UNDER THE KNIFE: KOREAN SOCIETY AND THE MODIFIED SELF

This week, as school is just starting at UC San Diego, Prospect is revisiting some of our most popular pieces from the previous academic year. We will begin posting new material soon; until then, enjoy our look back!

By William Unger
Staff Writer

Images are cast around us every day. In any given car trip, you are bound to see a big, illustrious face plastered onto a big white billboard. A woman smiles down at you, her teeth bleach white, her hair glimmering, and her face smooth and beautiful. Upon the white background rests the name of a make-up company. You see it, think, and move on with your day. Later, you open up a magazine to see more women, clad in undergarments, their bodies perfect and curvy against the black background of the page. Your day continues and the media throws more images at you. The television has yet another celebrity talking about how Proactiv changed their career, and subsequently, their life. Any movie has an iconic actor or actress, with fans drooling over them at first sight. But what is beauty, and by what means do we as a people try to attain it? Although in part a global phenomenon, more and more people are seeking beauty in plastic surgery, especially in South Korea and many argue that this is due to the portrayal of Westernization in Korean media.

The statistic is almost dismal. According to Sadie Whitelocks from Mail Online, “20 per cent of women between the ages of 19 and 49 in Seoul, the country’s capital city, admitted they had gone under the knife.” This statistic might not be accurate, as a proposed majority of such procedures take place in private clinics and go unrecorded (Holliday and Hwang). Many times, procedures like these stem from a lack of self-confidence or a skewed sense of beauty. But why are there so many procedures per capita within the Republic of Korea? Although the proportion of plastic surgeries may not be firmly based upon westernization itself, it is clear that Korean men and women seek a sense of beauty through westernization of their features, especially with the eyes and the nose. The most common surgery being performed in Korea is currently the double eyelid surgery, which makes a patient’s eyes rounder and bigger—a trait highly sought after in Korea (Saeng-Hun, 2011). Ms. Chang, a twenty-five year old woman from Seoul who went through an eye-lift operation, tells the New York Times: “You must endure pain to be beautiful,” adding that an eye job is so routine these days “it’s not even considered surgery.” In the words of Dr. Park, a leading practitioner in double-jaw surgery, “Women want a revolution with their face (Saeng-Hun).” It is apparent that Westernized features are not only admired, but sought after in Korea.

It is clear that the amount of plastic surgery procedures performed per capita within Korea is very high, and while there is no definitive reason why, there are many hypotheses. In order to understand the Western influence on Korean appearance, one must understand the concept of the orient and occident within global society. Whereas the occident relates to the self, the orient relates to “other.” Largely due to a growing Korean pop industry which seeks globalization and worldwide fame, the group 2NE1 finds influences based on artists such as Will.I.Am (Choi). In essence, this takes away from the “orient” derived from Korean culture in itself to try to sell a more globalized, western image. There are three companies that dominate K-pop: YG Entertainment, SM Entertainment and JYE Entertainment.

These companies find young talent and “engineer” the talented children into performers. Additionally, they are heavily funded by the government and seek entrance into the global market by all means—and in doing so, cultural identity is lost as groups and singers preform their songs in English and “Americanize” pop culture. After “hallyu,” a tsunami of Korean influence on Asian society, Korean singing superstars moved to the forefront of Asian culture (Dixon). Most notably, these pop stars dominated the stage with their charm and dance moves. Not only did these stars remain singers, however, they also became ever present in society through other mediums such as comedy and sitcom television. This only lends itself to more Westernized performers. Many times, in order to reach a global audience, Korean pop stars turn to plastic surgery. Although many are not openly admitting to such action, some have already done so. Most notably, the five member girl group LPG has admitted to a combined twenty-seven plastic surgery operations (Zhao).

It appears that the key is globalization of popular culture, especially pop music, and the consequential Westernization of a particular society. This Americanization, or as some argue, “modernization” of the Asian culture produces a demand for more Westernized traits. Consequently, people desire to attain them through any possible means, including surgery. This “modernization”, or “Americanization”, leads to the high proportion of surgery present in Korea —as evident in the large number of surgeries designed to create double-eyelids, a more prominent nose and breast augmentation. The “Westernized” look of our own society clearly has influenced global beauty standards, but the reasoning behind this social desire in nations such as Korea are increasingly vague. Popular culture has a large influence, as the New York Times’ Journal mentions that people come into surgery clinics with a magazine in hand, knowing exactly whom they want to look like. These already-modified or “modernized” celebrities bear Western features after their own surgeries, and this certainly bears huge influence on the men and women in Korea. Furthermore, these idols hold beauty so sacrosanct that the youth of Korea desire and often pursue surgery as a reward for college admittance or passing exams.

In observing this pursuit of beauty, one begins to question what the essence of beauty is within Asiatic cultures, especially Korea. In their article, “Gender, Globalization and Aesthetic Surgery in South Korea,” Ruth Holliday and Jo Hwang argue that in addition to a portrayal of Westernized features in television, pop, and manga, people inherently desire a lighter skin tone. This is based on the long lasting idea that people with these features did not work in hard labor and were therefore of the upper class. It appears that as a culture, Korea as well as the United States, broadcasts external beauty as a perfect mixture of facial features, a slender yet curvy body and soft facial features. Naturally, as many Koreans carry extra adipose tissue in their eyelids and have more “flat” facial features, they find a medium in plastic surgery. Undoubtedly, this is also a result of the popular culture which deems these procedures acceptable. This appears to lead to a social norm within Korean society that accepts these procedures, whereas in the past such operations were advised against (Holliday and Hwang).

In addition, sensuality plays an enormous role in beauty. On stage, stars lend themselves to a form of sensuality through their seductive dance moves and appearance. An article published by The Atlantic details this sensuality in the women’s group KARA, which uses a “butt-dance” to “outsex their J-pop counterparts.” This sex appeal, the Atlantic argues, is reminiscent of the styles of Beyoncé and Lady Gaga and is likely heavily influenced by such idols. Additionally, performers such as Tiffany, from Girl’s Generation, captivates audiences by making a listener and compatriot feel desired through moves such as the “eye-wink” (Seabrook). This alleged beauty and sex appeal is even emitted by the boy groups of K-pop.

One group which has members who have also openly admitted to plastic surgery feels that their appeal in the United States is due largely to “their good looks”. Stage performances are largely dependent on beauty and sexuality, as even argued by an article on the modernization of Japanese actresses. The author notes that women display a sense of sexuality comparable to geisha in their stage performances, denoting that they are much more likely to maintain and fixate attention (Kano). This translates into music videos as well, as evidenced by watching the music video for the song “Goo” by the Girl’s Generation. It becomes obvious through seductive eye-winks and synchronized feminine dance moves, a level of attraction permeates the fourth wall and envelops one’s psyche (SM Entertainment). Korean media also displays seductiveness, as illustrated by an ad through BK Hospital. The ad is adorned with a white woman with a cowboy hat and slender body, paired with the caption “According to Dr. Kim, fat on the inner and outer thighs ruin the beauty of a woman’s legs” (BK Magazine). It is notable that the woman in the Korean advertisement is a bare white woman. The fact that she is westernized yet tossed into a Korean ad speaks to the fact that women desire to look increasingly western. This adds to the notion that women are willing to undergo surgery to become “beautiful” by current national standards, and like anything else, it is now achievable by hard work.

Like anywhere else, media inspires all aspects of one’s life and plays upon human insecurity. It appears that the trend in Korea is to achieve beauty through the medium of plastic surgery in order to enhance sexuality and to match the images cast by the media through television, advertising, manga and K-pop. It is these ideals, in conjunction with a notably more westernized culture in Korea, that have contributed to the large and increasing proportion of procedures done within Korea. Moreover, it is clear that women and men are not timid about plastic surgery as an answer as it gains acceptance as a valid option. Koreans are victims of a dilemma: instead of seeking cultural beauty, they fall into a globalized image and therefore seek plastic surgery to become “beautiful”.

Works Cited:
BK Surgery Hospital. Advertisement. BK Plastic Surgery Hospital. Affluent Beauty, Oct.-Nov. 2012. Web. 04 Nov. 2012.

Choii, Yun-Jung. “The Globalization of K-Pop.” Yonsei University, Seoul, 2011. Web. 4 Nov. 2012.

Dixon, Tom. “The Journey of Cultural Globalization in Korean Pop Music.” The Journey of Cultural Globalization in
Korean Pop Music. E-International Relations, 17 Aug. 2011. Web. 04 Nov. 2012.

Gee- Girls Generation. Perf. Girls’ Generation. YouTube. S.M. Entertainment, 08 June 2009. Web. 04 Nov. 2012.

Holliday, Ruth, and Jo Hwang. “Gender, Globalization and Cosmetic Surgey in South Korea.” Gender, Globalization and Cosmetic Surgey in South Korea. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Nov. 2012.

Sang-hun, Choe. “In South Korea, Plastic Surgery Comes Out of the Closet.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 04 Nov. 2011. Web. 04 Nov. 2012.

Seabrook, John. “Factory Girls.” The New Yorker (n.d.): n. pag. The New Yorker. 08 Oct. 2012. Web. 04 Nov. 2012.

St.Michael, Patrick. “How Korean Pop Conquered Japan.” The Atlantic. N.p., 13 Sept. 2011. Web. 04 Nov. 2012.

Whitelocks, Sadie. “One in Five Women in Seoul Have Gone under the Knife as South Korea Tops Global List of Plastic Surgery Procedures.” Mail Online. Mail Online, 24 Apr. 2012. Web. 04 Nov. 2012.

Zhao, Jessie. “9 Idols Who Have Publicly Admitted to Plastic Surgery.” Web log post. Ningin. N.p., 23 May 2012. Web. 04 Nov. 2012.

Photo by quinnums

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