What K-Pop Has to Do With South Korea's Plastic Surgery Obsession


Almost the entirety of the non-white world is plagued with the never-ending desire to appear as “western” as possible. Whether that means whitening creams in India, blond hair in Egypt, or eyelid fold procedures in South Korea, the western (read: caucasian) beauty standard has permeated across virtually all international beauty markets, and with a frighteningly effective apparatus of disseminating cultural imperialism through advertisements, pop stars, and Hollywood, it comes as no surprise that “western” means beautiful in more places than not.

In South Korea, though, the craze for westernized facial features is especially pervasive, with one in five South Korean women from 19 to 49 years having undergone some sort of cosmetic surgery. The most common procedures are eyelid surgeries and nose jobs, which Koreans colloquially refer to as “the basics.” Getting “the basics” is like dying your hair— everyone does it and rarely are people secretive about the work they’ve had done.

But there’s more to Korea’s obsession with looking “western” than merely wanting to appear caucasian. It’s not like Korean women are taking photos of Jennifer Anniston and Kiera Knightly to their plastic surgeons, and despite their openness about having surgery, it’s rare to hear Korean women describe their want for western features as a desire to imitate caucasians outright. But the link between the long noses and almond-shaped eyes that Korean women lust over and the desire to look white isn’t quite so simple. It’s a beauty standard adopted after years of Korean culture idealizing American music stars, reinforced through the countless K-pop idols that have become the South Korea’s biggest cultural export. “I like Girls Generation,” said one Korean schoolgirl about the K-pop group, “They have double eyelid and a small face; a round forehead— from implant. They say they didn’t do any surgery, but I know they did.”

The ubiquity of post-op K-pop is coupled with a culture that stresses beauty as a means of success. Job applicants are frequently required to submit headshots, and the belief that beauty means more social capital has resulted in countless parents pushing their kids into plastic surgery, a phenomenon that makes South Korea unique in that regard. Dr. Anthony Youn, a Korean plastic surgeon in Detroit, has described how he’s witnessed parents poking and prodding their kids’ faces, saying things like, “You need to fix her ugly nose.” One Korean woman mentioned how her father wants her to get her ears done because “he was very emotional about the fact that I would one day feel self-conscious at my wedding when I put my hair up.” It seems Korean parents have the best intentions for the children when it comes to “improving” their features, whether it be for job or marriage prospects, but the fact that those concerns manifest into physical transformations, and on such a massive scale, is more than concerning.

The process of getting a nose job and an eyelid fold isn’t pain-free. All of the societal and cultural pressures that weigh upon the average Korean woman ultimately result in bruises and blood and stitches and bandages. After all, the painful recovery from a nose and eyelid job — you know, “the basics” 00 isn’t like recovering from the sting of bleaching your hair.


Image via Associated Press

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