While sitting in a local coffee shop the other day, I couldn’t help but notice how picture-perfect the setting was. Lighting was soft, colors were rich yet subtle. It was all the makings of a perfect photo shoot set. In the land of plentiful over-the-counter cosmetics and accessible cosmetic surgery, almost everywhere you look in South Korea is crafted to be an ideal selca spot. And if an Instagram-loving customer stops into your facility and tags their picture with #selca, best believe over 20 million other photos are competing for the attention.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t people outside of Korea who believe that if they looked better, they would find greater success in their lives, but it’s different here. Nor is this a jab at the choices that people are capable of making out of their own free will. It’s an acknowledgment that some norms aren’t norms for everyone. I mean, duh, but when faced with the reality of it, there’s still an Aha! Moment.
The desire for some Westerners to want to look like they have a fresh tan cannot compare to the commitment that some Koreans have to remain (or appear) as milky white as possible. The option that some foreigners have for changing their hairstyles frequently is met by some Koreans with questions of where they purchased their wigs or if they have Magic, a popular hair straightening process. Your look is your golden ticket to acceptance, a partner and better seats at some restaurants. Roll your eyes if you want while reading this, but physical vanity can get some farther here than confidence gets some of us elsewhere.
Honestly, I marvel at it but conversations with friends and associates here have revealed something unexpected. Caring about one’s appearance goes beyond wanting to make sure one’s lipstick or eyebrows are presentable; and, for some, it is promoted as if it is the ticket towards financial stability in the future. It is a form of narcissism, but not in the sense that Western culture understands it to be. It is less self-love or egoism, and more competitive anxiety and fear of not being a worthwhile partner or citizen.
For those of us who are avid fans of the entertainment industry here, it’s undeniable that many of its stars have looks that are otherworldly. How can one’s cheekbones be that perfect?! Has their skin never seen a pimple a day in their lives? It’s a common reaction to have, because many of us are privy to images of our home country’s entertainers looking, well… any ol’ kind of way from time to time. You cannot compare the candid photos taken in the likes of OK! Magazine, Star, or New Idea to those of what’s found on Naver, Daum, or a Google search for Korean celebs and idols. The opportunity to find them being “imperfect” are slim to none. It’s too great a scandal, which is too much to comprehend for a person like myself who loves baggy sweatpants and worn-in tees.
But it’s wearing off on me. It certainly took me down a path about physical health, but I can admit that some of the mindset has influenced new fashion choices of mine. I’m not clinging to a compact mirror but I’m certainly paying more attention to how I look. For times in an expats life when there’s more loneliness than adventure, looking great on the outside can be a shield for (temporary) bad feelings. And as the weather changes here and the days are shorter, maybe a nice warm sweater can pass for a warm hug.
The thing about vanity is, it’s not always as it seems.