Can We Talk About More Than Plastic Surgery?

Quite the fuss is strewn across the internet about how the 2013 Korean beauty pageant contestants all look like the same person.  There’s this reddit image of them all in a line. And here’s one of them in a Brady Brunch-type block set. Then there’s this quickly looping .gif of the candidates combined into one, which hurts to look at for longer than a minute. And then there’s Buzzfeed, who summarized it all for you.

While some netizens cry race and other blame plastic surgery, I claim there’s got to be more to it than that. There’s make-up. There’s Photoshop. But really, this exhibits a symptom (not in the negative sense) of a greater whole: at what strict, narrow definitions beauty and attractiveness have in South Korea. Moreover – from where do these definitions come?


Some people joked in comments (I don’t think they were really joking) that they’re being pushed into claiming the asian or racist card.

Recently, I was with a Korean friend who laughed and said she couldn’t tell foreigners apart. If she meets someone only a couple times, she will not be able to identify them again. She states this as if it were some already-known truth.

I have another friend, a kyopo (a person of Korean heritage who is raised in another country), who spotted someone like me in 강남약 (Gangnam station), and sent me this text: “I think I just saw you in Gangnam station, I’ve been here too long because all foreigners are starting to look the same.”

It was me. But…she still wasn’t sure enough to walk up and see.

I recently took a trip home. I got off the airplane in the San Francisco airport, went through customs, (went back through security), and called my mom after reaching my next gate. “Everyone looks the same!” I exclaimed. That might seem silly, because you might think all westerners look so diverse compared to the perceived homogeneity of asian countries. But that’s the only thing I could think to say when I looked around. Everyone looks like me, and we all look the same.

So don’t feel bad, it’s got nothing to do with racism. It’s merely exposure.

The (Growing) Prevalence of Plastic Surgery in South Korea

Yes. The #1 place for plastic surgery is South Korea, as evidenced by The Economist in January of this year, using data from a 2011 survey by the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. In the original study put out by the ISAPS, the United States tops the list and South Korea doesn’t even make the top 5. The Economist used the same data, but apparently adjusted for population.

Before there was the buzz over the beauty pageant contestants, there was this article published by Jezebel in January of this year. The title: “I Can’t Stop Looking at These South Korean Women Who’ve Had Plastic Surgery.”

Also, through this fun little Korean-beauty-pageant-internet-black-hole, there’s this tumblr gem:

Yeah. Plastic surgery is pervasive here. When I meet someone, it’s safer to  just assume they’ve had something done – whether it was to get double eye-lids, or get a bigger bridge in their nose. Or some kind of cheeks done, or lifted something or other. Or having gotten spot treatment done on their skin.  The different types of plastic surgery and their popularity are outlined well in the paper Gender, Globalization and and Cosmetic Surgery in South Korea by Ruth Holliday, a professor at the University of Leeds.

But it’s so aforadable. I have to wonder how that contributes to the pervasiveness of it, and whether that contributed to the general collective here in Korea that it’s more than accepted, but expected.

Yes, They All Look Similar. But Check Out the 2013 Contestants Without Make-up.

The point is, through this hodge-podge of factors like plastic surgery, make-up, Photoshop… a specific, direct beauty ideal emerges for which Korean women strive. Trust, there’s one for men here too. I think if anything, this situation lends itself more to the introduction of the environment of body acceptance and body image here in Korea than it does to plastic surgery gone rampant.

Why is there this one idea of beauty? Joy Sim, a student at Singapore Management University, asserts that “it is widely believed that the incessant portrayal of many flawless-looking celebrities by the mass media is the main reason that drives the escalating demand for plastic surgery in Korea.” While it seems superfluous (to me, in this blog post, right now) to wonder how the “rising” popularity of KPop (rising only to those outside of Korea), contributes to this ideal body type, I do wonder where, or why, this specific image of physical perfection became so pervasively represented in KPop and Hallyu.

Body lines play an interesting role, and regularly used in advertising, to market the body(‘s perception) in South Korea. “Get a S-Line, V-Line, M-line, etc.” When I first heard of body lines, I thought there weren’t real. Here I thought there were just a few types of body shapes, like pear shapes, hourglass shapes, and boy shapes. Wrong. Just another “duh ethnocentric” moment, South Korea has different names and specifications for things. The same goes for body types. Here, from, is an explanation of what these body lines are, and what they (might) mean (beyond that specific page, paints an incredibly telling portrait of the landscape of plastic surgery in South Korea [If you’re into that sort of thing.].). However, the images that these body lines represent are not completely solidified, as they tend to blend or signify arbitrary shapes. James Turnbull writes a fantastic blog on Korean feminism, sexuality, and popular culture called The Grand Narrative. In this specific post, he elucidates just how contradicting and confounding these body lines, and their origin, can prove to be.

“The Truth Eludes Me, So Much It Hurts…”

In NPR’s January 4th edition of This American Life, an English teacher comments on beauty image among her female South Korean high school students. While Julia Lurie tries to express to her students that beauty is subjective, she also admits that these “obsessions” have a function in South Korean life. Lurie states in the interview, that it’s all “very utilitarian…it just makes a lot of sense. Like I can image, being here, growing up here, and just if this is one of the things that you had to do to like succeed and do well…I’m sure I would consider it too.” (5:30)

Here’s Miss Korea 2012 at the age of 21, compared to a yearbook picture. In response to the criticism she received on her sculpted face, she was “shocked that the papers made it out like I claimed to have been a natural beauty,” she told an entertainment show. One might infer that what was shocking for her was that her having had plastic surgery was being seen as a scandal in the first place. Whereas before celebrities would deny rumors of plastic surgery, “Now, it’s very normal for celebrities to not only admit that they’ve had work done, but also to endorse their favorite plastic surgery clinics or doctors.” says Dr. Lee, a professor at New York University, in a December 2012 article for KoreAm, a publication for Korean Americans.

I’m not claiming that everyone in South Korea feels the same way. I think it’s worth noting, however, that this is a definite shift (or – if not shift, a trend) in cultural values that deserves attention. An un-named university student is quoted in The Star as exclaiming: “You don’t understand! To be Korean is to get plastic surgery. You must do it, or young people will think you’re weird.”

To claim that it is only in South Korea where one alters one’s image or aspires to attain one specific beauty ideal would be absurd. But just gaping at the gravity in surgery numbers or poking fun at the striking similarities of Korean pageant contestants seem to be missing the mark. Isn’t this more telling, than the mere subject of plastic surgery in South Korea: that these have become norms of a society, where advancement and success seems so much to depend on how one looks?

There are factors behind and beyond body image, weaving a set of circumstances. Don’t you think this is less emblematic of plastic surgery, and more representative of image in South Korea, how that is created and perceived, altered and perpetuated?


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