By Jason Lim
Elise Hu, who served as the inaugural bureau chief for NPR in Seoul from 2015-2018, recently published a book titled, "Flawless: Lessons In Looks And Culture From The K-beauty Capital," about her thoughts on the beauty culture in South Korea. In her interview with NPR's "It's Been a Minute" segment, she shared her observation that "Korea is still a place where you're encouraged to attach a headshot to a resume, where passport photos come photoshopped by default."
This observation in itself wasn't that striking since it has been made before by others. However, it's what she said at the end of the interview that resonated with me in a surprising way: "South Korea gave me a glimpse of the future in that it prioritizes a machine-driven gaze. So, if the male gaze is how we're supposed to perform for men, the gaze that I write about and I think we should all be thinking about is the technological gaze, which is an internalized, computer-driven, machine-driven, algorithmically determined gaze that tells us how we're supposed to look that we feed by feeding our images into it. And then it sort of improves upon that and then feeds us more images of how we're supposed to look."
In short, she's talking about the standardization of our looks based on mathematical golden ratios and technical skills to conform to the standards. She isn't wrong. I mean, Korea is the first place where I heard about the importance of face sizes, long waists and the ratio of the head lengths to the rest of the body.
Besides the physical beauty, however, what struck me was the question of whether such "perfect" standardization of beauty spills over into "perfect" standardization of social behavior. The recent news that triggered this question for me was the one about the "No Senior Zone" cafe that forbids anyone over 60 years old, as a matter of policy. Before it came the "No Kids Zone" where young children are not permitted into the premises of restaurants or cafes.
The justifications for these business practices are similar and even understandable to an extent. For in the No Kid Zones, business owners didn't want to have to deal with the potential rambunctiousness of children, which would likely affect the overall atmosphere in the cafes or restaurants that cater to their primary customer base of 20 to 40-year-olds. This business model has proven to be popular, and there are more and more No Kids Zone establishments around Korea. In fact, this practice extends to public spaces as well; even the National Library of Korea doesn't allow kids under the age of 16.
In the case of the No Senior Zones, it seems like that particular middle-aged female owner of the small cafe was sick and tired of elderly male customers who made what she felt were inappropriate, sexual remarks based on their cultural understanding of a "coffee madam" from the previous generation. So, she banned all persons over 60. While the genesis of these policies is different, the owners in both cases want to impose a specific standard of behavior in their business spaces by excluding certain elements of society instead of dealing with problematic behaviors on a case-by-case basis.
Such practices are obviously discriminatory and, unfortunately, not new. Foreigners living in Korea have long encountered businesses and housing that banned them for who they are and not how they behave. However, these practices are not illegal in Korea because it's one of the only two OECD countries, along with Japan, that doesn't have an anti-discrimination law on the books. There have been attempts starting in 2007. The latest attempt in 2020 sought to pass a bill aimed to prevent discrimination based on nationality, race, religion, gender, disability, age and sexual orientation. However, there was a backlash from conservative Christian groups against designating sexual minorities as a protected class that torpedoed the whole effort.
Going back to Hu's observation about the algorithmic standardization and the technological gaze of physical beauty in Korea, however, I believe that these "No-whoever Zones" also reflect a similar trend in trying to standardize social behavior to be "perfect" through exclusion. Just as young Koreans are going under the knife to not be excluded from socioeconomic participation by being conformant to the "flawless standard," businesses and institutions are levying an exclusion-based enforcement regime that only allows certain behaviors within their space.
In a way, this propensity to impose physical and behavioral conformity ― almost mechanical in nature ― on its population harkens back to the Hermit Kingdom, an instinctive defensive ethnonationalism that seems to be a constant in Korean society and speaks to Korea's deep-seated isolationist cultural tendency to remain a pure and homogeneous people. Faced with unfavorable demographics and an increasingly pluralistic society, Korea will undoubtedly face a painful change management journey in the years to come.
Jason Lim (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Washington, D.C.-based expert on innovation, leadership and organizational culture.