Differing Beauty Standards between North and South

Wednesday 7th September, 2016

“Your face is as big as my fist!” In beauty-obsessed South Korea, this is a compliment; in North Korea, an insult.

Picture from BBC.

In beauty-obsessed South Korea, a petite frame and small face is the preferred look for women, and even men. Massage parlours offer facials that tighten the skin. “Your face is as big as a fist!” is considered a compliment. South Korea is probably the only country in the world that obsesses this much about the size of their face.

North Koreans, on the other hand, don’t see the connection between a small face and beauty, rather considering it as a sign of stunted growth.

Lee Young Rim, who defected in 2015, says: “In North Korea, if a person’s face is small, they would be called names, like ‘rat’s head’. They would be teased that their head is too small to fit a brain… I have a pretty small head, and was bullied at school about it. But upon arrival in Korea, people told me that they felt envious.”

Lee explains, “It’s because people take it as a sign of stuntedness and low intelligence. Some people actually do get distressed over the size of their head. If anyone ever told a North Korean that their head was small or that it was the size of a fist, they would take offence.”

But what about those North Korean beauties, hand-picked to work overseas in North Korean restaurants? A South Korean tourist recalls her experience in Cambodia in 2014 when she entered a North Korean restaurant out of curiosity.

“There were many people like me, foreigners who were curious about North Korea. I had initially imagined the waitresses, North Korean women, to be short and somewhat stocky, not long-limbed, but I found that that was not true of the people working in the restaurant. I do remember that those waitresses did in fact have petite frames and small heads. Anyone could agree that they were very pretty, I think. I wondered if that was some kind of marketing strategy.”

It could be safe to say that overseas labourers working in North Korean restaurants are picked for possessing the kind of beauty that communicates across borders.

Choi So-Jin escaped North Korea in 2014. She states, “We have a saying in North Korea – ‘The mountain must be large to cast a large shadow’. In the same way, a person’s head must be sizeable for them to possess good character. A person with a small head lacks common sense. Big faces would probably be preferred in North Korea than small faces for that reason.”

To add, “Though, because of the rise in popularity of South Korean media in North Korea, this may quickly become an old way of thinking. More North Koreans are adopting fashion choices mimicking South Korean celebrities. That may include the changing attitudes towards small heads.”

It is certain that South Korea has an obsession with small heads and small faces, whereas in North Korea, it isn’t really so – rather, the size of the head might be the cause of some teasing. This is another lesson in the subjectivity of beauty, and with the Korean Wave blowing across the 38th parallel, those standards will most likely continue to change.


By Shin, Junsik

Read in Korean.

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