“and somehow I ended up getting some work too”: Plastic Surgery Amongst Korean American Women [Revised]

Two weeks ago, as I sat in bed trying to finish up my homework at 2 in the morning, I got a text message from my sister. It read: “I know how you felt when you couldn’t read a computer for days. I haven’t been able to read for 7 days now and I’m dying…” Confused, I quickly responded, asking what was wrong with her eyes. She proceeds to tell me, “[I] removed the bags under my eyes and lifted my eyelid so I will have a slight double lid. I didn’t plan on it but [grandma] came to fix her eyelid and ended up doing a whole upper facelift and somehow I ended up getting some work too. Lynn’s dad offered to do the eye lift for free since I refused to do a facelift.” Unsure of the best way to respond to the situation, I quickly moved on from the topic, asking her about the rest of their trip. My sister, who graduated from college this June, was finishing up a weeklong trip to Seoul with my grandmother and mother.

When they returned home a few days later, I call my mom to check in, only to hear that all three of them spent the week recovering from spontaneous plastic surgeries. My grandmother, who apparently “stopped by” for a double eyelid surgery, ended up with an entire upper facelift while my mother and sister both ended up with double eyelid surgeries. My mom casually explains to me that the plastic surgeon—her cousin—offered them a huge family discount on the surgeries and she figured that they “might as well.” She sounded just like my grandmother after returning from Korea with ten too many fake designer bags because the salesman gave her such a good deal.

Since our reading of “Beauty Between Empires” and Professor Ishii’s question of “so what do we do about plastic surgery,” I have not been able to stop thinking about how these surgeries, or the plastic surgery of all the other Korean American women I know, fit into my overall understanding of body positivity and feminist ideology. There is no denying that the classes I have taken and the conversations I am surrounded with have immersed me in a straight white feminist point of view. As such, my considerations of body positivity, body image, and plastic surgery have largely failed to factor in race, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender identity. I must admit that I am not unlike the Jezebel readers who gain a sense of feminist empowerment by contrasting themselves with surgically altered Korean women.

As Sharon Heijin Lee argues in her article, South Korean women have often been portrayed as obsessed with westernization and Americanization. I believe that this portrayal applies not only to South Korean women, but Korean American women as well given both their positioning as the ‘forever foreigners’ and the high rates of plastic surgery that I have personally seen. Though there are no statistics available on the matter, I would estimate that roughly a third of the Korean American women I know have had some type of plastic surgery done while in Seoul.

Within my family and my Korean American community in San Francisco, I have seen comments on plastic surgeries go in two different directions. On one hand, there are the surgeries which are seen as excessive, an attempt as self-whitening or westernization, and in some ways a form of betrayal. These types of descriptions tend to be used for understood as having natural features that are “naturally good enough” and/or have surgeries that alter their appearances more dramatically. These surgeries are often described in ways similar to descriptions of plastic surgery by white women—vain, shallow, and extravagant. Individuals on this side of the fine line are seen as lacking self-love and racial pride. Their desires to appear more white and to hide their Asian features can be seen as a betrayal of their Korean identity and pride.

On the other hand, there are surgeries that are described as necessary, corrective, or even humane in some ways. Individuals with features that fall far from the accepted beauty ideals—particularly flat noses or particularly small eyes—are generally seen in this way. I have found these kinds of descriptions to be more common when discussing individuals from my parents’ generation, people who grew up in times where racism and strict hegemonic beauty norms were even larger issues. For example, my mother describes both her middle brother’s nose job and younger brother’s double eyelid surgery, both received right before entry to college, as necessary steps to minimizing bullying and exclusion. In the eyes of my Korean American family and community, the use of plastic surgery in these cases is merely a means to minimizing the effects of racism on identity, self-esteem and self-image. These portrayals of plastic surgery are not dissimilar from Deann Borshay Liem’s representation of the circumstances surrounding her ear surgeries as a young Korean American adoptee in First Person Plural.

These classifications can be understood as an American adaptation to the Korean production of plastic surgeries as ‘economically necessary.’ My grandmother extended the commodification of plastic surgery in her suggestion at Thanksgiving dinner that I also undergo a double eyelid surgery. Along with my family members’ instance on me marrying rich for the sake of my financial stability (something apparently impossible to achieve with a non-profit career (or as a woman)), my grandmother fretted over my chances of marrying rich without fixing my uneven eyelids. In this case, my grandmother classified my need for plastic surgery as necessary for not only my socio-emotional, but also my economic wellbeing.

With plastic surgery being so accessible and normalized in South Korea and amongst Korean Americans, the understood drawbacks of plastic surgery fall away. This leaves us with the question of what the real drawbacks are. Upon further reflection for this posting, I have come to reject the white feminist blanket opposition to plastic surgery. While I am still undoubtedly pained by the systems that push women towards plastic surgery and would never undergo a surgery myself, I must also understand and respect women who exercise their biopolitical agency over the management of their appearances and external perceptions. At the end of the day, women who elect for plastic surgery must been understood as intentionally navigating the realities of the structures they live in.

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