Note: This post originally appeared as a guest post I wrote for Scene With a Hart, a travel and photography blog that has since shut down. This post was so popular that I didn’t want it to be lost in the dark depths of internet (where do things go when they’re deleted??), so here it is again, reproduced for your reading pleasure! Enjoy 🙂
In Korea, there are mirrors everywhere. I teach English at an elementary school, and we have a mirror hanging in every classroom, and if the classroom teacher is female, there is usually another smaller mirror on her desk. My prepubescent female students often have small compact mirrors on their desks, and sometimes during class, I catch them staring at themselves. Not touching up their faces or picking something out of their teeth–but literally just staring. Young women in the subway do the same thing, in front of whoever, wherever, and sometimes if they don’t have a mirror, they’ll take pictures of themselves on their phones in order to touch up their makeup. You’ve never seen a crowd of primping girls until you’ve walked into a Seoul Subway station bathroom.
I know it can’t be healthy to have this many mirrors everywhere, but after nearly nine months in Korea, I’m used to it. I’m also used to the fact that most Korean women appear to have what is known as a “double eye-lid,” even though according to this New York Times story about plastic surgery in Korea, only one in five women is actually born with one. There’s no mystery to why this is–South Korea has the highest rate of cosmetic plastic surgery in the world. Plastic surgery has become so commonplace in this image-obsessed society that it’s talked about openly among co-workers, mothers buy their daughters surgeries as gifts, and young women grow up thinking they’ll never find love or career success if they don’t fix their faces.
In addition to teaching elementary school students, one time a week I teach a class for the other teachers at my school. Wanting their opinion on the plastic surgery craze, one day I planned a discussion lesson about beauty, societal pressures, and of course, plastic surgery. I was floored when early on in the discussion, four of the six women confessed they had had plastic surgery. One of the others said she wanted surgery, except that she’s deathly afraid of needles, and the last woman said she would never consider surgery, and that she was already perfect the way God made her. These women ranged in age from 24 to the mid-fifties, and only ONE didn’t want or hadn’t already had surgery. I was shocked, and I’m sure my non-botoxed face showed it. Back in the U.S., plastic surgery is more hush-hush (except maybe in L.A.), and these women were just listing their surgeries like they were telling me their children’s names. As an American, I’m used to hearing the stereotype that Americans are superficial and beauty-obsessed (which is definitely true to an extent), and yet, Korean societies high-standards of beauty and the extremes to which they’ll go to achieve that beauty blow those stereotypes straight out of the water.
Recently, one of my friends told me a story of having lunch with her Korean friend who had just had several facial surgeries. The Korean girl was very proud of her new look, and asked my friend what she thought. Not being one to mince words, my friend said “I liked your old face better, and I don’t understand why you felt the need to do this.”
The Korean girl was shocked. She started telling my friend that she needed a better look in order to be able to succeed in business and find a husband. My friend then asked her “So you changed your face for a man you don’t even know yet? You need to find a man that loves you the way you are.” The Korean girl was furious–with my friends honesty, her lack of support, and her refusal to accept that one needs a new face to find love.
It’s not just the women either–my husband works with a young, unmarried man who recently got a nose job. He explained to us over dinner that his nose was his “insecurity” and that he felt that he would feel more confident after his surgery. In a sick twist, I heard that after his surgery, some young female teachers at his school were mocking him behind his back for being insecure enough to get a nose-job. When my husband pointed out to them that they had all had eye-jobs, they told him that was different, they were women.
In Korea, education is everything. Korean students study for hours each day, and most attend a private school after leaving their regular public school for the day. But this atmosphere makes for an extremely competitive process to enter universities and to find jobs, and this is where many Korean women think that having surgery and beautifying themselves will give them an advantage. But in the end, who can blame them? They have their K-pop stars, friends, media and even their mothers telling them that this is the way they can set themselves apart from the pack.
Weigh in: what are your thoughts on plastic surgery?
For more on plastic surgery in Asia, check out this post on medical tourism.
Thanks to the Travel Tuesday link up hosts!