More than Skin Deep: South Korea’s Plastic Proliferation

In the olden days, being beautiful was like winning a biological jackpot. Modern technology, however, has levelled the playing field: anyone can physically alter their body if they are willing to pay the right price. Seoul Touchup estimates that an entire face makeover can cost between $25,000-55,000.1

South Korea is one of the world’s cosmetic capitals. The International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS) estimated that South Korean plastic surgeons performed over one million surgical and non-surgical cosmetic procedures in 2015. This number has decreased over the years, but it still places the country third only to the United States and Brazil2 – countries that exceed South Korea’s population by at least a factor of 4.3 Some estimates state that up to a third of Seoul’s population has undergone a cosmetic procedure, and a BBC poll estimates a staggering fifty percent of women in their twenties have received plastic surgery.4 It is even common for South Korean parents to give their children plastic surgery as a high school graduation present.5

People attribute South Korea’s heightening beauty standards to several factors.  Many point to plastic surgery proliferation as evidence of Western influence on South Korean beauty discourse.  Procedures like blepharoplasty (eyelid creasing), rhinoplasty (nose reshaping), and zygoma reduction (facial contouring) can be seen as an exchange of common Asian facial features for Westernized ones.6 Additionally, K-pop plays a major role in popularizing plastic surgery. Stars are known not only for their singing or dancing skills but also for their dazzling facial features and perfect physique.  Korean actors and singers set the standards and trends for physical beauty, and very few have opted out of cosmetic surgery.7

More nuanced approaches study the historic contours of South Korean beauty.  Such scholars point out that some current beauty standards – such as flawless, white skin – have been around for centuries.8 Some trace high Korean beauty standards back to the early twentieth century Japanese occupation of Korea.  After this period of oppression, Korean people sought to physically distinguish themselves from the Japanese. The opportunity came when, during the Korean War, American Dr. Millard introduced plastic surgery to minimize soldiers’ scars.9 Beyond history, there is an economic side to this coin. Many South Koreans view plastic surgery as a practical investment. Physical beauty is an important asset in both the job and romance markets; in a highly competitive society, plastic surgery is often deemed necessary to increase the odds of success in one’s career or marriage.10

The South Korean plastic proliferation is not without consequences. Plastic surgery is a risky procedure that does not always yield the expected results. In a Korea Consumer Agency survey, almost a third of South Korean patients surveyed were unhappy with the surgery’s results, and approximately 17 percent experienced negative side effects. Some patients are going so far as to sue their cosmetic surgeons over undesirable results.11 Beyond the physical consequences, there is evidence that raising the beauty bar has psychological repercussions. These rising standards can be linked to eating disorders and body dissatisfaction among South Korean women.12 Additionally, as plastic surgery becomes increasingly common, teenagers may feel pressured into competing with friends who have received procedures.13 Though it is difficult to deny that beauty standards within the South Korean community are changing, this change is not always positive.

In the midst of the raging debate, two important questions come to mind. Firstly, what is beauty?  And secondly, is beauty detected by the eyes alone?
A study of history seems to support the idea that beauty is anything but monolithic. Trends that horrify us today – such as Chinese foot binding – were once the hallmarks of beauty. However, in past societies there was also the sense that a beautiful face should be paired with beautiful character. For example, in Korean societies past slanted eyes were viewed as a sign of propriety.15 In a sense, I don’t think this has entirely gone away. Though people may not link specific physical features to corresponding character traits, many people have an innate understanding that a truly beautiful person is beautiful both without and within. A person’s personality can increase their beauty. So maybe a better question is this: if beauty is a matter of both looks and character, how is this reflected in our society today? Are we the kind of people with the courage to face not only our outward flaws, but our inward ones also?
Physical appearance is important – there’s no use denying it. There exists plenty of evidence and a plethora of reasons that beauty standards are rising, for better or for worse. Yet in a society where physical standards fuel self-consciousness and in some cases self-hate, perhaps it is time for a deeper look beneath the skin.

Endnotes

[1] “Korean Plastic Surgery Cost.” Seoul Touchup, https://www.seoultouchup.com/korean-plastic-surgery-cost/.

[2] “ISAPS International Survey on Aesthetic/Cosmetic Procedures Performed in 2015.” International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, 2016. https://www.isaps.org/Media/Default/global-statistics/2016%20ISAPS%20Results.pdf. Accessed 10 Oct 2017. 8.

[3] “Population, total.” World Bank, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL?page=2.

[4] Kwaak, Jeyup S. “South Korean Survey on Cosmetic Surgery Raises Eyebrows.” The Wall Street Journal, 4 Dec 2012, https://blogs.wsj.com/korearealtime/2014/12/04/south-korean-survey-on-cosmetic-surgery-raises-eyebrows/. Accessed 10 Oct 2017.

[5] Han, Seunghwa Madeleine. “Pretty in Plastic—K-Pop and Korea’s Plastic Surgery Boom.” New America Media, 30 Dec 2012, http://newamericamedia.org/2012/12/pretty-in-plastic—-k-pop-and-koreas-plastic-surgery-boom.php. Accessed 10 Oct 2017.

[6] Wang, Yuqing. Behind South Korean Cosmetic Surgery: Its Historical Causes and its Intertwined Relationship with Korean Pop Culture. Diss. University of Delaware, 2015. Web. Accessed 10 Oct 2017. 22, 25.

[7] Ibid., 40-41.

[8] Holliday, Ruth, et al. “Trading faces: The ‘Korean Look’ and medical nationalism in South Korean cosmetic surgery tourism.” Asia Pacific Viewpoint, vol. 58, issue 2, 2017, pp. 190-202, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/doi/10.1111/apv.12154/full. Accessed 10 Oct 2017.

[9] Wang, Yuqing. Behind South Korean Cosmetic Surgery: Its Historical Causes and its Intertwined Relationship with Korean Pop Culture. Diss. University of Delaware, 2015. Web. Accessed 10 Oct 2017. 20-23.

[10] Holliday, Ruth, et al. “Trading faces: The ‘Korean Look’ and medical nationalism in South Korean cosmetic surgery tourism.” Asia Pacific Viewpoint, vol. 58, issue 2, 2017, pp. 190-202, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/doi/10.1111/apv.12154/full. Accessed 10 Oct 2017.

[11] Evans, Stephen. “Victims of a craze for cosmetic surgery.” BBC News, 15 Dec 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30295758. Accessed 10 Oct 2017.

[12] Kim, Si Yeon, Young Seok Seo, and Keun Young Baek. “Face consciousness among South Korean women: A culture-specific extension of objectification theory.” Journal of Counseling Psychology, vol. 61, no. 1, 2014, pp. 24-36, https://search-proquest-com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/docview/1434735768?pq-origsite=summon&accountid=14771. Accessed 10 Oct 2017.

[13] Han, Seunghwa Madeleine. “Pretty in Plastic—K-Pop and Korea’s Plastic Surgery Boom.” New America Media, 30 Dec 2012, http://newamericamedia.org/2012/12/pretty-in-plastic—-k-pop-and-koreas-plastic-surgery-boom.php. Accessed 10 Oct 2017.

[14] Park, Carol Eugene. “For many South Koreans, beauty standards represent a cultural struggle.” The Varsity, 5 Mar. 2017, https://thevarsity.ca/2017/03/05/for-many-south-koreans-beauty-standards-represent-a-cultural-struggle/. Accessed 10 Oct 2017.

[15] Holliday, Ruth, et al. “Trading faces: The ‘Korean Look’ and medical nationalism in South Korean cosmetic surgery tourism.” Asia Pacific Viewpoint, vol. 58, issue 2, 2017, pp. 190-202, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/doi/10.1111/apv.12154/full. Accessed 10 Oct 2017.


Bibliography

Evans, Stephen. “Victims of a craze for cosmetic surgery.” BBC News, 15 Dec 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30295758. Accessed 10 Oct 2017.

Han, Seunghwa Madeleine. “Pretty in Plastic—K-Pop and Korea’s Plastic Surgery Boom.” New America Media, 30 Dec 2012, http://newamericamedia.org/2012/12/pretty-in-plastic—-k-pop-and-koreas-plastic-surgery-boom.php. Accessed 10 Oct 2017.

Holliday, Ruth, et al. “Trading faces: The ‘Korean Look’ and medical nationalism in South Korean cosmetic surgery tourism.” Asia Pacific Viewpoint, vol. 58, issue 2, 2017, pp. 190-202, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/doi/10.1111/apv.12154/full. Accessed 10 Oct 2017.

“ISAPS International Survey on Aesthetic/Cosmetic Procedures Performed in 2015.” International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, 2016. https://www.isaps.org/Media/Default/global-statistics/2016%20ISAPS%20Results.pdf. Accessed 10 Oct 2017.

Kim, Si Yeon, Young Seok Seo, and Keun Young Baek. “Face consciousness among South Korean women: A culture-specific extension of objectification theory.” Journal of Counseling Psychology, vol. 61, no. 1, 2014, pp. 24-36, https://search-proquest-com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/docview/1434735768?pq-origsite=summon&accountid=14771. Accessed 10 Oct 2017.

“Korean Plastic Surgery Cost.” Seoul Touchup, https://www.seoultouchup.com/korean-plastic-surgery-cost/.

Kwaak, Jeyup S. “South Korean Survey on Cosmetic Surgery Raises Eyebrows.” The Wall Street Journal, 4 Dec 2012, https://blogs.wsj.com/korearealtime/2014/12/04/south-korean-survey-on-cosmetic-surgery-raises-eyebrows/. Accessed 10 Oct 2017.

Marx, Patricia. “About Face: Why is South Korea the world’s plastic-surgery capital?” The New Yorker, 23 March 2015, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/23/about-face. Accessed 10 Oct 2017.

Park, Carol Eugene. “For many South Koreans, beauty standards represent a cultural struggle.” The Varsity, 5 Mar. 2017, https://thevarsity.ca/2017/03/05/for-many-south-koreans-beauty-standards-represent-a-cultural-struggle/. Accessed 10 Oct 2017.

“Population, total.” World Bank, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL?page=2.

Wang, Yuqing. Behind South Korean Cosmetic Surgery: Its Historical Causes and its Intertwined Relationship with Korean Pop Culture. Diss. University of Delaware, 2015. Web. Accessed 10 Oct 2017.


Rebekah Hwang is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto. She’s currently serving as a contributor for Synergy.

 

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