Last week, Cut.com released its latest "100 Years of Beauty" video series, which features the beauty trends of Korea in less than two minutes. It shows the aesthetic differences between North and South starting at the 1950s mark (when the Korean War started and divided the country) and pointedly illustrates the heavy influence Western beauty standards has had on a democratized South Korea.
My honest to god first reaction to the video was simply, "Whoa, that was pretty cool." My second reaction? "Whoa, let's back the hell up!" Why? Because when it comes to South Korean beauty trends, hair and makeup are mere child's play compared to the video's glaring omission of how plastic surgery dominates the country's standard of beauty.
If you didn't know already, South Koreans undergo the most plastic surgery per capita in the world, according to a recent study by the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons. While some polls report that one out of five South Korean women go under the knife, others claim it's one out of three. And for women below the age of 30, the statistics are staggeringly higher. As for Korean dudes, they aren't shy of getting a little nip and tuck, either, accounting for about 15 percent of surgeries. The procedures of choice? Double eyelid surgery is first, then schnoz jobs, followed by cheekbone, jaw and calf shaving. (Yes, apparently South Koreans fear they have Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle calves.)
Being Korean-American myself and having traveled to South Korea in the early aughts, the ideal look for at least the past couple decades has more or less evolved into the cutesy anime look: a small, V-shaped face; large, saucer-shaped eyes that elicit innocence and wonderment(!); poreless and spotless glowing white skin; and a petite nose with a subtle perk at the tip. Ladies, include a feminine giggle with petite hand over mouth and you're golden.
With all of these things considered, I don't thoroughly blame Cut for not going there. To depict the plastic surgery factor accurately would've probably meant that they'd have to ditch the Korean model (despite her being gorgeous) and put a cartoon in her place to show the range of physical transformation. Still, I think it was a disingenuous PC approach.
Even though my siblings and I were born and raised in the U.S., we weren't immune to being physically critiqued by our immigrant Korean parents and their friends. Many of my relatives have had double eyelid surgery, some have had rhinoplasty, while older family members have had facelifts and cheek implants. As for me, despite being born with double lids, I was still criticized for having wide cheekbones and too many spots on my face.
It was commonplace to hear about so-and-so's kids being shipped out to South Korea over summer break to get eyelid surgery done, along with the bonus of getting facial moles removed. One of my female relatives took the long trip out there at the age of 15, and she was horrified at discovering the South Korean doc not only botched her eyes, but decided to tattoo permanent eyebrows and eyeliner without her consent.
Looking back, most of us were just too young to question whether going under the knife was ethically good or bad. You just got it done because your parents expected you to do it and then you didn't talk about it. It almost felt like a dysfunctional rite of passage to becoming a fully-formed adult.
In the latest issue of The New Yorker, writer Patricia Marx explores South Korea's obsession with plastic surgery and asks some university students why getting sliced and diced starts before adulthood.
"We want to have surgeries while we are young so we can have our new faces for a long time," one student answered.
Another told Marx, "When you're 19, all the girls get plastic surgery, so if you don't do it, after a few years, your friends will all look better, but you will look like your unimproved you."
This collective preoccupation to go from "unimproved" to "improved" is exemplified in the ugly duckling to swan transformation reality shows that are incredibly popular in the country. As Marx points out, one in particular called "Let Me In" is ratings gold and a peek into the society's bizarre psychology.
Marx describes the show as follows:
Each contestant on the show -- given a nickname like Girl Who Looks Like Frankenstein, Woman Who Cannot Laugh, Flat-Chested Mother, Monkey -- makes a case to a panel of beauty experts that his or her physical features have made it so impossible to live a normal life that a total surgical revamping is called for. The contestants' parents are brought onstage, too, to apologize to their offspring not only for endowing them with crummy genes, but also for being too poor to afford plastic surgery. At the end of every show, the surgically-reborn contestant is revealed to the audience, which oohs and aahs and claps and cries.
Such a show reveals a different side of South Korean culture that belies its seeming embrace of Western ideas. Scratch beyond the surface of its internationally appealing Korean dramas and K-Pop phenomenon, and you'll find that the culture is fiercely conservative and homogeneous. Citizens take great pride into being "one" (or "han," as it's translated in Korean), and this oneness spills into physical aesthetics.
When I decided to teach English in South Korea in the early 2000s, I got my own traumatic dose of how I wasn't conforming to the anime princess standard. As a size 4, I was considered full-bodied. Little kids and adults who were complete strangers would randomly mock me and say I had one too many spots on my face. And poor me, my skin wasn't glowing like a bioluminescent pool.
Even though it wasn't a party growing up with that bicultural tension -- the American side of me embracing my individuality, while the Korean side nagging me to conform to the status quo -- I feel lucky to have had the tension. Had I been monocultural and born in South Korea, I just can't imagine the psychological pressure of cloning a singular, generic look.
Getting plastic surgery is obviously a very personal choice, which I totally get and respect. But when you see its pervasive hold on an entire country whose perception of beauty lacks diversity -- frankly, I think that's a little screwed up.