Decades ago, the image of a typical Korean woman was very different from the doll-like faces plastered across cosmetics advertisements and popular Korean dramas1. But as Korean the economy prospered and a voracious appetite for Korean pop culture spread across the globe2, the faces of Korean celebrities grew to be admired by many women. These faces—all shaped delicately into an oval with porcelain skin, huge double-lidded eyes and high, well-defined noses and cheekbones— became the defining image of “Korean beauty.” Underneath many of those “perfect” faces, however, were slabs of silicon and healed stitches, careful work done by the burgeoning skilled plastic surgeons in Korea. According to a 2005 statistic, the membership at the Korean Society of Aesthetic and Plastic Surgery has increased 85% since 20003. What does it mean that these altered faces are the leading role models for beauty among Korean women, and is media to blame for the plastic surgery culture? How does this culture play into influencing Koreans with cross-cultural backgrounds? Why has plastic surgery become such an accepted phenomenon in Korea? Finally, what can we do about this?
To address these questions, I talked to five Korean women, all with varying cultural experiences to provide different points of view and perceptions. I firmly believe that the issue of beauty is best discussed as a narrative phenomenon because beauty, like selfhood, is deeply individual and unique. I chose cross-cultural Korean women as my subjects to shed a deeper understanding into the cultural effects of plastic surgery by providing a distinct issue to compare and contrast through their own words. Beauty is a complicated issue in which it becomes too easy to fall back into stereotypes projected by media and personal bias. In an effort not to lump all Korean women into one body, I spent hours interviewing each of these women, hoping to gain comprehensive insight. All interviews were conducted and recorded via Skype, and the language used was a mixture of Korean and English. The interviews were then transcribed and edited into a more readable, chronological format with a narrative style including direct quotes. The following is the story of Chloe Lee, Joanna Li, Clara Lee, Annie Shin and Esther Suh.
Chloe’s parents divorced when she was four. When she was five, she moved to Singapore to live with her uncle and his family. She lived with them for twelve years, three of which were spent in Virginia, U.S.A. At 16, Chloe moved back to Cheonju, Korea to live with her father. She attended a public secondary school but dropped out a few months later because she “could not adjust to the Korean education and environment there.” After a couple years of independent study, she took the University Entrance Exam and was accepted to the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. She is currently studying Chinese and International Studies in Weihaiwei, Shandong, China.
At 5’1, with small almond-shaped single-lidded eyes, a button nose and full lips, Chloe describes herself as having traditional Korean features. However, compared to other 21-year-old women in Korea, Chloe’s bohemian fashion style is distinctly different. Her eyes are penciled dark, her earrings are large and dangly, her arms are covered with bangles, and her clothing may be considered too tight and too revealing to people with more conservative values. Chloe always felt like “the chubby one.” Her cousins teased her and nicknamed her “돼지” (“pig” in Korean). Growing up with her cousins who looked different from her, Chloe became conscious of the way she looked and weighed. “I guess I just never felt like I fit in, because my two cousins were both tall and lanky,” Chloe said. This consciousness grew stronger during elementary school, where the P.E. teacher weighed the class publicly. Chloe also mentioned that she had always been very conscious of the “male gaze,” a feminist concept about how women are socially subject to self-consciousness5: “At the time I didn’t really think too deeply about it. I just thought it was the way it was. I never really thought it was because I was a female.” However, the effect of her appearance always weighed heavily in her mind.
After Chloe moved to Seoul when she was eighteen to attend university, she awakened to the fact that she is a female and began to gain her own sense of beauty, even though it was when she moved to Seoul that she was most bombarded by messages of “plastic Korean beauty.” All around her, she saw the “Seoul women” dress and act the same. Chloe called it the “ultra feminine” style, which she described simply as “very feminine, fragile and demure.” Instead of conforming to this style, Chloe found herself rejecting it and wanting to rebel against such norms. “I just didn’t feel like it was my kind of style,” Chloe said. “The way they dressed, the shoes they wore…it just kind of repulsed me. I guess I do my own thing now because I was trying to fight that kind of feminine style.” However, Chloe has few issues against plastic surgery; in fact, she does not particularly consider it to be an issue and paused several times before responding to my questions about her views on plastic surgery. When asked if she would ever consider plastic surgery for herself, Chloe had a definite answer: “I would never let a knife touch my face.” She paused, then rephrased: “I would not do plastic surgery now. But in a few years time…well I don’t think I’d do anything on my face, but if I were to fix something about myself, I would maybe allow body work like liposuction.” Here, Chloe made a distinction between the plastic surgery culture in Korea and America. She defended her fellow Korean women by pointing out that many American women get surgery too, like Botox. “A breast job in America is nothing,” Chloe said, “so I don’t get why [Westerners] make such a big fuss over Koreans doing surgery on their eyes. It just seems kind of hypocritical to me.” The only difference between Korean and American plastic surgery, according to Chloe, was that Koreans care more about the face, while Americans care more about their body.
Chloe then turned her tirade against foreign media and the foreigner’s gaze towards Koreans. She said many of her international friends, particularly dark-skinned friends such as blacks and Sri Lankans, condemned the popular whitening skin products in Korea as “skin bleaching” products. She mentioned a case made by a foreigner living in Korea who filed a lawsuit against using the word “peach” to describe “살색,” because ‘살’ (skin) should refer to all colors6. Chloe said she found the condemnation uncalled for; her defense for Koreans was that, historically, as a racially homogenous country, Korea is simply still in the process of learning to be sensitive in multicultural contexts.
But even while defending her fellow countrywomen,