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  • Writer's pictureJiah Hwang

Review: "Gender, Globalization and Aesthetic Surgery in South Korea"

Author’s Note In this review, I will be tackling one of the questions that had been raised for me ever since my move to Korea — why is there such a big focus on beauty, specifically matching certain Western features? I remember I was shocked when I met people my age or younger getting nose surgeries, double-eyelid surgeries, dieting to an extreme, very particular with maintaining a pale complexion, and more. Then, I remembered that when I had lived here when I was much younger, I had also applied layers and layers of sunscreen in fear of getting tan. But this was because everywhere I would go, people would assure me that my pale skin was a gift — I didn’t understand why, but I liked hearing compliments and tried to maintain it. But exactly why are there such specific standards in Korea, among other East Asian countries. Why is it that Korea has the highest surgery rate in the world? Let’s find out.


Summary

South Korea’s unusual rates of plastic surgery has risen over the years, not just for women, but for men, as shown with the statistic “a recent survey conducted by a Korean employment website found that 44 percent of male college students were contemplating some form of aesthetic surgery.” Most of these surgeries don’t simply consist of fillers or lifts; they are extremely invasive, most commonly ranging from eyelid surgeries (blepharoplasties), nose jobs (rhinoplasties), and jaw reshaping. The aim of a blepharonplasty is in order to give make the eye look wider, nose jobs for lifting the bridge of the nose, and the jaw surgery to make it look narrower — the aim of many of these features is to look closer to certain western features. Yet, it is pointed out that the main purposes of such surgery is not to achieve a Western look, but a natural-looking Korean beauty with certain Western features, as the article states, “Wider eyes may be desirable, but they must be wider Korean eyes, not western ones.” Most currently, men (mostly in their 20s) seek ‘softer’ images in order to mimic many of the popular male k-pop idols, manga cartoons, and more, and this trend has been growing since the 1990s, since these manga cartoons and dramas that romanticize these looks grew in fame. This image consists of “a less angular jaw, double eyelids and a prominent nose tip, while augmenting pectoral and bicep muscles to give their bodies ‘definition’.”


It seems that the majority of the country is in support of these practices as “A recent survey found that seven out of ten people do not object to cosmetic surgery, with an even higher percentage indicating they would have surgery if money was no obstacle (Yang, 2007),” and it was said that, even in the global economic crisis hit in 2007, the government even utilized the popularity of cosmetic surgery procedures by “advertising Korea as a leading destination for aesthetic surgery tourism” in 2008, to which they received $642 million. However, despite the idea that these reconstructive surgeries are in order for Koreans to “look more like Westerners,” there is a deeper meaning to the desire for pale skin, wide eyes, and more. For instance, many of the current Korean beauty standard are reflections of the Neo-Confucian ethnics’ “culture for conformity,” which is especially shown in one of its myths, where a bear would live enclosed in a cave eating nothing but mugwort and garlic in order to become a woman, which, translated to this era, is similar to Korea’s culture of strict dieting and prevalence of plastic surgery.


This linkage to between the desire for cosmetic surgery and Korean history remains clear throughout the article as it also brings up the point that, as the world evolves, so do the standards in Korea. For instance, at one point, having a round face was valued greatly as it showed maternal beauty, yet, as society has evolved and more and more people are now valuing independence in women, Korean women wanting a sharper V-line jaw seems to signify the deliberate move from a “maternal image.” Lastly, one of the most emphasized points in this journal is the impact that Japanese Imperialism had in Korea (1910-1945). After this period was over, Korean immediately started to push back against the culture pushed on them and “much effort has gone into highlighting the ‘un-Japaneseness’ of the Korean people. In particular, immediately after the colonial period, nationalistic discourses mobilized the West as a way of rejecting Japan as the self-declared bearer of civilization.”



Review

  1. I thoroughly appreciated the amount of detail and references that went into this journal, especially the historical myths such as the connection from “bear-woman” story to the dieting habits of modern-day Korean women. This, among intellectual connections with other points in history, such as the Japanese Imperialism, was extremely eye-opening.

  2. One aspect I expected this journal to focus on more is the influence of the current K-pop industry. More than K-dramas, manga comics, and more, as someone currently living in Korea, the people teens and young adults idolize and aspire to look like the most are K-pop idols, who undoubtedly go through sevre restrictive dieting, surgeries, and more, without disclosing the information to the public, who will then strive to achieve such looks as if it were all natural. Yet, these idols are always plastered on billboards, screens, and much more for the public to be reminded of what they likely can’t achieve without giving up much of their health, money, and more. So what is more powerful? The history of Korea, or the influence of K-pop? Furthermore, how did K-pop rise to the amount of influence it has now? This may be covered in a separate article in the future.

  3. One question that I thought of while reading the section that stated how even the government supports the cosmetic industry as it is aware of how big of an economic impact it makes for Korea is, if the beauty standards and cosmetic surgeries in Korea weren’t advertised as much as they were, would we still be an economically successful country? What led Korea to rise above others technologically, economically, and more, against all odds and constant defeats/imperialisms, and more? This may be covered in a separate article in the future.


Bibliography


Holliday, Ruth, and Joanna Elfving-Hwang. “Gender, Globalization and Aesthetic Surgery in South Korea.” Sage Pub, 2012, pp. 58-81. ResearchGate, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238043267_Gender_Globalization_and_Aesthetic_Surgery_in_South_Korea. Accessed 21 6 2023.


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