Saturday, August 27, 2011

Philosophy of Plastic Surgery

New York Times had a very interesting column about a possibility of philosophy behind plastic surgery, with Brazil as an example. The Korean recommends reading the whole article, as it is a terrific column with a lot to chew on. Here are some excerpts:
I assumed that the popularity of cosmetic surgery in a developing nation was one more example of Brazil’s gaping inequalities. But Pitanguy had long maintained that plastic surgery was not only for the rich: “The poor have the right to be beautiful, too,” he has said. ... Pitanguy’s remark raises yet another issue: Is beauty a right, which, like education or health care, should be realized with the help of public institutions and expertise?


[Pitanguy] argues that the real object of healing is not the body, but the mind. A plastic surgeon is a “psychologist with a scalpel in his hand.” This idea led Pitanguy to argue for the “union” of cosmetic and reconstructive procedures. In both types of surgery beauty and mental healing subtly mingle, he claims, and both benefit health. ... We might ask: if you’re psychologically suffering, why not have psychological treatment? One doctor had this response: “What is the difference between a plastic surgeon and a psychoanalyst? The psychoanalyst knows everything but changes nothing. The plastic surgeon knows nothing but changes everything.”


Beauty is unfair: the attractive enjoy privileges and powers gained without merit. As such it can offend egalitarian values. Yet while attractiveness is a quality “awarded” to those who don’t morally deserve it, it can also grant power to those excluded from other systems of privilege. It is a kind of “double negative”: a form of power that is unfairly distributed but which can disturb other unfair hierarchies. For this reason it may have democratic appeal. In poor urban areas beauty often has a similar importance for girls as soccer (or basketball) does for boys: it promises an almost magical attainment of recognition, wealth or power.

In Brazil’s favelas many dreams for social mobility center on the body. N.G.O.’s offer free lessons in fashion modeling. Marriage is often seen as an out-of-reach luxury; seduction a means of escaping poverty. Powerful attractions that cross class lines are a favorite theme in telenovelas. And working class women face long lines at public hospitals to have cosmetic surgery. These social facts stem from the lack of other opportunities for many women. Yet, they also reflect an accurate, not deluded, perception of the role of physical attractiveness in consumer capitalism.

For many consumers attractiveness is essential to economic and sexual competition, social visibility, and mental well being. This “value” of appearance may be especially clear for those excluded from other means of social ascent. For the poor beauty is often a form of capital that can be exchanged for other benefits, however small, transient, or unconducive to collective change.
A ‘Necessary Vanity’ [New York Times]

Much of the "plastic surgery philosophy" discussed in the article is applicable to Korea, the world's leader in plastic surgery. As the Korean discussed previously, the most important philosophy to understand modern Korean society is not Confucianism or any Eastern philosophy, but what might be termed "survivalism" -- the ruthless mindset required to ensure the survival over the next person in the continuously harsh conditions under war and poverty. Everything Koreans do, they do with a tinge of desperation, because war and poverty are really that scary.

As the article correctly notes, beauty promises near-magical attainment of recognition, wealth and power, especially when opportunities for women are limited in other areas. Korea, more so than Brazil, is a rising economy in which people have the money to change the unfair circumstances in which they are born. So Koreans do everything they can do better their stations -- they desperately throw their children into more education, and they spend gobs of money in plastic surgery. If you ever wondered why there is so much plastic surgery in Korea, this is why.

-EDIT 8/27/2011- Sure enough, the Economist has an article that explains exactly how much beneficial it is to be more attractive:
A Chinese study confirms that the husbands of unappealing women earn about 10% less than those of their dishier counterparts. Attractive people also have an easier time getting a loan than plain folks, even as they are less likely to pay it back. They receive milder prison sentences and higher damages in simulated legal proceedings. In America more people say they have felt discriminated against for their appearance than because of their age, race or ethnicity.
The line of beauty [The Economist]

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  1. "... harsh conditions under war and poverty"

    You're describing...insecure teenyboppers in Seoul getting double eyelid surgery? Sorry do they give out standard issue iPhone 4's in the Military now, or Galaxy S 2's?

  2. Eyelid surgery shouldn't be considered plastic surgery. It's such a norm in korea, kind of like circumcision to Jews. is cutting off the foreskin of natural genetalia "plastic surgery".

  3. Eyelid surgery is plastic surgery. Just because a lot of American women get breast augmentations should that no longer be considered plastic surgery?

    Anywho, I have no problems with plastic surgery, except for the fact that men will often say they don't like it, but then always pick the girls who have it. (Well, who would want a guy like that anyway?)

    If what you see in the mirror doesn't match up with what you feel, then it's not a horrible thing to change something to perfect it more.

    I think it does boost confidence, but I think there needs to be limits as well and doctors should say no when people have gone too far.

    But in Korea, it's kind of sad because every woman, instead of just enhancing their own kind of beauty, they get the same face as everyone else. And a lot of times they do it out of survival, like TK says. Beautiful people get a definite advantage in Korea.

    Walking around my neighborhood in Songpa gu I was treated incredibly different if I wore sweatpants vs. regular nice clothes. Even when I just needed to go to the mart.

  4. The correct term is cosmetic surgery. Eyelid surgery is cosmetic surgery not plastic.

    Maybe that was true ten, twenty years ago, but why does anyone go under the knife whether it's the US or Korea? Because growing demands and pressures on women's (and men's) physical appearances and insecurities.

  5. I commend you for tackling such a polemical issue, but cosmetic and plastic surgery in Korea is actually a double-edged sword with no clear winners. To name a quick example, celebrities who have had surgery in the past are always being 'outed' online for what they have done to get ahead, while those who haven't are admired in comparison.

    "Everything Koreans do, they do with a tinge of desperation, because war and poverty are really that scary."

    Not everything. Just a few things. And things have changed in Korea. Desperation is a universal human condition, not something that's specific to Koreans.


    I have to think you are being willfully ignorant here.

    Or are you so obtuse that you don't understand that it takes more than 1 generation for a culture's mindset to evolve away from the conditions it was forged in?

    See also: The pernicious effects of 300 years of terror and discrimination against African Americans, and why 40 years after major civil rights victories everything isn't magically all better now.

  7. I think that cosmetic surgery is a trend throughout Asia. For awhile we were living with my inlaws because we were waiting to close on our home and she subscribes to international channels on Direct TV. Her favorite channel at the time to watch was TFC and there was specific show she watched every afternoon. The funny thing is the host of the show went through a very dramatic change in the period of two months that we were living there. First her nose changed, then her eyes, the shape of her face and gradually she even lightened her skin. I asked my mother inlaw if they got a new host for the program and she said no it's just that she got plastic surgery. I just couldn't believe that a person would go through that much pain to change their appearance. My mother in law explained that it's very normal to get some kind of plastic surgery done in the Philipines. Everyone who has the money does it and apparently it is very much cheaper there than it is here to do.

  8. You know, it might not be as desperate as war or poverty for most people in Korea now, but looking nice is a sort of survival trait in a society that has a huge emphasis on putting on appearances (as many Asian countries do).

    We're talking about living in a place where you're being treated differently when you go out to your local store to buy groceries when you wear a shirt and sweatpants vs. a "prettier" attire. If you go out dressing like a hobo, people will TREAT you like you're a hobo, regardless of whether you're actually one or not.

    Same goes for appearances. If you're an ugly mess, people won't treat you as nicely compared to when you're smoking hot. I've seen internet comments saying ugly women are bitches because they get insulted all the time, but never acknowledging that insulting them is wrong, like it's natural for ugly people to be bashed. Granted, most comments on the net are stupid and not representative of normal people, but you can see that this sort of thinking even exists at all.

  9. I know my position is a very unpopular one, especially among many Westerners who have been taught in the last few decades by intellectuals such as Naomi Wolf that beauty should be de-emphasized and we should value inner beauty more, but...

    The Koreans are absolutely on the right path with their acceptance of plastic surgery and acknowledgment of the importance of physical beauty.

    Again, I know this notion just pisses off countless people who want to believe that physical beauty isn't important or shouldn't be valued, and perhaps this belief had a place in the recent past, but it doesn't any more, or at least, it won't in the very near future. Check out this article in Time Magazine:

    We as a human race are heading to a very near future when life as we know it will irrevocably be altered. Very soon, designer babies will be a reality. Parents will be able to pick the height, health, intelligence and attractiveness of their offspring. Plastic surgery is becoming easier, cheaper, and more effective, but this will give way to the ability to grow taller or stronger or become faster by popping a pill. People will be able to change their facial features to match their outfits. Even immortality is within grasp.

    So in this new world in which physical perfection is possible, does de-emphasizing the importance of beauty have a place?

    No, it doesn't. The idea that physical beauty isn't important will be as passe' as the ideas propagated by communism are now.

    So whichever country can understand and accept these new technologies and realities will have an unfathomable advantage over those countries which choose to reject them. I can't really speak for Brazil, but Korea really seems to be ahead of most in this regard. So when designer babies, intelligence enhancements, etc., become available, which countries will be the first to adopt these new technologies? Right now, I can think of only a few, but the U.S. isn't one of them. There will be too much opposition.

    I found the New York Times article extremely interesting. There really needs to be more of a focus on how we can make plastic surgery available to poorer people (again, I know this idea disgusts many). The desire for beauty will never go away. It will only increase as technologies improve. And unless the discussion starts now, there will be a divide between the Haves and the Have Nots that may be very difficult or even impossible to bridge (See the movie "Gattaca." Decent movie, fascinating concept).

    To me, it's a quixotic endeavor to get people to value inner as opposed to outer beauty. I know why people do it, and it's a noble reason. It's about self-esteem, and self-acceptance and equality. But these virtues will never be reached by using emotional and/or abstract intellectual arguments. The longing for beauty is too great with too many. Equality, self-esteem, and self-acceptance on a universal level can only be reached, ironically enough, by accepting and making available these new technologies to everyone.

    It probably seems like I typed this with a foil cap on my head, lol. For those interested, check out this article and website (

  10. A great Brazilian poet (Vinicius de Moraes) once said: "I apologize to the ugly girls, but beauty is essential".

    And it's true, what are we gonna do about it?

  11. The notion of "If you feel comfortable with yourself on the inside, it doesn't matter what you look like on the outside" is noble but not practically applicable.

    I was morbidly obese from age 15 to 23-ish and it sucked. I was the fun girl to hang around and had a great sense of humor but I never got asked out on a date or went to a school dance. It wasn't until I lost weight that I even got noticed. I'm now slim and am considered attractive and get hit on quite a bit (I'm not trying to be arrogant; this is what happens when you have a good body proportions, decent face, and Asian in America). It's actually annoying because I'm not good at understanding that a guy is hitting on me at the moment because I'm more used to them playing around with me as just a friend.

    The biggest lesson I've learned from living both sides of the coin is that being attractive gets you far ahead of those who are unattractive. I say if you willing to accept the consequences, good and bad, of anything you do to your body, go for the cosmetic surgery.

  12. “Is beauty a right, which, like education or health care” No, none of these are rights because they are granted by man. Man does not grant rights, God does. Additionally, with rights comes duties. Whose duty is it to ensure these “rights”? What people do have the right to is to pursue education, healthcare and beauty. It should not be provided by, backed by or run by the government. If people want to make beauty, plastic surgery, available to the poor then that is the place of charity whether it is from the surgeons themselves or other private charitable organizations that pay the money to make it available to those they decide need it. Plastic surgery should be for correcting deformations and not things like double-eyelids or larger boobs.
    So, what happens when everyone is beautiful? I’m sure mankind will find some way to decide who gets wealth and power.
    Life is not fair, it is supposed to be a struggle and that struggle what makes life worth living. I don’t think wealth and power make life easier or better, it just makes it different.
    The issue I have with plastic surgery is that most of the time people are changing something that really doesn’t make much impact on how they look. When it comes to Korean women they are changing the very things that set them apart from the rest of the world and make them attractive. I love the look of Asian eyes and a western nose has no place on an Asian woman. All of what I have said is from the perspective of an American, living mostly in America, where I have the privilege of experiencing many different races. I suppose the point of view of a Korean, living in Korea, surrounded by Koreans that all have a similar appearance is a lot different.

  13. @Oz

    While I don't really condone people having plastic surgery all the time, I do think it's ridiculous when you say "I love the look of Asian eyes and a western nose has no place on an Asian woman".

    You know, as if all Asians, every single one of them, are SUPPOSED to have super slanty monolids and flat noses. God forbid an Asian person has naturally round eyes with double eyelids and a "Western" looking nose without surgery.

    I know you stated the caveat that you're talking from your perspectives as an American, and I know I'm overreacting, but I thought you could have worded it better.

    It's one thing to criticize plastic surgery that makes you look completely different from your original face. It's another to assume that facial features like eyes and nose can be categorized as "Asian" or "Western". One type of eye or nose may be more prevalent in certain races than others, but they're not EXCLUSIVE to that race, you know.

  14. Thanks for sharing nice information.
    Cosmetic surgeon

  15. If we counted orthodontics as cosmetic surgery, especially if it involves actual surgery for tooth removal, where would the US be in the list?

    To me, the eyelid surgery is about on par with getting braces in North America. That's not a good thing, mind you, but I think it puts it in perspective.

  16. @Kushibo

    I've always considered braces to be much more invasive on all levels than eyelid surgery, and found it unbelievably hypocritical that Americans (and others) would shake their heads at Asian women for getting eyelid surgery while turning a blind eye to braces.

    With eyelid surgery, it's a quick doctors visit, and after a few weeks you're fully recovered.

    With braces, on the other hand, you have to wear them for an average of two to three years (I had mine for three); oftentimes, surgery is involved (I had four teeth pulled); there is continual pain as the braces are tightened every month; bloody lips and cheeks are a given, especially if you play sports (I played football and wrestled and continually had to spit out blood); there are dietary restrictions to consider; etc.

    Eyelid surgery is performed on mostly adults who choose to get this procedure done voluntarily.

    Braces are given mostly to children, sometimes as young as nine, and many times, the kids have no say in the matter.

    And with braces, your entire facial structure can change, including your jaws and cheekbones.

    Some may try to argue that braces are for medical reasons, but at any given moment in the U.S., there are 4 million people with braces, and over a hundred million people have gotten braces in the last 60 years in this country. So... how many of these 100 million were actually for medical reasons? It's estimated that between 50% to 75% of White teens get braces. Does anyone really believe that a significant percentage is for medical reasons?

    I'm not trying to disparage braces. I'm very happy with my teeth, I think all the pain and inconvenience were worth it. But seriously, whenever an American (or others who come from a country in which braces are common), starts to "tsk tsk" self-righteously at Asian women for getting eyelid surgery, I puke a little.

  17. JacL, you laid that out quite well. Usually my braces-eyelid surgery analogy is a tough sell.

    I lost four healthy molars to make room for my tusk so I could have straight teeth, something I regret as an adult.

    In general, I don't care for eyelid surgery, though, in part because I think a lot of people who get it do so because of some degree of racial self-loathing, not unlike colored contacts, but that's just me.

  18. @ Kushibo

    "In general, I don't care for eyelid surgery, though, in part because I think a lot of people who get it do so because of some degree of racial self-loathing, not unlike colored contacts..."

    A couple years ago, I sent James Turnbull of "The Grand Narrative" an email concerning this issue, and he was nice enough to address it directly in his blog:

    Jake Lee = Jacob Lee = JacL

    I wanted to remain anonymous because I know at least a couple people who read AAK, and I wanted to leave open the option of talking about some rather personal issues, but... what the hell. Besides, Jake Lee ain't exactly a unique name.

    I have some pretty strong opinions about the "racial self-loathing" perspective as you can tell by what I wrote to James, and in the comment section as well. My opinions haven't changed in the last couple years. They've actually only strengthened as I came across more studies and held more discussions with others.

    So, while I do acknowledge that there may be an element of "racial self-loathing" among certain Asian women (as well as certain Asian men) who choose to get eyelid surgery, my belief is that there are much, much stronger forces at work here.

  19. Come on, how can you compare braces to eyelid surgery? If you wear braces it's not just about look, it's about health - crooked teeth are more difficult to clean and plus you can have problems digesting your food. It's definitely not the same.
    And losing weight is also healthy - still nothing to do with double eyelid surgery. Don't get me wrong, I think it does matter how you look but I don't find plastic surgery attractive at all. It makes peope look all the same while everyone's beauty is unique. I stick to the idea that what is healthy is beautiful and I love slanted eyes

  20. Its simple philosophy is sculpting the body.

    Facial plastic surgery in Houston


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