The streets that follow from Ewha Womans University are lined with rows of cosmetic stores, including several of the popular beauty store, Olive Young. The layout of each store is strangely similar, even if the buildings that the stores are located in are architecturally different. Farther into Sinchon, there are massive apartment complexes that say “lucky” on the side in Hangul. Each one appears the same as the next. The more I walk, the more food vendors line the street, selling the same dishes, each vendor claiming that theirs is better than the next. These similarities fill the senses with a calming relief, a practical sensation that allows me to predict what will come next. From what I have observed so far, South Korea appears to be a culture that thrives off of homogeneity. The conformity and rigidity of South Korean culture is deeply ingrained within every person here I have met so far. Standing out is not exactly the norm, but within my time here it has become mine.
In Olive Young, there are several posters of members of BTS, a popular K-pop group. They are shown with their favorite beauty products, each member sporting colored contacts and a pale complexion. People in the store joyfully point at the posters. I realize that the skin tone that I possess is heavily sought out in Seoul. The East Asian standard of beauty is hyper-focused on paleness. It’s not necessarily that people want to be white, it’s the fact that this pale complexion is a symbol of high status and perfection within the culture. It’s the skin tone that many K-Pop and K-Drama stars have, in addition to colored contact lenses that change the color of a person’s eyes and allow them to appear larger.
Skin whitening creams and makeup companies here seem to capitalize on the K-Beauty market. From different brands promising “white fresh” or “clear fresh” skin, it is clear that these products are marketed to individuals with one goal in mind. A root problem is that the ingredients of some of these products can be a hazard to our health. Many of the whitening creams that are being imported have been proven to have high levels of mercury. The privilege that comes with lighter skin is so advertised that people are willing to pay with their lives to obtain it.
Alongside my pale skin, my double eyelids and hazel eyes have definitely attracted some attention. Not only is my skin a favored aspect of my identity, but my eyes are as well. I recently went into a contact lens store with one of my classmates. She was interested in getting colored contacts in her prescription. We were both able to get 2 pairs for 20 won, a great deal compared to the cost of colored contacts in the States, where it can cost $20 for a single pair. As we shopped, the woman helping us looked at my eyes. She was shocked that my eyes weren’t brown, but hazel. She found it odd that I was looking at the colored lenses. I just told her I was curious.
Even though I have been living as a minority within a majority this summer, I still feel myself checking my own privilege everywhere I go because I am white. I recognize that although I am a minority in this country, my pale skin gives me privilege in South Korea. The homogeneity in South Korea that I have observed has given me a better perspective on how heterogeneous the States are. This experience has allowed me to reflect on what I can do to help empower people to have more appreciation for their identity and the skin that they are in.