“Beauty is in the eye of its beholder.” Although the saying may seem very cliched, the proverb holds its truth. Flawless, milky white skin, barely visible pores, large rounded doe-like eyes, prominent nose bridges, and outstanding facial structure are the definition of beauty in the now-trending ulzzang culture.
“Ulzzang,” pronounced uhl-jang, literally translates to “best face” or “good looking” in Korean. Originally used as a slang term to label adolescent contestants of Korean online beauty competitions, the word “ulzzang” has since evolved into a subculture defined by its own specific style of fashion. The trend exists not only in Korea, but also in China, Japan, Taiwan, and most recently, has spread to the United States and even Europe.
Previously, a person desiring ulzzang status would gain popularity on the internet through entering contests online. Their photos would be uploaded onto the internet and would then be judged by netizens, and ultimately, the winner would be determined through votes. Many ulzzangs became widely popular through their activities online, and some have even gone on to become celebrities such as singers, actors, and models.
In recent years, though, the ulzzang trend has spread rapidly around the world, and followers of the trend have given birth to a new culture that seems to revolve solely around physical appearances and attractiveness. In addition, controversy has also arisen due to the physical as well as mental health related concerns of aspiring ulzzangs. Physically, circle lenses, cosmetic contact lenses that ulzzangs wear to enlarge their eyes, pose a threat to wearers due to the risks of eye infections after prolonged use. Mentally, however, the effects are more everlastingly damaging in that this new trend has young adults too focused on outer appearances. But are ulzzangs really as shallow as they come off to be?
Step One to Becoming an “Ulzzang”: Maintaining Healthy Skin through Elaborate Skincare
The sounds of birds chirping softly drifted in through the slightly opened windows. It was a bright and cheerful May morning, the blue skies were a crisp fresh blue, and not a single cloud was in sight. Slowly, Victoria was stirring into consciousness due to the unique melody the little birds were humming outside of her bedroom window.
Opening her eyes slowly, she blinked a few times to adjust to the bright morning. Yawning discreetly into her palm, she sat up slowly from the mess of blue blankets to see the beautiful morning sun peeking in through the curtains. Stretching her arms high above her, she gave a light squeal before hopping out of bed, making her way into the adjoining bathroom.
Victoria is twenty-four years old. She is thin and petite, with a body weight of 105 pounds and stands at 5 feet and 4 inches. With her long and silky black hair, fair complexion, and large eyes, Victoria was one of the most popular girls in her high school, recognized for her pretty facial features and trendy fashion sense. As a student, Victoria was one of the first few people who started following the ulzzang subculture. She first came in contact with ulzzangs during her junior year of high school and has since been following the trend closely, adopting both the way ulzzangs dress and the way they do makeup.
Once she was in the bathroom, Victoria stared into the mirror to see her messy long black hair. It was slightly waved in weird directions because she slept on it before it had completely dried the night before. The light purpling of her eye bags was apparent on her pale complexion. But of course, she still looked beautiful.
Pouting her lips slightly, she squeezed Colgate toothpaste onto her pink toothbrush and started washing up for the long day ahead. After she was done, Victoria proceeded to her skincare routine, which she had been following religiously since she was in her junior year of high school. First, she squeezed a dime-sized amount of Shiseido: The Skincare Extra Gentle Cleansing Foam onto her fingertips, and with a little bit of water, she massaged the cream-like texture of the cleanser onto her face, forming a rich, foamy lather. After about two minutes of gentle massaging, she washed the cleanser from her face with warm water and patted her face dry with a soft washcloth.
Taking a cotton pad, she pressed the pump on her Shiseido: The Skincare Hydro-Balancing Softener once to distribute the right amount of toner onto the cotton pad. Gently, she swiped the cotton pad all over her skin, starting at the forehead and nose, slowly working her way outwards.
Afterwards, she pressed the pump on the Shiseido: The Skincare Night Moisture Recharge Light once and smoothed the moisturizer over her face. Although this product is manufactured as a night time product, it can be used for day, as long as you remember to wear a sunscreen. Victoria tried the Day Moisturizer, but even after many repeated attempts, the product made her break out into a series of little pimples, so she stopped using it. After she finished, Victoria tapped her skin softly with her fingertips, as if she were pressing the keys of the piano. Finally, she used the palms of her hand to press firmly onto her forehead, chin, and cheeks in order for her skin to “absorb the products better.”
Step Two to Becoming an “Ulzzang”: Eyes are the Window to the Soul
Most often, ulzzangs share similar features, with eyes being the main focus and concept of the whole look. Because double eyelids are considered a sign of “feminine beauty in Asian culture,” various products, such as eyelid glue, eyelid tape, cosmetic circle lenses, and fake eyelashes, are used to help eyes become significantly larger and rounder.
Double eyelid glue, a sticky water-soluble adhesive, is a type of eye make-up that has been popularized in the recent years due to the ulzzang trend. Double eyelid glue is applied to the upper eyelid area, which is then pushed upward with a plastic prong. The eyelid is then held in place by the adhesive, resulting in the fold of the eyelid (hence, a double eyelid). The glue dries to an invisible film consistency and is easily washed off with water or makeup remover.
Double eyelid tape, on the other hand, is an alternative to double eyelid glue and is a “fibrous elastic strip that is trimmed to shape and placed on the eyelid.” Just like double eyelid glue, the small strip of tape is applied on to the upper eyelid area. The tape forms a natural crease, which results in a double eyelid.
Although some individuals are (fortunately) born with double eyelids, most Asians (much to our dismay) do not have them. In order to achieve the look, some go under the knife for cosmetic surgery, but because ulzzangs are usually relatively young, they resort to double eyelid glue and tape in order to create the creases on their eyelids.
Additionally, ulzzangs wear cosmetic circle lenses, which are colored contact lenses “that make the eyes appear larger because they cover not just the iris, as normal lenses do, but also part of the whites,” which results in a “childlike, doe-eyed appearance.” However, Karen Riley, spokeswoman for the F.D.A., expresses her concern in regards to the lenses because “consumers risk significant eye injuries – even blindness” due to the lack of a “valid prescription or help from an eye professional.” Dr. S. Barry Eiden, chairman of the contact lens and cornea section of the American Optometric Association, goes on to warn wearers that “ill-fitting contact lenses could deprive the eye of oxygen and cause serious vision problems.”
Despite health concerns, ulzzangs and the followers of the ulzzang trend still rely heavily on circle lenses in order to achieve the doe-eyed look they are after. In response to the dangers of contact lenses, Victoria merely shrugged her shoulders. “It’s not as bad as they make it out to be. Circle lenses are only dangerous when it doesn’t match the size of your eyes. As long as you get them properly fitted, your eyes can breath, and ta-da! Problem solved.”
In addition, through the use of eyeliner and false eyelashes, eyes can look even bigger. False eyelashes are glued on top of the lash line to give the illusion of fuller and longer eyelashes. Typically, one pair of false eyelashes can already give eyes a pop of energy, but some ulzzangs opt for up to three or four pairs, which are glued together and then glued to the lash line. And if you thought it ended there, it most definitely doesn’t. Eyeliner comes in many forms, such as pencil, crayon, marker, liquid, gel, cream… and we didn’t even get to the different colors yet.
Step Three to Becoming an “Ulzzang”: Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who’s the “Fairest” of Them All?
In addition to captivating eyes, ulzzangs typically have flawless, milky white skin. Joanne Latimer, pop culture reporter for Maclean’s, recognizes that although “a tan was considered the hallmark of beauty” in Western cultures, half a world away, beauty was defined by perfect porcelain skin.
And in recent years, the ultimate beauty secret weapon, BB cream, made its official mark in the cosmetics and skincare industry. According to German dermatologist Christine Schrammek, who first introduced the product, BB cream, also known as blemish balm cream, “promises to whiten, cure acne, protect against the sun and aging” while “looking extremely natural.”
In a society where fair skin defines beauty, skin whitening products have become a necessity for not only celebrities but also general consumers of both genders. BB creams, although initially marketed as a lighter alternative to foundations, have now become a staple cosmetic and makeup product. Likewise, skin whitening has now become almost a way of life.
Shaking the blue Shiseido Ultimate Sun Protection Lotion SPF 60 gently, Victoria poured out about a quarter-sized amount and applied the product to her face. After she finished, she waited about three minutes to allow the product to dry.
Next, Victoria used her Shiseido White Lucent Brightening Spot Control Base in Ivory as a primer. The purpose of a pre-makeup primer or base is to brighten up or fix the skin complexion, to cover up blemishes, and to even out uneven skin tone. At the same time, makeup bases offer a “barrier” between the skin and makeup, and it also offers higher ranges of SPF protection. For instance, the base she was using has SPF 35.
Following base makeup, Victoria applied her favorite BB cream, the Skin79 Super Plus BB (VIP Gold) SPF 25. According to Skin79, this ultimate blemish balm protects and cares for the skin in three separate ways for a flawless complexion that glows with health. Adenosine and Arbutin promote a fairer complexion while reducing existing lines and wrinkles. Gold and caviar extracts nourish skin for a dewy and smooth finish. Natural UV protection deflects UVA and UVB rays to protect skin from premature aging. Smiling into the mirror, she applied a light veil of Shiseido Translucent Powder with a Sonia Kashuk powder brush to set the makeup for long lasting wear.
Step Four to Becoming an “Ulzzang”: It’s All in the Angle… and Photo Editing
Generally, ulzzangs have above average looks, but through angling of the camera, lighting, and even photo editing programs, their facial features can be even more enhanced and attractive. Perfect symmetry is rarely found in any facial structure, hence, there is a side of the face that typically looks more attractive.
For instance, Victoria’s favors the left side of her face more. “If you look really closely, my jaw bone on the right side is bigger, so it makes my face look fatter. My left eye is also slightly bigger, and my double eyelid is also deeper. That’s why I always turn my face when I take pictures, so that my left side shows. That way, my face looks smaller.”
Also, camera angling plays a large role in further enhancing ulzzangs facial structure. “Hold the camera as far away as your arm will allow you to. Don’t level the camera at the same angle as your face. Raise it up so that your arm and body form a 135 degree angle. Tilt the camera down a little. It helps your face look smaller.” Victoria turned her head a bit so that the more prominent left side showed and smiled into the camera in her hand. Snap. “See? Pretty.”
In addition, through Photoshop, Haduri, and Mei Tu Xiu Xiu, which are photo editing programs, ulzzangs can make their photos even more attractive to the public. Although Photoshop is very popular internationally, it is not as widely used amongst ulzzangs. Instead, Haduri and Mei Tu Xiu Xiu are preferred due to the features the two programs offer. With just the click of a button, “acne instantly becomes invisible and skin brightens considerably.” In addition to the more sophisticated functions and features, both Mei Tu Xiu Xiu and Haduri are more readily available for the young ulzzang population who might find Photoshop and other such programs to be too costly. Mei Tu Xiu Xiu, on the other hand, offers free downloads on their homepage, as does Haduri on their index page.
What it Means to be an “Ulzzang”: Individually, There’s More Than Meets the Eye
Although ulzzangs have been receiving many negative criticisms due to the implied shallow nature of the superficial subculture, young adults that are trying to achieve this level of fame and acceptance are not as vain as they appear to be (pun intended). The popularity that ulzzangs achieve online have actually become the stepping stone that has helped many of them become the big shots of today’s society.
Dawn Yang, popular Singaporean celebrity blogger, started off her career as an ulzzang as well. Her blog, clapbangkiss.xanga.com, has grown in popularity since its debut in late 2003. Through her attractive photos and quirky sense of humor, Dawn’s blog posts attracted hundreds of thousands of viewers daily. Due to her success in blogging, she was signed under Tinsel Management, an entertainment agency, in 2005, and has since been a television show host as well as model. Melissa Lam, the director of Tinsel Management recognizes that Dawn “was an ordinary girl with an extraordinary face,” and this was what presented her with such a big breakthrough opportunity. In addition, Dawn has ventured into entrepreneurship and now owns a successful online fashion boutique, Lexi Lyla.
On an individual level, being an ulzzang can make it a lot easier to achieve levels of success that can take years to reach with just hard work and determination. “People that look better have an easier life. Everyone knows it. And those people that deny it?” Victoria scoffed and rolled her eyes. “They’re just lying to themselves. And they’re the people that are actually shallow. Because they’re not accepting reality.”
What it Means to be an “Ulzzang”: Culturally, East Finally Meets West
But it doesn’t just stop there. No, in fact, to ulzzangs and the followers of the subculture, the trend has ultimately become almost a portal for the Asian community to be recognized globally.
Hero Kim Jaejoong, a former teenage “ulzzang” recognized for his “dandy boy” features and “beauty that rivaled even girls,” has gone on to become the main vocalist of internationally popular South Korean five-member boy-group TVXQ. The quintet was acknowledged in the Guinness World Records in 2008 for having the “largest official fan club in the world,” boasting “800,000 fan club members in South Korea alone.” In 2009, TVXQ were once again recognized in the Guinness World Records, but this time, for being the “most photographed celebrities in the world,” with over 500 million photographs of them being taken for magazines, album jackets, and commercials.
In late 2009 and early 2010, due to “slave” contract disputes with former agency SM Entertainment (which will take another 10 pages to explain), Jaejoong, as well as two other members of TVXQ, left and went on to pursue their own careers in the music industry as a new subgroup JYJ (named after each of the respective members’ initials – Jaejoong, Yoochun, and Junsu). Catching the eye of world-renowned musicians Rodney Jerkins and Kanye West, JYJ was invited to record a global album with the two A-list producers.
Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, famous American songwriter, record producer, and musician (who has worked with Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Britney Spears, and Lady Gaga just to name a few) was delighted to be collaborating with Jaejoong and his band mates because “it’s all about the East meeting the West these days.” Jerkins goes on to say that “the world is becoming a melting pot of various cultures” and to “have Kanye and myself champion the cause of unifying the world through the international language of music and introducing top artistes from one end of the globe to this end in America makes this a very special project to us.”
In addition to receiving recognition from famous music producers in America, Jaejoong has won the annual Shorty Awards for the past two years. Twitter, an online social networking and microblogging service, “selects the top people and organizations on Twitter in 26 different categories, such as government, health, politics, music, celebrities, etc” through the annual Shorty Awards. In both 2011 and 2012, Jaejoong has won in the Celebrity Category thanks to the undying support from his fans, surpassing the “likes of Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, and Selena Gomez, to name a few, in order to grab the #1 spot.”
Though his days as an ulzzang are so far away, Jaejoong’s current fame has not only brought himself world recognition, but has also earned the Asian community respect and acknowledgement. Although he started with only a small dream to become a singer, Jaejoong is now a figure of pride within the Asian community because he has surpassed so many barriers to become an international super star.
Culturally, and quite literally, East meets West. Although Jaejoong still has not resolved the issues with his former entertainment agency, he misses the other two members that have decided to stay with the company and reminisces his days as a member of TVXQ. Even until this day, on his Twitter biography, he acknowledges that JYJ is still a part of their original group, because they are “JYJ from TVXQ.” Additionally, forever etched onto Jaejoong’s back in the form of a tattoo reads “TVXQ SOUL” because TVXQ is a part of his heart, mind, and soul, and he can never erase it. TVXQ, which stands for Tong Vfang Xien Qi, literally translates to the Rising Gods of the East because the five members of the group had wanted to be Asia’s pride.
And just like how the five Gods of the East rose to international stardom, the Asian community and its culture is now being universally embraced. “Hopefully, in the future, Asians and Asian culture can be more readily accepted in the US. This is just the beginning. It started as just an ulzzang trend, but I think now, more and more Asians will have opportunities and courage to express themselves, and we’ll finally be recognized.” Victoria smiled and looked outside to the see the rising sun slowly crawl upwards from the East, marking the beginning of another tomorrow.
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* Name “Victoria” has been used as an alias at the request of individual.
** As of November 2, 2012, Jaejoong’s @mjjeje Twitter account has been deleted.
*** As of December 1, 2012, Jaejoong’s @bornfreeonekiss Twitter account has been in service.