There's a full-length mirror and a scale on every single floor of the all-girls high school where Julia Lurie works. She's an American teaching English in South Korea, the country with the highest per capita rate of plastic surgery in the world. One in five women in Seoul have undergone some kind of procedure. Most popular: Eyelid surgery, to make the eyes "more Western," and getting your jawbone shaved or chiseled down for a less-square and more V-shaped look.
"When you are applying for university or appling for a job here, you put a picture of yourself on your resume or application," Lurie says in a recent segment on This American Life (you can listen to here). "It is sort of taken for granted that how you look will often go into the decision." She says she's been told that if there are two otherwise equal candidates, the prettier person will get the job. Her students see this as normal — perhaps unsurprising when you consider the nation's status as the country most obsessed with plastic surgery.
As an experiment, Lurie asked her students to describe a beautiful woman. "White skin," they replied. "Big eyes." Thin. Tall. B cup. Sounds like the same narrow standards of beauty fashion magazines and designers doing runway shows adhere to, standards that are eventually broadcast with images seen around the world.
A Tumblr called Korean Plastic Surgery features photographs of young South Koreans supposedly before and after plastic surgery. Some of the "after" images look as though they could be Photoshopped, but many are clearly the results of the scalpel. Eyes are larger. Noses are less wide, more streamlined, narrower. Having a bridge in the nose seems very important. Square or prominent jaws are made delicate, V-shaped, smaller. Clicking through, it's obvious that there is indeed one specific way that is considered the best way for a woman to look, and it's a cross between Belle and Chinese actress Fan Bing Bing. (Fan Bing Bing, by the by, is rumored to have gone under the knife for larger eyes.)
There are a few things unsettling about the images, especially the ones in which the entire shape of the face is changed thanks to bone shaving. Somehow eyelids and nose cartilage still seem rather surface-level, whereas changing the shape of your skull just feels extreme and intense. And what about the parents of these men and women? Are they sad when their offspring, whom they've created from their own genetic material, change the jaws and eyes and noses given to them by their mother, grandmother, great-grand-mother? Or maybe the parents have already had their bones shaved, or paid for the kids' surgery, or would if they could.
But what's really unnerving is the push towards uniformity. Instead of celebrating quirks or camouflaging flaws, these photos show a burning desire to fit inside a very narrow scope of what's seen as beautiful. It's not about what's inside, it's not about character, it's about an artificial ideal. What would the average South Korean teen think about some so-called "unconventional" beauties: Frida Kahlo, Rossy de Palma, Grace Jones? If you have a limited ability to see beauty in someone who is not big-eyed and small-faced and straight-nosed, do you also have a limited ability to understand, empathize, sympathize and relate to that person, as well? Do you become intolerant of those who don't meet your lookist standards? It wasn't that long ago that Western society practiced Physiognomy, making correlations between physical features and character traits, making things like large jaws and hooked noses — common among certain races — shorthand for evil or deceitful. It was racism and xenophobia disguised as science, and persists when it comes to Disney villains. In fact, we still use phrases like "baby-faced killer," as if one thing has anything to do with the other. Is the penchant for surgery in South Korea a simple matter of self-improvement, or is something more cultish going on here?
In a piece for KoreaAm magazine, Seunghwa Madeleine Han writes that music might be influencing South Korean youth:
…Over 900 K-pop videos on YouTube by South Korea's top three media companies had received over 500 million hits from Asia alone. (This was long before Psy's "Gangnam Style," of course.)
However, even as countries around the world are reveling in the music of girl and boy bands like Girls' Generation, 2NE1 and Big Bang, some Koreans internally are worried that K-pop may be encouraging the growth of another trend: teen plastic surgery.
Commonplace today on numerous K-pop fan websites are speculative stories about whether pop idols with picture-perfect facial features are natural or the work of a talented plastic surgeon. Sample headlines from fan sites include: "Chocolat denies plastic surgery rumors: ‘We are 100% natural beauties'"; "Did SNSD's Taeyeon & Tiffany recently undergo cosmetic surgery?"; "Brown Eyed Girls' Miryo addresses plastic surgery rumor; "IU denies that she went under the knife"; "ZE:A's Kwanghee hasn't been able to drink alcohol since he got plastic surgery."
Often accompanying such stories are recent photos of the K-pop star alongside his or her childhood photos, so that netizens can draw their own conclusions.
On 17-year-old in the article says: "K-pop influences our societal view of how one has to look," but adds: "My grandma looks at me and says, ‘Hyunjin, I think you need to fix your nose.' I want to get double eyelid surgery and make my nose taller. I also want to get the front of my eye elongated so that my eyes appear larger." She adds: "Because I was raised in Korea, unlike the American view, surgery is kind of like makeup," Kim said. "Why do we put on makeup? It's to become prettier. Why do we do cosmetic surgery? It's just to become prettier. To condemn someone for doing so is harsh."
One of Lurie's students says something similar, noting that her plastic surgery gave her confidence. Another points out that stepping on the scale in school every day is not because she obsesses about what she's eating, but because with a quick check in, she can be sure she's on track, and then not worry.
The person who runs Korean Plastic Surgery tumblr writes:
One of the big reasons Korean women get surgery is not to look white, Koreans and Asians in general not trying to be rude but could care less about being white but want to enhance there [all sic] beauty they can't do that by making there eye's smaller. It is true that Koreans find foreign women beautiful, but they don't want to look like them. Just because an Asian wants bigger,eye's, forehead and whiter skin doesn't mean they want to be white, they are trying to fit the standards they have generations, certain foreigners just happen to fit the standard as well.
Whatever the reasons for plastic surgery, it's fascinating to look through the before and after photos on the Korean Plastic Surgery Tumblr, for the same reason we love makeover specials and home improvement shows: They remind us that life is full of possibilities. On the positive side, you can take what you're given and make the best of it, change it, spin it, erase it, become Miss Korea. On the negative side, it does seem dangerous for the collective consciousness to be focused on an ideal unattainable without being cut by a knife or having your very bones shaved down. Young people will always be drawn to fads and trends, but in this case, hopping on the bandwagon means participating in unnecessary herd behavior; "fixing" perfectly functioning bodies that do not need to be fixed and focusing on ephemeral attributes that you can't take with you to the grave or even pass on to your kids. True beauty is on the inside! I wish all these surgery-seekers would watch The Elephant Man and Mask before booking an appointment.
Korean Plastic Surgery [Tumblr]
Pretty in Plastic — K-Pop and Korea's Plastic Surgery Boom [KoreAm]
483: Self-Improvement Kick [This American Life]
Who has the most plastic surgery? [The Economist]