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

Over the past two weeks we have been running a series of articles which aim to challenge widely held perceptions about what has caused Korea’s massive plastic surgery boom. In the first part of the series, I tried to debunk the various arguments put forth by western media outlets and then in the second part I explored how the surgery trend was linked to the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. In this final part of the series, I will be looking at how nationalism and traditional Korean culture has collided with modern consumer culture and how this may have had a significant impact on cosmetic surgery rates in South Korea.

Over the centuries Korean history (and therefore culture) has been shaped significantly by its position between East Asia’s most historically influential powers, China and Japan, and the constant threat of invasion. However few time periods have seen as much social upheaval as the past century which included an invasion, colonisation, world war, a brutal separation between North and South, successive coup d’états and dictatorships and an unprecedented rise from being one of the world’s poorest countries to becoming one of its biggest economies. All these events have undeniably left their mark.

Korea's first western style hotel - Part of the many changes Korea went through under Japanese colonisation

Korea’s first western style hotel – Part of the many changes Korea went through under Japanese colonisation

One of the most significant effects this has had is the rise of Korean nationalism which came around firstly as a form of resistance to Japanese colonisation and was later adopted by the government as a way to encourage citizens to play their part in building the economy. Many academics have argued that this strong nationalist identity and the increased importance placed on traditional cultural ideas and practices, when combined with modernisation and capitalism, are some of the most important factors which have led to South Korea’s plastic surgery boom.

Much of Korean nationalism ever since the Japanese colonisation has focussed on ‘un-Japaneseness’ as much as ‘Koreanness’. In their article ‘Gender, Globalization and Aesthetic Surgery in South Korea’, Holliday and Elfving-Hwang argue that trends towards beauty standards that are more westernised (although still not western, it’s important to add) are as a direct result of the South Korean people’s desire to differentiate themselves from their former coloniser Japan. They quote a piece of writing by Na Se-jin from 1964 to back this up:

The Korean is of medium to tall height, among many races of the world. The neck is thin and long, and because of the superior development of the Korean’s body and muscular structure, the posture is straight and erect. The calf is long, and since every part of the body’s measurements are very even, the Korean resembles the well-proportioned stature of the Europeans and Americans [rather than the Japanese].

The writers argue that the body has been used ‘as a site for negotiating and reinforcing national identity’ showing that to some extent that Korea’s fierce (anti-Japanese) nationalism has played an important role in changing how Koreans view their bodies. This could have played a significant role in the globalisation of Korean beauty ideals, not as, as it is often portrayed, a pandering to western standards but instead a defiance of Japanese colonialism.

Another defining aspect of modern Korean nationalism is a return to traditional, ‘authentically Korean’ cultural ideas and practices which pre-date colonisation. One such set of beliefs, which have seen a huge resurgence in popularity over the years, are traditional forms of fortune-telling, in particular physiognomy (or face-reading). In a survey in 2005, around half of Koreans believed that a person’s character can be determined by looking at their facial features and that your face can influence your fortune.

A physiognomy diagram

A physiognomy diagram

A lot of surgical procedures are now carried out in Korea with the express purpose of making the patient’s face more auspicious according to physiognomical beliefs. In a 2006 New York Times article, plastic surgeon Lee Won Suk is quoted as saying “One in 10 of my patients asks me to operate on them based on what they believe would bring good fortune in the future”. Even when surgery is not carried out with physiognomical principles specifically in mind, the widespread notion that one’s facial features are directly responsible for the good or bad outcome of one’s life may well have been very influential in the acceptance and normalisation of cosmetic surgery in South Korea.

It would be impossible to do an accurate critique of how Korean traditional culture has affected modern beauty standards without taking Neo-Confucianism, the dominant philosophy for 500 years, into account. A simplistic analysis of the Neo-Confucian influence on the plastic surgery trend is that Confucianism values conformity therefore Koreans will all the follow the same trends.

However it gets much more interesting than that.

Taeyon Kim argues that the Neo-Confucianist role of women’s bodies in South Korea has not changed over the years despite massive changes in the role of women themselves in society and that this has led to Korea’s modern obsession with beauty and widespread acceptance of plastic surgery for women. The argument is complex, if you want to read about it in more detail I would highly recommend The Grand Narrative’s series on this subject, but at the centre of it is that Neo-Confucianism teaches women to think of themselves as ‘subjectless bodies’.

Traditional Korean wedding hanbok

Traditional Korean wedding hanbok

Neo-Confucianism teaches the concept of ki (기), a material force which links the body and mind to the universe and that one should try and overcome one’s ego to gain further understanding of the universe through self-cultivation and learning. However women were deemed as lacking in ki and so could not achieve this desired selflessness. Therefore a woman’s role was limited to maintaining the family body. So, although her value lied solely in her physical being, she did not have ownership over this body which should be maintained and used to serve the family.

In a modern consumer society, this form of body maintenance for the sake of the family has been replaced by a new set of rules which teach women to maintain and present their bodies in a certain way for the sake of society. As Kim puts it, ‘it is not, as some might speculate, the eradication of Korean Neo Confucian cultural notions, but an expression of them through the new medium of global consumerism.’

Although Korea has changed immeasurably in the past hundred years, cultural values which existed for hundreds of years prior continue to have a strong influence over South Korean society and the individuals that make it up. While these values are not solely responsible for the plastic surgery boom, it would be reasonable to suggest that they have had significant influence over what has made Korea, specifically, take up cosmetic surgery on such massive scale.

Through this series I have looked at a number of factors which have (and have not) contributed to the cosmetic surgery trend in South Korea. As with any important social trend in any part of the world, it is almost impossible to pin down its exact cause. However I hope that the series has given you a little more insight a few of reasons why Korea has become the most surgically enhanced nation on the planet.

(Sources: ‘Korea: The Impossible Country‘ by Daniel Tudor, Gender, Globalization and Aesthetic Surgery in South Korea Ruth Holliday and Joanna Elfving-Hwang, Neo-Confucian Body Techniques: Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society’  Taeyon Kim, The Grand Narrative)

Read more here:

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

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

Let us know your thoughts about Korean plastic surgery in the comments.

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

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  • kim

    Very well written article.