The Plastic Surgery Capital of the World

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Growing up in an immigrant family, I had firsthand exposure to the widespread influence of plastic surgery in Korea. My mother and her three sisters all received double eyelid surgery as high school graduation presents. Whenever I visited Korea, my extended family members would subtly comment on how much prettier I would be if I had that one minor procedure or another. Reflecting back on my own experience, I began to wonder what other first generation Korean Americans thought about the plastic surgery industry and the role of transnational feminism (Lee, 3). Luckily, I happen to live with three other first generation Korean American women, so I briefly interviewed each of them to gain a better understanding of various perspectives.

The two primary questions I asked were their opinions on the plastic surgery industry in Korea and their thoughts on whether or not it was progressive or oppressive from a feminist perspective. The interviews were kept conversational so there were follow-up and probing questions in between. One of the overarching commonalities in their commentary was that the Korean plastic industry is booming and the pervasive popularity enforces a singular standard of beauty. My friends each remarked,

“When I went to Korea recently, it was startling to see the huge presence of the plastic surgery industry. There were so many clinics, so many people were walking around openly with bandages—it was eye opening. There are also specific beauty trends that everyone gets operations for.”

“It’s crazy that the plastic surgery industry in Korea is so prevalent. If you talk to anyone in Korea, they’ve gotten something done, especially post-high school. It’s two-fold in that people get plastic surgery to feel more empowered, but on the other hand, people do it to conform to societal or Eurocentric norms of beauty. If you look at Korea, especially Gangnam, they all look the same—you have to have this kind of nose, eyes, etc.”

“It’s scary how big it is. If you go to one of the nicer districts like Gangnam, there are rows of plastic surgery clinics and hotels specifically designed for plastic surgery patients. It’s not just Koreans getting plastic surgery, Chinese people and Thai people come. It’s a hub for all of Asia to come to. As a girl, there’s so much pressure from society to look good and in Korea there’s one standard of beauty with more Western features—such as having bigger eyes, a taller nose, and a more narrow v-line jaw.”

As Koreans Americans, their personal beliefs weave in both their Korean and American cultural identities together. Each of my friends characterized the plastic surgery industry as if it was a monster of its own kind. Instead of describing Korean women as choosing excess under the techno-orientalist critique, they expressed that the industry itself was perverted excess (Lee, 11). They point to the larger white hegemonic norms of beauty imposed upon Korean women as the key influencer, rather than blaming Korean women specifically for their mismanagement of technology and liberal democracy as many white Americans do. White America imposes Western beauty norms onto Korean women, and then ironically, engages in disciplinary discourse that chastises Korean women for choosing excess by attaining Western beauty via plastic surgery.

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Each of them touched upon the role of celebrities and how their ubiquitous use of plastic surgery further fuels the industry. One friend mentioned, “K-pop stars and media play a huge role. In order to even become a celebrity, they have to get plastic surgery. So everyone does it and you can tell all over online. There’s a highly unrealistic expectation of what a star needs to look like, and it also encourages young girls that those looks are what they should strive for.” According to Lee, pop culture has supported Korea’s newfound hegemony (4). Pop culture emphasizes K-pop stars’ aesthetic appeal and the visual nature of the industry. Perhaps, U.S. mainstream media fetishize Korean women as a response to Korea’s growing power and their waning power. In order to do so, U.S. media promotes global feminism, where Western women are created as free and as saviors of the oppressed women (Lee, 7).

As Korean Americans, my friends are primarily consumers of media outlets in America, where global feminism is highly accessible and consumable. When asked whether or not they viewed the industry as progressive or oppressive, they each responded that it was a combination of both, revealing hints of global feminism at play.

“I view plastic surgery as progressive. Although it is oppressive in the sense that some girls get surgery to conform to societal or Eurocentric norms of beauty, it is also the individual’s decision to get it done. Despite society or their own criticism, it’s something that they want to change on their body and they have the power to make that decision. If it makes the individual happy, then power to them.”

“It’s both progressive and oppressive. For women, there’s no stigma attached to it. No one really cares, so you’re taking ownership of your own body, image, and confidence. On the other hand, I think it’s somewhat oppressive. With all of these developments, Korean guys have unrealistic expectations of what girls should look like and they place emphasis on looks over everything else. It leaves room for more objectification.”

“I see the industry as more progressive than oppressive; progressive in that it’s the woman’s choice and that they have options. However, I think it depends on how the individual goes about it. If someone doesn’t think they’ll be beautiful without something, then I think it can be repressive. In countries like Korea, it’s mostly repressive because you’re literally not considered to be beautiful unless you have that sort of ideal and that’s also a financial burden. If you don’t have the means to get everything, you feel behind relative to your peers… And happiness is out of your reach basically.”

From a transnational feminist perspective, self-representation of “other” women as victimized depicts white women as having control over their bodies and the freedom to make their own decisions (Lee, 8). Instead of viewing white Western women’s experiences as the telos of feminist modernity, my friends collectively view the Korean women’s agency as feminist and progressive. They each mention the choice that every individual has due to the high accessibility in Korea, deconstructing the notion that white women are the only individuals with the privilege to control their bodies.

By the same token, the aforementioned high accessibility fosters a culture that assumes every individual will take advantage of the resources. Lookism—a source of unequal human relations according to Womenlink—cultivates a society stratified by a hierarchy of looks and facilitates the internalization of neo-liberal orders for self-management (Lee, 14). Although the extensive plastic surgery industry offers availability, women’s choices to hold autonomy over their bodies are increasingly constrained while portrayed as free. Societal expectations are repressive in that Korean women are expected to have the means to and the agency to go under the knife now. In order to address the rise of plastic surgery consumption, the systems that pathologize Korean women and mask oppression for choice must be dismantled.

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