BEAUTY: THE KOREAN WAY
by Julia Yoo
“Thank goodness you have ssang-ku-pool. Your parents saved a lot of money,” said a close family friend when I was five years old. Ssang-ku-pul is the line above the eyelid, which most every Caucasian has but is rare among Northeast Asians. According to Sandy Cobrin, only 25% of Koreans are born with the double eye-lid crease, and she describes eye-lid surgery as “stitching a permanent crease into the eye-lid.” After observing the Korean trends and Korean pop culture idols for many years from a Korean-American perspective, I think I have figured out the meaning of Korean beauty. It is a very complicated and profound one. Beauty means having big eyes, a pale complexion, a sharp and pointed nose, a taller height, and a small chin and mouth. Essentially, South Korean beauty meant looking as “white” or Caucasian as possible.
I never quite understood how having lines above my eyelids saved my parents money until the summer of 1998 when I visited Korea. I knew that the lines above my eyes supposedly made them appear larger than other “Asian eyes,” but I did not see the financial connection until I saw my aunt in Korea whom I hadn’t seen for years. She just had eyelid surgery a year before, and I noticed how the lines above her eyes opened them up so that they appeared a bit rounder. She was beaming as she was telling me how she got a discount on the surgery, paying only $700 because she knew the surgeon. Then she was telling my sister, who wasn’t blessed with ssang-ku-pul like me, to get the surgery through the surgeon she knew. She was going on about how the majority of the female Korean population gets this eyelid surgery and how lucky she was to have
connections. I felt fortunate; I had saved seven hundred dollars. But instead of yelling this aloud, I remained silent. For the first time in my life, I felt a bit ashamed of my race.
The moment I stepped out into the city from my aunt’s apartment, I noticed cosmetic surgery clinics everywhere, along with billboards featuring Korean women who had Western characteristics. Nowhere could I spot a single ad containing a model with small eyes, a round face, and a small nose. None of them looked like the familiar Korean faces I remembered from my previous visits to Korea. A little later, I saw a girl walking out of one of the clinics with a funny-looking face mask and huge sunglasses. My aunt said the mask was to protect her new nose, and the sunglasses were to protect her newly cut out eyelids. I just sighed. Here I was in my family’s native country for the first time in years, yearning to experience the essence of Korea, and I found myself bombarded with McDonald’s, Nike and those Korean-wannabe-white faces.
According to an online site, Medscape, “South Korea has the highest ratio of cosmetic surgeons to citizens worldwide.” It has become so common that girls will get eyelid surgery as high school graduation presents. I still did not understand. Unsurprisingly, a year after that particular visit to Korea, both my teenaged cousins had gotten eyelid surgeries just in time for their sweet-sixteenth birthdays. The plague of plastics had hit my own family! This just made the wonder grow deeper: What about plastic surgery made so many Koreans fall so madly in love with it?
Plastic surgery has some kind of magical appeal to them—the promise of beauty. In this mystical and arduous quest for good looks, women are often convinced that suffering and sacrificing is necessary and worthy in order to bear the fruits of beauty. And this suffering is not for nothing. With good looks, the Korean society believes that beauty leads to attracting a better-looking partner, which leads to a better lifestyle and better-looking children. Oh, and of course, better looks equals better chances for competitive jobs, especially in the business field. Essentially, they believe that physical beauty equals happiness.
And in Korea, we impossibly apply the same standards for beauty as the Western world does. A woman should be tall, thin, with a milky complexion, chiseled facial features, long legs, nice big eyes, and the perfectly-angled nose. Ann Shin’s film, “Western Eyes” thoroughly and accurately captures the essence of the struggle for Asian-American women striving for Western beauty. The protagonists resort to cosmetic surgery in search of beauty and acceptance, believing that their appearance, especially their eyes, will alter the way others perceive them. The immigrant women believe cosmetic surgery is the key to their assimilation in a predominantly white town. However, the Asian immigrants in the movie are different from the women in Korea, such as my aunt, who do not live around white people, yet experience similar internal dilemmas with their appearances. So if environment is not the primary cause of this drive to look “whiter,” then what is?
The next closest thing to living around white people is seeing them all over TV, billboards, and magazines. With globalization alive and well in South Korea, Western pop culture has mushroomed into every corner of the country. Lacoste, Estee Lauder, Ralph Lauren, Louis Vuitton, and Chanel are only a few of the heavily sought-out Western brands. The Koreans exchange their advanced electronic devices through companies such as LG, Samsung, Hyundai, and Kia in return for Western clothing, cosmetics, and pop idols such as Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. However, Koreans do not just admire these Western idols. They not only want to purchase their albums and clothes, but they also want to look like them. Perhaps this explains why the majority of Korean celebrities have gone under the knife at least once. For instance, Korean pop star Boa Kwon, who now rules the female pop world in all of Northeast Asia (Japan, China, and Korea), got eyelid surgery and her nose heightened. So, just as Britney Spears wooed little American girls to dress in plaid mini skirts and midriff bearing shirts, Boa has inspired and assured many Korean girls that cosmetic surgery is the normal and “cool” thing to do.
This rush for Western beauty has not only plagued South Korea, but is seeping into other parts of Asia, such as Japan and China. Korean pop culture is dominating Asia today with its soap opera series, movies, cosmetics, and technology. In 2004, after the hit TV show “Dae-jang-geum,” many Japanese and Taiwanese women flocked to South Korean cosmetic clinics asking to look like the hit’s main character, Young-Hae Lee, who is known for her big round eyes, small chin, and high nose. Newsweek describes the westernization of beauty standards: “Eastern and Western tastes have been cross-pollinating with a vengeance…The zaftig Indian goddesses and the heart-shaped face of the Chinese beauty are yielding to round eyes, oblong faces and lean figures.” But perhaps this surge for Western beauty is just an ephemeral trend, like skinny-legged jeans.
Much evidence indicates that this beauty ideal is not a trend, but a very real standard that is growing deeper into Korean society. Appearance is starting to play a bigger role in the workplace, to the extent that men are starting to resort to cosmetic surgery also. For instance, my 29 year old male cousin, who is slim and over six feet tall, gets significantly more job offers than his best male friend, who is shorter and heavier, even though both of them graduated from the same prestigious college, Seoul National University, and had the same GPA and credentials. Also, ABC news reports that cosmetic surgery clinics in Korea are getting significantly higher rates of male patients, and in some areas, about a third of the clients are males. The most popular surgeries among these men are almost identical to those for women—eyelid and nose jobs. In other words, this shows that the standards for beauty not only apply to women, but also to men. According to a Men’s Health Research, “86 percent of South Korean men between age 25 and 37 believe their competitiveness for jobs would be increased by having a good appearance and healthy body,” and over half the South Korean male population are dissatisfied with their appearance. Also, it is not a coincidence that all the Miss Universe contestants in the past two decades look so westernized to the point that it is hard to distinguish which contestants are Asian, Caucasian, Hispanic, and African. Therefore, the continuing high rates of cosmetic surgeries, and the growing number of Korean celebrities who look almost “white” as a result of these procedures, indicate the extent to which Western beauty standards have been ingrained into South Korea.
Perhaps the quest for western beauty is political as well as cultural. Going back to the Imperialist era in the 1800’s, the notion of white supremacy is still alive in our minds since Western nations, such as the United States, are still the most powerful and wealthiest. Perhaps even the notions of “walking, talking, and looking” like the white race still exist to the subtlest extents. For instance, many countries around the world, including South Korea, are required to speak English, the language of the world power—the United States—as their second language. As a result, most South Korean students are reasonably fluent in English by the time they reach high school.
Perhaps the obsession with beauty is due to the fact that human nature always strives for what is thought to be better. So Koreans associate beauty with people of countries that are wealthier than they are, and as a result strive to be more like them. For instance, some less wealthy Southeast Asian nations strive for Northeast Asian beauty, such as a lighter complexion and taller figures. Then the Northeast Asians strive to be like the even wealthier nations who are even lighter and taller than they are. And then within the wealthy western nations, the southern Europeans strive to be like the Germans and Western Europeans who are the tallest and wealthiest. In essence, this quest for beauty is no different than the quest for any other greed in life, such as money and fame. There is always someone more beautiful, richer, taller, and smarter. We always want what we can’t have. Many women see the impossibly thin supermodels with large breasts and a perfectly chiseled face, and all secretly admire them. We cannot help but wonder about people and places that we will never be or see. And this is why we will never see an average five foot three woman of 140 pounds walking the fashion runways in Versace. Our elusive journey toward this complete perfection that we can never achieve begins.
Or perhaps this standard of beauty comes from the human tendency to conform. We tend to simplify notions in life into black or white, good or evil, happy or sad, beautiful or ugly. And as globalization and westernization seeped into Northeast Asia, so did its notions of beauty. Because Paris and New York are the centers of fashion, the Koreans may have started to look toward them to set the standards of physical beauty as well. As a result, the Koreans wanted to bridge the gap between their physical appearances and that of the whites to the extent that they have pursued plastic surgery.
The solution to this plague is starting with the transformation of one individual at a time in South Korea. The fact that nearly half the population is somehow displeased with their appearance and willing to undergo cosmetic surgery shows that something is culturally wrong here. But before these individuals can change, the change needs to begin with the role models in Korea, the celebrities and other media figures. Essentially, the face of Korean media needs to change. They need to stop sending the message that beauty means Nicole Kidman and Britney Spears, and instead show that true Asian characteristics are beautiful too. They need to realize that smaller eyes, rounder faces, and flatter noses can be beautiful. By continuing to have eyelid surgeries and nose jobs, the Koreans are rejecting their natural Asian beauties and perpetuating the notion that western features are more beautiful.
The texts cited in this essay are: Burt Herman, “S. Korea Sees Boom in Male Plastic Surgery,” in ABC News Health, 2006; Sandy Cobrin, “Asian-Americans Criticize Eyelid Surgery Craze,” in Women’s E-news, 2004. Fred Guterl and Michael Hastings, “The Global Makeover,” in Newsweek, 2003; Medscape Today, “Cosmetic Surgery Past, Present, and Future,” 2006; Ann Shin, “Western Eyes,” 2000.