Ajumma and Agasshi: the Reign of Korean Women : Surgical Solutions[box]”Ajumma and Agasshi: The Reign of Korean Women” will focus on examining Gender, Society and Culture in Korean daily life. [/box]
“Where did you get your nose done?” asks the young Korean woman.
“Ahh…it’s my own.” I cringe, not really sure how to respond.
A social dialogue about plastic surgery with a new acquaintance or a group of chatty Koreans is not uncommon in Seoul. There is seemingly little social stigma attached to plastic surgery procedures in Korea, in contrast to many other countries around the world. As a foreign woman who has lived in Korea for over three years, I have come to realize that getting plastic surgery in Korea is one of the fastest, most accessible, and most popular services in Korea. This comes as no shock, as South Korea is the highest ranked country in the world for plastic surgery, according to the New York Times.
The Economist estimates that approximately 1 in 5 Korean women have undergone a plastic surgery procedure, while other sources have estimated the figure to be much higher. According to an article on Korean surgery trends in the New York Times, an eye job is so common in Korea these days; “it’s not even considered surgery”. The truth is that appearance, and the intense emphasis on appearance, is one thing that potentially holds Korean women back from reaching higher social and professional ranks in society. One female candidate, Na Kyung-Won ran for the position of Seoul mayor in 2011 and while she was neck-and-neck with the male opposition candidate towards the election date, she finally lost, partly due to a sensationalized news story claiming that she spent $87,000 US per year on skincare, which struck a nerve with the public and caused a negative backlash. While female (and these days also male) politicians and public figures are going to extreme lengths to improve their appearance through surgical and dermatological methods, Korean women in the public sphere are still scrutinized heavily based primarily on their appearance.
How does this plastic surgery culture affect everyday Korean women? While Korea has modernized rapidly to the point of exhaustion over the past 30 years, there is still a lag in how women are interpreted socially in the new modern, technology-savvy Korea. Women are expected to look very young, while also being sexually attractive, and at the same time they are expected to exert a strong maternal side and care for a husband. This causes identity and image issues for a lot of Korean women, who feel that any surgical enhancements to their faces or bodies will allow them to fulfil all these expectations more easily.
As a result of the high demand for plastic surgery in Korea, the trends have changed over the years. Ten years ago, the focus was on making the Korean face look more “Western”. As an Australian, I had difficulty understanding what this exactly meant, and I had to look into why Korean/Asiatic and “Western” faces were physically different. Typically, Korean women do not naturally possess what is known as a “double eyelid”, which in turn has provoked thousands of Korean women to undergo “double eyelid surgery”, which involves surgically cutting the eyelid and resewing it to create the appearance of larger eyes. The same image-anxiety applies to noses, with many Korean women hoping to give the traditionally smaller Korean nose a sharper and higher appearance, to resemble a larger and more apparent “western style nose”. These days the trend is leaning more towards creating a much more innocent and younger face, also referred to as “dongan”, with many Korean women now spending thousands of dollars to get their faces pumped up and contoured to achieve a younger look. The youth-focused pop-craze in Korea, as well as the male-dominant culture emanating from traditional Confucius thinking, may be part of the reason as to why Korea is now the top country in the world for “aesthetic medicine”.
There are a number of social factors that influence Korean women and their high interest in plastic surgery procedures, and one of the fundamental underlying economic factors is the nauseatingly competitive Korean job market. Almost all Korean job seekers are tertiary educated, while a high number of Koreans have invested in post-graduate education such as masters degrees, PhDs and MBAs, often from Ivy League schools abroad. Korean companies have an impossible time delineating between hundreds and sometimes thousands of equally skilled and competent candidates from good schools, which means that the only ‘subjective’ criteria to help HR representatives separate candidates is appearance. It doesn’t help that most Korean conglomerates are male-dominated, and would prefer to hire so-called “attractive female employees” as opposed to “unattractive female employees”. That said, a lot of male job seekers in Korea are now also receiving plastic surgery to improve their competitive edge in the job market, as Korean men are also now being scrutinized more heavily in the interview process based on looks.
This image-anxiety then carries over from employment, and into the marriage market. Korean marriages differ slightly when compared to typical Western style marriages, as Korean marriages are traditionally viewed as the combining and reconciling of two families. The families of the bride and groom hold a formal meeting leading up to the wedding to negotiate finances, salaries, house prices, and even babies. The marriage market in Korea is just as competitive as the employment market, and many marriage-ready singles meet up in interview-like situations. Leading up to the age of 30, there is immense pressure on women to perform well in these meetings so that they can “marry well”, further pushing many women to look into plastic surgery as a means to increase their chances of successfully meeting a marriage partner before they are perceived as “too old”. These women will often endure extreme pain and a high costs to achieve a younger look, and thus appear “healthier” for bearing babies, which will hopefully deliver a social advantage for meeting potential marriage partners.
On top of all of this, a sizeable amount of stress to achieve physical perfection also accumulates during the younger development stages, inside the family home. Korean mothers casually buy plastic surgery vouchers for their high-school age daughters from time to time, with the hopes that this will boost their daughter’s prospects of employment and marriage. Some of my own Korean friends have been given plastic surgery vouchers as graduation gifts or as “anniversary gifts” from boyfriends. While this is accepted in Korea, when my own (now ex) Korean boyfriend suggested that I consider having plastic surgery, I felt somewhat defensive. Ultimately, my female Korean friends advised me that his suggestion was “advice”, rather than a “criticism of appearance”. Inside, however, I still felt uneasy.
The intensiveness of Korean plastic surgery culture became even more evident when I paid a visit to plastic surgery clinics in Seoul. For the advertising department of my company, I had to inspect a number of plastic surgery clinics in Seoul to verify if they were legitimate or not, in order to meet our criteria. After being given tours of row after row of plastic surgery clinics, and after inspecting row after row of operating rooms, I started to feel panicked. The plastic surgery PR representatives walked us through and explained how many of the procedures were; “simply walk-in, walk-out procedures”. Seeing heavily bandaged Korean women lying on patient beds made me feel nervous and uncomfortable. Yes, plastic surgery in Korea is an extremely lucrative industry, but somehow I still feel saddened by the fact that the burden and pain of these cosmetic procedures is mostly shouldered by women, who may or may not improve their marriage or job prospects after investing so much money in new faces and new bodies.
While Korea is now an international hotspot for image-making and body modification, I can’t help but feel that the social pressure on Korean women to undergo these surgeries is a little overwhelming. On a broader social scale, it does seem as though the strong “group mentality” and large-scale peer pressure in Korea does not boost self-esteem, and women are sometimes pushed to accept high-risk surgical procedures as a result of this. A revision of the definition of “beauty” or a more equal footing for women in employment, may be some initial steps to soften the image-pressure that Korean women face in the future. While living in Korea I have been asked numerous times to lose weight and wear make-up, and while I have been willing to make those small concessions, I am still not ready to go under the knife. If I do consent to surgery, I am still unsure of how this will alter my life or relationships in Korea and abroad.