PICTURE PERFECTLee Soo-jung, 22, has been waiting for this day all her life. It’s not her wedding day. Rather, it’s the day she will pose for photographs that will appear in her college yearbook. For many university seniors in Korea, a good deal hangs on this day.
Matchmakers have been known to use college yearbooks to find an interested young man or woman a potential mate, based on a head-and-shoulders photo or maybe one of a student in a group. Striking a captivating look in the yearbook can mean snagging a husband with a monthly paycheck that has seven zeroes.
An early childhood education major at Ewha Womans University, Ms. Lee is a proper and pleasant-looking student. Her usual outfit at school is casual -- generally a simple skirt or jeans and a blouse, completed by a backpack that bulges of books. On a recent Wednesday morning at home, she throws an Introduction to English Linguistics book into a shopping bag, along with patent leather shoes and assorted cosmetics. Donning a fashionable, black-and-white sleeveless dress accompanied by a black jacket, she looks a bit like the manager of an insurance agency. She checks herself quickly in a bedroom mirror and then glances at her wristwatch. It’s 9:25 a.m. and it takes good 10 minutes from her apartment near the school to the beauty salon. She starts to run ― without breakfast.
Dreaming of a good hair day
Her reservation at Lee Chul Hair Ker Ker is for 9:30 a.m. With a carton of soy milk in one hand, she arrives at the beauty salon near Ewha panting and red-faced. A group of 10 young women, most of them Ms. Lee’s classmates, are already having their hair shampooed, rinsed, cut and dried. The sound of hair driers dominates the salon as Ms. Lee finds a seat and tells a beautician “glossy and straight” -- the typical yearbook style for a prim senior. Nearby, some friends are going a little less typical: They’re having their hair rolled to give a richer appearance.
While two beauticians begin on her hair, Ms. Lee sips her milk. Suddenly one of the salon’s customers, a classmate of Ms. Lee’s, begins to complain that the hairdo she is getting makes her look like an ajumma. A beautician immediately says calmly that the hairdo is the right graduation yearbook look. The young woman doesn’t say anything. Is her classmate being too picky? No, whispers Ms. Lee. “She has been preparing for this photo shoot for months, shopping for the right dress and shoes to match.”
Ms. Lee insists that it did not take more than a day for her to find her dress. The hair takes less time. In fact, after spending about an hour in the chair, Ms. Lee gets up and another young Ewha student grabs her seat.
May and early June are high-demand times for the many beauty salons that decorate the streets around Ewha Womans University. Lee Chul Hair Ker Ker offers a special package called “Making Your Memories Last at College,” which combines a hairdo and makeup application for 50,000 won ($42). But Ms. Lee gets only the hairdo, paying less than 10,000 won.
Stepping out of the beauty salon, Ms. Lee begins to worry about the brightness. “How can I keep smiling under this sun?”
Facing the future
Shortly before 11 a.m. Ms. Lee enters Aery Jo, a makeup salon, for her appointment. The small room is crowded with three other students, all in their yearbook dresses, getting faces powdered and painted.
Ms. Lee makes her way to a seat and a young woman ― a makeup artist ― begins applying a greenish foundation, then a number of layers of pink and powder-type eye shadow. With delicate finger movements, the makeup artist pastes long and curly eyelashes on Ms. Lee, then uses a brush to dab on pink lipstick. Finally, the artist takes a large brush, dips it lightly into light pink powder and applies it on the cheeks. The process takes an hour. Ms. Lee, however, does not seem happy with the results and orders the makeup artist to apply more foundation on her neck and more eye shadow. Meanwhile, customers are lining up, as if waiting for a subway train. Ki Jung-mi, one of the shop’s employees, answers the phone every five minutes saying, “Sorry, we’re booked all day.”
As Ms. Lee is about to leave, she notices that one of her good friends, Lee Jae-eun, is sitting for an application. An exchange student in the United States this year, Lee Jae-eun has returned home briefly -- just for the yearbook shoot. Lee Soo-jung says, “Hey, I didn’t know it was you! You look so gorgeous.” While the two friends catch up, across the room another young woman complains, “I look too old in this makeup. Like a monster.”
After paying 32,000 won, Ms. Lee walks toward Ewha, using a fan to shield her face from the sun.
‘Open your mouth, young lady’
The yearbook shoot has two sessions ― indoors and out. Indoors, which is a relatively simple process confined to head-and-shoulders poses, comes first and takes less than an hour. After spending 10 minutes in a bathroom for fine-tuning, Ms. Lee goes to Ewha’s Student Hall, where three photographers await with cameras, backdrops, and electronic flash equipment. In one room, students in Ms. Lee’s department are gathered to wait. When their names are called by the photographers, they go in front of a camera, sit in a chair, place their hands on a table and switch on a smile. “Your smile with your eyes is really something,” a photographer says to Ms. Lee. Later, Ms. Lee meets up with six close friends, including Lee Jae-eun, and they head to the college cafeteria. They’re not really hungry; they just want a place to sit down.
In front of Ms. Lee are face powder, tubes of pink lipstick and a snack of gimbap. “What if I ruin my makeup while eating?” wonders one of the young women. Others nod, turning their eyes back to their hand mirrors. After about an hour, the group moves to Ewha’s Main Building for the outdoor photo shoot.
Photographers in shorts and sunglasses are waiting for them. In front of the granite building lie two wooden boxes of different sizes. The photographers have the students line up and one by one by one, each student steps up on a box for another individual photo, another head-and-shoulder one.
To avoid confusion, students have their identification tags attached to their calves. A cattle call! One of the photographers coaches the students to:
Put on your best smile
Hold your hands at your waist
Turn your face at about a 20 degree angle
Another photographer barks suggestions like “There you go, young lady, show us your perfect smile . . . Open your mouth to show seven teeth only . . . Imagine Mr. Right is standing right in front of you.”
After the individual photo session, it’s time for group shots, which give yearbook browsers a chance to check out a young woman’s figure and height.
The photographer divides the students into groups of nine or 10 and coaches the students on positioning their arms and legs. After the group shot, which takes another 20 minutes, the session ends. The moment the photographer says “Good job, ladies,” smiles disappear and the thick silence is replaced by sighs and moans from the students. Ms. Lee reaches into her shopping bag for her cell phone only to find it’s not there. Remembering seeing the phone at the beauty salon, she heads back for the place. “What a long, long day,” she says to no one as she goes.
by Chun Su-jin