Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Korea's Plastic Face: The Root Cause

By now, it should be no secret that South Korea holds the dubious record of having the highest number of cosmetic surgeries per capita in the world. According to a widely cited figure by Trend Monitor, supposedly one in five women in Seoul have chosen to undergo elective cosmetic surgery.


Cosmetic surgery is so prevalent in Korea that people refer to the combined procedure of getting double-eyelids and raising one’s nose as “the basics.” Seoul is inundated with casual advertisements for cosmetic surgery; some of them employing “cute” images to perhaps downplay the potentially serious side-effects of some of their procedures, such as liposuction.


There is even a cable television show called “Let Me In,” which is actually a play on words. The Chinese characters used for “Me In” are “美人,” which translate to “beautiful woman.” So translated properly, the show means “Let beautiful women be beautiful.”

In this show, numerous women who are considered conventionally unattractive compete with one another in a series of competitions until all but one are eliminated. The last one standing is then treated to “a full makeover” by the show’s team of experts who slice and dice and nip and tuck so much that when the finalist appears at the end of the show, the woman seldom resembles what she looked like at the beginning of the show. She is then paraded around in front a live audience who ooh and ah and the ‘experts’ pat themselves on the back for a job well done. If you’re wondering how these contestants compete with one another, the rule is simple – the one with the most tragic sob story wins. None of the show’s ‘experts’ ever seem to caution these women or the viewers that what passes for “objective” beauty today will change in the future due to shifting tastes.

This television show, which exploits people’s tragedies and low self-esteem for ratings, is repugnant.

Though there was certainly a time when people were loathe to admit to have gotten cosmetic surgery done, that is not the case anymore. Case in point, a popular K-pop group called “Brown Eyed Girls” made a parody of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” with its rendition of “Plastic Face” for SNL Korea where the group members sing about how they are tired of being negatively judged for choosing to go under the knife when so many people choose to do the same. They go on to say that they are happy with the way they look now, that they are more confident than they were before, and that they don’t want to be reminded of what they used to look like in the past.

I have yet to hear any serious Korean celebrity or politician or religious leader suggest that the objectification of women may be based on misogyny.

As the the rest of the world has gotten to realize just how prevalent cosmetic surgery is in Korea, various people have attempted to explain as to why that is so. Some have given an economic explanation. Although the South Korean economy is still widely dependent on exporting manufactured or semi-manufactured goods, Korea is rapidly on its way to becoming a service-based economy. In such an economy, especially one that is as hyper-competitive as South Korea’s economy, looks matter as more employers tend to prefer to hire those who are more aesthetically pleasing. Considering the disadvantage a person would be subjecting oneself to under the circumstances, it would be irresponsible not to get cosmetic surgery done.

Others have given a more social explanation. As the entertainment industry, regardless of country, is mostly dominated by Hollywood, much of the world has been socialized into accepting Eurocentric standards of beauty as the ideal form of beauty, which explains “the basics” and Koreans’ seeming preference for paler skin complexions (though there seems to be strong disagreements about this).

Another interesting theory behind as to why cosmetic surgery is more popular in Korea than anywhere else was given by the Korean in his blog where he stated that the prevalence of cosmetic surgery in Korea is due to Koreans’ tendency to conform with one another. He then said that this tendency can be traced back to Koreans’ homogeneity, which resulted from a long history of agriculture and poverty. He also mentions in the same blog that it is also a result of sexism and hyper-competitiveness. In an earlier entry, he posited the theory that another reason why Koreans are so susceptible to conform with one another is due to having been frequently invaded by neighboring countries. Being alike to each other was a survival mechanism because, to quote the Korean, “...[A]nyone who is different from the Korean way is probably looking to kill the men and steal the women.”

The aforementioned arguments have covered economics, history, sociology, and politics – and they are not incorrect. Though it is unlikely that one single answer is correct, it is more than likely that some combination of those answers explain the prevalence of cosmetic surgery in Korea. However, none of those arguments explains the psychological or philosophical root causes.

In a consumerist society, when there are innumerable businesses that all wish to sell us innumerable goods and services that are mostly similar or identical to one another, businesses have long ago abandoned the idea of simply selling us a product. The most successful businesses are the ones that most successfully sell happiness. The perfume that will drive men wild, the car that will reflect your powerful personality, the wine that peers into your equally sublime soul. The idea that no matter how bad your day has been, with the right perfume and the right car and the right kind of chocolate, you will be happy. It is the same idea behind cosmetic surgery – the idea that with almond-shaped eyes, a taller nose, a more fragile-looking V-line jaw, a bigger bust, a firmer and flatter belly, and lifted buttocks, even you, yes, you will be happy.


I have never met a single person who lived to be sad. When we go to work at our jobs that we have no passion for, when we have to deal with impossibly rude customers who think it is perfectly fine to crush our self-worth, when we raise children who refuse to listen to us, or whatever it is that defines our everyday lives, no one does any of those things solely for the sake of doing them. We do everything with an end goal in mind. That goal – happiness. Seeing how we are all looking for happiness, the job of selling cosmetic surgery is far too easy.

But therein lies the problem – our very definition of happiness, or at least the happiness that we are persuaded to buy. The happiness that businesses advertise implies that happiness is a purely passive emotion. It is our positive emotional reaction to external stimuli. We can’t blame businesses for selling us that notion of happiness. It’s all that they can produce. That is because genuine happiness cannot be produced or sold. Genuine happiness has to be self-generated and is not transferable to others. We can try to brighten other people’s feelings but we cannot make others genuinely happy. Happiness is a choice that each of us has to make. It sounds so simple. Yet it’s one of the most difficult tasks that any of us ever embarks on. I suppose that if it were as easy as it sounds, neither booze makers nor Oprah would have stayed in business for as long as they have.

Because alcohol never has any side or after effects.

Toward the end of the fifth season of AMC’s Mad Men, the show’s main character, Don Draper, says this about happiness: “What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” It is a brutally honest assessment of what happiness is so long as one subscribes to the idea that happiness is nothing more than an emotional reaction to external stimuli. The more one thinks about it, the more one realizes just how succinctly the show’s writers were able to convey the character’s low self-esteem through a single line that doesn’t take more than two seconds to blurt out.

And THAT is the problem with Korean society. Koreans, if I may be allowed to generalize for a moment, are an unhappy lot because of a lack of self-esteem. Koreans’ blind love affair with cosmetic surgery, rabid ethnic nationalism, oversensitivity to non-Koreans’ criticisms of Korean culture, high prioritization of nunchi, adherence to Confucianism – all of it points to one thing – Koreans gain self-esteem and identity through the approval (or disapproval) of others rather than from within themselves. And is there anything quite as fickle as public opinion?


Koreans, both individually and nationally, seek to improve their image because they crave the self-esteem that comes from the approval of others. However, no matter how much others praise Korea or Koreans and shower them with adulation, like Don Draper’s never-ending quest for more happiness, Koreans will never be satisfied. That is because happiness and self-esteem are not the cause, but an effect and the result of a person's sense of his own self-worth.

So the Korean soccer team has performed well. How does that translate to my self-esteem? So Kim Yuna is an amazing ice skater. How does that translate to my self-esteem? So Koreans were the first to build ironclad ships. How does that translate to my self-esteem? So Inchon International Airport is rated the world’s best airport. How does that translate to my self-esteem? It doesn’t.

No matter how many new shiny toys Koreans buy or how much they hope that others’ success would somehow rub off on them, none of it will purchase self-esteem or happiness or admiration or respect for people who never had any of it within themselves to begin with. The new faces that they get after visiting a plastic surgeon may bring them a momentary satisfaction but when the novelty wears off, and it will, it’s only a matter of time before Koreans realize that their beautiful faces are but yet another reminder of their lack of self-esteem.

Seeing how Korean culture itself appears designed to elevate the importance of others’ opinions, which by definition de-elevates self-generated self-esteem, is it any wonder that Korea holds another dubious record – that of having the highest suicide rate among OECD nations?



  1. Interesting article. I'm not completely opposed to plastic surgery but it should be to fix something that is making a person self-conscious and deeply unhappy. Getting plastic surgery just to look prettier is dangerous. Even if the end result is successful (which isn't always the case), looking back in the mirror at someone who is so different from the original you can do serious psychological damage.

    I feel the root cause of this is crazy consumerism caused by rapid economic growth. Hopefully in a generation or two, Korean citizens will realize life is much more pleasant when you co-operate with others instead of constantly competing with them. Basing your happiness on comparisons in wealth, income, academic qualifications, job, looks etc is doomed to failure.

    1. Totally agree with you on your comment! I hope that one day that Koreans will realize how beautiful and intelligent they really are and that they don't need material things to be happy. Happiness comes from within.

  2. This post is old and my comment will likely never be seen but I've got to say that this article didn't address Confucianism as the root cause of Korea's hyper competitive society. Cosmetic surgery is just another step to elevating one's status in society. Because Koreans are all about status whether it be by position of birth or by works and the power of money. Only by abandoning the ancient practice of casting each individual in the society as higher or lower in social status will Koreans ever learn to love themselves as individuals.

    1. Surprise! Your comment has been seen and is being responded to.

      I deliberately did not blame Confucianism for Korea's "hyper" competitive society because I am not convinced that Confucianism is to blame.

      Competition is also rife in places such as India, Brazil, and China. Considering the very different cultures and traditions that are practiced in other countries where Confucianism is not the norm, it would appear that there must be other reasons that cause "hyper" competitiveness that has nothing to do with Confucianism.

      Though I am not sure which is the blame per se, I have a suspicion that it has moral, psychological ethical, cultural, political, and economic roots.

  3. I like your blog, and even though this is older, I want to join in. Korea is a place of social position, not social responsiblity. One is fickle and can change in a heartbeat, and one is eternal, can only get better. One is reliant on others and what one "thinks" how others see them, which we all know we can never know, the other is about the glorious power inside how we can change our lot in life and the world. One is utterly a prison, one is utter freedom. Yes, i also agree about Confucianism trying to keep communties in check with each other. Daoism would be a much better fit for East Asia. Can you imagine if the Koreans were Daoists? Well, anyway, Ive been travelling here off and on since 96, and the problems are always the same. No coexistance, only one over the other, and always kibun and nunchi. Its their prison, but if they want to live like this, who am I to say? Good to comment on it.

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