Saturday, September 29, 2012

What is it with Koreans and Plastic Surgery?

It is fairly common knowledge that South Korea is plastic surgery capital of the world  Every person living in Korea currently will also know why they do it and it is most commonly down to achieving a more 'Western' look.  Nose jobs and double eye-lid surgery are very popular to achieve this as most Koreans have a fairly low nose ridge and have inconspicuous eye-lids.

Having a the white Western look (and not the browner South East Asian look) is an obsession in Korea right down to the make-up they put on their face also.  While white people in the West are always striving for more colour to their skin with a healthy brown glow, Koreans go the other way and protect their skin at all costs from the sun when they are outside and most of their skincare products and make-up have a skin whitening ingredient in them.  The picture (below) shows the lengths some Koreans go to avoiding the dreaded tanned skin, and this is often seen in the summer in the middle of soaring temperatures.

This is one of the true enigmas of Korea I find.  Many Koreans have an obsession with all things Western; the fashion, the skin colour (white people), travel, and their general appearance.  They are also immensely proud of any Korean who makes a splash in Western countries, such as what PSY has done with Gangnam style.  This exposure is forever talked about on Korean TV, and I for one am getting tired of seeing youtube videos and talk shows in the US all performing their own versions of the song and trying to do the horse dance, as much as I like the song and video.

But with all of these obsessions about the West, when you live in Korea - despite being called handsome or pretty on a daily basis and all the 'love yous' from your students - there is a great sense that some people very much entertain the idea of Korean superiority in almost all departments.  This comes in the form of the purity of Korean blood, the food, their history, their companies, their dedication to work, and their sometimes excessive patriotism.

This, obviously, has to be tempered with the superiority complexes most foreigners have when they land in Korea, of which is all too easy to witness and I have talked about this in previous blogs on racism and anti-Korean sentiment.  Westerners (especially white) I'm afraid, are regularly the most guilty in feeling that they are superior to others but unlike Koreans they are not striving to be like anyone else.  The truth is probably that Western people really do believe they are the bees knees, whereas Koreans do not.  I am not sure what position is worse, maybe those that think this way are just as bad as each other.

Plastic surgery goes to the very heart of the mystery, in that I assume by asserting the greatness of Korean blood they mean that their genes are some of the very best around.  Why then they feel the need to change their personal appearance in record numbers to mirror that of a different race becomes puzzling.  What is even more extraordinary is the attitude Koreans seem to have towards getting plastic surgery. 
My wife wants to have the nose job and bizarrely her parents are not at all against it and even partly encourage it.  There is no discussion with me, I like her the way she is and she has absolutely no need for any plastic surgery.  My wife also tells me that almost all of the friends would have plastic surgery if they could afford it, indeed a couple of them have had plastic surgery already from money given to them by their parents.

My students are all boys and therefore have slightly less of a desire to have any procedures done on them but again strangely have no issue whatsoever in girls having plastic surgery and most thought plastic surgery was a good idea.  In the lesson on things they like about Korea, every class said that plastic surgery was something they liked, saying that it could make girls prettier (they thought this could only benefit them).  Not one student said that the commonplace nature of it was a bad thing.

Viewpoints such as these is one of the most interesting parts about living in a different culture.  I am almost always totally against the need for surgery except for special cases, and I guess this is the prevailing attitude in most Western English speaking countries.  The argument is that we are all beautiful so just get over the urge to mess around with your appearance.  But this is just not true for some people and many Koreans think that not everyone can be born pretty so why not have a few things changed.  The argument starts to make sense in a perverse way, why rely on the lottery of your genetics when you can pay to make youself look better?  The fact is that some people are just downright ugly for no fault of their own, so from the Korean standpoint they should just have themselves 'fixed'.

While I can sympathize with this argument a little, there are some underlying uncomfortable truths.

a) The really ugly people will still not be attractive after plastic surgery.  It cannot perform miracles.

b) It is often those that are quite attractive already and who don't need it that have surgery, this is especially true in the case of Korean women, most of whom look great already.

c) People usually gain very little from surgery - even if it is largely successful - because most of the people who matter to them are usually happy the way they were anyway.

d) There are risks and procedures can go horribly wrong and be counter-productive.

e) Personally, I have always thought it to be a terrble waste of money.  In Korea, people break the bank to have procedures done, often incurring debt (Korea has a massive debt problem) and asking loved ones to fund the costs.

I believe there is only one good reason to have plastic surgery and that is to improve confidence and self-esteem and I am sure in some cases it can really help.  I used to know a girl in England who had the biggest nose I had ever seen.  Apart from her nose she had a good body, a nice personality, and a pretty face.  She would have been so attractive if it was not for her nose.  Everyone I met used to say, 'lovely girl, but shame about that huge nose'.  She must have been well aware of this so decided to have plastic surgery to reduce its size.  The next time I saw her, it was incredible the difference it made, not only to her appearance but to her levels of confidence and she was delighted with the results.

With all this in mind, perhaps since living in Korea I am not so anti plastic surgery because I have had more exposure to the other side of the argument.  However - and this is especially true of Korea - the need to have plastic surgery, I feel, is still only in a limited few.  I don't think I will ever be persuaded that it is a good idea in the vast majority of people, and particularly not with my already lovely wife.

(Note: I also recognise the health benefits of some surgeries, but this post is about purely cosmetic plastic surgery where the person has no major facial or bodily disfigurements or health problems).


  1. I always ask myself how I would feel if I found out that a girl I was dating (I am not dating anyone) had surgery or wanted to have it. I mean I guess you can't really care if you have feelings for a person, but with it being so prevalent there, how could you ever know for sure unless you have some older pictures.

    1. I think most people wouldn't care if a girl had plastic surgery before they dated,but I think most people wouldn't like it if it was during, especially if there was nothing really wrong with them. Also, i reckoned if your gf had a really obvious problem like a big nose or maybe she was obese or had drooping breasts after having a baby that you wouldn't mind her having a nose job, liposuction, or breast augmentation.

      We are talking about women here but apparently a lot of men in Korea have plastic surgery too. I read a report the other day about the growing trend of all-male clinics.

  2. I have been hearing more and more of that thrown out there but haven't read any studies. What are the men having done to them?

    1. I believe the same as the women; eyelids and noses.

  3. women are very conscious about their appearance and they want to look more beautiful. That's why they prefer plastic surgery.

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  5. Matt. I think only womens should concern about the looks :) man can survive but women's can not.

  6. It's a really interesting post and I appreciate your views....they make a lot of sense, but so many people have different views on this. I believe Koreans go under the knife to enhance their looks and rejuvenate their youthful look rather than to want to look more "white". The protection from the sun is to prevent wrinkles, dark spots and skin cancer. I feel like the West like to believe that everything Asians do is to follow the ways of the "Whites".
    Historically it has always been widely accepted as attractive to have fair, large, prominent nose even before Koreans have ever heard about or seen Europeans/Americans. If a Caucasian woman wants to tan, lose weight and dye their hair black... no one judges them to wanting to look more "Asian" or "Black".

    1. Thanks for the comment. Traditionally, even among white people, looking more white was desirable because tanned people were more likely to work outside, they were peasants, working class or slaves. Therefore they did not want to resemble them. The same is probably true in Korea too, people don't want to look like they are from the countryside or South East Asian. In the West, this changed as rich people starting going on holidays to hot countries, hence tanned skin equals wealth.

      I agree with what you say, but there is no doubt that many Koreans, especially women idolize a white western look and I do think that eyes and nose surgery is relevant to this. Looking more 'white' is not the sole motivation but it is certainly part of it. I'm afraid your comparison is true but the fact is that the most popular and fashionable culture in the world is western culture. It might change in the future but for now the white western look is idolized in the traditionally poorer nations (even if they are not poor now) and the non-white look is not going to be idolized by white people because they still (rather arrogantly) consider themselves to be superior, richer, etc (this may also be an unconscious feeling of superiority). This is a horrible thing to say but I think it is true.

      Also, consider the fact that fashion-wise white people do try and look black, they just don't tend to go under the knife. 'Black' culture and fashion is extremely popular all around the world, some people in my country even talk like American black people. The music industry is also dominated by r'n'b and hip hop, both founded in black American culture which many white artists have copied.

  7. This is my two won/cents about Korea's obsession about everything from the West (I'm Korean by the way)
    This is a typical reaction when a foreigner bashes Korean culture
    1. Argue that Korean products are the best
    2. Anything Korean should be spread in the West
    3. Get angry
    and most importantly
    4. Hate on Korea when the foreigner isn't looking

    This is because Koreans have an inferiority complex towards Japan and the West. Most Koreans don't have knowledge or respect for Korea's culture.
    Their true feeling about Korea's culture is that it is unimportant and truly inferior to other cultures.
    I can't really blame ordinary people though, because it's all because the bureaucrats who made the education system and promote Korean culture don't give a F about Korean culture. They argue that Silla dynasty relics are on par with artworks from contemporary cultures, while the truth is that it just SUCKS compared to Chinese, Persian, African or South American art. The sense of inferiority becomes an instinct when it builds up for decades.
    There was a Japanese culture critic/professor or whatever guy who said something insulting(?)about bibimbap and the whole country went ballistic about it. This just proves how people just go downright crazy when a foreigner(esp. Japanese) is involved.

    I've never felt smarter than others until I figured this out. I'm genuinely happy being a Korean, and all I do is just enjoy looking at late Joseon dynasty's calligraphy, paintings, Korean classic literature and music. They're the best for me because they're beautiful and I can feel a connection to my ancestors. Joseon people were worlds away from modern Koreans in terms of culture. I love the fact that people from any class enjoyed literature and when ordinary people met, they came up with a poem on the spot(however bad they were). Even people living in broken shacks could be picked up for a government job if they were highly educated in liberal arts. I really wish I could travel across time to sneak around them.

    Anyway, I don't know what kind of crap the government tells foreigners about my country's heritage, but I'm sure they leave Korea thinking that the so called "Korean culture" is merely a ripoff of Chinese, Japanese and American culture. Can't really blame them and I don't get disappointed. I'd rather see an exhibition for Jang Seung-Eop open overseas compared to an advertisement involving bibimbap in NY timesquare. (You can search 장승업 on naver image if interested). But it will never happen considering how politicians don't know what's good when they see it.

    1. Thanks for this. I have always thought Koreans are proud of the wrong things and as you said obviously insecure about their culture. When it comes to being insecure, the country is still very new to being an international player and the history of colonisation from the Japanese also must play a part in a feeling of having to prove themselves.

      I have always disliked respect and status culture in Korea partly because what people respect too much is power, money, and popularity. To me, when I criticise Korea, it is most often when I see a lack of respect for people who have none of the above. It is how you treat people that should be respected and this is shown in the development of society. Korea has developed fast and it should be proud of its hard-work and in making Korea a good and safe place to live in a short time. I think most Western people have more respect for places like Scandinavia, Canada, and Australia because they seem well-balanced and happy societies with little poverty. Many don't respect China so much because it lacks transparency and has a poor human rights record, despite its wealth.

      Just think Korea and Koreans need to stop comparing itself to others and promoting itself and just make Korea a great place to live and let others discover what parts of the culture they like for themselves. It's done a good job in a short period but a little more work has to be done.

  8. I like the idea. Everything except that they want to look western. Like you said, Koreans have a lot of pride in their culture and it's become "normal" to have plastic surgery. Also, the copy European fashion... Western fashion isn't very special. Koreans have a lot of really unique traits and they tend to upgrade themselves. Why not if you have the money?

    1. 'Why not if you have the money?'

      Yes, I think the above statement is actually true but Western culture has a bit of a PC attitude that everyone is beautiful so you shouldn't tamper with things. I happen to not believe that (some people are definitely ugly) but seeing as I am a Westerner I have to fight my natural inclinations towards this attitude.

      I think in facial structure and who they idolise with regard to looks, they do want to look more Western, but I think they need not. It may be my biased opinion, but Korean girls are generally much better looking than their English counterparts in my country.

      Fashion-wise, you are right and I think there is a great deal of variation in fashion around Asia. Koreans are quite distinct in their styles and I found I could pick them out in a crowd, on a recent trip to Thailand, because of their fashion.

  9. "Anonymous March 30, 2013 at 10:28 AM
    *they copy"

    True, they do - but not as much as Japan, fortunately for them.

  10. Everyone is brought up to beauty standards that are idealized in their culture regardless western for small lines, straight hair, and host of other beauty standards. What might be beautiful in one culture is might be ugly in another. Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. I am African American btw and growing up stateside not to many people wanting to expand their nose, they always want to shrink it. Never will have plastic surgery because if you honestly want to changer yourself to feel better I could use a boob lift myself, but to change yourself to meet some artificial standard of beauty in society please.

    1. Of course not everywhere in the world wants to idolise White Western looks, and it is very true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I am saying nothing about beauty, only what the Korean perceived idea of beauty is which, judging by the evidence i see in Korea, is very much aspiring towards a White Western look.

      I don't think you could say never with plastic surgery. I do think many people are miserable because of the state of their body or their face. It is all very well saying they should be happy with themselves but the reality is that life does become much tougher if you really are ugly by societal standards. There is a great deal of research suggesting conventionally 'attractive' people fair much better in getting jobs, having friends, etc, regardless of their personalities. Some people are also incredibly unfortunate in the appearance department, let's be honest, that stand out from most of us. It is easy for the rest of us to say stuff like beauty comes from within, but try living in some really unfortunate people's shoes for a day and see how it feels.

      All this being said, i think you are right in one major sense and that is most people should learn to accept themselves for who they are. Most plastic surgeries, particularly in Korea are completely unnecessary. This doesn't mean, however, that they are always unnecessary or unhelpful for people.

  11. Hey. Just wanted to add my opinion as
    a white girl in Korea.

    I think Koreans do not get plastic surgery to look like westerners, I think they get plastic surgery to look like better versions of themselves. Some are extreme, but the end result is still a beautiful asian look - even with a double eyelid surgery, because you know some asians are born with double eyelids too.

    Saying Koreans want to look western is the same as someone accusing me
    of wanting to look asian or hispanic for wanting to make my pale skin purer or tan my skin golden.

    It's ridiculous to think you understand the motivations of a whole country!

    1. I think it is ridiculous to accuse me of thinking that I understand the motivations of a whole country.

      Look it is pretty obvious that people go under the knife for a variety of reasons and of course I don't understand the motivations for every one, even the one's who have eyelid or nose surgery. However, a significant number have procedures that just so happen to make them look more Western. They obviously don't all explicitly state they want to look like a white westerner.

      I don't really understand why this is controversial to say that Koreans admire the white western look, it is pretty obvious that they do if you live in Korea. After reading a couple of comments before on here, I started doubting myself, so I turned and asked my wife about this and she said that of course many Koreans idolise and have a fantasy about the white western look. Whether they are conscious of doing it or unconscious they are making themselves appear more Western by having plastic surgery.

      It is fashionable to have a high nose, double eye-lids, and white skin, this just so happens to be what white people have, it is also what many Koreans are fascinated about when they look at my face and compliment me on them. This in no way makes me think I look handsome or that I think white people are more attractive, on the contrary, I happen to think Korean women, especially, are generally rather splendid (that is partly the reason I married one).

      This is one of these cases where if it looks like a dog, acts like a dog, and barks like a dog, it is a dog. Noticing a fairly obvious pattern and motivation in a significant number of people within a population does not mean the 'whole country' does it? I think I am nuanced enough to realise this is not the sole reason for Koreans to get plastic surgery.

  12. 'However, a significant number have procedures that just so happen to make them look more Western. They obviously don't all explicitly state they want to look like a white westerner.'

    This is your opinion based on your observations.

    If your Korean sources are honest with you, they'll tell you that in their opinion most westerners, no matter how high the nose or blablabla, are still UGLY in their eyes.

    The skin may be white but it is bad quality, the features may be more pronounced but attached to a less than good body. Ask your friends for an honest opinion on that statement, please.

    I'm so sick of hearing the 'oh the poor Koreans get plastic surgery to look like western people' argument.

    Go study Korean history. Ask your wife this question too, 'what were the Korean beauty ideals of the past?'.

    You will find it is everything they get plastic surgery for now. And yes, again, some asians naturally do have what you call 'western features'. What constitutes an asian face? There is SO much natural variation.

    I think it is funny to say I attacked you in my response. I was not JUST replying to you, but all the people who have left responses.

    It really irks me when people write and comment on such sensitive topics as this when the opinions seem to lack depth, compassion, and consideration of what is happening now in conjunction with the ideas held in the past.

    1. I do study Korean history, but their historical explanations for their perception of beauty are not incompatible with idolising a Western look. Having the historical explanation does not automatically rule out the current one as well, they can sit alongside each other. Indeed, if you have a historical liking for a certain look and people from another country have many characteristics that fit it, this could make people idolise them even more. For example, it is probably true that part or most of the motivation for looking white is not to look like a peasant who works outside in the sun or a South East Asian (considered poor by many Koreans). This doesn't mean that therefore that they don't idolise a White Westerner. In fact, I am willing to admit that the root causes of their perceptions of beauty have nothing to do with wanting to look like Westerners, but that doesn't mean that White Westerners don't fit into what is fashionable for many Koreans.

      Of course there is variation in Asian faces, but it is slightly uncanny that most of the surgeries give Koreans a more 'Western' appearance.

  13. Ps - I really am not attacking you, in fact I really quite like your blog and your writing style.

    I'm quite a passionate defender of Koreans though, as I have heaps of Korean girlfriends who really feel dismayed at being misunderstood.

    1. By all means you are entitled to your opinion and I like an argument, no worries.

      Don't think I am not a defender of Koreans too, though. I am fairly confident in saying what I do on this post because my own wife and her friends idolise the Western look. My wife has no nose, no eye-lids and she is beautiful, she and others like her need not worry about changing their appearance.

      Thanks for commenting by the way.

  14. Sometimes I cannot understand the way westerners look to that. Plastic Surgery has been my lifelong dream and I look foward to get the money in order to do it. And I'll have it in Korea as it is the world's plastic surgery capital. I wouldn't even understand why somebody wouldn't want it. Nobody can convince me that life isn't nicer to good looking people. Fortunatly, even that can be bought!

    1. Yeah, I completely get what you are saying. I understand why people get it who really need it, but many people have plastic surgey when there is nothing wrong with them and it doesn't improve their appearance. Feelings of inadequecy can be an illusion from perceptions of beauty from society sometimes that are quite wrong. I think it is a shame, for instance, that my wife thinks about getting a nose job just because Korean society likes high noses. Her nose is perfect as it is.

      Life is definitely easier for good-looking people, I agree. I think many Westerners are brought-up to think each individual is special and equally beautiful. There is some truth to this, but some people are not that attractive, period, and like you say could really benefit from some help.

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  16. very informative blog about plastic surgery in Korea. My friends they love to go to Korea for plastic surgery. Thank your so much for sharing.

  17. I've found this blog to be very informative.

    I've recently been going out with a Korean girl and she did inform me that she had had surgery whilst in Korea. Fair enough i thought.

    But as one of the first posters wanted to know, I found that her nonchalant attitude to having more surgery here in the UK / back in Korea really started to bug me and in fact made me become distant towards her as in my eyes (no pun intended) i thought she was already beautiful and needed no change.

    Course she just thought that there was always a procedure out there that could tweak her appearance.

    In the end i just couldnt get my head around her views on plastic surgery so now gone our separate ways

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