Norang Mori. Yellow Hair. These words are powerful connotations to the taboos that once surrounded blonde hair in South Korea. Hairstylist Yoni Yoko of Soonsiki Hair and Wu Seungmin who have gone from jet black hair to bright blonde, shared with MUTZINE what it means to have blonde hair in South Korea and how the definition has changed over time.
Words Ann Ravinther, Illustrations Gato Adulto, Translation Chaereen Pak & JiWon Song
“When bleaching began to trend in South Korea, the older generation did not approve of it – at all. Those who bleached their hair were considered nanari – delinquents, a student who never studies and only plays around. If your career was that of a civil servant or a doctor, you especially strayed away from having lighter-colored hair. People were judged based on their hair color,” Yoni Yoko explained.
“Those who bleached their hair were considered nanari – delinquents, a student who never studies and only plays around.”
Since she was little, Yoni Yoko (@soonsiki_yoniyoko) had dreamt of being a hair designer. Now, she has more than eleven years of experience and is Director of Soonsiki Hair’s newest salon in Hapjeong, Seoul. The start of her career was not exactly smooth sailing. Objections from her family were met. She was hesitant. However, she knew that if she gave up her passion, she would regret it every time she stepped into a hair salon. “Because my decision was against my family’s wishes, I promised myself to never give up and work even harder to make them proud.”
Like most Asian cultures – family wishes are to be followed and not disobeyed. “In Confucian philosophy, there is filial piety – a virtue of respect towards our parents and elders. We dare not compromise,” Seungmin (@cannotsleepwell), who sports blonde hair, verifies the rational and goes on to elaborate the reasoning that surrounded the blonde hair taboo. “There are several reasons: One of which is military politics. We’ve been through tough times and because of that, we are used to following rules. Expressing ourselves comes harder. Also, Korea has a tradition of cherishing body and hair. It wasn’t till the Japanese colonial era that Korean males cut their hair. Times have obviously changed but these teachings might remain for the older generation till now,” she goes on to say.
“Korea has a tradition of cherishing body and hair.”
A few months ago, Seungmin on an impulse, went to the salon and asked for her hair to be bleached as light as possible. It is clear that times have changed because when her family saw her blonde hair, they simply said: “Oh, you’ve changed your hair color.” Compared to the past, people are more accepting of blonde hair as a measure of switching up how you look. “Back when hair coloring was completely looked down upon, people changed up their hairstyles with perms and different cuts. Today, one of the many ways in which someone can change their hair is to color it,” Yoni Yoko confirmed.
An Asian girl typically has jet black hair. For her to go bleach blonde, it really is a form of expression and to a degree – experimentation. “In the current times, we are able to express our individuality without worrying about the eyes of other people. I have some friends who have been blonde since…well, actually, I don’t even know when they started,” Seungmin said. Having blonde hair in Korea is no longer as hard as it used to be. The only thing that is hard is the process of bleaching natural black hair to bright blonde. “It is particularly difficult for Asians to achieve blonde hair color because of melanin,” explained Yoni Yoko. “Thus, bleaching must be done at least twice. More would need to be done to get rid of the reddish undertones of our natural hair. Once the base is set after rounds of bleaching, hair dye is used to achieve the desired color – be it from strawberry to platinum blonde.”
“We are able to express our individuality without worrying about the eyes of other people.”
Blonde hair in Korean society started off as unthinkable – a taboo. But, as times change, so did the meaning of blonde hair, as a method of expression that is no longer off-limits.