Mirror, mirror on the wall, does being fair mean you have it all?
Netflix Korea's dating show "Single's Inferno" which ended on Saturday saw worldwide success, becoming the first Korean reality show to enter Netflix's global Top 10 TV Shows chart. But it has also brought to surface a lasting debate on skin color preference; a sensitive topic in many nations but less so in Korea's largely homogenous society.
"Single's Inferno" featured 12 single men and women trying to find love on a deserted island. Controversy arose as the men discussed the first impression of a female participant named Ji-yeon and repeatedly praised how pale she is.
"I like Ji-yeon. Her skin is so light," "She seemed so white and pure," "I like people who have light skin," the men commented.
International viewers criticized the male participants, calling them "colorist." According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, colorism refers to "prejudice or discrimination especially within a racial or ethnic group favoring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin."
It is no secret that pale skin is a standard of conventional beauty in Asia. Colorism is widespread in other regions too, but the preference is expressed more explicitly in Northeast Asia and especially Korea, as the population mostly shares a similar skin tone.
But does the preference for pale skin in Korea stem from racism?
Millennia-old beauty standard
According to Han Geon-soo, a professor of cultural anthropology at Kangwon National University, the preference for light skin is traced back to ancient times.
"Long ago in agrarian societies, having light skin meant not having to work outside in the fields, thus belonging to the upper class," he said. "Only the upper class could stay pale, and the appearance of those in power is considered beautiful. That's how most beauty standards are made. Back when food was scarce, chubbiness was a symbol of beauty as it meant access to plenty of food, thus power, because not everyone could afford to gain excess weight."
A pale complexion was also deemed attractive in the West before tanned skin became fashionable in the early 20th century. Women even used makeup containing lead and mercury to achieve the look.
Han says the preference for light skin is still dominant in Korea to this day, but that it is inaccurate to liken it to a "desire to look like white people."
"The preference long precedes Koreans coming in contact with Westerners and didn't originate from racism in the modern sense," he said. "It most likely stemmed from wanting to look like someone who doesn't work outdoors, not an admiration for Westerners. In fact, when Koreans in the Joseon Dynasty [1392-1910] saw Westerners for the first time before Western imperialism was in full swing, their different looks were initially described as peculiar."
Joseon-era paintings titled "Portrait of a Beauty" depict women with pale skin. At the same time, small eyes are portrayed as ideal, as European beauty standards had not yet had an influence on Koreans.
"I understand how foreign viewers may interpret 'pale skin' comments in the context of their multiracial societies, where skin color is directly related to racism," Han added. "I am by no means saying there's no racism in Korea. There are racist elements in our society that we must continue working on, as well as a need to reevaluate our beauty standards. But connecting Koreans' preference for pale skin directly with racism is an oversimplification."
Color, class and K-culture
Compared to the West or even Southeast Asia and India, remarks on skin color are not as controversial in Korea due to a key characteristic — Korea has had virtually no other ethnicity apart from Koreans for millennia, so skin color does not correlate with social class among Koreans.
"In India and most Southeast Asian countries, the population is racially and ethnically diverse but the upper class tends to have lighter skin, so skin color is directly related to power," said Jung Ho-jai, an author and researcher in Comparative Asia Studies at the National University of Singapore.
"Hence skin color is an extremely sensitive topic and is not discussed as overtly. But because Korea has had practically only one ethnicity, skin color does not indicate social class besides a slight distinction between white-collar workers and manual laborers. So expressing a preference for light skin is largely not deemed problematic."
However, as Korean pop culture transcended borders, criticism has been mounting over such preference.
"Although Southeast Asians are the largest foreign fanbase of K-pop and K-dramas, and K-culture has greatly influenced their beauty standards too, their greatest criticism against K-culture has been about skin color," said Jung. "Most of them believe K-pop idols are whitewashed, or edited to look paler than they really are. Northeast Asians do have relatively light skin, but it's also true that K-pop idols often make themselves even paler with makeup. We could say it's our traditional beauty standards, but we should know most other countries have uneven power dynamics regarding skin color and find our preference offensive."
The Korean public's reaction to accusations of colorism, since long before "Single's Inferno," has been generally negative. Youn, a Korean student attending college in Switzerland, said she finds such backlash "unfair."
"Westerners here have their own beauty standards too, like tanned skin and big lips," she said.
She added she opposes monolithic beauty ideals, but questioned whether the preference for light skin is particularly stronger in Korea. Colorism is a persisting issue in non-white communities around the world. As a result, skin-bleaching cosmetics are a multibillion-dollar industry. In 2018, American model Blac Chyna faced backlash for promoting skin-lightening creams from the brand "Whitenicious" in Nigeria. Similar products are widely used in Asia, including India.
"Each culture has its beauty standards," Youn said. "People shouldn't be forced to fit into them, but I'm not sure if it's right for non-Koreans to tell Koreans to change our long-standing ideals. Isn't it another form of Western-centric thinking?"
"From the perspective of Koreans, the criticism [of colorism] may feel unfair, since they didn't expect the whole world would be watching Korean shows," author Jung said. "Back when only Koreans watched Korean shows, expressing a preference for light skin wasn't controversial, because we didn't really have to think about race in a homogenous society. But now with global streaming platforms, that's no longer the case."
Although skin color does not directly indicate social class among Koreans, foreigners in Korea face a different reality, according to Yunkim Ji-yeong, an associate professor of philosophy at Changwon National University.
"Among fellow Koreans, skin color has little correlation with social power," she said. "But when Koreans perceive 'other' races and ethnicities, skin color undeniably plays a role. Foreigners with lighter skin are often treated more favorably. If you look at non-Korean celebrities active in Korea, those with light skin are given more opportunities."
Yunkim pointed out that the same reason explains why Korean women face more pressure to have pale skin than men do. As seen in "Single's Inferno," light-skinned women are not only preferred but also associated with purity.
"In a male-centered society, women are the 'others,'" she said. "So even Korean women are treated more favorably when they have lighter skin, seen as 'innocent' and 'virginal.' And our society applies this favoritism to foreign women as well. Koreans mostly view skin color preference simply as a problem of monolithic beauty standards, if deemed problematic at all, but it's an intersection of race, class and gender."
A broader discussion
Even though Korea's preference for pale skin may not be rooted in racism, experts say it is time to reevaluate beauty standards in general.
"We probably need to look back on how monolithic our beauty standards are," said Prof. Han, "as well as women being subjugated by how their physical beauty is seen by the male gaze. And since the foreign population in Korea is increasing, it's right to become more introspective about these issues."
"It's good that a dialogue has started," said author Jung. "Whether Koreans preferred light skin before or after coming in contact with Westerners doesn't affect the dialogue as a whole. Now that consumers of K-culture have become diverse, colorism controversies are bad for the future of hallyu [Korean Wave], whether the preference is good or bad per se. We should be able to compliment beauty without habitually mentioning skin color."
BY HALEY YANG [email@example.com]