By Jason Yu
SEOUL, Aug. 3 (Yonhap) -- "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the prettiest of them all?" It's the dreaded question many Koreans -- especially women -- ask themselves when looking in the mirror. Hopefully, the answer is the reflection staring right back at them. But is one's reflection really that important in everyday life?
Enter 20-year-old Kim Min-jeong. Four years ago, she was one of those dab, "lazy" girls in high school that didn't care about her appearance. "Back in elementary and middle school, I didn't care about my looks. We studied in the classroom and later, played soccer and dodgeball outside. We didn't care if our hair was messy and we were sweaty after playing." That soon changed once she entered high school.
Mercilessly teased by her female peers, she was criticized for not putting on makeup, wearing fashionable clothes, or styling her hair. She also didn't really use the mirror. Soon she was called the most hated word: normal.
"Being called normal is akin to saying you're ugly," Kim says. "Everyone wants to be special. To be normal is to blend in and not stand out," she adds.
Just six months later, Kim resorted to the tactics her peers used. With makeup, new attire, smoothed hair, and a small mirror case, she soon transformed. Her former tormentors soon accepted her. Boys would take glances at her. Even her close friends were surprised how much she changed.
"I soon had this obsession of looking at myself in the mirror every three minutes in class. I knew this was unhealthy, but I couldn't stop," she admits. "I felt to fit in with my peers, I had to always be beautiful."
Such obsession with looks is reaching even younger children. "My daughter is already into makeup and hair," says a mother of an 11-year-old in Seoul, asking not to be named. "She has a mirror tucked inside her pencil case. She says she needs it to look at herself during recess. I didn't need a mirror when I was her age."
Many suspect that the much-celebrated hallyu, or the Korean Wave, may have started the craze over physical appearance.
In the early 1990s as Korea transitioned from military dictatorship to democracy, cultural changes followed with more freedom. With that change came a new style in Korean music videos. Trot, old-traditional folk songs, and classical ballads were soon swept away to make room for the new generation of music: pop. And with pop came a new standard of excellence: singers with a beautiful presentation from head to toe.
The bar was set at an all-time high in 2009, when K-pop began to exert its influence onto the world stage. Female idol singers pushed the envelope for defining the perfect woman. Soon after, many of those female idols became the new standard of beauty in Korean society.
The growth of Korea's economy increased personal spending money, and the surge of the Korean Wave -- the expansion of Korean pop culture -- not only put Korea on the map. It soon took the lead in fashion and a population obsessed with mirrors.
The mirror obsession isn't just restricted to women. A good number of Korean men also keep up with their appearance.
For Park Min-woo, the mirror may be his best friend. "I may spend more time in front of the mirror than most girls," he laughs. "I carry a portable mirror everywhere I go. It's as important as my smartphone."
As a 24-year-old senior at Yonsei University, he is strikingly good looking and with good reason. "I am always afraid of looking ugly. Korea places such an importance on looks," he adds. "We get a lot of foreign students that attend Yonsei from other countries and they're always surprised at how much Korean men care about their looks."
People like Park like how some of the shopping outlets are literally surrounded by mirrors. "You'll know exactly how good you'll look with new clothes anywhere in the store," he says.
As for why many Korean men take special care of their looks, Park offers his own theory. "I honestly think Korea is trying to maintain its high fashion status in Asia. We want to be known as a country with good-looking people. Ever since K-dramas became big 10 years ago, the idea of a Korean man became a handsome guy," he says.
In the meantime, Kim, now a student at Hanyang University in Seoul, is wondering why there is such a high emphasis on always looking beautiful in Korean society.
"Back then, I felt there was a lot of pressure to look good. But today, I feel there's just too much pressure. I feel part of the reason is because Koreans are exposed to the male and female K-pop idols on TV all the time," she explains. "Secretly, I think many girls want to look like a girl from Girls Generation or another girl idol group," she adds.
So is the mirror the most important thing?
"After my smartphone and purse, my mirror just may be my most prized possession," Kim says.
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