by Lisbeth Lyngs
Plastic surgery and skin whitening have in recent years become a hot and very normalized topic in Asia. Especially in South Korea, where one in five women has undergone some sort of cosmetic surgery, compared to around one in 20 in the U.S., according to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons. Their desired look is the same: Big eyes with double eyelids, white skin, a nose that sticks out and a slimmer jawline. A high Korean consumer culture has made women equate this beauty standard with a higher life quality, better jobs and more luck in marriage. Feminist cries of objectification are overheard, and as I see it, the racial argument that it is “to look white” has faded – as Asia’s own mainstream culture, especially K-pop culture, has grown.
K-pop is pop music from South Korea, and it has spread rapidly through East Asia in the last couple of decades (to some extent it has also hit the Western world with “Gangnam Style”). The industry’s popularity, and the value placed on the plastic surgeries behind the stars, has meant that many Asian women flock to Seoul, the now self-established epicenter of plastic surgery. Not to fix a crooked nose or uneven eyes, but to change their faces to look like the same ideal, the same type.
What I find interesting about plastic surgery in Korea is that it is called ‘reforming surgery’ (성형수술), not translating to ‘plastic’, which in English carries negative connotations of ‘fake’ or ‘cheap’. The Korean phrase carries more positive connotations, like the patient is just waiting to be ‘reformed’ and reveal their ‘true beauty’ from within. Interestingly from language alone, cosmetic surgery in Korea does not have the same stigma to it, that it has in English speaking countries and a majority of the western world.
In fact it is so normalized that Korean women will ask each other “where did you get your eyes and nose done?”, instead of “where did you get your handbag?”, and girls will get plastic surgery as a graduation ‘present’ from their parents. Many Korean kids, especially the girls, thus grow up with the understanding that they are going to have plastic surgery one day.
In the short documentary Korean High School, we get a glimpse of this mentality among high school students.
“[after graduation] I’ll have plastic surgery.”
“But you don’t need plastic surgery.”
“.. I have to do it. Beauty is important in Korea.”
But then what is this beauty, and where does it come from? To say it is because of a Korean beauty standard, or that they “want to look white” is too easy. In this article on The Grand Narrative, a reader suggests to look deeper into Korean history for answers. In this interesting read, she argues that the shift in Korean beauty standards is a response to the country’s historical trauma. She admits it might be a long stretch, but oppression during the Japanese colonization taught the Korean people to think lowly of themselves, before the American occupation pushed the envelope and taught them that there was something wrong with their psychical features.
The first double-eyelid surgery on an Asian face was performed by American plastic surgeon Dr. Ralph Millard. His reasoning was that creating a more Western look would help Asians assimilate better into an emerging international world. The Asian eyelid simply made their expression look passive an unemotional, as opposed to a double eyelid which would produce a more open and approachable face. The surgery quickly caught on, and this procedure of beautification worked its way into mainstream culture which today, I would argue, has been modified into a more “beautiful Asian look” than a “beautiful because it looks Caucasian look”.
To return to the notion of K-pop and the plastic surgeries performed to achieve their looks, I would like point out their ideal small and V-shaped faces. This jaw surgery cuts off a piece of the patients jawbone to make the face slimmer. And even though many Caucasians have small and slim faces, I do not believe this is a response to wanting to look Caucasian – If you inspect some Caucasian celebrities, you find many examples of prominent jaws and high cheekbones. But if you inspect Asian celebrities, they all have small jaws and cheekbones.
What I am getting at is that the reason why skin whitening and plastic surgery have become such common means to obtain this non-traditional Asian beauty-look is not as easy answered as “because the Caucasian look is ideal”.
In a highly globalized world like ours today, where I can eat McDonalds and watch The Hobbit no matter the city, it is easy to assume the Western influence is the sole reason for Asia’s desire to look “not Asian”. What might have started like that, has today evolved into some unique beauty standard required in a lot of Asian cultures to get a better social position.
While part of the answer as to why another girl in the short documentary answers “big eyes with a double eyelid, a white body, a nose that sticks out and a small face.” When asked about beauty, the Western world’s influence on Asia is not the entire story.