What it takes to become a flight attendant in South Korea, where it's so competitive that candidates are getting plastic surgery to improve their odds
- South Korea's youth unemployment is nearing "catastrophic" levels, a Korean finance minister said in March.
- To secure a job, many young people in South Korea feel that their application, which must include a photo ID, has to be perfect.
- Being a flight attendants is an especially enviable job in South Korea with plenty of competition. As a result, many aspiring flight attendants are turning to plastic surgery to increase their odds of securing the job.
- Some plastic surgery clinics in South Korea are even making special packages for aspiring flight attendants, encouraging those women to slim their faces, widen their eyes, and upturn their mouths.
It was only 1993 when United flight attendants reported that they were fasting, purging, and taking laxatives to keep their figure - and their jobs. If the crew members weighed more than 11 pounds over the maximum, they would receive 10 days of unpaid temporary leave, the Chicago Tribune reported at the time.
Such rules have since been softened or outright banned in much of the world. But flight attendant hopefuls in South Korea still report significant pressure to look a certain way - and it's leading them to take drastic measures.
Leading Korean airlines in South Korea like Asiana Airlines and Korean Air dropped their height stipulation and softened their language requirements for aspiring flight attendants in 2015, local media reported.
But in practice, thanks to a combination of factors including the job application process and Korean standards of beauty, flight attendant hopefuls have reported feeling pressured by an unspoken requirement "to be more beautiful," The Korea Herald reported.
"The flight attendants are actually the representative of the airline," Sojin Lim, a 25-year-old Seoul resident who worked for a domestic Korean airline, told Business Insider. "How they look will affect the image of it, so they have to always look formal and neat."
It's typical for job applications in South Korea to require an ID photo. Because of that, many job applicants in South Korea say they feel the pressure to appear good-looking, whether it's to be a flight attendant, an engineer, or a cashier.
In fact, a 2016 survey by Saramin, a Korean online job portal, found that more than 60% of human resources personnel feel an applicant's appearance affects his or her candidacy.
The Korean government is seeking to overturn the résumé photo requirement in sweeping regulations that would also ban employers from asking applicants their height, weight, family background, and hometown.
But for now, job applicants in South Korea report feeling pressured to create a flawless application package — including a perfect résumé photo — to snag a job.
Some job applicants turn to photo editing to improve their résumé photos. "It looked like me but it wasn't the real me," Jina Chae, a 27-year-old Seoul resident, told Business Insider of her résumé photo, which was edited to make her eyes larger, face slimmer, and wrinkles banished. "It was like a made-up photo."
"I would have to put my energy to take a good picture," Saerang Cha, a Toronto-based business analyst who previously worked in Korea, told Business Insider. "I'm not saying that the pictures are the most important thing, but finding a job in Korea is incredibly hard. We just want everything to be perfect."
Young college graduates are especially challenged as youth unemployment in South Korea has reached record highs. "As the economy goes bad, there aren't many good jobs, and the competition is fierce," 28-year-old Baek Eui-hyun told NPR in 2017.
A dream job for many young South Korean women has been to become a flight attendant, a job that promises travel, new experiences, and great pay and perks. At $3,500 per month, it's better paid than most jobs for women in South Korea.
"It's a pride to be a fight attendant in Korea since most of the people think it's a 'classy' job," Sojin Lim, a 25-year-old Seoul resident who used to work for a domestic Korean airline, told Business Insider. "And of course, they get to travel around the world and earn much more money than the usual job in Korea."
The job is so competitive that more than 20,000 applicants might apply for a few hundred spots, and aspiring flight attendants sometimes apply nine times for the job. The application process requires physical tests and fluency in languages like English and Chinese.
During interviews, South Korean airlines often grade attendants on how well they do their hair and makeup and include this information on their personnel records, Lim said. "Because they always look perfectly formal and so neat, a lot of people envy them and dream to be a fight attendant," she told Business Insider.
"I think you can compare it to some sort of beauty contest," Pablo Lee, who directs a flight attendant academy, told The Korea Herald. "They have to be physically perfect." More than 132 pounds is "kind of overweight," he said.
Flight attendant academies in South Korea prepare would-be flight attendants for the interview process and teach students about the best grooming practices, as well as hospitality primers and how to nail English and Korean interviews. It takes six to 12 months of preparation from these academies.
Women who successfully landed a job as a flight attendant in 2017 who went through the Seoul-based Wing Sky Crew Academy were, on average, 24.7 years old, 5 foot 5 inches, and 110 pounds. They had an average Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) score of 700 points, indicating "limited working proficiency" in English language.
While looks may not be the most important part of a flight attendant’s application, many applicants report feeling the pressure of perfection. That's why some women hoping to join the elite ranks of Korea’s flight attendant class consider or receive plastic surgery. And some clinics are capitalizing on this by offering special packages just for aspiring flight attendants.
Reborn Aesthetic Clinic (not pictured) in Sinsa, a particularly wealthy neighborhood in Seoul’s Gangnam District, offers a special program for flight attendants, which involves forehead molding, eyelid surgery, a raised nose bridge, a V-line face shape, and smoother skin.
"So many people who dream of stewardess are frustrated," reads the Reborn website, which has been translated into English. "They want to be a stewardess and dream of living in many countries, but they are frustrated and must abandon the dream because of their appearance. Those around you will remind you of this. 'You can't do it because you're ugly,' they say cruelly."
Recipients of the so-called "smile surgery" can enjoy a slightly-upturned mouth at all times. South Korean surgeons told The Wall Street Journal in 2013 that flight attendants and others in the service industry frequently asked for this procedure.
For those already enrolled in COSEA, a training school for flight attendants in South Korea, there are surgery discounts. A double eyelid surgery is 120 million Korean won, or $1,100.
The overall pressure to be beautiful is so intense in South Korea that one in five women have gotten cosmetic surgery, according to data from International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons.
Dr. Cho Soo-young, a surgeon in South Korea, said lookism in South Korea is uniquely challenging. "In Korean society, the competition is very severe," Cho said to Worldcrunch in 2014. "If they have a poor face and look old, they will lose to others in the competition. So in order to beat others, they need to change their face and their body."
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