With the rising popularity of plastic surgery in the last couple of decades, people are willing to pay thousands upon thousands of dollars to get a rhinoplasty, skin whitening, or jaw reduction surgery, and many are traveling to South Korea for its advanced plastic surgery technology.
South Korea’s beauty standards are closely aligned with the effects of plastic surgery rather than ‘natural beauty’ and, as such, can be seen as “extreme” or “unrealistic”. With all of these expectations the question society needs to ask is—are these standards affecting the mental health states of Koreans?
According to Asia Media Centre, the traditional Korean beauty standards include pale and flawless skin, a v-shaped face, double eyelids, plump lips, and a high straight nose bridge. Kim Ji-soo, a member of BLACKPINK is a great example of Korean beauty standards.
Evelyn Bae, now a housewife living in Hong Kong, lived in South Korea for twenty years. She believed the social pressure of being “pretty” ruined her self-image. As a Korean citizen, Evelyn made it clear that she definitely does not support the plastic surgery culture. It is also another reason why Bae decides to leave Korea due to these unrealistic expectations.
“I think the plastic surgery culture was toxic. Society has a huge negative impact on what the person thinks of herself. It’s literally part of Korea’s culture.” Bae says.
In another study “Mental Health In The U.S and South Korea” from Oakland University, Burnett mentioned that “Individuals may even be blamed for their own “lacking” appearances, or be accused of “letting themselves go” in cases of weight gain or unkempt appearance (Nozari, 2016). In South Korea, there is an incredibly large and harmful stigma surrounding physical appearance, which has led many individuals to seek plastic surgery and harmful diets to avoid being shunned by other members of their society.”
In other words, many individuals feel peer pressured to constantly meet the social expectation of “being pretty” and if they don’t, friends or families will point them out. It’s also not surprising in Korea to hear from others saying, “You would have been much prettier if you did double eyelid surgery”. More often than not, this usually leads to low self-esteem.
Social pressure around physical appearances and body proportions often leads to extreme insecurities as early as middle school age. According to one New Yorker article, “Why is South Korea the World Plastic Surgery Capital?”, it is also very common for parents to offer double eyelids surgery as a high school graduation gift for their daughters.
Gangnam-gu, Seoul’s upscale city center, where six separate plastic surgery clinics reside in one building, is known for its access to plastic surgery. Whether a person is seeking Botox injections, laser hair removal, a rhinoplasty, or v-lined jaw surgery, all options are ready and available. This alone speaks volumes about plastic surgery culture and the standards it perpetuates onto people who are dissatisfied with their appearance.
However, some studies found these unrealistic beauty standards and social pressure may actually harm people’s mental health nor their self-image. According to The Korea Herald, one study from Gangnam Severance Hospital showed that many young Korean women who view themselves negatively were 1.82 times more likely to have depression than those who view themselves positively. Studies such as these draw clear lines between body image and women’s mental health.
Bae feels the plastic surgery culture leads to people being less appreciative about the way they look. People are always going to look for imperfections and, through plastic surgery, to change to a desirable and standardized appearance.
“When you think it’s possible to change your appearance through plastic surgeries, you might think you could improve how you look and would benefit from it, and you’ll be likely to want more,” says Bae.
Bae is also concerned that not many people in Korean society spread messages like “self-love”, instead of the Korean media constantly promoting plastic surgery. Although it is someone’s freedom to choose plastic surgery, Bae addresses another serious issue caused by the heavy focus on beauty standards.
“People are judged and treated somewhat like products according to how pretty their appearances are. For example, when you apply for a job, employers would pick up a better-looking candidate. At the same time, the way people look isn’t necessarily related to their ability for the work,” she added.
The other article from the Insider, “Flight attendants in South Korea reveal why plastic surgery is becoming the norm to get a job,” also mentioned, “60% of human resources personnel feel an applicant’s appearance affects his or her candidacy”. This supports what Bae remarked about the relationship between lookism and applying for jobs.
Even today, lookism and plastic surgery are very often advertised in Korean TV shows and even slowly become part of their culture. The main question is, how can we, as journalists effectively pass on these issues to people?