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Abstract

This article explores the unusually high levels of cosmetic surgery in South Korea – for both women and men. We argue that existing explanations, which draw on feminist and postcolonial positions, presenting cosmetic surgery as pertinent only to female and non-western bodies found lacking by patriarchal and racist/imperialist economies, miss important cultural influences. In particular, focus on western cultural hegemony misses the influence in Korea of national identity discourses and traditional Korean beliefs and practices such as physiognomy. We show how these beliefs provide a more ‘gendered’ as opposed to feminist analysis, which allows space for discussion of men’s surgeries. Finally, we critique the accepted notion of the ‘western body’, especially its position in some literature as a more unobtainable ideal for non-western than for western women. We argue that this body has little in common with actual western women’s bodies, and more in common with a globalized image, embodying idealized elements from many different cultures.
Gender, Globalization
and Aesthetic Surgery
in South Korea
Ruth Holliday
University of Leeds
Joanna Elfving-Hwang
University of Frankfurt
Abstract
This article explores the unusually high levels of cosmetic surgery in South Korea – for
both women and men. We argue that existing explanations, which draw on feminist
and postcolonial positions, presenting cosmetic surgery as pertinent only to female
and non-western bodies found lacking by patriarchal and racist/imperialist economies,
miss important cultural influences. In particular, focus on western cultural hegemony
misses the influence in Korea of national identity discourses and traditional Korean
beliefs andpractices such as physiognomy. We show how these beliefs provide a more
‘gendered’ as opposed to feminist analysis, which allows space for discussion of men’s
surgeries.Finally, we critique the accepted notion of the ‘western body’, especially its
position in some literature as a more unobtainable ideal for non-western than for
western women. We argue that this body has little in common with actual western
women’s bodies, and more in common with a globalized image, embodying idealized
elements from many different cultures.
Keywords
cosmetic surgery, gender, globalization, Korea, physiognomy
South Koreans’ alleged ‘obsession’ with cosmetic surgery regularly
hits headlines both in Asia and the ‘West’ because of its reportedly
high take-up rate by both women and men. While statistics on the
numbers of people who undergo aesthetic surgery in Korea are not
entirely reliable – since most surgeries take place at private clinics
and the industry in Korea (as elsewhere) is poorly regulated – the
Corresponding author:
Ruth Holliday
Email: r.holliday@leeds.ac.uk
http://www.sagepub.net/tcs/
Body & Society
18(2) 58–81
ªThe Author(s) 2012
Reprints and permission:
sagepub.co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav
DOI: 10.1177/1357034X12440828
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numbers seem significant (Yang, 2007). The most recent ‘official’
statistics put the percentage of Koreans undergoing cosmetic surgery
in 2008 at around 20 percent.
1
However, the actual number is likely
to be considerably higher as only a fraction of surgeries are actually
recorded. Clinics offering discounts for cash transactions, though
common, are rarely documented. Moreover, other surveys consis-
tently estimate significantly higher rates, and in 2008 alone, around
30 percent of women between the ages of 20 and 50 underwent some
form of more or less invasive cosmetic treatment (Fackler, 2009).
Cosmetic surgery and skin treatment clinics are now commonplace
in urban shopping malls, viewed much like nail and beauty salons
in the UK, and providing procedures such as laser removal of
blemishes to ‘walk-in’ customers.
While aesthetic surgery continues to be generally understood as a
‘feminine’ practice, Korean men are also having aesthetic surgery in
increasingly significant numbers. The Korean Association for Plastic
Surgeons estimates this number to stand at around 15 percent of men
in 2010, and a recent survey conducted by a Korean employment
website found that 44 percent of male college students were contem-
plating some form of aesthetic surgery (Kang and Cho, 2009). Again,
these numbers are estimates, but give some idea of the scale of men’s
participation (similar estimates in the UK and US, for example, quote
men as less than 10 percent of clients, although statistics for men are
particularly unreliable in the West – see Holliday and Cairnie, 2007).
Cosmetic surgery, then, is a significant social issue, and one that per-
plexes both academics and policy makers in Korea – not to mention
the media, who generate many column inches of sensational stories
on this issue.
Existing research in Korea frames cosmetic surgery primarily in
two ways – either as an undesired effect of western cultural influence
or as a feminized issue evidencing women’s continued subjection to
patriarchy. However, our research questions these simplistic expla-
nations. We will show that the meanings and practices of aesthetic
surgery represent a process of negotiation between multiple dis-
courses concerning national identity, globalized and regionalized
standards of beauty, official and non-official religion, traditional
beliefs and practices (in some instances historically imported from
some other place), as well as the symbolic practices of coming of age,
caring for the self, marking social status and seeking success. All
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these considerations frequently intersect with and occasionally
contradict each other. We argue that foregrounding cosmetic surgery
as only a feminine or culturally imperialist practice is a key weakness
of the existing literature and produces only partial accounts of
national cosmetic practices. The data on which this article is based
have been ‘scavenged’ (see Halberstam, 1998) from newspaper and
magazine articles, cosmetic surgery websites (both clinic advertise-
ments and discussion sites), official (government and professional
bodies) statistics, and from conversations and personal experiences
as well as from the existing literature.
Types of Surgery
The term cosmetic surgery (so
ˇnghyo
ˇng susul) is used in Korea to
refer to invasive practices, rather than common ‘quick fixes’ such
as laser removal of facial blemishes or Botox injections to reduce
wrinkles or to shrink the jaw muscle, creating a desirable ‘V’-shaped
face (Jin, 2005). The most popular cosmetic surgeries in South Korea
are eyelid surgeries (blepharoplasties) and ‘nose jobs’ (rhinoplasties),
although jaw reshaping – performed using oscillating saws to reduce
the angular prominence of the mandible (J.-G. Lee, 2007) – is becom-
ing increasingly popular (and affordable). Blepharoplasty refers to the
creation of a visible palpebral fold to the eyelid where one is not
already visible (Sheng, 2000), but also more generally to the widening
of the eye or ‘lifting’ of the eyelid. There are three main surgical tech-
niques to create a double-lid appearance: the suture, the partial-
incision and the full-incision technique (Lam and Kim, 2003). The aim
of the procedure is to give more prominence to the upper eyelid, or a
‘wider’ gaze, without making the eye appear ‘unnatural’. Rhinoplasty
typically involves implanting silicone, or autogenous cartilages or
bone harvested from the septum or rib, to augment the tip and dorsum
of the nose, constructing a desirable ‘pointy’ (as opposed to wide and
flat) tip of the nose (Jin and Won, 2009). Breast augmentations and
liposuction are also common.
With the exception of breast augmentation, all these ‘enhancements’
are consumed both by women and men. Currently, young men in their
twenties seek a ‘softer’ image, mimicking the image of boy-heroes in
popular Korean manhwa and Japanese manga cartoons and anime. This
look has become increasingly prevalent since the late 1990s when
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popular boy bands began to sport the bish
onen look already popular in
Japan (see Maliangkay, 2010). These so-called kkonminam (literally,
‘beautiful flower boys’) looks are epitomized in the highly popular
TV drama series Boys Over Flowers (Kkot-poda namja, broadcast on
KBS, 2009). The ‘soft’ image, for these men, includes a less angular
jaw, double eyelids and a prominent nose tip, while augmenting
pectoral and bicep muscles to give their bodies ‘definition’. The aim
is therefore to create a muscular but smooth (hairless) body with boyish
facial features. For men in their thirties and forties, ‘noble (sometimes
called ‘royal’) cosmetics’ are more popular. Under this umbrella
undesirable facial features, such as sunken foreheads, are ‘corrected’
by inserting implants to the front and back of the skull (M.-A. Lee,
2007).
Attitudes towards Cosmetic Surgery in Korea
While the global financial crisis recently hit the cosmetic surgery indus-
try in Korea, the government sought to protect this important source of
GDP by temporarily allowing its citizens to claim tax credit for the cost
of cosmetic surgery (Digital Chosun Ilbo, 2007). The decision was
undoubtedly partly motivated by a desire to gauge the income sources
of medical institutions, but is equally indicative of the value of the aes-
thetic surgery market to the ‘national interest’. This was even more evi-
dent in 2008 when £642 million was invested in advertising Korea as a
leading destination for aesthetic surgery tourism (Fifield, 2008). Ara
Wilson (2011: 135) argues that in Thailand medical tourism is similarly
valued as a national(ist) asset, as ‘transnational movements of bodies
securing exported medical services in Thailand reconstitute the nation
as the territorial locus for patients and economy’. In 2007 the late Pres-
ident Roh Moo-hyun had double eyelid surgery (albeit claiming it was
for ‘medical reasons’). However, despite a recent tax levy on ‘non-
essential’ cosmetic surgeries (Suh and Jung, 2010), the industry contin-
ues, by and large, to be unregulated.
2
While the government seems undecided on the benefits of
cosmetic surgery, and the women’s rights movements in Korea are
very clear about its negative implications, public attitudes to
aesthetic surgery in Korea have become increasingly positive. In
general, cosmetic surgery is perceived as a worthwhile and under-
standable investment in the body, rather than a sign of vanity (as it
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is often understood in the West). A recent survey found that seven out
of ten people do not object to cosmetic surgery, with an even higher
percentage indicating they would have surgery if money was no
obstacle (Yang, 2007). However, new distinctions are also being
drawn between ‘natural’ and ‘surgical’ beauty, so that surgically
created beauty must erase its processes of construction to emulate
natural, ‘non made-up beauty’ (ssaeng’o
ˇl), which is still recognized
as superior (Kim, 2009). For example, South Korean celebrities tend
to deny they have had surgery, yet their features have shown subtle
‘enhancing’ changes over time. Successful surgery with no expense
spared should look ‘natural’, where natural is importantly defined as
enhancing Korean features. Interestingly, unsuccessful surgeries are
often defined as producing an unnaturally ‘Western’ appearance – or,
of course, marking the traces of their interventions. Only the well-off
can afford the services of the best clinics, hence the ‘natural (Korean)
look’ emerges as a sign of affluence and middle-class status.
While there is broad acknowledgement in both media reporting
and clinical research that surgery is a painful practice, clinic websites
play down the negative after-effects, and play up the positive benefits
with ‘before and after’ photos. Typically, cosmetic surgery proce-
dures are marketed much like a visit to a health spa in the UK; cus-
tomers are encouraged to book a day having double-eyelid surgery
with a friend. Sanitized and entertaining representations of cosmetic
surgery in films such as The 200 Pound Beauty (Minyo
ˇ-nu
˘n kwer-
owo
ˇ; Kim, 2006) and comedy drama series Before and After Cos-
metic Surgery Clinic (Bip’o & aep’u
˘t’o
ˇso
ˇnghyo
ˇng we’gwa; MBC,
2008) serve to romanticize the practice with extremely rare refer-
ences to procedures gone wrong or the painful recoveries, although
the devastating effects of bad surgeries are occasionally reported in
the media. In fact, feminist organizations represent practically the
only opposition to cosmetic surgery in Korea, but their opposition
has in practice been limited to prosecuting cosmetic surgery clinics
for illegal advertising in women’s magazines.
3
Gendering (Western) Cosmetic Surgery
A number of studies have attempted to explain the high incidence of
aesthetic surgery in Korea by emphasizing ‘traditional’ patriarchal
culture. In doing so, they often draw heavily on key feminist writers
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from the West (but in so doing frequently ignore the specific charac-
teristics of Korean cosmetic surgery – and men’s surgeries). While
this feminist work tends to disagree on whether women strive to
achieve ‘beautiful’ bodies (Bordo, 1993, 1997) or ‘normal’ bodies
(Davis, 1995, 2003), there is general agreement that aesthetic surgery
exists within a misogynistic (beauty) culture, and only really affects
women, and exceptionally a small proportion of deviant (feminized)
men. Drawing on ‘official’ statistics in the West claiming just 10
percent of patients are men, Kathy Davis (2003) argues that men will
never be aesthetic surgery patients in significant numbers due to gen-
dered assumptions (active male surgeon and passive female patient).
Morgan (1991: 30) produces a higher figure of male clients (30–40
percent), but still omits men from her discussion. Locating cosmetic
surgery in normalization, then, Davis worries that ‘anyone’ is a
potential candidate for surgery (since no one is ‘normal’), and that
surgery becomes a choice rather than a ‘need’. Unlike Bordo
(1997), she emphasizes women’s choice and agency in improving
their bodies/lives. However, in linking such choices to pain – the
psychic pain of having the ‘wrong body’ and the physical pain of sur-
gery – while she counters the construction of women as ‘selfish’ con-
sumers, she repositions them as ‘victims’. Here we see a repetition of
the structure–agency dichotomy used in public health care (in which
Davis’ research was conducted), where those who represent them-
selves as ‘agents’ are characterized as misguided, apolitical and self-
ish, and those who admit to being victims are considered deserving of
surgery. However, for Bordo, all choices are ultimately produced by
the beauty industry itself:
the rhetoric of choice and self-determination and the breezy analogies
comparing cosmetic surgery to fashion accessorizing ... efface not
only the inequalities of privilege, money, and time that prohibit most
people from indulging in these practices, but also the desperation that
characterizes the lives of those who do. (1997: 337)
More recently, young women in the private health care market have
been characterized as highly demanding consumers of cosmetic sur-
gery. These ‘clients’ decentre the role of the surgeon in making both
technical and aesthetic judgements, albeit positioned as part of a
‘makeover culture’ in which becoming has become significantly
more important than the end result (Jones, 2008). Middle-class
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women in the US position cosmetic surgery as a reward for hard work
and thrift, as well as looking after one’s body through healthy diet and
exercise. Thus, cosmetic surgery facilitates the manifestation of the
carefully tended body in which other significant investments have also
been made (Gimlin, 2007). To paraphrase Margrit Shildrick (2008),
the makeover does not just simply represent alteration to the body but
also improvement to the self, such that the subject of the surgical
makeover both stands back and comments on the new appearance of
her old self and claims to be a different person, brought into being
by the surgical cut.
Men’s procedures are still rarely mentioned in the cosmetic
surgery literature, perhaps because ‘official’ statistics in the UK and
US continue to hide men’s treatments by excluding cosmetic dentis-
try and hair transplants. Figures on breast reductions – the second
most popular surgery in the UK and US – are frequently assumed
to apply only to women, despite Miller’s (2005) claim that over
80 percent of these surgeries are actually performed on men. The few
articles specifically on men’s cosmetic surgeries position them as
either part of the ‘crisis of masculinity’ (Atkinson, 2008) or the ‘meter-
osexual’ consumer-subject (Miller, 2005). Holliday and Cairnie
(2007) have argued that while there is little evidence that masculinity
precludes men from engaging in cosmetic surgery – since surgeries
can provide significant body capital for men in the areas of both
employment and relationships – some do offer more instrumental
explanations than women; looking younger at work to remain compet-
itive, for instance (see also Elliott, 2008).
A further concern for Davis (2003: 7) is that ‘one ideal – a white,
Western model – becomes the norm to which everyone, explicitly or
implicitly, aspires’. While research into aesthetic surgery on the
white western body has tended to prioritize gender as an explanatory
category, studies of aesthetic surgery on the non-white body can
largely be characterized as gender-neutral investigations of ‘ethnic’
cosmetic surgery (Davis, 2003; Gilman, 2000; Kaw, 1997). ‘Ethnic’
cosmetic surgery usually portrays minority ethnic populations in
western ‘host’ nations as subject to racism, and frames aesthetic
surgery, as Eugenia Kaw (1997: 75) does, as ‘an attempt to escape
persisting racial prejudice that correlates to their stereotyped genetic
physical features’ (despite strong insistence from Kaw’s own respon-
dents that they were not trying to look western, but to avoid looking
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‘sleepy’). Thus, ‘white’ cosmetic surgery has emerged as (only) a
gender issue, excluding the theoretical intervention of ‘race’, while
‘non-white’ cosmetic surgery has frequently failed to engage with
gendered experiences. Whiteness is thereby constituted as a ‘natural’
category for all white people against which all non-white people
unfavourably compare.
In addition, feminist approaches to cosmetic surgery and accounts
of ‘ethnic cosmetic surgery’ tend to foreground different surgical
procedures. While accounts of ‘white’ cosmetic surgery tend to focus
on breast augmentations, tummy tucks and anti-ageing facial surgery
as attempts to normalize women’s bodies to unrealistic feminine
ideals, ‘ethnic’ cosmetic surgery studies highlight (gender-neutral)
double-eyelid surgeries, nose re-shaping and skin lightening as
attempts to approach a ‘white’ norm and avoid racism. Interestingly,
then, two sets of studies emerge focused on differently gendered
populations, with ‘ethnic’ cosmetic surgery studies including men
(but not a gendered analysis) and ‘feminist’ cosmetic surgery studies
excluding men (and a ‘raced’ analysis).
4
Each approach draws on
particular surgeries while ignoring others, such that practices like
tanning, collagen enhanced lips and buttock augmentations – popular
procedures which cannot be explained through ‘whitening’ or
idealized femininity discourses – are rarely discussed (except see
Holliday and Sanchez Taylor, 2006).
Another problem with ‘ethnic’ cosmetic surgery approaches is that
they have tended to present minority ethnic populations as static,
existing only in relation to a ‘host’ culture. Such studies have ignored
the distinct cosmetic surgery procedures popular in different national
contexts, as well as patterns of migration and ongoing connections
with cultures of origin through cross-national connections facilitated
by cheap airfares, the internet and cable and satellite TV (for more on
this see Body & Society’s 2011 special issue on medical migrations –
Roberts et al., 2011). This means that many expatriate communities
are routinely in contact with the culture of their ‘country of origin’ –
even if they have never actually visited it – and it therefore seems
likely that aesthetic preferences are drawn as much from these
connections as from a ‘host’ nation’s aesthetic ideals. In researching
cosmetic surgery in Korea, a further problem of ‘ethnic’ cosmetic
surgery studies which focus on Asian-Americans is that their results
have been generalized to apply to ‘countries of origin’; that is,
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Koreans in Korea. Accordingly, what are seen as ‘whitening’ prac-
tices in the West are also presented as ‘westernizing’ practices in the
East without much consideration of localized discourses that inter-
sect with more globalized practices of cosmetic surgery. Explanation
of Korean cosmetic surgery only in terms of westernization seems
unlikely given Korea’s strong sense of nationalism, as well as its
national relationship with other regional powers, for example Japan
(we will return to this later). Presently, then, the same procedure may
be explained differently for different ethnic groups. A breast
augmentation for an ethnically Korean woman can be (and has been)
explained as ‘whitening’ or westernizing (depending on where she is
located), the popularity of breast augmentation implying that
Koreans have naturally smaller breasts than white women; whereas
the same procedure on a white woman is routinely explained as fem-
inizing and not related to ‘race’. However, since breast augmentation
is the most popular procedure in the West does that not, by the same
logic, imply that white women must also have naturally small
breasts? If Korean women are ‘whitening’, why not white women?
Or, if we reject the hypothesis that all non-western surgeries imply
perceived ‘racial deficiency’ in comparison with the ‘white’ body,
how do we explain procedures like calf trimming or cheekbone shav-
ing, extremely popular in Korea but not in other places? We will now
briefly review the work of key writers on cosmetic surgery in Korea
specifically, enquiring whether this work can help to answer these
(and other) questions.
Gendering and Westernizing Cosmetic Surgery in Korea
Studies in Korea typically position cosmetic surgery as conformity to
patriarchal versions of femininity in order to maximize women’s
chances of success in marriage and the economy. Some see women’s
desire for aesthetic surgery as a continuation of pre-modern ‘virtuous
femininity’ that required (upper-class) women to adhere to a strict
Neo-Confucian decorum. Under Neo-Confucianism, men were
expected to transcend their bodies (learning, philosophy) to become
‘superior’, while women’s success, bound to the intimate and the
domestic, was rooted in their ability to mimic a concealed and defer-
ential ideal, defined by virginity or maternity. Taeyon Kim (2003),
for example, argues that Neo-Confucian ethics continues to inform
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rigid gender scripts positioning men as subjects and women as
‘subjectless bodies’ in need of control and protection.
5
She asserts
that under consumer capitalism Korean women’s bodies have
entered the public sphere, no longer hidden away but now available
for scrutiny and consumption. Thus, visibility produces women as
‘object[s] for alteration’ (2003: 106) evidenced in Korea’s high rates
of cosmetic surgery. Kim locates cosmetic surgery in the Neo-
Confucian ‘culture of conformity’, where the unity of the whole is
more important than the individuality of the one, producing beauty
as a new ‘requirement of decorum’ for women (2003: 106–7); Woo
(2004: 53) notes that in this climate women are ‘obsessed with their
appearance’.
Park Sang Un’s (2007) essay on dieting and embodiment instead
deploys the Korean foundation myth to show how contemporary dis-
courses of women’s value continue to emphasize self-sacrifice. Park
argues that Korean femininity promotes suffering for the greater
good, evidenced in women’s willingness to endure pain for beauty:
Just as the [she-]bear in the [Korean foundation] myth had to over-
come the pain of staying in a dark cave and eating only mugwort and
garlic in order to become a human being, today’s bear-women must
undergo the pain of dieting and plastic surgery in order to become
beautiful women with bodies that are considered normal and socially
acceptable. (Park, 2007: 46)
Park also points out, linking patriarchal national culture with
western-influenced globalization, that today’s ‘bear-woman is the
Western female’ (2007: 47) – something the ‘average Korean women
can hardly attain’ (2007: 55). Kim (2003) also positions ‘Eurasian’
beauty as the Korean ideal since a 1994 legal change permitting the
use of non-Korean models in Korean advertising. For Cho (2009),
technology conspires with patriarchal aesthetic standards and neolib-
eral consumer capitalism to increase women’s human capital in the
marriage market and workplace.
Unlike the rather passive figures presented by Kim, Park and Cho,
however, Woo’s (2004) women emerge as highly informed, active
agents in their engagements with cosmetic surgeons. Cosmetic surgery
is positioned in tandem with significant gains for Korean women in
education and careers. Woo shows how women’s bodies have moved
from a limited maternal role to an active, pleasure-seeking one, and
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how beauty brings not only gratification but also a degree of status in
contemporary Korean society. She is careful to point out that women’s
aesthetic surgeries are voluntary and empowering. However, she sees
this empowerment ultimately as a trap, the benefits of one surgical
procedure creating desire for another, producing women as surgery
‘addicts’: having internalized patriarchal and westernized beauty stan-
dards, they ‘helplessly accept the logic of technological capital that
makes women constantly examine their bodies in a negative and
pathological light’ (2004: 78–9):
As a non-white race, Korean women’s bodies were branded as inferior
and flawed and the images of white women conveyed through mass
media in such forums as Miss Universe competitions and Hollywood
movies presented a beauty ideal that Korean women felt obliged to
pursue. (2004: 60)
Woo shows how many employers try to enforce specific height and
weight restrictions for women graduates and how women’s bodies
are used to sell products and symbolize desire within Korean con-
sumer capitalism. However, in supporting these claims she draws
mainly on highly gendered, classed and embodied occupations such
as to
ˇumi (young women who sell products in department stores and
in the street), and flight attendants. There is much in Woo’s article
that adds to the discussion of aesthetic surgery in Korea (and else-
where); however, despite mentioning the increase in men’s cosmetic
surgery and alluding in a footnote to the significance of physiog-
nomy, her analysis remains rooted narrowly in patriarchal and west-
ern systems of beauty and neoliberalism. In grounding their
arguments only in patriarchies – be they Neo-Confucian, western
or technological – all these writers fail to adequately explain not only
men’s cosmetic surgeries, but all Korean cosmetic surgeries, since
gender is clearly not the only cultural mechanism at work here.
Other Colonizations
National identity politics in South Korea are complex, and cannot be
understood without reference to the Japanese colonial period (1910–
45). This period witnessed the imposition of western-style moderni-
zation in Korea via a colonizing Japanese culture, which emphasized
its own superiority over ‘backward’ Korea (Pai, 2000). Predictably,
then, since liberation in 1945, much effort has gone into highlighting
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the ‘un-Japaneseness’ of the Korean people. In particular, immediately
after the colonial period, nationalistic discourses mobilized the West as
a way of rejecting Japan as the self-declared bearer of civilization. For
example Na Se-jin, writing in 1964, distinguishes the Korean from the
Japanese thus:
The Korean is of medium to tall height, among many races of the
world. The neck is thin and long, and because of the superior devel-
opment of the Korean’s body and muscular structure, the posture is
straight and erect. The calf is long, and since every part of the body’s
measurements are very even, the Korean resembles the well-
proportioned stature of the Europeans and Americans [rather than the
Japanese]. (quoted in Pai, 2000: 260)
The western body, then, was mobilized in defiance of Japanese stan-
dards of beauty – as anti-colonial discourse. While in contemporary
Korea particular forms of Japanese popular culture are embraced and
emulated (sometimes themselves imported from elsewhere), the
postwar situation highlights how appearances – faces and bodies –
have been deployed in political and local struggles through complex
interplays of sameness and difference.
Following liberation in 1945, the Korean War and Korea’s subse-
quent division in 1953, South Korea endured a series of dictatorships
and rapid industrialization, quickly transforming from an agrarian to
an industrialized nation with an insatiable need for labour. During
this period, official discourses made sense of a divided (South)
Korean national identity by emphasizing the ‘traditional’, pre-
colonial national culture of the elite pre-colonial yangban class (and
the Chosoˇn dynasty in particular). These values were generalized to
represent ‘authentic Koreanness’ for all (Elfving-Hwang, 2010). Pre-
dictably, this precipitated a return to traditional gender discourses
that associated women with the nurturing maternal body. Here again,
the body emerges as a site for negotiating and reinforcing national
identity.
Physiognomy
Related to this, many Koreans re-embraced traditional forms of divi-
nation, such as astrology and physiognomy, which were seen as
‘authentic’ elements of Korean culture (Kim, 2005). This enduring
belief is exemplified in the widely discussed case of President Chun
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Doo Hwan (1980–8) whose mother had prayed for 100 days for a son
before conceiving. It is said that she met a wandering monk who told
her she had the face of a mother who would give birth to a successful
son – if only she had less protruding teeth. She promptly smashed her
teeth out with a rock, her son subsequently becoming president.
6
The
story undoubtedly underlines the importance of non-official religious
practices in Korea, explaning how Chun Doo Hwan’s mother altered
the fate of her son by altering her own appearance. Indigenous folk
religions and practices have undergone a revival during the past three
decades and physiognomy, as a prominent form of ‘Korean’ divina-
tion, has been enthusiastically embraced. Around half of all Koreans
believe that one can ‘read’ a person’s character by looking at their
face (Kim, 2005). With the growing affluence of Korean society, the
‘inauspicious’ face, previously having doomed its bearer to a lifetime
of bad luck, can now be fixed.
Although it has traditionally been considered disrespectful to
one’s ancestors (who bequeath one’s body) to alter physical appear-
ance (Kim, 2009; Shin, 2002), ‘physiognomic surgery’ (gwansang
susul) is gaining popularity as Korean customers seek auspicious
faces in addition to beautiful ones (Im, 2009). Many who consider
undergoing aesthetic surgery consult a physiognomist beforehand,
and aesthetic surgeons and physiognomists work closely together
making mutual recommendations to clients (Jeffreys, 2007). This
practice has little to do with enhancing the subject’s appearance in
line with accepted (western) beauty models. For example, a common
procedure removes moles or blemishes from under the eyes, since
these are seen to resemble tears – a sign of sorrows to come (Lee,
2006). While not everyone believes in physiognomy, having a ‘lucky
face’, ‘right face’ or ‘best face’ reduces the ‘risk’ of leaving an
unfavourable impression and can be of great importance in many
practical ways.
Many young men and women seek to attain an o
ˇljjang (literally:
‘best face’). The common practice of seeking approval from stran-
gers of the results of surgical procedures highlights the importance
of having the ‘right face’. Individuals post before and after photos
on internet chatroom sites
7
soliciting evaluations from other mem-
bers. As Featherstone (2010) explains, writing about the West, the
portrait photograph, posed and then, perhaps, Photoshopped, cannot
be separated from the imago. The image is related to the imagination
70 Body & Society 18(2)
by guest on November 16, 2015bod.sagepub.comDownloaded from
and represents not what is there, but what one imagines one could or
should be. The photographic portrait, then, is never individual but
embodies cultural ideals. Cosmetic surgery enables these cultural
ideals to become (to a certain extent) a reality. This raises questions
about whether Korean aesthetic surgery is simply a desire to ‘wester-
nize’, or whether it represents a continuation of older traditions of
altering appearance for success or, more probably, some negotiation
between these two.
Blepharoplasty in particular has often been explained in terms of
‘westernization’. However, it is worth remembering that while many
Koreans already have a double eyelid, many westerners undergo ble-
pharoplasties too. Wider eyes signal youth, energy and alertness.
Korean women have used temporary eyelid tapes and glues for
decades, most usually justified as easing the application of make-
up. Eye surgery is seen as a more convenient permanent fix (the
surgery takes 10 to 20 minutes depending on technique) which saves
time and allows greater participation in sports and swimming, for
example. Blepharoplasties (like breast augmentations) appear to
have originated in Japan (the first performed by a surgeon named
Mikamo in 1896) and were originally used to treat children born with
one single and one double eyelid (Miller, 2006). East Asians tend to
have more adipose fat in the eyelid than Caucasians, and men and
women who have too much fat removed are seen negatively as arti-
ficially western. Wider eyes may be desirable, but they must be wider
Korean eyes, not western ones. The most important aim of cosmetic
surgery is to create a natural look that ‘enhances’ the body without
losing the ‘Koreanness’ of the subject who undergoes surgery.
However, ‘Koreanness’ in the context of blepharoplasty is also in a
state of flux, and wide eyes also have another, more gendered mean-
ing. Some of the features most commonly sought through aesthetic
surgery today would have been considered undesirable in the past.
For instance, Korean physiognomy has traditionally characterized
round eyes for women as suggesting lasciviousness, yet round eyes
are currently desirable, while a large ‘moon face’ has historically
connoted fertility and therefore value for women, yet women are now
having their faces narrowed. Under consumer capitalism, huge shifts
have occurred in Korean women’s roles, for the urban middle classes
at least. Most young, educated women are now working, delaying
marriage and having only one child in order to preserve their careers.
Holliday and Elfving-Hwang 71
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For Bordo (1993), writing in and about the West in the early 1990s,
similar shifts resulted in a ‘hard’ (muscular, toned) body as the ideal
for women. Rather than positioning this body as an attempt to simply
emulate advertising, Bordo shows how the hard body connotes
strength and independence, making women’s bodies unremarkable
in the masculine workplace. She also shows how the battle against
fat on hips and breasts signified a hatred of the material body that
represented a purely maternal, domestic destiny. Holliday and
Sanchez Taylor (2006) have shown that the surgically ‘enhanced’
– particularly breast-augmented – body connotes sexual self-
determination for women who reject the necessity to masculinize
their bodies to fit male norms. In the same way, Korean women seem
to be divorcing themselves from this maternal body – the moon face
traditionally so associated with fecundity – and embracing signs of
overt sexuality, such as wide eyes, thereby rejecting patriarchal mod-
els of propriety. Thus, while beliefs informed by physiognomy
clearly have some part to play, the definition of what is and is not
auspicious appears to be in flux and open to contestation. Unlike
Woo, then, we do not see Korean cosmetic surgery as a westernizing
trap, but as a way of expressing sexual (and marriage) self-
determination and occupation of the public sphere.
Gendering Korean Cosmetic Surgery
While studies on Korea deploy both feminist and postcolonial
approaches, they still fail to gender cosmetic surgery, accounting for
men’s practices. This is particularly significant given the large num-
bers of men in South Korea engaging with cosmetic surgery, and
demonstrates feminism’s hegemony in accounts of aesthetic surgery
and popular discourses which situate it as a ‘woman’s issue’ (see
Fraser, 2003). Feminist assertions like Kim’s (2005), about the
subjectivity of men and subjectlessness of women, are extremely
problematic from a Foucauldian perspective, which asserts that we
are all – men and women alike – subjects not of ourselves, but of
discourses. Neither women nor men can stand outside language and
culture and the power relations that produce our understandings of
the world and our positions within it; men are just differently posi-
tioned within it (Grosz, 1994). It seems, then, that Korean men are
also easily interpellated by the cosmetic surgery industry through dis-
courses like physiognomy that, while producing differently gendered
72 Body & Society 18(2)
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associations, apply equally to women and men. In Korea, two differ-
ently gendered constructions of cosmetic surgery exist: kyo
ˇrhon so
ˇn-
ghyo
ˇng (‘marriage cosmetic surgery’) and chig’o
ˇpso
ˇnghyo
ˇng
(‘employment cosmetic surgery’). Having the ‘right face’ can be cru-
cial in ‘marrying well’. The ‘right face’ can also be a determining
factor in gaining employment in a Korean job market where nearly
80 percent of young people now attend further education college
or university, and this is an issue of great importance for both men
and women. The ‘right face’ is one with no inauspicious features and
one that connotes youth, vitality and upper-class looks. Since a
photograph is a requirement of all job applications, and physiognomy
is often used to evaluate candidates where qualifications and experi-
ence are equal, an employee with ‘friendly’ (insang’i choun) facial
features will always be preferred, given the importance of social
bonding in the workplace. Cosmetic surgery is thus a practical issue
in an extremely competitive (and in some occupations ageist) job
market, chig’o
ˇpso
ˇnghyo
ˇng making the difference between success
and failure in getting a job. Recruitment agency JobKorea found that
80 percent of recruitment executives considered the physical appear-
ance of a candidate ‘important’, and a 2006 study found that there
was a perception among high school students that appearance would
often be considered of greater importance than abilities and skills in
hiring decisions (Jung and Lee, 2006). While this pressure is inevita-
bly greater for women than for men, physiognomy and the extreme
emphasis put on appearance means that men cannot escape it
altogether.
However, there is also some evidence to suggest that since the late
1990s, beauty ideals for women and men are also converging in what
Sun Jung (2010) describes as a complex cultural deconstruction of
male and female, embodied by the feminine-looking kkonminam
men. According to Jung, the kkonminam are thought to be able to sat-
isfy complex human (especially female) desires because they possess
both feminine and masculine attributes. The growing popularity of
the kkonminam in popular culture certainly seems to reflect a desire
to break with earlier idealized masculinities which relied on tradi-
tional militarized images. Korean women’s increasing economic
self-sufficiency and reluctance to marry early, as well as a skewed
gender ratio are perhaps making women more choosy when selecting
a partner. Young men appear to be acquiescing in feminine desire for
Holliday and Elfving-Hwang 73
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a more caring and not ‘hard’ masculinity. The beautiful kkonminam’s
‘softer’ features signify a break from the cool, detached businessman
– men who are more interested in satisfying their colleagues than
their partners and whose self-worth is associated with long working
hours (Korean men work some of the longest hours in the developed
world). The kkonminam look thus emerges as part of a wider anxiety
about normative masculinity in contemporary Korea, and, impor-
tantly, does not carry the connotations of gay sexuality that it does
in the West. As a result, Korean men in their twenties and thirties are
more predisposed to cosmetic surgery than Western men, particularly
since good looks are so equated with success, because the fast pace of
contemporary Korean urban life demands quick fixes to any per-
ceived ‘problems’ with one’s body, and because ‘feminization’
through cosmetic surgery does not carry the same ‘risks’ to sexual
identity that it does in the West. This is evidenced in the prevalence
of walk-in cosmetic surgery clinics in large shopping malls, as well
as the affordability and ease of obtaining minor operations, such as
mole and skin blemish removals. Moreover, cosmetic treatments and
caring for one’s appearance are becoming increasingly associated
with a new kind of contemporary masculinity that is gaining in value
across East Asia, popularized by boy bands and popular actors with
apan-Asian fan base.
Conclusion: Locating Korean Cosmetic Surgery
Cosmetic surgery in South Korea is typically equated in both media
discourses and academic writing with a desire to appear ‘western’.
On the surface it does appear that Koreans prefer ‘western’ features
like wider, ‘double-eyelid’ eyes, more prominent noses and bigger
breasts. While undoubtedly influenced by globalized beauty ideals,
we argue, attempts to ‘improve’ the Asian subject do not erase eth-
nicity (McCurdy and Lam, 2005). ‘Westernphilia’ initially seems
to have constituted as much a rejection of Japanese colonial influence
as an embrace of western beauty norms. Explanations that rely on
women’s surgeries as responses to a male preference for Caucasian
physical features are simplistic, positioning women as objects in a
patriarchal economy. More sophisticated approaches position
women as negotiating with beauty discourses to gain agency (Cho,
2009; Woo, 2004). The modern Korean woman is said to have
74 Body & Society 18(2)
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exchanged ‘virtuous’ (maternal, domestic) femininity for a slim,
well-toned body and beautiful face which offers clear gains in both
work and marriage (Kim, 2003; Park, 2007). However, critics ulti-
mately argue that aesthetic surgery is a trap, making profits by pro-
moting western beauty that requires surgery for Koreans to achieve
(Woo, 2004). Yet cosmetic surgery is also a consumption practice
generating meaning for people who engage in it that is not adequately
explained by these writers.
We would suggest that many instances of apparent westernization
can be related to a strong sense of indigenous identity. The existing
literature has a tendency to reify globally mediatized bodies as west-
ern, but the globalized body is already ‘mixed’ and bears little resem-
blance to actual women in either the West or the East. Rather, the
‘western’ body links to idealized (and, of course, exceptional) char-
acteristics in many countries. Paler (than average) skin, for instance,
in almost every country, has historically signified distance from
(agricultural) labour, representing high-class status. Western bodies
now mark status through tanning associated with leisure time and
foreign holidays. Positioning blepharoplasty as westernization
ignores the fact that wide eyes have local significations such as
youthfulness and active desire, and that western women also routi-
nely undertake similar surgeries. Claiming Korean women want to
look western denies the constructed nature of western beauty and that
western beauty has been valued because it entered Korea fitting pre-
existing notions of class and status. Such claims position western
cultural borrowings as appropriation and non-western ones as coloni-
zation while ignoring the fact that all modern nations actively appro-
priate, reject, hybridize or acquiesce in elements of transcultural
influences that circulate through the globalized media, cheap travel
and migrations. Taking on a ‘bit of the other’ signifies access to these
resources, a cosmopolitan identity informed by global, not just local
knowledge. To deny this grants westerners agency and creativity in
their identities while fixing non-westerners to traditional ‘authentic’
identities (a similar point is made by Miller, 2006, about Japan).
Neo-Confucian ethics in Korea advocated conformity as a virtue
that measured social success by approximation to an elite class image
(Deuchler, 1992), which can still be seen in the extremely limited
range of beauty ideals promoted in the media. This may explain the
desirability of the look which celebrates smooth features and the
Holliday and Elfving-Hwang 75
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extreme popularity of the ‘BB’ (‘blemish blocker’) cream, which is
used to smooth and whiten the skin. In addition, the belief that char-
acter can be ‘read’ from facial features has a very real influence on
social and career success, with physiognomy often indistinguishable
from ‘employment cosmetics’. Young men and women seem equally
subject to these beliefs and practices.
Feminist constructions of men as subjects and women as subject-
less objects can only endure if we ignore men’s cosmetic surgeries.
Feminist positions fail to account for the impact of feminine desire
in an economy where middle-class women now hold considerable
economic power and are increasingly reluctant to marry. Neo-
Confucianism may have addressed women as subjectless bodies but
consumer capitalism addresses women and men as subjects, albeit
subjects of consumerism. Neo-Confucianism also emphasizes care
of men’s bodies as well as their minds (far from the ‘rational’ disem-
bodied men of the West), which may explain Korean men’s predis-
position to aesthetic surgery. The emergence of the kkonminam
men (via Japan) offers men a new way to care for the self, their
reworked bodies alluding to a new flexibility within relationships
which acknowledges feminine desire.
What emerges from this discussion is a complicated picture of
Korean cosmetic surgery where negotiation between globalized and
national standards of beauty, official and non-official religious and
traditional discourses and practices and national identity, as well as
symbolic practices of coming of age, caring for the self, marking
social status and seeking success, all play a part. In reality, then, aes-
thetic surgery in Korea is influenced by a number of different, some-
times contradictory yet often intersecting factors, implicated in both
the (often cited) prevalence of surgery and the (rarely discussed)
types of surgeries practised, and resists explanations that rely only
on feminist or postcolonial readings.
Acknowledgements
We would like to thank David Bell, Flemming Christiansen and the
anonymous referees for their helpful suggestions on earlier drafts of
this paper, as well as audiences at the Association for Korean Studies
in Europe Conference in Leiden, ‘Cosmetic Cultures’, ‘Appearance
Matters’, and the White Rose East-Asia network for their generous
feedback.
76 Body & Society 18(2)
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Notes
1. See: www.nationmaster.com
2. In Korea there is no single body regulating medical malpractice.
Citizens may file a civil lawsuit under the Rules of Civil Proce-
dure. Medical malpractice cases can also be reported to the Korea
Consumer Agency or to Consolidation for Medical Consumers.
However, the first successful case against a cosmetic surgery
clinic was not until 2007 (Bae, 2007).
3. It is actually against the law to advertise surgical procedures
through the use of images in Korea for other than ‘education
purposes’.
4. Except research on vaginal surgeries (labiaplasties and vaginal
tightening), which tends to compare the surgeries of white women
in the West with those of black women undergoing FGM (female
genital mutilation) in countries in the global South and Africa.
5. Neo-Confucianism was the official philosophy of Korea for more
than five centuries during the Chosoˇn dynasty (1392–1910).
6. Chun Doo Hwan turned out to be a violent and repressive leader,
perhaps as a result of the violent conditions under which his
fortune was made!
7. Such as www.cafe´.daum.net
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Author biographies
Ruth Holliday is Professor of Gender and Culture at the University of
Leeds and has written and presented extensively on aesthetic surgery,
material culture, sexuality and identity.
Joanna Elfving-Hwang is Lecturer in Korean Studies at the University of
Frankfurt. She writes on representations of femininity, trauma and national
identity in contemporary South Korea.
Holliday and Elfving-Hwang 81
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... I assert that purposive sampling should be conducted with key sites and actorsthose who are deemed important to the perpetuation of a network of hard-to-reach populations. The importance of a site should be determined by how well it performs as hubs of exchange among the network, determined by information that a researcher "scavenges" from academic, media, grey literature, and archival sources pertinent to the hard-to-reach population (Holliday & Elfving-Hwang, 2012). I emphasize that the sites to be sampled for data collection are not simply in-person, but online as well, given the continuity of individual and collective behaviors across the online-offline threshold (boyd, 2014). ...
... Growth ranging from to 200% to 500% has been recorded in South Korea, Italy, Britain, Germany, Brazil, among other nations (International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, 2017). My study focuses on South Korea, which exhibits the fastest growth with 20 procedures occurring per 1000 people (Baer, 2015) and extremely gendered consumption where over 30% of women have had surgery (Holliday & Elfving-Hwang, 2012). Yet despite its popularity and even valorization in select social spaces in South Korea, cosmetic surgery does not enjoy widespread cultural acceptance (Holliday et al., 2017). ...
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This article develops a novel ethnographic toolkit for examining the networking pathways that hard-to-reach populations use to socially survive. The toolkit consists of two sampling strategies (snowball and purposive sampling) and three data collection practices (role shuttling, site shuttling, and autoethnography). This article illustrates the applications of the toolkit in an ethnography of South Korean cosmetic surgery clinics and digital forums from 2018 to 2019 by uncovering the role that furtive networks play in facilitating cosmetic surgery consumption. Longitudinal in nature, the toolkit excels in examining the network’s dynamism, informal hierarchy, and the meaning-making and networking pathways that allow members of a hard-to-reach population like cosmetic surgery consumers in South Korea to participate in stigmatized practices. In the hard-to-reach population of surgery enthusiasts, I find that surgery is purchased by consumers through persuasive reconstructions of the meanings of success, body, and self by an elusive network of clinicians, who are introduced by an ever-changing roster of past cosmetic surgery consumers perceived to be high-status.
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