My trip to a Korean jjimjilbang 찜질방

One of the things I miss most from home is a lovely, big, hot bath. Something that I have now managed to find in a Korean jjimjilbang. However, at home I never had to worry about sharing my bubbles with a gaggle of ajummas (not entirely sure what the correct collective noun for ajummas is but gaggle somehow seems to fit. Either that or a coven).

It can be rather difficult to explain what a jjimjilbang is to people back home. Partly because we don’t have an equivalent in England, and partly because people can’t get past the ‘What?! Everyone’s naked?!‘ bit. I suppose the best way to describe a jjimjilbang would be like a public bathhouse but with added extras like saunas, a gym, a restaurant, an internet cafe, a DVD room, a library and sometimes even a norebang. They are open 24 hours a day and entry is usually somewhere between £4-£7.

There are two parts to most jjimjilbangs; the segregated (nude) bathing areas and the mixed sex (clothed) areas with all the other facilities. A visit to a jjimjilbang is usually fairly high up a foreigner’s to-do list in Korea, but despite having lived in South Korea for over 18 months I only tried it for the first time last week.

We decided to start with the mixed area, and hoped that we would be so relaxed afterwards that we would have lost our inhibitions, and some of our British prudishness, by the time we went to the baths. Having changed into our super-flattering standard issue shorts and t-shirt we ventured forth into the jjimjilbang. Around the edge of the main room there were a series of dome-shaped saunas, each with different temperatures, scents and purported health benefits. We tried Himalayan rock salt, bamboo, rose quartz, pine and, my favourite, a big cave-like room where the floor was covered in a layer of marble-sized hot pebbles. A nightmare to walk on but utter bliss once you managed to lie down.

Korean jjimjilbang

Once we dragged ourselves away from the saunas we tried a massage chair. Well, I don’t know what I ever did to that chair but it seemed to hate me and was taking it out on my back. We somehow sat through 10 minutes of back-wrenching, shoulder-punching ‘relaxation’ while the Koreans all walked past us chuckling to themselves. Maybe they knew something we didn’t.

After another trip to the pebble sauna it was now time to brave the baths. Having said goodbye to the boys, I left my clothes, and my modesty, in my locker, made a mad dash across the changing room into the bathing area and just prayed that I didn’t bump into any of my students.

After a quick shower I headed for one of the steam rooms, thinking that they looked nice and dark and would give me a few moments to adjust to my new-found nakedness. But oh no. I stepped into the steam room and before I could even see through the steam I heard an alarmingly friendly ‘Hi! What’s your name?‘. After a few minutes of polite conversation the sweltering heat got too much for me so I made my excuses and escaped to the relative cool of the nearest hot tub. My new friend came over to join me and before I knew it started scrubbing my arms and back. ‘Don’t complain‘ she told/ordered me as she proceeded to scrape the top three layers of skin off my back. ‘You’re getting a bargain!‘ she assured me as she gestured towards a corner of the room where some jjimjilbang masseuses were charging ₩50,000 (£28) for all over, and I mean all over, body scrubs. I just hoped she wasn’t going to be quite so thorough. Fortunately she stopped after my arms, back and shoulders and after a little more stilted conversation we went our separate ways.

Korean jjimjilbang

After a little more soaking in various pools, and accidentally hopping into the cold pool without looking at the temperature first, it was time to find my clothes and head home for the best nights sleep I’ve had in a long time.

We went to Sky Land Spa in Bucheon (Sang-dong Station, Line 7). The entry fee was ₩9,000.

The Flower Men: A new generation of South Koreans

In a socially conservative, male-dominated, and dare I say it, slightly sexist country, it may come as a surprise to many that recent data has shown South Korean men to be the number one consumers of male cosmetics in the world.

In fact, it would seem that it is not only the women who find themselves swept up in the national pursuit of perfection. Despite there only being 19 million men in the country, they somehow make up 21% of the global male grooming market. The report, published by market research group Euromonitor International, shows that South Korean men spent a staggering $495,500,000 on cosmetics and skincare products in 2011, with an estimated $885,000,000 to be spent this year.

Gone are the days of rough, tough and ready macho men, and in it’s place is a new generation of image conscious, sharply-dressed and immaculately groomed young businessmen. Dubbed ‘flower men‘  by the South Korean media, these men have flawless, porcelain skin, pencilled in eyebrows and long, thick eyelashes.

Pale, whitened skin is very much the preferred look in Korea, harking back to the ancient belief that pale skin was a symbol of a privileged life, free of manual labour, whereas tanned skin showed a hard life spent working in the fields. Skin whitening creams, pills and even injections are big sellers for both men and women here.

Alongside a strict skincare regime consisting of cleansers, exfoliators, moisturisers and eye creams, products like foundation, eyebrow pencils, eyeliner, mascara and lipstick are fast becoming popular with Korean men. Even young men undertaking their mandatory 21 months of military service don’t have to suffer the indignity of bad skin, as some brands offer camo paint for sensitive skin.

Skin-friendly camo paint from cosmetic brand Innisfree

But what lies behind this startling new trend?

Of course there are many who point the finger at the South Korean media and its starlets, for bombarding these impressionable young men with images of their ‘peers’ photoshopped beyond recognition. However, this seems too simple an explanation for such a huge phenomenon.

Korean society places an overwhelming amount of pressure on it’s younger generations, and success is everything. The competition for jobs and for girlfriends is fiercer than ever and in a culture where “appearance is power”, first impressions count for a lot. Taking such a high level of pride in your appearance offers an opportunity to show that you are sophisticated, reliable and conscientious.

K-pop idol and Dream High 2 actor, JB

In a country with the highest rate of plastic surgery in the world, combined with the highest suicide rate in the world, where a job application requires a photo and keeping-up-with-the-Joneses (or should that be the Kims?) takes on a whole new meaning, where will this obsession with appearance go next?

Plastic fantastic?

One of the first observations many foreigners make upon arriving in Korea is often how attractive the Korean people are, be it that designer coat or handbag, the immaculately manicured nails or hair so glossy you can see your reflection in it.

However, recent statistics from the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS) have revealed a startling new development in the Korean quest for beauty. A development that seems to cross the line between simply wanting to look good, and obsession. These statistics show that, relative to the population size, South Korea has the highest rate of plastic surgery in the world. Other statistics from ISAPS show that one in five women in Seoul aged between 19 and 49 have undergone some form of cosmetic surgery.

The desired look in Korea is to have a ‘high’ and pointy nose, a sharp ‘V-line’ jaw, wider eyes, no cheekbones and a rounder forehead. Some  might call it a more Westernised appearance. It’s ironic really that many Western girls (myself included!) wish they had stronger cheekbones while Korean girls wish that they didn’t, that skin whitening creams are just as popular here as tanning products are at home, and that most nose jobs carried out in Western countries make the nose smaller while in Korea they are made larger. Is the grass always greener?

Before and after double eyelid surgery

The most popular procedure in Korea is blepharoplasty, or double eyelid surgery, when an incision is made in the eyelid to create a fold. This kind of surgery has become so commonplace that even the late President Roh Moo Hyun had it done to make his eyes appear larger for public appearances. Young girls finishing high school and going to university are often given ‘eye jobs’ as a graduation gift from their parents.

Liposuction, rhinoplasty, calf reshaping, and operations to reshape and shrink the jaw are also growing in popularity.

So who, or what, is behind this drastic demand for cosmetic surgery?

Many point the finger at the K-pop industry, filling our screens with impossibly beautiful young women, who many Korean teens consider to be role models. With the rise of the internet, and the intense scrutiny of ‘before and after’ photos, many K-pop singers and actresses are admitting to having had surgery. As a result, women are turning to plastic surgeons in the hope of looking like their favourite starlet. And as the ‘hallyu‘ wave spreads across the rest of Asia, South Korea’s clinics are being inundated with foreign clients, mainly Chinese, who also come with the wish of resembling Korean singers and actresses.

Goo Hara (centre) from the popular girl group Kara has admitted to having eye surgery

Or perhaps the reason is more deep-rooted than that. The traditional Confucian teachings state that altering the body is disrespectful to one’s parents, so much so that haircuts used to be frowned upon and cremation and organ donation were forbidden. However, looks and appearance are highly valued in Korean culture, as people tend to judge one another, and their social status, very quickly. Korean society is also über-competitive, with people always looking for an advantage over their peers, even if it means going under the knife.

Plastic surgery advertising

Sadly the target market for plastic surgery is getting younger and younger, with girls as young as 14 getting eye jobs, nose jobs and even leg lengthening (!). It is oddly unsettling to see aggressive advertising campaigns targeting young girls on the subway. Some clinics offer mother daughter packages, two for one deals, and discounts on multiple procedures. I’ve even heard of clinics that hold ‘Cinderella events’ where young women receive free cosmetic surgery if they become the face, and body, of the clinic.

A young woman having a consultation with a plastic surgeon

I recently discussed this topic with one of my friends, and was fascinated, albeit a little shocked, at her response.

In her class of high school students, she is one of the few girls who has not had plastic surgery. One of her closest friends had double eyelid surgery at just 16 years old, and has a nose job planned for her 19th birthday. Shocking? Yes, but there is no age limit on having surgery in Korea as long as there is parental consent.

At 17 years old she is already on a strict diet, has a carefully pieced together skincare regime which includes whitening cream, and is desperate to go to university where she will have the freedom to colour and perm her hair.

Before I do her an injustice, I should tell you that she is not as shallow and vain as she may sound. She is a 17 year old student who dreams of studying at Oxford and becoming a diplomat, and she works very hard to that end. She doesn’t spend her Saturday afternoons poring over the newest cosmetics or trying on the latest fashions, she spends them volunteering at an old people’s home. Whenever we meet she is dressed down in a tracksuit and flip flops, without even a scrap of make up. For her, surgery isn’t about vanity, it’s a necessity.

She looks a little embarrassed, perhaps even ashamed, as she admits that she wishes she didn’t want surgery, in particular a nose job. However the reality, at least in her eyes, is that if she wants to succeed in the competitive job market, and the even more competitive marriage market, she will need to have some ‘alterations’.

She is not alone in thinking that surgery will improve her employment prospects. More and more job applicants are starting to believe that looks are more important to an employer than competence, and many young women and men are going under the knife to increase their chances of securing a job.

Before and after jaw surgery

Of course, there is a less glamorous side to cosmetic surgery. As the number of procedures carried out increases, so does the number of complications. In 2011 4,043 side effects from plastic surgery were reported, a huge jump from 1,698 in 2008. In 2010 a woman in Gwangju hanged herself after her surgery had gone wrong. My friend told me about one of her classmates who unfortunately had a botched eye job and was left with a swollen, bloody face for weeks afterwards. When I asked if this would dissuade her or her peers from getting eyelid surgery, she just shrugged and laughed nervously.

Snail face cream. Yep, that’s right. Snail mucus for your face.

Korean women seem to possess such a natural beauty that when they let you in on their secrets it’s hard to argue with them. At least that’s what I thought.

One of my students gave me a snail mucus face mask gift set recently, and at first I wasn’t sure whether to take it as a compliment or be slightly offended. The ensuing gasps from my co-teachers soon told me that this was something to be very pleased with.

It turns out that snail mucus is the latest skincare trend in Korea and snail mucus products are flying off the shelves in almost every cosmetics shop.

These ‘intense snail care masks’ contain ‘astonishing filtered liquid of snail mucin that is a source of boosting vitality‘. Furthermore it claims to ‘fully replenish the skin with its ample moisture to solidify the skin’s hydration barrier’.

Like most Korean face masks, it was a sheet that you place over your face with holes for your eyes and mouth. Got a bit of a fright when I caught sight of myself in the mirror the first time I used one; looks more like a Halloween costume than a beauty product!

The packaging said to leave it on for 30 mins, and once I got past the slimy feeling of the sheet on my face, and how much it reminded of a snail, it was actually quite pleasant. And it did make my skin feel very soft afterwards!

Snail mucus seems to be taking Korea by storm, I wonder if it will ever catch on at home…?