Why do Koreans stress so much about the outer appearance? Women would not be caught dead not wearing makeup, it's all about the 명품 and imports, and if you're not wearing the latest trend, then you're looked down on. I realized this when I was in Korea as an exchange student a couple of years ago. People were shocked that I did not WANT to wear makeup and that I didn't care what brand the clothes were. I know American and Korean cultures are different and all, but I wonder when and why Koreans began to think this way.
There are two sides to the question you ask, and the Korean will address each in turn.
First, you have to realize your own perspective. If you were an exchange student into Korea, most likely you went to one of the universities in the middle of Seoul, and you probably spent a lot of time hanging out with Korean people who can speak English well, in the neighborhoods they frequent.
You know what is common among Korean people who can speak English well? THEY ARE ALL RICH. Not necessarily filthy rich, but rich enough to spend a lot of money on clothes and makeup. And when that option is available for people (men and women alike,) some people go completely nuts. This is not unique to Korea; worldwide, you will find that rich people generally care more about their outer appearance, simply because they can afford to. Conversely, if you knew poorer people in Korea, you would realize that fetishizing the latest trend is not as widespread as you would think.
(Reminds the Korean of a line from Holy Grail – one can tell a king is a king because “he hasn’t got shit all over him.”)
(And the Korean just spent 20 minutes reading all the quotes from Holy Grail on imdb.com. It’s a slow day at work. Back to the post.)
But your general observation is valid – Generally Korean people, especially women, care a lot more about outward appearance than Americans. Why?
The Korean already answered it in this post. Here are the relevant parts:
“… Korea went from pre-modern to post-modern, the process that took other countries about 150 years, in about 40 years.
Truth is, all pre-modern, agriculture-based societies are conformist. Such societies usually consist of tight-knit communities, whose members must all cooperate in order to earn a living. (Think of the Amish community for an American example.) Homogeneity is a natural outgrowth of such societies.
The Korean will say this point again and again until everyone understands this - ONLY 40 YEARS AGO, KOREA WAS POORER THAN SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA. So although the miraculous economic growth took Korea to the forefront of modernity, Korea continues to drag its cultural baggage from the pre-modern, agricultural era.
[A little addition in this part -- see some pictures of Korea in the 1950s. (One Two Three) Absolutely stunning. If you are a Korean in late 20s~early 30s, the children in the pictures are about the same age as your parents. Think about that. Photos courtesy of Marmot.]
Practically, this means that Korean people constantly care about what other people think about them. It doesn't help that Korean tend to live very closer to one another in massive cities, therefore never having a chance to get the hell away from everyone else.
So if a popular trend develops in Korea, Koreans follow that trend without thinking twice about it, because other people do it too. At times, this is a source of great national strength. When there is something that demands a truly national-scale cooperation, like the Olympics or the World Cup, there is no better people than Koreans to extract that cooperation. However, infuriatingly, a trend often makes many Koreans lemmings.”
The original post was about plastic surgery, but this habit towards conformity truly applies in every aspect of Korean life, and in nowhere is it more evident in fashion trends.
There are a few more things to be said about Koreans living very close together. The statement is, first, literally true. Korea has 48 million people, and 20 million of them live in or near Seoul. It’s impossible for Americans to get their head around this idea, except maybe those who live in New York City (which has ¼ population density of Seoul’s.)
But Koreans are also very close in a metaphysical sense. That is, Koreans tend to have a more “inter-connected” relationship to one another. Koreans generally maintain a close relationship with the extended families. Also, in every social group (be it school, work, military unit, etc.,) Koreans are expected to form a personal bond with one another, over and beyond the professional relationship. Although things are changing lately, it is still a poor form for a Korean worker to skip a staff dinner.
In short, Koreans constantly meet, hang out, talk, and drink. And that’s easy to do, because they all live right next to each other! It is like a high school which is a vicious gossip mill, extended over the entire country. In that type of environment, wouldn’t you start caring what other people thought about you?
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.