Look Good, and Get a Job?

by Kyungyeon Chung

One thing I have personally noticed recently while attempting to write curriculum vitae both in English and Japanese is the requirement of attaching a photo on Japanese CV. It was actually a refreshing shock for me that photos – like the type you would attach for passport application – were not a requirement at all when writing a CV in English. I think this may have originated from differences in cultural practice whereby in Japan, more emphasis is put on how ‘appropriate’ and ‘decent’ you should appear. This idea that appearance is quite a big matter in such formal processes as recruitment procedure, however, can result in much more pervasive outcome than simply putting a little more effort in ironing your suits. In South Korea, the ultra-competitive job market has encouraged so many young college graduates, females in particular, to go under knife of cosmetic surgeons.

How has the competitive job race related to the increasing popularity of, and almost-blindsided trend following cosmetic surgery? With much vulnerable and unpredictable economy conditions, it has been more and more widely believed that good looks give you an edge in securing jobs or marriage. According to an article in one mainstream English-language newspaper in Korea, over a quarter of college students are said to consider cosmetic surgery for this reason, according to a recent survey by an online career portal site (Kwaak, 2013). In one survey of over 600 job-seekers, conducted by one clinic reported that around half of the job seekers are getting surgery exclusively to get a job, including non-operational procedures such as Botox or filler injection (The Chosun Ilbo, 2009).

Unfortunately for recent graduates, it is increasingly becoming a very common conception that such procedures are now being perceived as “investment” before entering a competitive race to market yourself better, for your own sake. Amongst the tide of young women receiving the procedure, those unable to afford, those with physical disabilities or with a darker skin are excluded further (Kwaak, 2013). Many of cosmetic surgeries’ ultimate aim is to give the patients certain types of features that are distinctively considered ‘beautiful’ by the set ideal of beauty as perceived in South Korean society today. The definition of ‘beauty’ here is closer to a Caucasian face. One Korean cosmetic surgeon, in a comment on what has been the most demanded facial ‘type’ by patients, said that “(t)hey are seeking to have westernized face, high profile nose, slender nice cheekbone, and mandible bone” (Lah, 2011).

In the chapter “A Colorstruck World” in Shades of Differences, Verna M. Kieth argues that complexion operates as a form of social capital that can be converted to human capital assets (p. 29). Just as light-colored skin is more preferred than darker skin in many aspects in the American society, in case of South Korea, the most-frequent judging standard by which preferences are given is the Westernized standard of beauty. Having phenotypes and skin tone that fit this standard, even by going under knife, are ‘rewarded’ with more stable job opportunities. Whether this hypothesis is true or not will be very difficult to attest – yet it will act like a self-fulfilling prophecy, an ‘assumed truth’ as long as people believe in it.


Kieth, V. M. (2009). A Colorstruck World. In E. N. Glenn (Ed.), Shades of Difference (pp. 25–39). California: Stanford University Press.

Kwaak, J. S. (2013, June 5). Making a case for cosmetic surgery. Korea Real Time. Retrieved from http://blogs.wsj.com/korearealtime/2013/06/05/making-a-case-for-cosmetic-surgery/

Lah, K. (2011, May 24). Plastic surgery boom as Asians seek ‘western’ look. CNN. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/asiapcf/05/19/korea.beauty/

The Chosun Ilbo. (2009, November 30). More Koreans pin job hopes on plastic surgery. The Chosun Ilbo. Retrived from http://english.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2009/11/30/2009113000646.html