Sublime object of ideology: Korean beauty standards and metaverse
|Courtesy of Liane|
By David Tizzard
Note: The following piece was part of a video essay created with Michelle Ju Sihyun. For the full interactive experience, watch it here on YouTube.
South Korean people are attractive. Especially the ones you see in the dramas, the music videos, the movies, and social media. Beauty here is off the charts. But such sky high beauty standards are not just expected from the country’s rich and famous. Nor are they only applied to women. Whether going to work, attending university, or just trying to live, Korean people young and old feel the pressure of having to look good.
A certain type of good.
There are standards as to what constitutes being beautiful in Korean society. These standards are not created by individuals, but instead by the community. And they are seen as a strength: a mark of personal development. Yet the expectations and pressure on ordinary Korean citizens have been very hard to live up to.
Now something new has emerged. Something more than human. Something challenging the very fabric of reality. Something that might change the conversation about beauty in Korea…forever.
Beauty and Lookism
The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky said that beauty will save the world. Here in Korea, many feel like beauty is doing the opposite. It’s strangling them. But what is beauty? And just how do societies like South Korea determine what is or isn’t beautiful?
Standards of physical attractiveness differ by country, era, and culture. This points to beauty being, in part at least, socially constructed. Phenomenology tells us that there is a dialogue at play: our identities are formed by us perceiving how other people view us. Consciously and subconsciously we are affected by the people around us. We are reacting to others as we construct ourselves.
That’s why social media now plays a very important role in our perception of beauty. The more time we spend online looking at other people, particularly beautiful ones with features and skin enhanced by the latest filters, the more we think about our own appearance. So despite all the talk of communication and connectivity, the internet isn’t just us experiencing other people. The internet leads us straight back to us. To ourselves.
But why does beauty matter?
Research tells us that a person’s physical attractiveness is positively associated with their quality of social experiences. The prettier you are, the more advantages you will have in life. But what about if you are not pretty? The less beautiful you are, the more likely you are to face discrimination. And studies have shown that when people face discrimination based on their appearance, it can have strong negative effects on their mental health. It can even lead to suicide. Something modern South Korea sadly knows far too much about.
Discrimination based on beauty is common almost everywhere. While some of us might have been raised being told not to judge a book by its cover, in South Korea the opposite is often true. In this hyper-competitive society driven by the experience of a compressed post-colonial modernity, it has taken on an even more serious role. People are frequently reminded that first impressions matter ― including their face, clothes, and hair. A person’s external image carries huge importance. Like age, gender, and wealth, in South Korea, beauty can determine your life, your career, and your success.
This focus on aesthetic experience as a way of securing social and cultural capital in South Korea is called “Lookism.” For some, lookism and a focus on beauty is a positive thing. It is a method of improving and bettering oneself, with its origins in the traditional Confucian ideas of self-cultivation.
Gwansang is a traditional Korean concept which believes you can see someone’s fortune in their face. The outward appearance is everything and reveals our destiny. There are even stories of the biggest Korean companies having people specializing in such skills present during interviews ― determining through the face alone whether a person will bring success to the firm.
To others, lookism is a far more modern issue, driven by economic pressures, the labour market, and the weight of the entertainment industry. Plastic surgery, seen this way, is a sign of strength in South Korea, not of weakness. It’s a way to present the best side of yourself. To make a great first impression. And to show that you care about the public gaze.
In this way, beauty has become a surrogate for qualifications or experience. Instead of paying for training, citizens can instead invest in cosmetics or plastic surgery to help them better fit in and advance up the social ladder. They do this not by being themselves, but rather meeting the standards of beauty society expects of them.
Thus, the uniform standards of appearance are maintained. Big eyes, pale skin, a small face, and a slender body. Reinforced through the media and then exaggerated to sometimes impossible levels by filters.
Society demands you be hot…or at least try. And that trying is really important. In South Korea, for many people, looking good is a duty. Not a choice. It’s part of the social contract. And some people are much better at navigating this world than others.
Lucy is one of the many new virtual influencers, celebrities, and K-pop stars you can now find in the country. She works for Lotte Home Shopping. She’s huge on social media. She has a hundred thousand people following her. She’s all over the latest trends. But she’s not real. Not like you and me anyway. But what makes something real?
These virtual influencers like Lucy have Wikipedia pages, verified Instagram accounts, and they appear in commercials. They make songs and hold concerts. And what can be realer than achieving the dream of working for South Korea’s most powerful companies?
Lucy and these other virtual influencers are citizens of the metaverse. But some of you might be asking, what is the metaverse? The answer to that is both very easy, and very difficult. The metaverse forces us to question where we draw the line of what is and isn’t real, blurring the line between fiction and reality.
The basic idea is that our current 2D internet experience becomes 3D. So instead of just looking at a flat computer or phone screen, we actually become part of the screen in front of us. We enter the computer. Abandoning our physical reality for a digital one. Becoming virtual pioneers and inhabitants of a new world.
Rather than the speculative science fiction of The Matrix or Black Mirror, the metaverse is seen as part of our natural evolution as humans. Just like we went from living in the water, to trees, then caves, villages, towns, cities, and finally that super cramped but Netflix-having apartment all of your own, the metaverse is the next step.
We once believed that whatever intelligence computers had, they never had the faculty of consciousness. They might have raw power, but they would never master things which we held to contain the essence of humanity, such as chess or music. These beliefs have since been dramatically shattered. So while there is certainly skepticism about the applications of the metavese, we would do well to remember that computers have continually surpassed everything we once thought they were capable and not capable of.
The metaverse could well be the future of information, entertainment, education, and business. A revolutionary movement forward in becoming new humans. The birth of Homo Deus.
Metaverse in Korea
In the classrooms, students at Korean universities have begun attending orientation sessions in the metaverse. Here, alongside the pressure of starting a new chapter of their lives, young people have been carefully selecting their hair styles, faces, and eyes hoping to create a positive first virtual impression and impress their classmates in the digital world.
And while previously we tried to get close to the rich and famous through backstage exclusives, gossip magazines, and celebrity tours, through the metaverse, South Korean production companies have found a far more immersive way to provide such sensations. They have recreated K-drama sets in virtual showrooms. Allowing viewers to digitally inhabit these worlds and become characters in their favourite shows. Experiencing for themselves the whirlwind that is the K-drama life.
The music industry is not being left behind. We have already seen K-pop groups debut with virtual members alongside their real counterparts. And following the popular reality program ‘Produce 101’, similar competitions have been held online with popular female virtual influencers. These digital women held fan meetings, completed personality tests, and even uploaded compilations of their cutest sneezes for their devoted fans.
But what exactly are these new idols? Are they the next Blackpink or BTS ready to take the world by storm? Or simply soulless dancing shadows, the products of their creators?
A Search for Stability
Our current world has abandoned trust and stability. We now live in a post-truth era, characterized by constant change and liquid modernity. Strangely, our desire to create a secular environment based only on facts and rationality has meant none of these seem to exist anymore.
But as humans, we are always searching for our place in the world. Whether physically or psychologically. And so, despite not being real, virtual influencers like Lucy and digital worlds like the metaverse give us a very ironic sense of security amidst all the other changes we’re experiencing.
They’re code. Secure. Rigid. And Pure. Trustworthy combinations of 1s and 2s that make us feel warm and safe. And that’s because the metaverse and its citizens have a perfect world. There is no climate change inside your computer. Lucy doesn’t have to worry about skin cancer or fine dust. The skies are always blue, and the air is always pure. Lucy and her friends will become more perfect than even the most dedicated K-pop idol. Never messing up. Everything they do, say, and think recorded forever.
Which raises an interesting idea. Will a company one-day manufacture a scandal or mistake for their virtual influencer just to convince us that they are real? Just like they have human names and human features, will they also one day make human mistakes? And if they do, will we believe it?
A Life without Negativity
We live in a world filled with people marked by imperfections, people like you and me, with buildings that are damaged, with rainy days, and blue moods. Our flaws and our limitations are what make us real.
The Korean-born philosopher Byung-Chul Han says true beauty is found in these imperfections. In the negative spaces. What Korean artists might call the yeobek. Yet despite this, Han fears we’re entering a shallow society in which all the negativity that defines us is being slowly erased by computers. Our edges smoothed by filters. The rise of perfect virtual influencers.
But if beauty and the true essence of what it means to be human are found in imperfections, what about the metaverse? Are there imperfections and negativity in the metaverse? Do virtual influencers have bad hair days or skin problems?
Our environment shapes our personality and nature in a variety of ways. But what happens if our environment becomes perfect? What happens if everyone we see looks fantastic? All the time? Is this a courageous step forward or a dangerous jump backwards? By creating perfect versions of beauty, we might be erasing the concept of beauty altogether. And if we lose the concept of beauty and the sublime, what are we then as humans? Will we not become detached from authentic experience and other people? The psychological effects could be catastrophic.
Marshal McLuhan observed that the “medium is the message”. Electronic communication has sociological, philosophical and aesthetic consequences on how we experience the world. A society that reads only books is fundamentally different from one that uses social media. But if the medium is now a metaverse and the message is look perfect, what happens next?
The internet was meant to free us from ourselves. We were meant to be experimental. Removing all physical and psychological constraints, allowing us to remake ourselves anew. Yet despite marketing itself as an international source of culture through its music and dramas, the virtual influencers Korea is producing are all pale and skinny. Diversity and representation of those who don’t fit certain boxes has been neglected.
These beings created in the metaverse are not freeing us from questions of race or gender, but instead tightening the chains that already bind and separate us. They are perfect looking versions of the existing social norms. With no variety in body size or age. Instead we see the creations skinnier and more perfect than ever.
Of course, the creators and coders of these virtual dancing shadows try to include flaws, such as freckles. But even this is selective. Deciding what is and isn’t a flaw. Choosing beauty without consciousness. The already super intense beauty standards that South Korean people were struggling to contend with just got a whole lot harder. Because now Koreans are no longer competing with other people. Instead, they’re competing with something that can always look perfect.
It simply doesn’t feel like a fair fight anymore.
South Korea has continually impressed the world and its own people with its incredible development. A postcolonial state devastated by war, it has emerged as a hyper-modern hub of the digital world. This has been achieved through a variety of transformations, each one constructing new sociopolitical orders. Giving birth to middle class, democratic, global, and digitally connected citizens in turn.
South Korea is now seeing the emergence of a new citizen. A virtual citizen. Perfect. Innocent. And compliant.
Lucy is still wonderful. Modelling and advertising products without needless titillation or provocation. Positive vibes everywhere. Successful in her industry. She seems like a genuinely good…person.
But is she so good because she is not a person? Lucy will never cry, just as she will never look up at the heavens and contemplate the meaning of existence. So what do we do with our own flaws when confronted with Lucy’s perfection? Do we emulate her? Raise ourselves to once impossible standards? Are these new creations liberating us?
Or are they doing the opposite? Is freedom choking us in the status quo? Has techno-capitalism found a way to keep us isolated and atomized forever?
In a capitalist system, when the service is free, you are the product. Social media understands that. It profits from our data, our experiences, and our memories. It sells us connectivity but at what price?
How realistic or interesting do virtual humans need to be for us to prefer them to the people we already have around us? And not just a preference derived purely from entertainment or shallow factors, but on a deeper, profound and more spiritual level?
The human world we construct today will be lived in by future generations. We are building their homes. And therefore shaping their experiences. The decisions we make today will create reverberations felt by those in the future. So as we look into digital screens of perfection, we should remind ourselves that what today might be seen as a mere ripple of entertainment, in the future might be akin to an oasis or a tsunami.
The choice is ours. Or at least I hope it still is.
Dr. David A. Tizzard (email@example.com) has a Ph.D. in Korean Studies and lectures at Seoul Women’s University and Hanyang University. He is a social/cultural commentator and musician who has lived in Korea for nearly two decades. He is also the host of the Korea Deconstructed podcast, which can be found online. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not reflect the editorial direction of The Korea Times.