Reframing the Korean Plastic Surgery Debate pt. 1: Debunking Western Media

Recently there has been a growing amount of interest in plastic surgery in Korea from various western media outlets. From TV documentaries to newspaper articles to various high-profile blogs, it seems like everyone wants to talk about Korean plastic surgery and why it has become so prevalent. However, to anyone who knows a sizeable amount about South Korea, the arguments put forth in these articles and segments are, at best, oversimplified and, at worst, wrong and sometimes even offensive.

For this reason, we will be posting a three-part series over the coming weeks which aims to reframe the debate surrounding Korean plastic surgery and to offer more information about the various complex historical and cultural factors which have led to South Korea becoming the most surgically-enhanced nation on the planet.

In this first part I will be looking specifically at the aspects of the usual argument put forth in various different articles which are simplistic, short-sighted or just plain wrong and trying to debunk them before going on to look at the various cultural, economic and pragmatic reasons why many Koreans undergo surgery in the next two parts.

Plastic surgery is not necessarily an attempt to ‘look more western’ (read: white) or even ‘less Korean’

Actress Kim Tae Hee who is celebrated for her attractive features

Actress Kim Tae Hee who is celebrated for her attractive features

Many of the outlets that have covered this subject have suggested that one of the principal factors driving the Korean plastic surgery trend is to achieve a ‘more western look’ (whatever that means) or to look less Korean. Many state this with a certainty which would lead the reader to believe that this is true. But it’s not.

There are many complex reasons why the Korean beauty standard is the way that it is, but there is also a simple one. It looks attractive. Most people would agree that big eyes, a small but well-defined nose and a thin face do often look attractive, particularly for young women.

There is also an argument to say that in fact, if the West has been influential at all in Korean standards of beauty, there has been a drive towards appearances which conform to a Western orientalist view of what attractive Asian women look like (small, meek and doll-like) rather than like white women.

Korean beauty standards have changed over the years but some things have also stayed the same such as a preference for light skin. Most do not exactly reflect Western ideals any more than they reflect a universal idea of what is attractive.

Unhealthy Korean body ideals which correlate with Western ones are often conveniently ignored

Korean women have the lowest average body weight in the OECD and they take the most diet drugs. This is something that will affect nearly all Korean women at some point in their lives and yet many western media outlets neglect to mention it at all when discussing Korean beauty standards. Why? Because western ideals are the same and Asian women are skinny anyway.

Media organisations like the Mail Online with its ‘sidebar of shame’ dedicated to celebrity articles about the various minuscule things that can be wrong with a woman’s body, will not criticise beauty standards which put huge amounts of pressure on Korean women to be thin because they themselves are actively involved in pushing those same standards onto their audience.

Mail online criticises Korean jaw surgery but celebrates 'staggering' results of similar surgery for British woman

Mail Online criticises Korean jaw surgery but celebrates ‘staggering’ results of similar surgery for British woman

For the very same reason, the focus is always on young Korean women getting surgery to look more attractive as opposed to the pressure put on older women to look younger. That part is fine because we think you should think that too.

Even the more liberal or feminist blogs like Jezebel that have covered the topic have overlooked this. Perhaps it’s because many western people believe East Asian women are naturally thin (often not true) or maybe because it doesn’t fit into the narrative of East Asian people mindlessly following the herd unlike American and European people who are all unique individuals (who also happen to feel and act on the same societal pressures).

The figures are not as straightforward as they seem

economist

Chart showing the number of procedures per 1000 population

Arguably the main factor which has influenced the sudden surge in interest in Korean plastic surgery from Western media outlets are statistics from the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons which were initially reported on by The Economist alongside an eye-pleasing chart. The stats show that South Korea had the most cosmetic procedures per head of population with between 13-14 procedures per 1000 population. While this inarguably shows that Korean plastic surgeons carry out the most cosmetic procedures, there are some facts that it doesn’t highlight. One is a significant drop in the number of procedures from around 771,000 to around 650,000 between 2010 and 2011. Although this does roughly follow a worldwide fall of 20% in procedures, it’s still a significantly bigger drop than the US, the UK and Canada where the decrease was around 10% or less.

There has been another supposed statistic doing the rounds that 20% of women aged 19-49 in Seoul have had plastic surgery, but not one single article that I have seen it quoted in has named a source and I cannot find any evidence to say whether it is true or not. On top of that…

South Korea has become a centre for medical tourism in recent years

Recently, Korean cosmetic surgeons have developed a reputation for themselves as the best in Asia and, as a result, more and more people are coming to Korea specifically to take advantage of the high-quality and comparatively low-cost surgery. In 2011, there were 100,000 medical tourists in total, up from only 8,000 in 2007 which has been driven mostly by cosmetic surgery patients travelling to Korea, mainly from China and other East Asian countries.

Although there is no data about the total number of procedures actually performed on Korean patients, if this is taken into account, it must be substantially less than the number of total procedures performed in Korea. Given the relatively small population size of Greece (number 2 in the world’s cosmetic surgery rankings) this could even be enough to take Korea off the top of the list if it was altered to reflect the actual number of people from each country getting surgery.

Entertainment and celebrities do not equate to real people

When in doubt blame Girls' Generation

When in doubt blame Girls’ Generation

Another trend I have noticed in these kind of articles is a tendency by the authors to cite the prevalence of plastic surgery amongst Korean celebrities and TV shows as proof that Korea is obsessed with plastic surgery.

They talk about the cable show ‘Let Me In’ which transforms the ‘ugly’ appearances of members of the public by giving them a surgical makeover and the unnaturally perfect faces of K-pop idols as if these kinds of media representations are specific only to Korea.

Off the top of my head I can think of at least three American TV shows (Extreme Makeover, The Swan, Bridalplasty) and one British show (10 Years Younger) which have been dedicated specifically to showcasing the transformative powers of cosmetic surgery in recent years. This is not a uniquely Korean thing. Neither is famous people using surgical procedures to try and appear more attractive.

Celebrities who will go to any extremes to look good and sensationalist reality TV shows are a global phenomenon which transcend culture, language and country. They are not necessarily a reflection of one specific national culture, but rather a global media culture which presents itself in different ways in different societies.

Having said all of this, this does not mean that Korean people are not under a huge amount of pressure to look as good as they can and that there aren’t specific cultural, historical and economic factors that have led to such a prevalence of cosmetic surgery in Korea. There are.

What it means instead is that these factors and influences are much more complex, difficult to fully understand and interesting than any one of these simplistic articles would lead you to believe.

With this in mind, I will be writing part two in the series next week about the Asian Financial Crisis, the changes in the Korean job market and how this has affected Korean attitudes towards plastic surgery.

Read more here:

Reframing the Korean Plastic Surgery Debate pt. 2: The IMF Crisis and the Rise of Hypercompetitiveness

Reframing the Korean Plastic Surgery Debate pt. 3: Modern History, Traditional Culture

Let us know your thoughts about Korean plastic surgery and the western media’s portrayal of it in the comments.

This is part of a series of posts about body image in Korea.

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  • Jeana Lindo

    this article has made me more aware that most other articles on this topic present a very narrow viewpoint that does not take enough factors into consideration. we’re so quick to criticize Korea in comparison to the U.S., but we wouldn’t be too happy if the criticism was directed toward us.
    thank you for sharing your points. I found this article to be informative

  • GIRLFROMTHE阿尔泰山脉

    CAN SOMEONE GIVE THIS PERSON AN AWARD FOR WRITING THIS. STANDING OVATION!

  • GIRLFROMTHE阿尔泰山脉

    very very well written!

  • pending

    The thing that annoys me is that I had to deal with ‘They want to look white’ all the way back in High school when I was a fan of Japanese animation, and now post-college I’ve gotten hooked on k-pop and I’m running into the same attitude all over again. It’s always turned into a battle of opinions, with nobody wanting to believe my “they just think it looks cool” argument. (Or, more annoyingly, I get countered with “yeah… They think it looks cool because they’ve been BRAINWASHED by HOLLYWOOD.”)

    I just really want to say how much I appreciate articles like this spelling out why that way of thinking is so often hypocritical and offensive, so folks like me have clear arguments in mind instead of just stumbling through another “that’s what you think” fight.

  • Aaron Crossen

    A repugnant national disease and little else

  • Guest

    I don’t know why suddenly the natural epicanthic fold shared by so many people around the world has suddenly become unattractive… on a related note, it was good of the author to present facts as they are. In my humble opinion, it all boils down to how much we allow society to affect out perception of ourselves. I understand the youth who get swayed so easily; but for older folks, it just seems sad to not realize one’s value and identity as one ages. I guess one cannot always equate age with wisdom.

  • Lovely Claire CD

    I don’t know why suddenly the natural epicanthic fold shared by so many people around the world has suddenly become unattractive… on a related note, it was good of the author to present facts as they are. In my humble opinion, it all boils down to how much we allow society to affect our perception of ourselves. I understand the youth who get swayed so easily; but for older folks, it just seems sad to not realize one’s value and identity as one ages. I guess one cannot always equate age with wisdom.

  • Nekochan

    I’m writing a paper for school on South Korean plastic surgery and this was very helpful. Thank you!

  • SakiVI

    What are common diet pills in South Korea?

  • Therese

    It’s very plainly ethnocentrism. “Our culture is the best. Everyone else do it wrong. Our way is perfect.” Where I come from, once a person not from the west does something, it’s commented on like it’s something silly. People need to open their eyes and see what’s going on in their country. It annoys me that any country is made fun of, not only South Korea.

  • Ashley Rafter

    Korea is definitely topping the plastic surgery list as the citizens are increasingly turning towards getting cosmetic surgeries at the drop of a hat. The most popular form being requested is double eyelid surgery.

  • http://www.alwaysyouthful.com/ Alina Mark

    People who think there’s something wrong with plastic surgery…usually can’t afford it.

  • http://www.alwaysyouthful.com/ Alina Mark

    Reconstructive surgery is the oldest form of plastic
    surgery, having developed out of the need to treat wounded soldiers in
    wartime.

  • sheila benedict

    Thanks for this article. The whole korean obsession with plastic surgery news had been blown so out of proportion that I was getting irritated anyways. Are westerners the only race with double eyelids? If koreans want it, it’s cos they think it makes them look better…not cos they want to look western. After all, most westerners are obsessed with the curvy look …doing boobs jobs and fat transfer to their hips and butt. But most koreans I know love their slender body and baby faced look…so what’s all this about them copying westerners?