Becoming Westernized: Biopower Hard at Work in South Korea!

korean-cosmetic-surgery-caucasian“… I didn’t realize their true motivation for their actions until I grew older. The reason my mother had pinched my nose was because my nose was too flat and was too high like a pig’s nose. And the reason my father had touched my eyes was because my mono-eye-lids made my eyes look too small. And finally, the leg massage was for my height because I was much shorter compared to other kids my age. Not until my teens, did I realize that these features that my parents wanted to change were a few of the many stereotypical features that Asian men and women tend to have and that there are surgical procedures that exist to resolve these ‘flaws’.” (This quote comes directly from an interview conducted by Caroline Kim, I chose not to include the person’s name made this statement to protect their identity)

The quote above exemplifies Korean beauty ideals.  In South Korea someone that is tall, has mono-eye-lids, and a narrow long nose is considered very beautiful.  These are features commonly identified as European. Cosmetic surgery to attain these beauty ideals is one of the most common cosmetic practices among men and women in South Korea. In fact, many South Korean celebrities have undergone cosmetic surgery.  Furthermore, it has become so normalized that many people of the general population have also received plastic surgery. Hmm, sounds like another case of biopower hard at work. Plastic surgery has experienced a huge a business boom over the last three decades. The profits made from the plastic surgery are partially responsible for fuelling the South Korean economy. Plastic surgeons are able to charge egregious prices in exchange for performing small surgical procedures that take less than 15 minutes to complete.

Recent advancements in technology have changed the way plastic surgery is perceived in the mind of the Korean public. No longer is surgery perceived as a drastic procedure, now for most Koreans it is considered a harmless investment in their beauty. This is troubling, because it seems that the Korean population forgetting about the huge unsuccessful rate of surgery. Plastic surgery is risky! There are many cases where surgical procedures have gone horribly wrong, ultimately resulting in the deformation of the person’s natural physical features.

With all this talk about cosmetic (plastic) surgery it seems necessary to define what specifically I am referring to since I mention the term repeatedly.  In the context of this blog post plastic surgery is the enhancement of the appearance through surgical modification it requires “stitches, cutting, or…lasers” (Izenberg).  There is another type of plastic surgery called reconstructive surgery, which is surgery used to “correct a deformity or defect on a person’s body” (Izenberg). However, for this blog-post I am referring strictly to cosmetic surgery and not reconstructive surgery.  Also, throughout his blog-post I use the terms plastic and cosmetic surgery interchangeably.

So what motivates Koreans to undergo risky procedures to “improve their appearance”? Certain beauty standards set in Korea create pressure and anxiety for men and women equally such as the double-eyelid is considered to be more attractive than mono-lids. According The Price of Beauty in South Korea by Charles Scanlon, due to the recent economic recession many male patients are getting plastic surgery as well, because they believe that it will help them get jobs. Males believe that by improving their physical appearance it will help them on interviews somehow and increase their chances of getting a job. Also, many Koreans get plastic surgery in order to look physically more attractive in hopes of improving their chances of getting married sooner. Analysis of Korean culture shows that one of the biggest causalities for the popularity of plastic surgery is media. The Korean media portrays celebrities who “go under the knife” as visually perfect or beautiful thus giving wrong ideas to the young generation about cosmetic surgery.  An additional factor to consider in the popularity of cosmetic surgery in Korea is that many people get cosmetic surgery in order to feel better about their insecurities, which for many is having physical features considered typically Asian.

In many cases, people undergo surgery for their own personal satisfaction regardless of the discomforting pain post-surgery or pricey expenditure. Men and women voluntarily choose to get cosmetic surgery because they want to feel confident and comfortable in their own body and about their physical appearance. And later, they end up hoping that their new appearance will ultimately lead to successful encounters with the opposite sex. For example, in the article, In South Korea, Plastic Surgery Comes Out of the Closet talks about Chang Hyang-sook, a young Korean woman in her mid-twenties who had already undergone several surgical procedures to enhance her beauty and was back at the clinic to schedule another operation for double-eyelids. Like many other Korean men and women who have cosmetic surgery, she too claims that “you must endure the pain to be beautiful” (Choe). Ms. Chang wanted to achieve a particular appearance that she constituted as being attractive and what society constituted as being pretty. She was willing to go to any means to achieve this idealized romanticized ideal of beauty undergoing several procedures all within a time span of a few months. “[S]he had not only had her teeth rearranged, but also her jawbones cut and repositioned” and was returning back to the clinic to schedule a double-eyelid surgery (Choe).

Aside from self-satisfaction with one’s appearance, another major influence as to why the Korean population gets cosmetic surgery is due to the media and their portrayal of Korean celebrities. Korean actors and actresses as well as other celebrities are constantly on camera or being photographed under HD settings or cameras and are having their photos manipulated by computer programs such as Adobe Photoshop, as a result there is a constant pressure and burden for anyone who is under the spotlight. Thus, even celebrities find themselves having to alter their appearance through cosmetic procedures and computer programming in order to look their best on camera.  Furthermore, these actors and actresses are constantly under surveillance by their viewers and the public, which makes it difficult for them to conceal their surgical enhancements “and with the Internet, where people like to post ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures, they can no longer hide it” (Choe). This type “flawless” image leads to two different types of views of plastic surgery.

Firstly, it influences the public to want to obtain the same physical features as their idol or celebrity role-model thus giving them a motive to undergo plastic surgery. People from all age groups from young teens to middle-aged women who keep up with publicity and celebrity news gravitate towards items or things that their favorite singer or actor may have. Thus, when handsome actors or attractive singers who have undergone plastic surgery are publicized, their “flawless” image encourages their viewers to achieve the same look. Secondly, when the public is aware of an idol’s surgical procedures, they begin to accept cosmetic surgery as normal. For example, the most popular cosmetic surgery in Korea is the double-eyelid surgery but, it is so common that getting an “eye job is so routine that it is not even considered surgery” (Choe). And when procedures such as double-eyelid surgery become part of the norm, creates the mindset that it is unacceptable to be a “natural-beauty”. There is also another type of influence aside from Korean celebrities, those from abroad (especially the US). The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women by Naomi Wolf , she discusses how women on an international level tend to compare themselves to Western standards of beauty and how there is a consistent overlap or influence between different cultures and their standards of beauty. Moreover, the obsession with Western beauty can be traced back to the issue of the media’s lack of representation of different cultures.

 When celebrities are on television shows or modeling in magazines, there are usually not many Asian men or women. Instead, many of them are Caucasian, thus you find many Asians resorting to cosmetic surgery in order to look more Caucasian which can be seen as rejecting one’s natural ethnic identity. This not only applies to Asian but to other races that are not often represented in the media. Because the media is ubiquitous, Korean men and women are only exposed to these Western standards of beauty. Stereotypes of Korean men and women such as small eyes, flat noses, lack of height, and dark hair and eye color only increases insecurities for the Korean population especially since they feel like they are constantly being compared to Western standards of beauty.

There are people who ultimately become obsessed with improving their physical appearance. Some people, after their first cosmetic surgical procedure are so content with their results that they end up going back to their surgeons for more enhancements. This of course is not applicable to patients, but it is applicable to a good deal of them. Many of these surgery addicts wind up going to far to the point of body deformation. For example, a “28-year-old Korean woman named Kim Hee-Soon originally only got double eyelid surgery” but after seeing her results she was so content that she asked her surgeon for a rhinoplasty (plastic surgery of the nose), but instead  he convinced her to get chin implant (Scanlon). Even after several years have passed “she still feels pain and discomfort”, which turns to be due to her surgeon actually not having proper qualifications to be considered a surgeon. The scary part is even with the current pain Hee-Soon is currently experiencing she still wants additional work done, breast implants. This is just one example of a situation where a woman can feel too attached to cosmetic procedures (enhancements).

Hang Mioku Before and After Excessive Cosmetic Surgery

An additional example of plastic surgery addiction is Hang Mioku who is also Korean and currently in her late 40’s. She was a plastic surgery “addict for 20 years” and what eventually stopped her from getting any more operations was after a terrible incident where she injected cooking oil to her face (Cox). Originally she used silicone that her doctor provide for her to do self-injections with a syringe at home however once she ran out, she resorted to using cooking oil instead. According to abcNEWS doctors do not recommend silicone injections due to their “hazardous effects” on the body and doctors usually are not permitted to allow their patients to give themselves self-injections (Cox). The fact that she was even able to find a doctor that allowed her to use silicone and give herself self-injections was already surprising. By injecting cooking oil to her already operated face, it damaged her facial structure so much that she had to go through several reconstructive operations to reduce the swelling and deformity. In the end, she was left with a completely distorted face and many scars that was even more unrecognizable than the face she had previously when she only had cosmetic surgery.

In addition to psychological obsessions with plastic surgery, there are other issues such as when deciding who takes responsibility for the patient’s addiction to surgery, the patient or the surgeon? For example, in Victoria Pitts-Taylor’s  book, Surgery Junkies: Wellness and Pathology in Cosmetic Culture, she attempts to analyze a person’s motives for desiring cosmetic surgery. And in one of her chapters, she mentions a case where a surgery addict named Lynn G. who had “visited her cosmetic surgeon a total of more than fifty times over six years”, blames her surgeon Dr. Norman Hugo for her addiction (128 Pitts-Taylor). Lynn G. claims that her surgeon “ought to have realized that she was unreasonably obsessed with cosmetic surgery” (128 Pitts- Taylor). In the end, the surgeon was not held responsible but overall, this showed the extent to which addiction becomes a legal problem.

Overall, not everyone who chooses to get cosmetic surgery becomes an addict however, that does not mean the chances are slim. And even though Korean patients may justify their reasoning for wanting plastic surgery as legitimate and a personal choice, it should not be the only choice or option. In the end, no matter the reason or motive, plastic surgery should not be a first resort because one surgical procedure can chain of cosmetic surgeries. Eventually, the situation could become as extreme as Hang Mioku’s did, which ultimately resulted in the lose of her personal identity. Everyone is unique in their own way due to the genetic make-up of their parents, thus the physical features passed on is nothing to be ashamed of. In addition, there are so many risks to plastic surgery that it’s surprising that it is not on a decline. For example, a patient whose “double-jaw surgery went wrong… hung herself” because the pain from post-surgery was so unbearable (Choe). Thus, if certain physical attributes of Asian people as well as other races were praised rather than ridiculed by the media or society, there would probably be a lower percentage of people getting plastic surgery. Then people would not be as insecure as they are about their physical features and would probably be more accepting towards their own identity instead of trying to change it completely. Ok, I’m going to end with this video, which was a segment from the Tyra Banks Show  it pritty much summarizes everything this blog-post was about.

Thanks for reading, if you like what you read you can follow me on  Twitter at DemelioU or  you can subscribe  to my RSS feed the little orange button in the left hand menu. Special Thanks to Caroline Kim, who made major contributions to this blog post.

Demelio U.

Signing OFF


One response to “Becoming Westernized: Biopower Hard at Work in South Korea!

  1. You have hit the nail squarely on the head – its often the case that many who undergo a plastic surgery procedure do so to live up to their or what they deem society sees as beautiful. Plastic surgery should be seen as major surgery as many things could go wrong, especially if you make use of a surgeon that’s not fully qualified, which could really be to your detriment

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