An Auto-Ethnographic Experience with Korean Beauty Standards



For years I had heard about how western beauty standards represented and propelled in the media are unrealistic, detrimental and impressionable for women in society. This got Georgie and I thinking further, into if these same ideas are present in other cultures and if so how impressionable they are. Having heard about the Korean skincare phenomenon, we decided to further investigate the beauty standards within Korean culture, to find there was an abundance of information to be unpacked. We decided to take the angle from three common categories that popped up throughout our beginning research; skin lightening, cosmetic surgery and the use of makeup and skincare. An auto-ethnographic approach to this topic was beneficial to allow us to compare our experience with westernised beauty standards as young woman with Korean ideals of beauty.

Research & Methodology:

As I had made several attempts at an auto-ethnographical approach to research and reporting, that I was aware this method is not my strong suit. There were several elements of required readings that helped my approach and understanding:

– Ellis (2011): Ellis highlights how “when researchers do autoethnography, they retrospectively and selectively write about epiphanies that stem from, or are made possible by, being part of a culture and/or by possessing a particular cultural identity”. The article as outlined what the difference between being an ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ to a culture, which allowed me to understand further how to articulate my findings, as an ‘outsider’ speaking to another ‘outsider’.

– Bochner (2000) helped me further understand the idea of writing to display the connection from the personal experience to the culture. From this, I was able to draw epiphanies based off my personal experiences through my engagement with the various texts I researched throughout this project.

The aspect of my digital artefact that took the longest was by far the background research into this topic. As there was an abundance of this available to me online. Georgie and I separately researched and gathered a bulk amount of research to then sift through them to find our most compatible points. This information came from a variety of research articles, news articles and blog posts. More of our findings can be found through our digital artefact linked at the end of this post. This is how we came up with our three categories, as they both were common factors that popped up. This aspect was apart of our secondary research phase. The primary research of our digital artefact began through engaging and reflecting on our findings. Then collaboratively we combined the information we gathered for the topics of skin lightening, cosmetic surgery and the use of makeup and skincare and began condensing and making sense of the information we found by formatting it into a ‘prezi’.

Personal Experiences:

My first and overall reflection was the shock from comparison to beauty standards between my experience and Korean ideals. What seemed to be a harsh reality for western societies seemed to me to be harder for Korean women. The usual beauty ideals I grew up with was also focused on weight. Which as tough and harsh as it seemed, to me is greatly easier to work on if you were unhappy with then the fundamental features of your face as a result of your heritage, as it seems Korean woman are confronted with. Thus, an auto-ethnographical approach to this topic was important in order to compare my emotional experience with beauty standards to Korean versions.

However, after each topic we discussed we included another smaller personal epiphany with the topic:

  • Skin Lightening: One of my most profound and interesting reflections I had from this topic was why are these brands who are stigmatising a certain skin tone as ‘ugly’ are not being harshly ridiculed. The subject of skin lightening being a popular beauty treatment as a result to the cultural stance that the tanner/darker you are means the more lower-class you are. In my opinion, this ideal is extremely offensive to begin with, and I know that if a company began to try and sell a product like that in a more westernised market they would experience extreme backlash. However, within that epiphany I spoke about how I can be embarrassed by my fair skin which often leads me to use self-tanning products and I had never looked at that in a way of also being biased to light skin tone.
  • Cosmetic Surgeries: The rapid growth and popularity of cosmetic surgeries in Korea was a major shock to me. Having grown up with not really knowing anyone who have had major cosmetic procedures to learning that approximately one in every ten Korean woman have had some sort of cosmetic procedure performed was gob-smacking. The idea of cosmetic procedures has always been a taboo topic within my experience. This idea stems from the stigma and idea that ‘fake’ isn’t beautiful. Often being told from my friends about partners or even my old partners that ‘if you get that done, I wont be with you’. It has become apparent to me this stigma has been portrayed into my life by men, and this affirmation is further demonstrated by the idea that my own mother hides the fact that she gets anti-ageing treatments from my dad (her husband for over 36 years). Though my experience may be similar to people reading this, this is not the case in Korea. With cosmetic surgery being such a high statistic within woman in Korea, Korean men are also big numbers in the ratio of cosmetic procedures. Therefore, irradiating the stigma that because you have had a procedure done, you are fake and in turn not attractive. Although the thought that the reasoning behind these high numbers of plastic surgeries occurring in Korea being a result of these manipulated ideals of westernised beauty does not sit well with me. Especially due to the fact that most times these procedures are being performed to encourage finding love or employment prospects.
  • Makeup and Skincare: The least surprising of our chosen topics for me was the makeup and skincare section. Upon reflection, I can determine that this was the field I was most knowledgable in, as I have great interest in this topic. Nothing too much about this topic was surprising to me. Except the extent of the globalisation of Korean beauty trends have made their way into my makeup and skincare routines, such as the implementation of what is called ‘hangover blush’, something I have been doing for a while yet only discovered through researching this topic I found it stemmed from a Korean beauty trend.


My main take away from researching Korean beauty standards was that societal pressure for females to fit under this biased category of ‘beauty’ is inevitable and interchangeable different cultures. However, the factors that are involved in the patriarchy deciding and rejecting what is and isn’t beautiful are culturally different. This research has taught me to conclude with the ideology to be less concerned with what society thinks is considered beauty.

Link to digital artefact:


Ellis, Carolyn & Bochner, Arthur. (2000). Autoethnography, Personal Narrative, Reflexivity: Researcher as Subject. Handbook of Qualitative Research.

Ellis, C., Adams, T.E., and Bochner, A.P. (2011) ‘Autoethnography: An Overview‘, Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 12:1. Available at: 

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