A slim figure, small face, v-shaped jaw, pale skin, straight eyebrows, flawless skin, large, round eyes, a small sharp nose with tiny nostrils or a turned nose are considered attractive among South Korean women along with large of firm medium-size breasts and long legs are considered attractive for women. Many of the models on television and in magazines have large round eyes. Sharp facial features, a tall body and long legs are considered attractive for men.

In the 1990s, many Korean women wore too much make-up and flashy fashions like short skirts and platform shoes. These days they dress better, often setting fashion trends in Asia, and South Korean cosmetics are highly sought after throughout Asia.

Korean beauty standards have been influenced largely by those in the media, including actresses, TV personalities, and K-pop stars. The physical appearance of K-pop idols have greatly impacted the beauty standards in Korea. aegyo-sal, which is a term used in Korea referring to the small fatty deposits underneath the eyes that are said to give a person a more youthful appearance.In China, beauty trends are similar, the skin should "not only be pale, but as white as possible", the face should be small and "shaped like an upside down goose egg", and the body should be slim and "hopefully tall with long legs, small feet and a Pippa Middleton style bottom." [Source: Wikipedia]

Pale skin is considered beautiful. Women use umbrellas to protect their skin from the sun. Many Japanese think that Korean women have beautiful skin. There have been articles in Japanese magazines encouraging women in Japan to eat more kim chi to improve their skin. Some Koreans consider themselves yellow-skinned, even though for a white person to say such a thing is racist.


See Cosmetic Surgery

Importance of Looks in Korea

Patricia Marx wrote in The New Yorker: “ If you want to feel bad about your looks, spend some time in Seoul. An eerily high number of women there — and men, too — look like anime princesses. Subway riders primp in front of full-length mirrors installed throughout the stations for that purpose. Job applicants are typically required to attach photographs to their résumés. Remarks from relatives, such as “You would be a lot prettier if you just had your jaw tapered,” are considered no more insulting than “You’d get a lot more for your apartment if you redid the kitchen.”“ [Source: Patricia Marx, The New Yorker, March 23, 2015]

Christoph Neidhartm wrote in Tages-Anzeiger: “In East Asia, the external has been a higher priority than in the West. For job applications, the Koreans selected based on the photos while Americans selected based on the written contents. It would therefore be true that cosmetic surgery improves job opportunities in Korea, and the marriage prospects probably. [Source: Christoph Neidhartm Tages-Anzeiger, October 27, 2015, Tages-Anzeiger, also abbreviated Tagi or TA, is a Swiss German-language national daily newspaper published in Zurich, Switzerland]

According to Eunkook Suh, a psychology professor at Yonsei University, in Seoul, “obsession of external appearance has been very old even older than the history of plastic surgery. He also did the research with men and women, even with old people and found that in highly competitive society, people had a stronger desire for having what competitors already have. Professor Suh described this condition as a “Jealous Society” and said having double eyelids for people meant having a new car or an iPhone. He said, “they want to come up short in any case.” This research shows why Koreans tend to accept innovations faster than other nations.

“Today, beauty clinics have been advertising aggressively and promote everyone that visiting plastic surgery hospital is same as visiting a hairdresser. In Korea, people tend to think they can achieve everything if they put much effort, and if they fail on something, they blame on physical appearance: they think they should have improved appearance even in a surgical way.

Male Beauty in Korea

Male beauty became a big thing in South Korea in the early 2000s. Television commercials show men compliment each other for their nice skin. Sometimes it seems like all the make actors in Korean dramas wear lipstick and all male singers in K-pop groups have dyed hair. Entire lines of cosmetics and skin lotions have been introduced exclusively for men. One line of skin care products was pitched by Korean soccer superstar Ahn Jung Hwan

A South Korean cosmetic company boss told the Los Angeles Times, “Why shouldn’t men want to look beautiful and take care of their skin? Especially as they get older, they have to wear make up if they don’t want to look shabby.” A salesman of Ester Lauder told the newspaper that the link between men and make up has always existed. “Men would wear a little of their wives’ or girlfriends’ makeup. It is just that now it’s in the open and respectable.”

In the early 2000s, almost all the commercials for make up were geared for young men but the cosmetic companies found that most of their customers were older men. It is quite common for men over 50 to dye their hair. Many South Korean politicians — including Nobel-Peace-Prize winner Kim Dae Jung — have done it. Kim Young Sam’s hair suddenly became gray when he became president. In the early 2000s, young Korean men started streaking their hair with copper highlights. These days a wide variety of hair styles and colors can be found on Korean men, especially in the K-pop world, but not in the chaebol, salaryman world. By the 2010s, Korean male college student were routinely using black eyebrow pencils to lengthen and accentuate their eyebrows. Salarymen were using skin conditioners and less obvious high

Pressures to Be K-Pop Thin

Jung Ha-Won of AFP-Jiji wrote: “a country where beauty is defined by rail-thin teenage K-pop stars and TV actresses whose diets are strictly controlled by their management. The pressure to conform is such that many turn to the country’s US$4.6-billion plastic surgery industry which offers everything from a nose-job to radical double-jaw surgery. [Source: Jung Ha-Won, AFP-Jiji, August 30, 2016]

▪In a 2013 study by Samyook University in Seoul that surveyed 154 female university students in the normal weight range - a body mass index between 18-23 - almost 95 per cent said they were unhappy with their bodies. More than 60 per cent felt they needed to lose weight.

One over-size model said: “Honestly, some of them are not even that fat. But here, the standard of 'thin' is just way too cutthroat and only women as slim as K-pop band members can satisfy that norm.” According to Lee Chung Chung, a prominent Seoul fashion designer, using models of varying sizes in magazines or fashion catalogues is still a foreign concept in South Korea. “The beauty ideal among many of our customers is being thin... and we have to cater to that demand to sustain sales,” Lee said.

The sort of weight-loss advert that was banned earlier this year in Britain for its image of a bikini-clad woman and the slogan “Are You Beach Body Ready?” would barely raise an eyebrow in South Korea. Similar products are promoted on posters pasted on subway walls and women’s toilet stalls, showing models mocking “lazy girls” or asking questions like: “How long are you going to roll around like that?”“

Challenges of Being Plus-Size in South Korea

Jung Ha-Won of AFP-Jiji wrote: “In a country with beauty ideals that pre-makeover Barbie would struggle to meet, South Korean plus-size model Vivian Geeyang Kim is facing down online trolls in her defiant campaign to persuade curvy women they have nothing to be ashamed of. Kim has modelled for US firms, but at 165 centimeters (5.4 feet) tall and weighing 70 kilograms, she was described as “too skinny” for some full-figure fashion show work in America. But in her looks-obsessed homeland, she is constantly mocked and ridiculed on social networks as “flat-out fat” or “disgusting.” “In South Korea, the ideal weight for women is 50 kilograms, and many women who weigh more than that think they are fat,” the 30-year-old said. “That is a ridiculous, impossible standard that cripples many South Korean women’s self-esteem. And that has to change,” she told AFP after a recent photo shoot. [Source: Jung Ha-Won, AFP-Jiji, August 30, 2016]

“Kim, who is a US size 10, runs an online clothing shop and publishes a fashion magazine specifically for plus-size women in South Korea - a first in” South Korea. “Widespread, casual body-shaming” is something “that Kim is seeking to tackle head-on. “People hate it when a ‘fat girl’ like me parades her body without looking ashamed... they say I should not be seen in public or on the media,” Kim said.

“Her public stance has triggered an online backlash that has included death threats and vicious abuse that, in some cases, she has responded to with lawsuits. “Despite all this, I love my job,” she said. “I wanted to send this message to girls like me out there that they are not alone and they are beautiful no matter what.” After a failed bid to compete in a local modelling TV reality show, she left for the United States in 2010, where she eventually worked a number of full-figured shows. On her return, she searched for similar opportunities in the South Korean fashion scene — only to realise that there were none.

Gong Ji-Woo, head of Seoul-based New Face Model agency, said demand for plus-size models was "non-existent” - with the exception of some TV shopping channels where they are shown eating food products or trying exercise machines. “I do feel the need for more development in plus-size model runways and programmes,” Gong said. “But in order for this to happen, Korean clothing companies and the fashion industry must change to accept them... rather than for a one time event or our amusement,” he added.

“Shut out of the mainstream, Kim set up - and models for - her own quarterly magazine which offers fashion and styling tips for plus-size women and well as advice on how to deal with bullying. “I hear heartbreaking stories from so-called ‘fat girls’ all the time - being constantly abused and mocked by their own families, bosses, friends and strangers on the street or on the Internet," she said.

“Among her many fans and clients is Baek Soo-Jung, 31, who said Kim had created a sorely-needed safe refuge. Also a US size 10, Baek said she had been mocked by her own mother, who once refused to take the same bus with her because of the shame of being called “mom” in public by a chubby daughter. Baek said Kim's store was the first to produce pretty, well-fitting clothes, instead of the “dull, baggy, ill-fitting sacks local brands call plus-size clothes.” “Regardless of my size, I am a human and a woman who wants to feel pretty and to love myself...and Kim is the person who started this conversation in this country,” the 31-year-old said. “She took a big, brave step for all women like me.”

Anorexia in South Korea

The incidence of eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, which were once virtually non-existent in Japan, Singapore and South Korea, have risen dramatically in recent years, and are now believed to afflict about 8 in 100 women in these countries. A 1995 survey discovered that 21.3 percent of South Korean women were underweight and 90 percent of high school students with normal weight considered themselves fat. This contrasts sharply to the 1970s, when plumb woman were thought be more sexually desirable and likely to produce a son.

The trend is blamed on fashion magazines that feature skinny models and loads of dieting articles, clothing manufacturers that produce clothes that look best on skinny women, and perceptions that boys like underweight girls. The height of Miss Korea increased from 5 feet 4 inches in 1975 to 5 feet 7 inches in 1995 while her weigh remained the same at 112 pounds.

The Eating Attitudes Test (EAT, EAT-26), created by David Garner, is a widely used self-report questionnaire 26-item standardized self-report measure of symptoms and concerns characteristic of eating disorders. According to a study on eating disorders in students: In a “previous Korean study, 8.5 percent of the general Korean population and 10.3 percent of Korean high school girls scored above the EAT-26 cut-off....Disturbed eating attitudes and behaviors were found in 7 percent of students” in a 2010 study. “In the multivariate analyses, disturbed eating attitudes and behaviors were associated with the passive coping strategies, fear of being overweight, total behavioral difficulties, fourth grade, and high socioeconomic status (SES). Differences in the associations were found between boys and girls. There were significant associations between elevated EAT-26 scores and passive coping strategies, desired underweight body mass index (BMI), and low SES in boys; and between elevated EAT-26 scores and passive coping strategies, fear of being overweight, behavioral problems, being in the fourth grade, and high and low SES in girls....In South Korean children, disturbed eating attitudes and behaviors were associated with various psychological and sociocultural factors; some gender-related differences are also evident. [Source: Su-Jin Yang, Jae-Min Kim, and Jin-Sang Yoon, “Disturbed Eating Attitudes and Behaviors in South Korean Boys and Girls: A School-Based Cross-Sectional Study,” Yonsei Med Journal, May 2010]

Traditional Hairstyles

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Korean women traditionally wore their hair in braids in childhood and then gathered it in a bun at the nape of the neck after marriage. Males also braided their hair when they were children but put it up in a topknot when married, enclosing the topknot in a cap that served as the lining for an elegant tall hat of woven horsehair, called a kat. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

In the old days, men had Fu-Manchu beards and top knots. "Capping" was the coming-of-age ceremony for a young man, when his hair was put up in a topknot and he was officially given his responsibilities as a male adult in the family. In the old days single men wore a long braided pony-tail. After marriage the braid was cut into a topknot which was hidden under a traditional horsehair hat that symbolized married life.

At the time of the wedding ceremony, “the groom would have been "capped"; that is, his long boyish braid would have been tied into a topknot and he would have been given a man's proper headband and hat. The hat was a dignified symbol of male adulthood, and any man without one advertised himself either as a member of the laboring class and/or as an unmarried "boy" no matter what his age. Thus fitted with the trappings of mature manhood and after having announced his marriage to his forebears at the family's ancestral shrine, the groom was ready for his wedding.”

The Park Chung Hee government of the 1960s and 70s banned men wearing long hair. Hyun-kyung wrote in the Korea Times: In 1973, the Park government introduced the Minor Offenses Act that mandated limits on men's hair length and women's miniskirt length. Police who caught men with long hair took them to a police station to have their hair cut against their will. While there was no specific definition of long hair, the Minor Offenses Act stipulated that men who have hair "long enough to make it harder for others to distinguish whether they were men or women" were subject to the measure. In 1973 alone, some 12,000 men were taken to police stations for violations of the act. The same law also banned women from wearing skirts that ended 17 centimeters or higher above their knees. If found, the women were taken to a police station and required to change into a "modest" costume. [Source: Kang Hyun-kyung, Korea Times, February 22, 2019]

Ajumma Perm

Middle-aged, stay-at-home mothers are known as ajummas. The ajumma perm is their signature hair style.Crystal Tai wrote in Quartz: “Whether offering praise or condemnation, most of the time the public has been reacting to pretty much one single hairstyle — variations of the “ajumma perm,” which has a storied history in South Korea. The defining characteristic of the ajumma, a term used to describe (usually) married older women, the ajumma perm is a short or bobbed curled hairstyle. Adopting the perm, and abandoning more youthful hairstyles, and especially straight bangs, is often a rite of passage for women when they hit middle age. [Source: Crystal Tai, Quartz, May 24, 2017]

“Traditionally, women were expected to quit their jobs and become consummate homemakers once they got married. After children arrived, as busy full-time homemakers, ajummas had little time to do their hair. “What that perm represents is you don’t have to do anything with your hair. Once you get that perm done, all you need is to shampoo it every once in a while,” said Sohn. “It doesn’t get into your eyes, you don’t have to tie it up, you don’t have to do anything because it’s not going to get in your way… [You can] take care of the kids, bathe them, cook for them, clean after them. It’s the epitome of efficiency.”

“Nowadays, with more South Korean women having chosen professional careers alongside family life, the perm has also become symbolic of the busy professional woman. The ajumma perm can be liberating in its own way, says Sohn. “When you’re younger you have to take into account what other people think of you based on your appearance. You try to look nice, you try to behave… There’s a certain power, and freedom, to being an ajumma. You don’t have to be as demure or mild-mannered as you would be expected to be when you are younger.”

History of Ajumma Perm

Crystal Tai wrote in Quartz: “It’s taken nearly 80 years for that perm to become as ubiquitous as it is. The first perm in South Korea became available at a department store in Seoul during the Japanese occupation in 1937, according to a report in the Chosun Ilbo newspaper, which said that a perm back then cost as much as two bins of rice, an unaffordable luxury in those times of shortages and poverty. Only a handful of actresses and privileged women sported the look. [Source: Crystal Tai, Quartz, May 24, 2017]

“By 1940, the already-rare perm became prohibited under Japanese imperial rule for its perceived association with the sexually liberal norms depicted in Hollywood films. Japanese imperial rule ended five years later, but it was not until after the Korean War ended in 1953 that perms made their resurgence. “At the time, the quality of perming products was very poor,” said Helen Kim from Kim Sun Young Hair Design, which opened four years after the war ended. Women used iron tongs meant for ironing hanbok, Korea’s national dress, to curl their hair with crude chemical formulas, added Kim, who is not related to the founder but has worked at the salon for two decades.Choi Young-shin, a grandmother in her 60s, remembers doing that. “The resulting curls were very short and very tight,” said Choi. “It was also dangerous because of the strong chemicals and heat. Our scalps would burn and flake off, and the tongs could burn our necks and faces easily.”

“During the dictatorship of Park Geun-hye’s father Park Chung-hee in the 1960s and 1970s, when strict social rules were in place, skirt lengths were monitored, but perms got a pass and became a way to express being modern, Choi remembers. “In the 70’s, miniskirts were illegal but perms were still okay,” she said. But they were still expensive. Young women short on cash began turning to Korea’s burgeoning wig-making industry to fund their first perms. “Wigmakers would go to the countryside areas of Korea and meet with young women who still had their long, natural hair. They would ask for their long hair and in return, provide rural women with free modern perms,” said Choi. “That’s how normal women began to be able to get perms.”

“By the mid-1980s, when electricity became widely available, perms really took off. “The government provided initiatives for the beauty industry, and many churches also had programs for teaching young women how to cut and style hair for free,” said Choi. By the 2000s, perms became common for men and women of all ages, and even children began getting their hair permed. But it’s most common among older women of all classes in South Korea, when they reach the age when long hair seems like something they must leave behind. Helen Kim, creative director at Kim Sun-young Hair Design says older women generally perm their hair and cut it short because of hair loss and lack of volume. “When they were young, they had lots of hair and strong hair, but after they got to their 40s and 50s there are lots of changes. They had babies, hormonal changes and stress, and their hair begins to thin out.”

Park Geun-hye Hair

Former South Korean President Park Geun-hye has worn her hair much the same way since her mother was assassinated in the 1970s. Her purported visit to a hairdresser after the Sewol ferry disaster, which left 304 people dead, played a part in her decline in popularity and ultimate impeachment and ouster from the presidency. Crystal Tai wrote in Quartz: “Park Geun-hye’s hair is always wrong.” When she appeared in court” in May 2017 “to plead not guilty to corruption charges, social media erupted at the sight of her usually immaculately coiffed hair pinned with two large barrettes. “Park Geun-hye hair” climbed to the third-most trending topic on Korean internet portal Naver. “Who provided her with those hairpins in jail?” fumed one commenter, adding it was “outrageous” she was getting special treatment. [Source: Crystal Tai, Quartz, May 24, 2017]

“Rarely seen without her puffy sweptback short hair, Park’s signature style is said to be reminiscent of that of her mother’s, former first lady Yuk Young-soo and wife of the late dictator Park Chung-hee who rose to prominence in the 1960s. Yuk was well known for popularizing this same look with its permed, highly-voluminous top part; hairstylists say Park’s lightly-permed version is a contemporary take.

“During her presidency, Park came under fire at the time of the infamous Sewol ferry sinking incident that resulted in the deaths of more than 300 students in 2014. The many hours that elapsed before she appeared in public to address a grieving country sparked widespread anger against her that some say was ultimately at the bottom of her impeachment. It transpired that for at least some of the unaccounted time, she was getting her hair done, ahead of a briefing.

“When Park was first detained after her impeachment, as prosecutors opened the corruption investigation they were unable to pursue when she was still serving, the public and media immediately began joking about Park’s unfashionable new future in prison. “When she wakes up in the morning and realizes that she can’t do her hair anymore, she will be faced with the stark new reality,” lawmaker Lee Yong-ju was quoted saying in the New York Times.

“In March, there was another viral hair uproar, after media broadcast photos of Lee Jung-mi, the judge overseeing Park’s impeachment hearing, walking to court with bright pink hair rollers in her hair. This time the reaction was positive, though perhaps patronizingly so. To the public, the D-I-Y aspect of the hair rollers symbolized Lee’s dedication to her work, her less-than-perfect hair allowing them to draw a contrast between her and Park’s perceived vanity. Lee, acting chief justice of the constitutional court at the time, and the only female among its eight judges, hardly needed that validation.

“Meanwhile the reactions this week to Park’s D-I-Y effort to tidy her hair ranged from “hideous” to seeing it as an unwillingness to admit she’s no longer in power. “With Park Geun hye, all the commentary about her fashion choices, what her hair looks like — it’s very sexist. Nobody said that about any of the male presidents,” said Michael Hurt, a professor at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies who specializes in visual sociology. “It’s also telling when you have a constitutional court judge, where people are like, ‘She obviously works hard because she has rollers in her hair.’ You don’t see people saying that about [US Supreme Court justice] Ruth Bader Ginsberg.”

Wigs in South Korea

In the early 1990s, South Korea was still the largest source of hair for wigs in the United States. It has since been displaced by China. Koreans in the United States still largely control the retail outlets for wigs for the African-American community.

Barbers are dying out. In the 1980s, South Korea had 85,000 traditional barbershops with their spinning poles and leather chairs. Now fewer than 10,000 remain, as most young men prefer unisex hair salons. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, January 27, 2012]

In the 1960s and 70s, young women who wanted permanents but didn’t have enough money turned to Korea’s wig-making industry. “Wigmakers would go to the countryside areas of Korea and meet with young women who still had their long, natural hair. They would ask for their long hair and in return, provide rural women with free modern perms,” Choi Young-shin, a grandmother in her 60s, told Quartz. “That’s how normal women began to be able to get perms.” [Source: Crystal Tai, Quartz, May 24, 2017]

According to The Economist:“The wig industry in South Korea has proved remarkably resilient. Today it is South Korean women who are its fastest-growing source of demand. They snap them up for US$1,000 apiece from Hi-Mo, a maker of custom wigs that began business in 1987 as an exporter and now dominates the domestic market. Hi-Mo Lady, a sister business, began five years ago. Its wigs and toupees are made in China with Chinese hair, mixed with a durable synthetic fibre of Hi-Mo’s own called NEXART. Demand from other countries remains huge. Fifty years after exporting their first hairpieces, South Korean-run factories, almost all of them abroad, still weave the majority of the world’s wigs, says Lee Hyun-jun of the Korean Wig Association. [Source: The Economist, July 29, 2017]

History of Wigs in Korea

The Economist reported: ““SELL your hair,” clamoured sweet-sellers in Seoul in the 1950s. The capital of South Korea had been pulverised by a three-year war with North Korea. Southern women were cutting off and selling their tresses, typically worn in a long plait or a low bun, for dollars, rice and rubber shoes. The hawkers sold the jet-black locks to wigmakers in Guro, a district of south-western Seoul that was home to the first industrial complex built in South Korea after the war for the export market. (A year into the fighting, half of the country’s factories were in ruins.) In the 1960s thousands of female labourers soaked, stitched and styled the hair of their destitute countrywomen in Guro’s factories. [Source: The Economist, July 29, 2017]

“The wig business in South Korea has played a lustrous role in the country’s development. By the end of the 1960s, wigs made up roughly one-tenth of South Korea’s total exports by revenue. In the next decade they became its third-most-exported product, after textiles and plywood. One-third of the wigs worn by Americans in those years are thought to have been made in South Korea (it benefited from an anti-communist ban on Chinese hair in 1965). It was then a state-sponsored industry — an emblem of dirigisme under Park Chung-hee, a dictator who seized power in a coup in 1961 and ruled for 18 years..

“Wigs turned into a symbol of South Korea’s struggle to put an end to rule by such strongmen. Among Park’s cheerleaders was YH Trade, a wigmaker that was founded in 1966 with ten workers and expanded to 4,000 within four years. It quickly earned a state prize for “Excellence in Exports”. In 1979, due to heavy debts, it sacked hundreds of workers. Around 180 of them staged a sit-in to demand compensation; police stormed the factory, and a 21-year-old protester died from beatings. Among the demonstrators was Kim Young-sam, a legislator who let them use his party’s offices. In 1993 he became South Korea’s first civilian president in the democratic era.

“Kim Kyung-sook, the protester who died, was like millions of others who left the countryside in the 1970s for Seoul; she began factory work straight after primary school. Her wages, which she sent home, helped put her younger brother through secondary school. She often stitched wigs until 4am. One of her co-workers says they were “worked like machines”. Some became addicted to the stimulants that they were given to stay awake. Part of the reason that YH closed was that the wig industry was growing new roots. In the 1980s, as South Korea grew richer and wages soared, plants were moved to China and South-East Asia.

“In today’s South Korea, the ordeal of workers like Kim now seems other-worldly. The country’s GDP per person is roughly that of Italy; over two-thirds of its youngsters go to university. Democracy is entrenched; protests are routine. (In January a court cleared four YH protesters who had been prosecuted for those early demonstrations at the factory.)

Hair Loss Products in South Korea

The Economist reported: South Koreans “lead stressful lives: they work among the longest hours in the rich world, at school and in the office. Local trichologists say that changing diets and air pollution also help to explain why a quarter of South Koreans are losing their hair. [Source: The Economist, July 29, 2017]

“In South Korea, products to combat hair loss have become a multi-billion-dollar market. Magnificent mops are a marker of professional success. A man was recently fired on his first day of work at a hotel after bosses uncovered his hair loss (he appealed to the country’s human-rights committee). Manufacturers have taken note: last year, to promote its wares, Hi-Mo offered free rentals of wigs or toupees to graduates for their job interviews. Women, shunning domesticity to stay longer in the workforce, have become new buyers.

“Hi-Mo says the market is growing more luxuriant across a broad range of age-groups. Its sales have risen by over 40 percent since 2010, and its first-time buyers are becoming younger: over a quarter of its male users are in their 30s. Those whose custom Hi-Mo manages to secure often stick with the company’s hairpieces for a lifetime, it says. If used daily, they last about a year: in a country with one of the world’s longest life expectancies, that is a head-spinning prospect for wigmakers.

Tattoos in South Korea

Bootie Cosgrove-Mather of Associated Press wrote: “Although there is no law against tattoos, South Koreans consider them symbols of disgrace, often associated with gangsters. Likewise in Japan, tattoos carry a stigma for their association with the "yakuza" gangsters who cover their bodies with them. South Korea's conscription law rules men with large tattoos unfit for the military because they cause "abomination among fellow soldiers." [Source: Bootie Cosgrove-Mather, Associated Press. June 24, 2003]

In ancient times, Korean fishermen turned to full-body tattoos believing they brought protection from sea beasts and shipwreck. In old Korea, authorities tattooed "Thief" or "Stealer of Government Money" on the foreheads of criminals. Slaves wore tattoos on their forearms showing who owned them. Confucianism, the centuries-old primer on social behavior, urged Koreans to "preserve the body, hair and skin inherited from ancestors."

“Today, however, plastic surgery, hair dyeing and piercing are booming industries. When soccer star Ahn Jung-hwan scored his winning goal against Japan earlier this month, he threw off his shirt and flashed tattoos on both shoulders. "In the following days, I had 10 times more people visiting my Web site," said Kang Ho, a Seoul tattoo artist who calls South Korea's regulations on tattoos "out of date" and "ridiculous."

Getting a tattoo is regarded as a medical procedure that only a doctor — not tattoo artsist can perform. Conservatives say that tattoos violate Confucian teachings to preserve the body and for a long time Yakuza-style gangsters were only people who had them. In the 1980s, the government arrested men with tattoos on the assumption they were involved in illegal activities, activists say. South Korean law still labels men with large and obvious tattoos as unfit for the military, reasoning that they cause "abomination among fellow soldiers." Scores of tattoo artists have been arrested for providing would-be military conscripts a loophole to avoid the draft. As a result, the tattoo industry lurks underground. Most parlors have unmarked fronts to avoid detection by police, who have raided the shops to confiscate tattoo machines and fine proprietors as much as US$10,000. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, September 12, 2010]

Reporting from Seoul, John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Viyah Lee sports her five tattoos like hidden badges of rebellion: a small treble clef in her ear, her name fashioned in leopard spots on her left hip, discreet images on her wrist and ankles. Now the 26-year-old former model is ready to emerge from the body art closet. Defying long-held prejudices and an edict decreeing that only physicians can tattoo, she's crafting her own skin design, which she plans to have etched on a prominent spot on her neck or shoulders. "These images are an art form, not a medical procedure," she says. "Doctors aren't artists."

“Lee is part of an emerging campaign to change what advocates call this conservative culture's outdated views on tattoos, long stigmatized as adornments for mobsters and hoodlums. With the indelible designs being embraced by the nation's youths as a fashion statement, tattooists are calling for regulation and legalization of the industry and want lawmakers to amend a 2001 law that defines tattooing as a medical procedure. "We're moving in the right direction," said Kang Un, 38, executive director of the Korean Tattoo Assn., who estimates that there are 22,000 illegal tattoo artists nationwide. "But there's still a huge gap between law and reality."

South Korea's Outlaw Tattoo Artists

Giles Hewitt of AFP wrote: “When Suh Hyun-Woong showed his mother his first tattoo, she burst into tears. "She couldn't understand why I would want to do that to myself," Suh laughed. "But now she's pretty much accepted it." Which is probably just as well given that the 19-year-old student's body is a growing, monochrome canvas of fantasy designs. Once associated almost exclusively with organised crime members, tattoos are going mainstream in South Korea, championed by sporting heroes, K-pop stars and other celebrities with passionate fan bases. [Source: Giles Hewitt, AFP, January 17, 2015]

“But the law has failed to keep pace, leaving the growing number of Korean tattoo artists vulnerable to prosecution on the whim of local authorities. Tattooing itself is not illegal in South Korea, but the law states that it can only be carried out by a licensed medical doctor. "So if you want to get a tattoo, you're supposed to go to a hospital? It's just absurd," said Jang Jun-Hyuk, the owner of "Tattooism" — a tattoo parlour in central Seoul.“Officials say the law as it stands is justified by health considerations, including the risk of hepatitis or HIV infection from improperly sterilised needles. "It's invasive. The skin is punctured and it bleeds. That's why we look at it as a medical procedure," said Korea Medical Association spokeswoman spokeswoman Ahn So-Young.

“Nevertheless, the government does appear to be considering change, and commissioned a study in October on the possibility of permitting legal tattoo parlours. In the meantime, tattoo artists continue to inhabit a professional world not dissimilar to sex workers; technically illegal but largely ignored by the authorities as long as they stay under the radar.

“Most Korean parlours, like Jang's Tattooism, are literally "underground" — basement studios with unmarked doors whose locations are spread by word-of-mouth. Jang, 42, was a 20-year-old student at fashion college in Seoul when he saw his first tattoo sported by a friend and decided then and there where his future lay. The friend had got his tattoo in Mexico and, given the lack of options at home, that's where Jang went to train. "In Korea at that time, nobody was using a tattoo machine. It was really just criminals using needles on themselves, and the results were pretty ugly," he said. The organised crime stigma was so great that, until recently, having a large tattoo would result in a rare exemption from South Korea's mandatory military service.

“After several years in Mexico, Jang returned and set up his first illicit tattoo studio in a non-descript office building in Seoul. There was no sign, and with advertising not an option, he tried to drum up customers by posting pictures of his work on the internet, along with a mobile phone number. "In the first three months, I probably got about 10 customers," he recalled. "But it was a good time. There were only about 10 parlours in Seoul, and we all knew each other and encouraged each other. "It's all a bit competitive now," he said.

“There's no real consensus on when attitudes began to change, but a pivotal moment in 2003 involved footballer Ahn Jung-Hwan, a national hero following the South Korean team's heroics at the World Cup a year before. After scoring in a match against Japan, Ahn peeled off his shirt to reveal a shoulder tattoo declaring his love for his wife. "He was a big name and that started things off," Jung said. "Suddenly there were all these other sportsmen, as well as movie stars and K-pop singers getting tattoos as well." Business picked up, and the number of tattoo parlours mushroomed, but the legal issue remained.

“Five years ago, Jung's parlour was targeted in a random raid, and he ended up in court, where he was fined US$3,000 and given a one-year suspended jail sentence for violating public health codes. Despite sporadic crackdowns, the number of studios has continued to grow and some, like "Maverick" in the expat-friendly district of Itaewon, have grown bold enough to put up neon signs. "It's a form of passive resistance," said Maverick owner Lee Sung-Je. "It's my way of saying 'I'm here, doing my work'." Lee claims customers across the social spectrum, including a smattering of civil servants, and executives working at straight-laced conglomerates like Samsung. "Though they do tend to go for tattoos that can be covered up easily," he said.

Getting a Tattoo in South Korea to Avoid the Draft

Some young men have gotten tattoos as part of their effort to dodge the draft. Bootie Cosgrove-Mather of Associated Press wrote: Koreans have a curse - "You should be tattooed!" - that reflects the ancient practice of using tattoos to brand thieves and slaves. But a nationwide police search launched this month for men with tattoos has rounded up a new breed of criminals - young men who use the body art to try to evade the country's mandatory military service, crucial to its defense against communist North Korea. About 170 men have been arrested for "willfully tampering with their bodies to avoid military duty" - a crime punishable by up to three years in prison. National media showed the disgraced young men, handcuffed, heads bowed and shirts removed to reveal large tattoos of dragons, scaled fish, birds and roses. [Source: Bootie Cosgrove-Mather, Associated Press. June 24, 2003]

“Authorities regularly hunt for draft-dodgers. To win exemptions, some turn to overeating or fasting. Some have doctored X-rays or had surgery to damage ligaments or knee cartilage. A few have even feigned insanity. "There is a need to warn those who would do anything to avoid military service," Judge Kim Sung-keun said this month as he sentenced a 24-year-old father of two young children to eight months in prison for using tattoos to avoid conscription.

Authorities base their arrests in some cases on a suspect's history of military physicals. If a young man goes through one exam without overly large tattoos, but comes back for another round with an outsized dragon and secures an exemption, he would be under suspicion. Investigators also have questioned tattoo artists about their customers' motives. In the early 1980s, the country's military junta launched a crackdown on political dissidents and organized crime under its "campaign for social purification." Many with tattoos were sent to military-run camps, regardless of their criminal history. "I am afraid that the draft-dodgers are bringing back the bad image to tattoos," said an operator of a Web site for tattoo-lovers, who gave only his last name Song.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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