Colorism in South Korea and its Reflections in K-pop

A deep dive into the issues of colorism and lookism in South Korea

Every country has its own beauty standards, and South Korea is no different. In a society where lookism has always been a controversial issue, colorism – the prejudice and discrimination of those with a darker skin tone, usually within the same ethnic group – is also prevalent in South Korean society. This is reflected in K-pop, the country’s music industry that has gained popularity around the world, particularly in the last decade. Although darker-skinned K-pop idols (both male and female) are deemed the “sexy” ones in their groups, they tend to receive more backlash purely because of their skin tone. Pale skin is favored in the industry and increases an idol’s brand reputation. Colorism in a South Korean context is rooted in feudal history and still has implications today.

Beauty Standards in South Korea

Ads for plastic surgery in Seoul, Korea. Photo Credit:; Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Ads for plastic surgery in Seoul, Korea. | Photo Credit:; Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Lookism is a serious issue in South Korea that continues to plague society. South Korea places a heavy emphasis on appearance and is known for its strict beauty standards. This is the reason why plastic surgery is a norm for most South Koreans. Seoul has become the plastic surgery capital, with the highest ratio of plastic surgery clinics in the world.

The idols we see in K-pop are all considered attractive by modern Korean society’s standards. Appearance is so important that there is the dedicated role of the “visual” in almost every K-pop group. This title is given to the member that fits Korean beauty standards the most, such as Jin from BTS and Cha Eunwoo from ASTRO. Fair skin is a characteristic that has long defined beauty in South Korea, just like many other countries around the world. 

The Roots of Colorism in Korea

People with darker skin tones have been looked down upon since Korea’s feudal days, a few centuries ago. Skin tone was seen as a marker of social status and class. Having darker skin meant that they worked in the sun for longer durations of time, usually doing hard labor. Meanwhile, those who had fair skin were wealthy enough to not work in the sun. Since the upper class was thought to have lighter skin, people from lower classes wanted to imitate their appearance as they could not simply be wealthy and influential, but they could appear like it. In this manner, fair skin is linked to upward social mobility, high social status, wealth, and influence. 

In the 20th century, when Korea became more exposed to the West, this pre-existing social norm clung to Korean society. Western societies were considered to be more modern and advanced, so fair skin maintained its superiority as these communities were made up entirely of white people. In more contemporary times, the media promotes fair skin as a beauty ideal, which has spawned a skin whitening industry. As a result, fair skin is still favored today. 

Colorism and K-pop Idols

Photo Credit:
Photo Credit:

Colorism is a prevalent issue in the K-pop industry. Darker-skinned K-pop idols like Kai from EXO and Mingyu from SEVENTEEN have received more backlash domestically because they are naturally tan. On the other hand, some idols are praised for having milky white skin, such as Kyuhyun from Super Junior and soloist and former Miss A member Suzy. It’s clear that skin tone determines how idols are perceived.

Tiffany, Yuri and Hyoyeon in a Dior Snow Ad Photo Credit: Pintrest User Girls` Generation Universe
Tiffany, Yuri and Hyoyeon in a Dior Snow Ad | Photo Credit: Pintrest User Girls` Generation Universe

Entertainment companies have utilized some idols’ darker skin tones to build their sex appeal, therefore resulting in their group’s increasing popularity and success. In order to defend the negative social connotations tied to darker skin, companies have deemed those idols to spearhead their respective group’s sexy image. Kai stated that SM Entertainment instructed him to be “the member in charge of sexiness” even though he protested against it. Pale skin propagates a pure image, which is how K-pop idols are marketed to fans. Meanwhile, darker skin is seen as more “exotic,” giving them a sexy and fierce image that companies can profit from. 

Idols generally adhere to this social norm and do what they can to appear to have fairer skin. Despite her acknowledgment of having darker skin, Yuri from Girls Generation was appointed to be the brand ambassador for Dior Snow UV BB Cream. Raina from After School has stated that she prefers to use light makeup because she is afraid that fans will deem her “not pretty enough” to be an idol and bombard her with negative comments. Netizens are notorious for leaving hateful comments on social media, which have had extremely harmful effects on the targeted idols.  

Many fansites edit their idol’s skin to be lighter in photos, propagating the idea that having fairer skin is more ideal. Fansites are an integral contributor to fan culture in K-pop. Every idol has dedicated fansites that help to promote the group, boost album sales, and upload content of the idol onto various social media platforms. The photos they take go through heavy editing on Photoshop to make the idols look as desirable and beautiful as possible. Since fansite owners are usually from South Korea, they already have colorism ingrained into their minds from a young age (because of media); thus, many believe that fair skin is superior. 

The global popularity of K-pop has helped to destroy the industry’s stronghold on colorism. International fans generally embrace their idols’ melanin and speak out against colorist values. On social media, many fansites that whitewash photos have been “blacklisted” by international fans. They encourage other fans to avoid and stop supporting such fansites and advocate for idols’ natural skin tone. Newer idols like Haechan from NCT and Sunwoo from The Boyz have not faced backlash because of their tanned skin and are praised for it. 

As colorism has been so ingrained into Korean society for centuries, it will be hard for people to move past this social norm. Skin whitening is still a common practice and thriving in the beauty and cosmetics industry. However, advocacy from international K-pop fans can enable the industry to become a platform for society to embrace different skin tones and to leave colorism behind in the past

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