Wednesday, December 13, 2017

#98. 빻다 -- you're f-ugly

A few years ago, a journalist contacted people of various nationalities, and asked them to photoshop her own face to conform to the standards of beauty of their country.

This is the original picture of the journalist.
I suppose that if less photoshop was applied to her face, then the corresponding culture has a less rigid standards of beauty. Here are some examples of the photoshopped results by various nations. To see more photos, you can visit here.




United States
I had an interesting reaction to this experiment. While I felt that all these women were undoubtedly on the pretty side, I felt reluctant to call any of these photoshopped images the ideal standard of beauty.

Except the one from Korea.

One Korean netizen commented: "Wow, we even changed her race."

To me, the Korean beauty very accurately reflected what people consider to be ideal. In fact, I feel confident that nearly every Korean will agree that this woman is beautiful.

I suppose this is because the Koreans tend to have a very rigid standards for beauty. For example, you are required to have snow-white and clear skin; your eyes must be large and double-lidded; your face must be oval-shaped and not too long, nor not too square; your nose should be high (but not too high), and narrow (but not too narrow); your lips must be plump (but not too plump) and curve slightly upwards. I could go on, but you get the idea.

I can more or less understand why the Koreans do this; they are ranked from the first place to the last place on their grades from their early lives. This rank largely determines their life trajectory, and so the Koreans remain sensitive to "where they stand in relation to the others." This attitude does not just apply to your grades in school, or the rank of your university that you attended. They tend to want to rank many different things, from the prestige of your job, to your desirability as a potential spouse, to how beautiful your face is.

This means that the Koreans use the word "ugly" to describe someone's face with more ease than those coming from the Western culture. There is a rigid standard of beauty, which you can use to rank everyone's faces, and if someone's face does not conform to the Korean standards, then they must be ugly. And quite frankly, they can be offensive about it.

The most standard way to say that someone is ugly is:
"준호는 정말 못생겼어." (Junho is really ugly).
"생기다" means "to have an appearance." For example, if something looks like a flower, you can say:
"저건 꽃처럼 생겼네" (That has the appearance of a flower).
So, if you say "못생기다," since "못" means "unable," it means to "unable to have an appearance," which is to say, "ugly." While the connotation is of course rude, this word is standard and nonoffensive (for example, if you want to talk about an ugly but endearing doll, you can say "못생긴 인형.")

Unfortunately, as the concept of "being ugly" is so clearly defined in the Korean culture, the slang for "ugly" also has many variations. When I was a child, I remember the popular choice of word for being ugly was to say:
"내친구는 메주같이 생겼어." (My friend looks like a block of fermented soybeans.) 
"메주" is a block of fermented soybeans, which is the Korean version of the miso paste. The Korean 메주 is a lot thicker in texture; so thick that you can mold them into bricks and hang them up.

You ferment the soybeans for a while, then you hang them up like this to dry them. This way, they get preserved for years. From this, you can make soy sauce (간장) and gochujang (고추장).
The reason for calling someone a "메주" is because a 메주 is everything that you don't want in your face. It has a dark complexion; its surface is rough and uneven, and sometimes you can even see pieces of soybean on it; and its shape is a square instead of oval. If you had any of these attributes on your face, you would be ugly by the Korean standards. Thankfully, it seems that "메주" is no longer in fashion, and I have not heard anyone use it in years.

The current choice of word for being ugly is "빻다." This verb, pronounced "빠타," is a standard verb that you can find in a Korean dictionary. It means to pulverize something using a mortar and pestle. For example, you may dry some hot red peppers, then pulverize them to get the hot pepper flakes (in Korean, you would say "고추를 빻아서 고추가루를 만든다.")

The Korean version of mortar and pestle. (절구 is the bowl in Korean, and 절구공이 is the pestle). 

So, if you say that someone's face is "빻았다" (past tense of "빻다," pronounced "빠았다"), this means that they are so ugly that it looks like their face has been pulverized by the mortar and pestle. For example, you might say:
"은영이 얼굴은 진짜 빻았어." (Eunyoung's face is so ugly that it looks like it's been crushed into a powder.)
When this word was popularized (maybe in 2016 or so), many people understandably felt repulsed by the word. This word was mostly used on the internet, as people tend to be more cruel when they can be anonymous, and strongly shunned in real life. You should also stick to this guideline -- never use this word in real life, as it is highly offensive.

Another theory for the origin of this word is that it comes from the 경상 dialect, which says "빠사지다" or "빠아지다" instead of "부서지다" (broken); while this is slightly less offensive, I think this origin is still plenty offensive!

As of very recent, this word does get used in an endearing way in very specific contexts (however, one should still avoid this word in real life). Below is a photo of a girl named 최유정 (Yoojung Choi), who placed 3rd in the reality show "Produce 101," which aimed to choose eleven beautiful girls to form an idol group (the group debuted under the name of IOI, and became immediately popular; however, under the terms of the contract of the reality show, the group disbanded less than a year after their debut.)

Absolutely adorable!

This adorable and talented girl immediately gained many fans. She could sing, dance, and rap, and most of all, she had a ton of aegyo, which won over many viewers.

Unfortunately, she does not meet the standards for the Korean beauty. Her eyes are a tad too small; her face is a little bit too round; her nose is not high enough; and the list goes on. Her talents were more than enough to compensate for it, though, and the Korean fans found this very amusing that this "ugly" girl had charmed an entire nation.

Her fans therefore gave her the nickname of "빻요미" (here, the ㅎ is silent). This is a combination of "빻다" and "귀요미," meaning "an ugly cutie." I suppose this is Korea's way of admitting that there are beautiful girls out there who do not meet the traditional standards for the Korean beauty. 

This style of nickname found its way to other Korean celebrities who are in the same boat as 최유정, namely, not beautiful enough, yet so charming that you can't help liking them. Another example is the Korean girl group Gfriend ("여자친구" in Korean). They are sometimes called "빻자친구" in the Korean internet.

The Korean reaction to these nicknames varies. Some people find this nickname adorable, and they use it with love and endearment. The others are offended by this nickname, and they will get angry when they hear it.

The fact that there is a clear divide between "beautiful" and "ugly" is one of the most difficult things for me to reconcile, having spent enough time in both the Korean and the Western culture. A huge point of debate for the Koreans is the following: some will insist that the foreigners secretly have an identical standards for beauty, and that whoever is beautiful in Korea is also beautiful abroad; and the others will argue that the foreigners all have different standards for beauty, and some "ugly" Koreans would be a top-notch beauty in other cultures. What do you think?


  1. Well, they are not mutually exclusive. I'm very sure someone considered beautiful in Korea will definitely be accepted as beautiful worldwide, as some uglies will be considered beautiful for some people elsewhere too. You can just see it as Korean beauty standards being too strict, which was already pointed out earlier.

  2. Don,t judge a human at first look Has the people changed in a few years?
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