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.

References:

http://www.isaps.org/

http://koreanhighschool.com/index.html

The Grand Narrative

White Normality and the Mass Media

by Marcel Koníček

Before I took my international sociology class, I had never heard about skin lightening and the issues connected to it. I did not even imagine that something like that could even exist. Well, my ignorance is not as surprising considering I am a man coming from ethnically uniform Central European country not really interested in recent trends in cosmetics in other parts of the world. However, after reading about the issue I have quickly realized how widely spread and dangerous this trend is.

For those of you who have not heard about skin lightening, it is a practice done in many parts of the world, where people (mostly women) use cosmetics, containing usually either heavy metals or hormones, that change the skin tone towards the fair end of the skin tone spectrum. Prolonged use can lead to many illnesses and can permanently damage the skin. However, many are willing to pay the price.

Of course, people all over the world are doing many different beauty practices that are not good for their health, so this might be somewhat unsurprising. What is so interesting about it is that it is a phenomenon that connects many dissimilar cultures such as Philippines, African countries, African Americans, and even Japan and Korea. Why would people in all these places want to appear whiter, even though import of the whitening substances is banned in their countries?

Evelyn Nakano Glenn is saying that this is comes from mixing of preexisting preferences for fair skin, relicts of colonial supremacy and modern consumer capitalism. Being whiter gives them better chances at getting a job or being a better match for marriage. I agree with this statement and it is quite eminent, that we actually live in an age of “white normality” where any other skin colour than Caucasian white is considered something undesirable, something that you should and can change about yourself. It is true that for example Europe is full of tanning beds but tanning does not influence your racial identity, which does not have to be true for somebody like African Americans.

The huge rise in the industry of skin whitening and the idea of white normality in the current world is in my opinion tightly connected to two things: globalization of pop culture and rising buying power of the middle class in third world countries. The rise of relatively affluent middle class in countries such as India has created hundreds of millions of consumers of skin lightening products, who previously did not have enough disposable income to buy them. The globalized pop culture is what keeps the trend accelerating. All summer blockbusters that Hollywood sells to us are full of unrealistically attractive white women and the smaller entertainment industries all over the world have already adopted the American ideals of beauty – this is clearly visible in the Korean pop scene, where all the young idols have the same surgically altered face – face that is maybe less Asian and more Caucasian.

English: Nicki Minaj live on Femme Fatale Tour...

English: Nicki Minaj live on Femme Fatale Tour in 2011.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We do not have to go as far for a good example – let’s have look at an African American pop star, Nicki Minaj, and the cover of her new single. Her hair looks very Caucasian and her skin tone actually looks almost whiter than my own skin. I am sure that this is not an accident but a careful choice of background, lighting, cosmetics and photo editing. Everything with the goal to make her look as white as she can without losing too much of her racial background. If even the artist of what some people call “black music” has to look white on the cover of her single to give the right impression, how white must be an Indian woman to be considered a good match for a preferably wealthy husband?

This question is very worrisome and I do not know how to solve this problem or even if it can or should be solved in some reasonable way. However, it shows the ways how media, economic development of third world countries and perception of beauty can influence the behavior of people worldwide.

Consent To Plastic Surgery?

by Lin, Tzu-Chun

The demand for plastic surgery is growing. The number of clients in the US experienced a three percent growth from 2012 to 2013, and 15.1 million people in America received plastic surgery in 2013 (ASPS, 2014). The growing number of people getting plastic surgery in a way represents a public approval of plastic surgery, however that is not necessarily the truth.

In “Saving Face: More Asian American opting for plastic surgery,” Jennifer Bagalawis-Simes  connects plastic surgery and looking natural (Simes 2010). Bagalawis-Simes states that plastic surgery has been seen as mimicry of being more “white”, and thus she wrote that “Many have procedures that enhance natural look instead of altering their ethnic appearance”.

This is similar to people using skin-lightening products to “naturally” obtain the skin they had when they were babies. How could it be “natural” for an adult to have baby skin?

On the topic of plastic surgery, how could people look more “natural” after having artificial surgery, compared to how they looked before the surgery? However, there is another link, that people seem to be consenting to having these baby skin cosmetics appear in the Japanese marketplace, and it may be a similar mental activity as they may give plastic surgery the consent to appear.

Certainly, the influences from aesthetics and other factors should not be ignored. In “The poor have the right to be beautiful,” Alexander Edmonds notices that plastic surgery has been a tool to obtain body capital, where the representation of good looks or aesthetics is influenced by national cultures (Edmonds 2007). Edmonds helped develop the thinking of the possibility that one region’s aesthetics may have its own roots beside the western-dominant “white is right” ideology. The sense that plastic surgery may turn a person more like its own belonging instead of white or Caucasian may also be a reason for the suggested consent from receiver and public to plastic surgery.

However, the consent to baby skin cosmetic and plastic surgery may also be just the illusion as the result of ignorance. In the arguments regarding race and ethnicity, the term “dominant group” refers to the people who are the majority of their society, the advantage of dominant leads to a less concerning to the racial and ethnic issues, which create an ignorance to the issues.

Suppose that men do not use baby skin cosmetics (where some may), and not all women use it, and in addition these baby skin cosmetics are mainly spread in Japan. These facts lead to the suggestion that it is the people who do not use baby skin cosmetics being the dominant group, thus they may had never give consent to it but did not notice it.

This suggestion is valid for me personally, that months before I had never thought about the paradox between natural looking and baby skin cosmetics. Applying this suggestion to plastic surgery, it makes sense that the majority of people are those who do not receive plastic surgery, thus it become possible that they did not give consent to its existing but due to unnoticed on the issue.

References

ASPS. (2014, Feburary 26). Plastic Surgery Procedures Continue Steady Growth in U.S. Retrieved November 25, 2014, from American Society of Plastic Surgeons: http://www.plasticsurgery.org/news/past-press-releases/2014-archives/plastic-surgery-procedures-continue-steady-growth-in-us.html

Edmonds, A. (2007). ‘The poor have the right to be beautiful’: cosmetic surgery in neoliberal Brazil. Journal of the Royal Anthroplogical Institute , 363-381.

Simes, J. B. (2010). Saving Face: More Asian Americans opting for plastic surgery. Retrieved November 25, 2014, from hyphen: http://www.hyphenmagazine.com/magazine/issue-22-throwback/saving-face-more-asian-americans-opting-plastic-surgery

Skin Lighteners and the African Illusion

dencia

Nigerian and Cameroonian singer Dencia

by Allan Kastiro

“White means pure. Not necessarily skin but in general, that’s how I look at it, it means pure.” This is a statement made by Nigerian and Cameroonian singer Dencia, who created a controversial skin-bleaching cream called ‘Whitenicious’. In a Television interview with the United Kingdom’s Channel 4 News in March 2014, the singer responded to the criticism that her skin lightening product had received. Dencia claimed that her product was not a skin lightener but a dark spot remover however; many of the Whitenicious’ campaign ads presented Dencia’s skin tone as being lighter than her original color and this created a contradiction with her claims.

Lupita-Nyong’o

Kenyan-Mexican actress Lupita Nyong’o

Kenyan-Mexican actress Lupita Nyong’o, who has on numerous occasions discussed the issue of standards of beauty and why girls should not find the need to use skin lighteners, also addressed the issue of products like Whitenicious in her acceptance speech at the ESSENCE awards. In the speech, Lupita Nyong’o talks about how she has been able to inspire and empower dark skinned girls around the world by showing them that black is indeed beautiful. She talks about one particular girl who wrote to her to thank her for inspiring her to love her natural skin tone otherwise she would have resorted to using Whitenicious since society and western standards of beauty make it seem as though anything less than light is not beautiful.

I think that the biggest problem in Africa today is the illusion that lighter is better. This illusion is rooted in colonialism, western-dominated capitalist culture and western standards of beauty. Many African people believe that they need to have a lighter skin tone in order to improve themselves and their status in society. That is, most African people desire lighter skin because they believe that this will change people’s outlook on them and they will be able to attain their desired jobs, get spouses or elevate to another class in the society. These beliefs stem from the fact that whiteness is viewed as being symbolic capital whereby being white or having a light skin tone is equated to competence, respectability and honorability. African people have unconsciously been taught by the west to dislike their dark skin and instead strive to achieve a lighter skin tone because they believe that it is much more accepted and desired.

Mnisi

South African musician Nomasonto ‘Mshoza’ Mnisi

A number of people who use skin lightening products argue that desiring a lighter skin has nothing to do with self-hate or wanting to be white but is as a result of insecurities and low self-esteem. An example is that of South African musician Nomasonto ‘Mshoza’ Mnisi who changed her skin complexion and is now lighter than she was originally. To her, skin-bleaching is a personal choice and is no different from breast implants or a having nose job. Mnisi says that the main reason she bleached her skin was to see what it would be like to be white as she had been dark for a long time. (Pumza Fihlani, 2013) Although Mnisi says that she is not self-hating and does not aim to be white, her attitude towards her natural skin tone says otherwise. It also leads me to question why she would feel less confident or have a low self-esteem if she was indeed proud to be black as she so often claims.

In conclusion, I believe that Whiteness or in this case, lightness as a symbolic capital has created a generation of African people who lack self-worth and confidence in their natural skin tone and this has resulted into the use of skin lightening products which in the long run damage their skins and might ultimately lead to severe diseases like cancer. I think that this trend will not end unless the people who use these products change their views on what they perceive as the standard of beauty and develop a sense of self-worth as dark-skinned African people.

Reference

Fihlani P. 2013. Africa: Where black is not really beautiful. Retrieved on 13th 2014 from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-20444798