Reforming surgery and the self: Plastic surgery, historical traumas, and beauty in Korea

Girl’s Generation, a very popular K-pop group consisting of nine women who are considered ideal in South Korea

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.


The Grand Narrative


8 thoughts on “Reforming surgery and the self: Plastic surgery, historical traumas, and beauty in Korea

  1. Pingback: Colourism, plastic surgery, and trying to look Caucasian | JAPANsociology

    • Thank you for the comment.

      If, as the article claims, “beauty preference of one race is not related to worship of other race but simply a cultural phenomenon rooted in the scientific rationale and genetics,” then why are particular facial features valued over others? Why a more European nose and not one from Subsaharan Africa, for example? If the rationale is “scientific” and genetic, then how and why do preferences change? Is the phenomenon cultural or genetic? That is, is it social or biological? If it’s rooted in genetics, then are changes in the pattern of social behavior, such as changes in preferred looks in Korean society over the 20th century, caused by genetic changes?

      I’m skeptical of one-size-fits-all explanations, such as appeals to science (however defined) and genetics when it comes to social behavior.

      Also, the treatment of race in the article is a bit problematic, as it seems to treat race as something other than a purely social category that is defined differently across the globe.

    • Before I sat down and wrote this post, I was sure that I was going to argue against this beauty standard coming from the “Caucasian look”. I was sure, when Robert raised the question in class, that it was a Eurocentric point of view, and that Asia deserved more credit for their own way of thinking than that. And I definitely still believe the latter part – if you say to an Asian person who’s had surgery or skin whitening done “you only do this because you want to look Caucasian”, they will rightfully be offended. Because not only is it offensive, it is also untrue.
      Today Korean women get surgery, not because they are faced with Caucasian models they want to look like, but because they are faced with Korean models they want to look like. South Korea has taken what is “beautiful” and made it their own – Not to be compared with Caucasians today, even though it started like that (as I briefly went over in the post).

      To briefly summon up my points, the high nose bridge and double eyelids stem from the need to once look Caucasian, but today the slimmer jawline and overall “shape” of the ideal Korean face has become its own unique look. So to say that Korean/Asian women undergo plastic surgery today to look Caucasian is false.

      I agree with you till this point. But upon further reading of the article I must admit my skepticism. Beauty trends are not measurable in formulas and genetics. We are not born with a common understanding of what is beautiful and what is ugly – and before the reader stops me, yes, our brains tell us that symmetry is beautiful, but an Asian face can be symmetrical and beautiful without the double eyelids, lighter skin or high nose bridge. These terms of beauty are taught by society and shaped by, in the case, the history of the Western world’s influence in Asia.

      I am by no means an expert on this subject, but I would love to do more research as it is truly interesting. For now though, I will finish by saying that both the party who says “It’s to look Caucasian” and the party who says “It has nothing to do with Caucasians” are wrong. Hopefully in the future I will be able to come up with (my own take on) an answer.

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