SHARP FOCUS

The rare sight of women wearing glasses in Korea speaks to its unjust beauty norms

Lim Hyeon-ju wakes up at 2:40am to get ready to read the news on South Korean television at 6am. One day, she decided to break her routine—and ditch her contact lenses for glasses.

Her decision was borne out of convenience, but also the desire to make a bold statement—it shouldn’t be taboo for Korean female news anchors to wear glasses on screen. Tired of having to wear fake eyelashes, contact lenses, and use artificial tears everyday at work, Lim, who works for cable channel MBC, decided in April to wear glasses as a “litmus test” for how people would respond, she said in interviews with Korean media (link in Korean). In an Instagram post explaining the move, she noted that she faced a barrage of questions at work about why she did it when she made her glasses debut on camera.

A former beauty queen, Lim’s move was met with expressions of support and gratitude in Korea, where the sight of a female newscaster wearing glasses is rare—in a country where 70% of people under the age of 30 suffer from nearsightedness, according to government figures (link in Korean).

Lim did not respond to a request for comment.

Her decision may have also helped spark a trend. Last week, Jeju Air, a budget carrier in South Korea, announced that it would allow its cabin crew to wear glasses, as well as nail art.

A spokeswoman for the airline told Quartz that while there had never been an outright ban in its guidelines against cabin crew wearing glasses, it’s customary not to wear them in service industries, “as you can see from the case of the TV presenter with the glasses.” The airline is now making the freedom to wear glasses explicit in its regulations, as the quality of service will be better if flight attendants are more comfortable, she added.

The aversion to wearing glasses at work reflects the pressure on Korean women to always look well-manicured in a culture that emphasizes cosmetic beauty, whether through elaborate skincare and makeup routines or plastic surgery. Not wearing a full face of makeup to work, for example, can sometimes be seen as unprofessional. Wearing glasses is also one of the indicators that a woman did not prepare fully for work. There is no such expectation for men.

The relative rarity of women wearing glasses isn’t simply restricted to the media industry. A recent study conducted by online job-portal Career, cited by the Hankyoreh newspaper (link in Korean), found that of 552 Korean workers surveyed, 60% said that they hadn’t seen a female coworker wear glasses at work before. And three-fourths of respondents said that if they wear glasses they receive comments from others.

Ha Jae-geun, a well-known cultural commentator, wrote in a recent essay (link in Korean) titled “Why can’t a woman wearing glasses read the news?” that these norms are also reinforced in Korean TV dramas, where glasses are typically used as a plot device to illustrate a woman’s transformation from plain Jane into someone desired by men. “When they take off their glasses, they finally become a beautiful woman. Then a man notices that she was beautiful all along.”

Sookyoung Lee contributed reporting

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