There are many things that come to mind when South Korea is mentioned. Whether it be K-Pop, or K-Drama, or soju – and of course, we can’t leave plastic surgery out. The saying ‘Beauty is skin deep’ doesn’t seem to apply to South Korea where society places a heavy emphasis on beauty; South Korea has the highest global rate of plastic surgeries per capita with an astonishing number of nearly 1 million procedures a year. This has earnt the country the title ‘Plastic surgery capital of the world’. In fact, it’s very common for South Koreans to receive plastic surgeries as graduation gifts or birthday presents.
To get some first-hand knowledge on this, I decided to ask a Korean friend of mine. His response was: “My mum offered to pay for my eyelids and jaw surgery when I graduate”. Now, I have nothing against cosmetic surgery as I believe that everyone can do what they want with their own body. However, I’m curious as to why my friend wants to have his face done when in my opinion, there is no need for it. Apparently, he isn’t considered ‘attractive’ according to South Korea’s beauty standards. So, what are the beauty standards in the country then? Double eyelids, V-shaped face, high nose bridge, round forehead, puffy eye bags, glowing skin, etc. just to name a few.
Okay, so what’s the big deal if you don’t fall into the line with South Korea’s conventions of beauty? Well, you would be considered ‘ugly’ and in a lookism society like Korea, you don’t want to be ‘ugly’. Lookism refers to “prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s appearance” and it’s very prevalent in South Korea.
In South Korea’s competitive job market, fitting the mould of conventional beauty can be advantageous. In addition to skillsets and experiences, employers choose potential employees based on their appearances. While in Australia, it’s unlawful for employers to request photos of their candidates with the exception of modelling and acting jobs; in South Korea, it’s considered as standard practice. Employers even go as far as describing ideal physical traits they are looking for in potential employees. For example, pretty eyes, high noses and even bra cup size. As unfair as it sounds, no matter how qualified you are, if your employers don’t find you ‘attractive’, they most likely won’t hire you. Hence, being attractive helps in securing a job.
As a result, people turn to plastic surgery in the hope of boosting their employment opportunities. Getting your face done for job opportunities is so common that even the Ministry of Employment and Labor once tweeted a link that encouraged job seekers to undergo plastic surgery to improve their looks. The tweet has since been deleted. As you can see, being attractive in South Korea literally helps to put food on the table. It’s no wonder so many South Koreans choose to go under the knife.
Plastic Surgery for a Better Life
As I mentioned earlier, South Korea is a lookism society. This means that beyond better job opportunities, you will get special treatment in general if you are beautiful. I guess that applies to almost everywhere in the world but it’s especially obvious in Korea. According to professor Huss-Ashmore, who is the author of “The Real Me: Therapeutic Narrative in Cosmetic Surgery”, many patients felt positive changes in various areas of their lives after having undergone cosmetic surgery and viewed it as a “healing” experience. In South Korea, these positive changes are prominent in how differently people are treated pre and post surgery.
As opposed to the West, openly judging a person based on their appearance is perfectly normal in South Korea. Comments such as ‘you will be prettier if you have V-line surgery’ or ‘it’s a shame that you have mono eyelids’ are considered to be constructive criticisms because the person would be able to improve their appearance. Hence, for many who are facing discriminations because of their looks, seeking cosmetic surgery is a realistic and socially accepted way to boost their self-confidence and “heal” themselves.
Face Reading Fortune Telling
In many Asian cultures, a common belief is that your facial structures contribute to your luck and fortune. Of course, South Korea is not an exception to this belief. There is a story from the 1920s about the mother of South Korea’s former president Chun Doo Hwan. She met a monk and was told her face indicated that she would give birth to a man of great importance but her buck teeth would prevent that from happening. Upon hearing this, she used a log to knock out her front teeth. Her son later grew up to be the president of Korea.
Because of stories like this, many Koreans visit face readers in the hope of improving their fortune. If a face reader says that by fixing your nose, you will have better wealth in life, many would be willing to do it (my friend did). More often than not, the desired facial structures are aligned with South Korea’s beauty standards – straight nose, protruding forehead, big eyes, etc. As a result, people turn to cosmetic surgery hoping to change their destiny for the better.
Asides from wanting to look beautiful, there are many reasons why plastic surgery is so popular in South Korea. It is alarming that people are seeking to go under the knife because their skills and characteristics don’t matter if they aren’t attractive. Living in a lookism society isn’t good for anyone in the long run. While it’s impossible to change a society overnight, South Korea is taking baby steps to do so. The country has proposed a bill that would fine employers who ask for a photograph or inquire about appearance during job application process. In addition, the president encourages blind hiring to curb the issue of hiring based on appearance. Slowly but surely, South Korea is changing itself for the better.