I read about the incredibly high percentage of young girls going for a plastic surgery. I asked to my friends, and they told me in Korea, beauty means looking western for women. This is quite funny because I personally think, and as me many people here, that Asian women are really beautiful and have that mysterious look we find so appealing. So the question is: do they know they don’t actually need that surgery to look better, do they know western people appreciate Asian beauty? They could save that money away for more important things, like traveling for example, or studying, or whatever.
You know the Korean is not the one to mince words, so here it is: this is a dumb question. But Giorgio is hardly alone in asking this kind of dumb question about Korea's high rate of plastic surgery. "Plastic surgery" in Korea, in a sense, became another kind of "dog meat"--that is, a quick-and-dirty topic for the media to do a hey-look-at-these-weird-Asian-people story. The coverage is dumb, shallow and sensationalized, and so are the reactions to the coverage, like the one coming from Giorgio here.
Part of the reason for the stupidity of the commentary about Korea's plastic surgery is plastic surgery seems like such an easy issue. People going under the knife to change the way they look--seems easy enough to solve that. The well-meaning people would lament, "If only Korean women believed in themselves!" with the implication that, if only the silly Korean people listened to them, the world would be a better place.
Well, no. Take your good intentions and continue paving that road to hell, because few things are more infuriating than well-meaning ignorance. Such ignorance belongs to the same species as the well-intended advice to the poor that they should simply try a little harder. It diminishes the complex challenges that the people embroiled in the issue face.
What makes Korea's plastic surgery issue so tricky? Consider the following questions:
For all the gasping expanded on plastic surgery, few people can seem to articulate their position on the most fundamental question regarding plastic surgery: what, if anything, is wrong with it?
Is it wrong to undergo bodily modification? LASIK surgery is far more invasive than the most common form of plastic surgery in Korea, the epicanthic fold surgery (commonly known as the "double eyelid" surgery.) Yet the numerous advertisements about LASIK surgery does not seem to raise the same questions as the same for plastic surgery. Why is that?
Is it because plastic surgery does not appear to be "necessary," or necessary only to the extent that we care about the way we look? But we do "unnecessary" things every day for the sake of looks. We wash our faces, comb our hair, (some of us) put on makeup and dress in stylish clothing. Or is it that there is a line between putting on clothes and receiving a surgery that alters our body? But orthodontics alters our body as dramatically as any plastic surgery. Solely for the sake of looks, orthodontists pull out perfectly good teeth, cut off flesh and push the whole jaw into a direction that is not meant to go. So why is there no sensationalist article about the world's addiction to braces?
Is it because when it comes to Korea, the looks at which plastic surgery aims appear foreign and imposed? First of all, it is not true that Koreans aspire to look like a Westerner; oval face and pale skin have been a part of Korea's beauty standard for centuries. It is more accurate to say that Korea's evolving standard of beauty involves certain Western elements, such as rounder eyes. Very well, one may concede that Korea's beauty standard has elements that are not Korean. But so what? Everything in Korea has elements that are not Korean. Overwhelming majority of Koreans wear traditional Korean garb only on special occasions. Restaurants selling non-Korean foods are plenty, and Koreans visit them all the time. Koreans liberally borrow non-Korean concepts (e.g. democracy) to run their society, and use non-Korean words to explain those concepts. This is the consequence of living in a world in which the West has won for the last several centuries. Why not the sensationalist articles about the fact that Korean businessmen wear suits, just like their Western counterparts? Why no outpour of sympathy along the lines of, "If only Koreans knew how beautiful hanbok was!"
Is it because the high rate of plastic surgery reveals something peculiar about Korea? But what is that something, exactly? That Koreans care about looks? (But people who get orthodontic procedures don't?) That Korean women are subject to undue pressure from society? (Because television shows and advertisement boards elsewhere in the world feature regular-weight women with no makeup?) That Koreans' sense of beauty is too uniform? (Because elsewhere in the world, there is never any attempt to make regular-weight woman appear slimmer, or a darker-skinned woman appear lighter, on magazine covers?)
Let me be clear: I do not intend to imply an answer to these questions. (Frankly, I cannot even fully answer them.) Nor are these questions meant to be a series of reflexive tu quoque. There may be a real difference between plastic surgery and makeup. There may be a real difference between plastic surgery on one hand, and LASIK surgery and orthodontics on the other. There may be a real reason such that incorporation of Western elements in Korea's standard of beauty is so much more unacceptable and so much more offensive than the incorporation of Western elements in Korea's governing system. There may be actual insight about Korea to be gained from this phenomenon that is significantly different from the insight to be gained from what we are seeing elsewhere in the modern world. The point of listing those questions is: the answers to these questions are not obvious, and require a serious intellectual engagement to explain.
A helpful rule of thumb in trying to explore this issue: if you find yourself moving toward a perspective that does not treat Koreans--especially Korean women--as people who make autonomous decisions in the face of certain factual situations, stop and start over. If you find yourself cobbling together the few facts that you know about Korea to figure this out ("Isn't K-pop Korean? Of course they must be connected!"), stop thinking and start reading more about Korea. If you cannot recognize the parallels between Korea's plastic surgery and other bodily modifications common in the place you live, even just for the sake of discerning the starting point from which those two things part company, stop thinking about Korea and develop more self-awareness about your own society first.
In other words, stop asking questions like Giorgio, and don't write articles like this. Stop the stupid, because you can do better.
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