life show up there?

NO COUNTRY IS PERFECT.

I want to share the dark side with you so that you can go in knowing things to keep track of in order to mainiain your mental and physical health.

The best part of this post is yet to come. Best, but also kind of f’ed up.

As a foreigner, you DO NOT have to succumb to these standards and expectations.

You don’t have to be skinny. I’m at least 30 lbs bigger than the ideal Korean female desired weight and oddly enough Koreans would call me “thin”.

I used to be so confused.

The person saying it would almost always be a lot thinner than me. A Korean friend of my once told me that Koreans don’t hold foreigners to their own standards, but rather “foreign” standards. Meaning a mix of media and the few foreigners they’ve met in Korea.

You don’t have to meet K-beauty standards.

This means ideal face, nose, body shapes, plastic surgery, skin tone, etc. Yes, if you do have “big eyes” and a “small face”, Koreans will compliment you on those coveted features, but at the end of the day they don’t “rate” you on the same scale.

And the biggest point I want to make here is that you have the luxury of whipping out that FOREIGNER CARD.

What’s the foreigner card?

Your escape from going too far off “the deep end”.

My dance friend and I had each other to help snap ourselves out of the “dark side” trap!

We’d remind each other that we don’t have to meet the beauty standards all alround us, we are allowed to rest as needed, and don’t need to change a thing about ourselves.

I don’t think moving to Korea at a very young, impressionable age is a good idea. It really is easy to get caught up in the collective mindset and start thinking “Oh, I should do this..” or “I should have more of that”.

Ultimately being in this kind of society tested and challenged me and made me into a better person because I had the mindset and maturity level that enabled me to do so.

So the takeaway— if YOU are planning to move to Korea, don’t forget to keep yourself grounded, rooted, and schedule periodic “check-ins” with yourself. Make sure you are not obsessing over your looks, check that you aren’t just buying new items because everyone else has them, take care of your health and don’t drown in the crazy drinking culture. Having a like-minded foreigner friend will help keep you both sane, “in-check”, and whipping out that foreigner card when you wish to not participate or engage in something that is compromising to your mental or physical health.

This could look like…

  • Refusing to drink more than your limit at a hueshik (company dinner). You simply say, “I can’t drink anymore. It’s not how I live back home.”

  • Wearing clothes/hairstyles that aren’t on trend and if questioned about it , responding “It’s foreigner style”.

  • Reminding yourself that you are beautiful and healthy and you don’t need to lose a zillion pounds just because you can’t fit into the one-size-fits-all clothing that is common in K-fashion.

These may sound like insanely petty examples, but trust me when you are knee-deep in K-culture, trying your best to adjust, assimilate and “fit-in”, you’ll need the reminder to DO YOU, boo!