The economic crisis has brought with it a severe drop in employment rates. As competition heats up for a limited number of jobs, Korean job seekers have found themselves searching for more diverse ways to increase their competitiveness in the job market. Abreast with the ever-developing obsession sweeping the nation, the most compelling new ‘criterion’ being required of would-be employees has been found in appearance. Online communities sharing information about finding employment are opening up separate posting boards for discussing appearance and how to use the tool of beauty to increase one’s chances of being hired. Cosmetic surgeons are presenting to clients not only standard “beautiful” faces but “professional” faces that exude an aura of trustworthiness and capability.
But to what extent is it acceptable for a culture and its distribution of livelihoods to depend so much upon external qualities? South Korea, among other East Asian countries, is famous worldwide for having beautiful stewardesses and saleswomen. Although this may be seen as an asset, the problem becomes larger when an obsession with appearance extends into sectors that are not service-oriented. For example, it is a badly kept secret that law firms are widely selecting freshman employees using appearance as a criterion, and that teachers who want to lecture through online recordings are receiving cosmetic surgery in order to increase their chances of becoming a popular lecturer. It is questionable whether it is appropriate in these sectors, where professional ability should be the first consideration, for employers to even consider appearance as a factor in their judgments. Of course, it may be argued that when a pool of applicants presents a large number of candidates with similar ability, appearance is as good as any other criterion for breaking ties. However, it is disturbing to a traditionally ethical mind that appearance should be increasingly accepted as a standard for judging people’s capabilities as members of society.
This phenomenon leaves SNU as no exception. Students who hope to find employment directly after graduation begin caring after their appearance beginning in the junior year of college. They take diverse measures ranging from buying a few expensive suits a month to extremes such as cosmetic surgery. It has become commonplace to see skin care or diet clinics targeting SNU students as clients, believing that as SNU students are relatively well-qualified in the job market compared to other students, they will seek to perfect their resumes with a tidy appearance.
Unfortunately, it does not stop there. Even after finding employment, people in high ranks find themselves pressured to maintain appearances that ‘fit’ their status through material possession. Korea’s distinctive culture has historically attached great importance to “saving face.” Throughout Korean history, there have been many people who have, in extremes, chosen to trade their lives for dignity. Though less radical, a culture based on similar value systems survives to today’s Korea. ‘Saving face’ in 21st century Seoul has evolved to being able to show the amount of one’s personal possessions. Advertisements today specifically target this mindset, cooing that “where you live shows your value” or “your well-being is measured by your car.”
People with high status think that they are or must be different from common people, and to be different, they purchase luxury goods – even when they cannot afford them. Korean society takes it for granted that a man with high status must have better goods or service than a man with lower status. If a person with low rank is found to have “better” things than a higher-ranking employee, the person with higher rank is thought to be “careless” or perhaps undeserving of his rank. What you have or how you look has now become what you are. The job market, for those within it and those who are trying to enter it, is becoming more and more merciless to the ugly and the poor. Although some consider this phenomenon in a positive light, claiming that such perfectionism is the key to success in modern world society, questions of ethics and morality remain as to just how far one can justify using the accident of birth (in wealth or in beauty) in the game of people’s livelihoods.
written by: Yeon Dong-hyun, Pia Won