Korea has one of the most prevalent markets of cosmetic surgery. This includes non-invasive surgery, such as hair removal, blemish removal, and skin whitening. The SAGE journal article entitled Gender, Globalization and Aesthetic Surgery in South Korea studies why South Koreans focus so much on cosmetic surgery, and what the effects are on the individual as well as the whole of society.
There are two modes of looking at cosmetic surgery that the article critiques: in terms of gender roles and feminism, and in terms of ethnic roles and westernization. This article explains that there are deeper, culturally rooted reasons why cosmetic surgery is becoming so customary. The common viewpoints of understanding the reasons behind Korean cosmetic surgery are explained:
“Studies in Korea typically position cosmetic surgery as conformity to patriarchal versions of femininity in order to maximize women’s chances of success in marriage and the economy. Some see women’s desire for aesthetic surgery as a continuation of pre-modern ‘virtuous femininity’ that required (upper-class) women to adhere to a strict Neo-Confucian decorum. Under Neo-Confucianism, men were expected to transcend their bodies (learning, philosophy) to become ‘superior’, while women’s success, bound to the intimate and the domestic, was rooted in their ability to mimic a concealed and deferential ideal, defined by virginity or maternity.”
Korea has a complex history, from the colonization by the Japanese, and now the occupation of the United States. These “Western” influences are associated with the current popular Korean standard of beauty. Korean national identity is a crucial ingredient in Korean “beauty” culture. The article references different surgeries like the double-eyelid, the raising of the bridge of the nose, and jaw reshaping. Procedures like skin whitening are also considered in this group of procedures that may seem to be appealing to Westernized standards of beauty. A traditional Korean face will have smaller eyes than the Western face; so a double eyelid may seem a Western trait. The article states that this is not the intent; the double eyelid sometimes appears on the natural Asian face, and patients undergoing the surgery for double-eyelids will claim that it makes the eyes look “less sleepy.” Others claim it is for medical reasons, and some who have one double eyelid and one without want a symmetrical face. But the article stresses that this double eyelid, or widening of the eyes, is aesthetically youthful, not necessarily Western. A universally beautiful trait is youth (as well as symmetry), and large eyes will embody youth in any ethnic standard, because it is psychologically built into the human psyche.
What is unfortunate, however, is the seeming unattainability of this quintessential “beauty” in the “natural” Korean face. A “high” nose, large, double-lidded eyes, a V-shaped face, and fair skin are attributes much sought after in Korean women as well as men. There are procedures for attaining all of these looks. But if the Korean face is not pursuing a more “Western” beauty, but an augmented “natural” Korean beauty.
“Wider eyes may be desirable, but they must be wider Korean eyes, not western ones. The most important aim of cosmetic surgery is to create a natural look that ‘enhances’ the body without losing the ‘Koreanness’ of the subject who undergoes surgery.” Even men are turning away from the traditional “hard” masculinity and getting procedures to make their faces and bodies more feminine, or “soft.” But this ideal feminine beauty seems to come from a patriarchal standard of maternity, and the self-sacrifice of women. There is even tradition within Confucianism and Korean myths concerning women “enduring pain for beauty.”
“…contemporary discourses of women’s value continue to emphasize self-sacrifice. Park argues that Korean femininity promotes suffering for the greater good, evidenced in women’s willingness to endure pain for beauty.”
The Korean society has a distant, but inescapable relationship with the old traditions, and as women are becoming more powerful in society, there are still roots in Confucian values, which are perhaps the most obviously countering female equality; the focus is more on women’s domestic roles and child rearing. Lately, women become less inclined to marry and have children, and the maternal base for beauty is no longer the reason for adhering to those beauty standards formed by it. However, the feminist movement is still weak, and women still must adhere to other “trendier” standards of beauty to succeed.
Korean society, in contrast to American society, is nationalist, collectivist, and highly homogenous. There is also an intense stress on education, getting a good job, and becoming wealthy to support your family (including your retired parents). This emphasis on economic growth then puts emphasis on Korean individual success, and within a highly populated, homogenous country, competition is impossibly fierce. Cosmetic surgery is also boosting the economy, and the government is even seen encouraging this consumption. Job applications require photos of applicants, and the article states that “around half of all Koreans believe that one can ‘read’ a person’s character by looking at their face” (Kim, 2005). This phenomenon was illustrated to me personally when I was asked to Photoshop my friend’s application photo; she asked me to make her eyes “the same size.” She thought one eye was bigger than the other, so she wanted the left one to look bigger to match the right one. I used a tool that would create the effect, but it had overdone it—she asked to make it a little smaller, so I undid the effect entirely. She said “perfect!” and was satisfied, though I had not actually changed the original picture. This opened my eyes—pardon the irony—of the effect of cosmetic surgery on an individual. It is affecting society’s expectations in many important facets of an individual’s life, as well as negatively affecting the individual’s self-image.
In Korea, two differently gendered constructions of cosmetic surgery exist: ‘marriage cosmetic surgery’ and ‘employment cosmetic surgery’. Having the ‘right face’ can be crucial in ‘marrying well’. The ‘right face’ can also be a determining factor in gaining employment in a Korean job market.
…under consumer capitalism Korean women’s bodies have entered the public sphere, no longer hidden away but now available for scrutiny and consumption. Thus, visibility produces women as ‘object[s] for alteration’ (2003: 106) evidenced in Korea’s high rates of cosmetic surgery.”
But are these standards of beauty always universal? Whiter (paler) skin in Korea is popular because is a sign of higher class, because it implies a career indoors rather than working in the rice fields. In America, however, it is currently more fashionable to tan, because it implies a higher class able to vacation to warm, luxurious places. It is unclear whether whitening will soon be an out of style trend; but perhaps the same can be said for other standards. The article mentions older forms of beauty, such as a woman’s round face. It is currently the opposite; Korean men and women are grinding down their jawbones to create a narrower chin, or a smaller face. Many times I have heard that I am beautiful because I have “such a small face,” as well as a “high nose” and “big eyes.” I am a Westerner, and I happen to carry the current standard features of beauty. According to the article, however, it is not because I am a Westerner that I am considered beautiful. It is an important difference that Koreans are not actually following the West in trends of beauty. So if beauty is a trend, then Korean men and women reconfiguring their bodies may find that later, their “beauty” is out of style. They may see beautiful features in me, but they also comment that I need to lose weight, or should try laser blemish removal, or get my dark circles taken care of, or my arms are much too hairy and should have it lasered off. The article agrees that cosmetic surgery is an addiction, and one will never be satisfied with his or her looks. And unfortunately, this unattainable “beauty” is a ladder to success in current Korean society, rooted in many complex facets of the unique culture.
Having such a diverse reasoning for the growing necessity of cosmetic surgery makes it a difficult trend to escape. Though it is possible that the standards of beauty will change, it is not at all likely that the culture will cease to pursue it. The standards of beauty are a “trend” but beauty itself is a “classic” in any culture and era. In South Korea, it is also an asset, an investment, and a grip on one’s own auspicious fate.
Holliday, R., &Elfving-Hwang, J. (2012).Gender, Globalization and Aesthetic Surgery in South Korea.Sage Journals, 18(2), 58-81. Retrieved March 23, 2013, from http://bod.sagepub.com/content/18/2/58
© Cassie Harner