An Ugly Reflection: Plastic Surgery in Korea

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.

woman putting on makeup on beach

Even on the beach, a woman is touching up her makeup.

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.

car show model

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.

Korea plastic surgery ad 3

Korea plastic surgery ad 1

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.

Korea plastic surgery ad 2

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.

Korea plastic surgery ad 4

Korea plastic surgery ad 5

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.

Kpop star plastic surgery before and after

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!

Bonnie of A Compass Rose

Christine from A Keane Sense of Adventure

Sara from Sara Sees!

Lauren from Lauren on Location

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14 Responses to “An Ugly Reflection: Plastic Surgery in Korea”

  1. Danny Harbison June 30, 2015 at 7:15 am #

    After teaching there for two years, I became convinced that popular culture was nearly as powerful as tradition in defining society. I firmly believe that should it become “popular” for middle school children to strip naked and leap from a bridge into the Han River, the parents would insist that the middle schools charter a bus so they can do it.

    • Andrea July 13, 2015 at 2:14 pm #

      It is interesting how much popular culture is SO popular in Korea, and I wonder if it comes from a history of being more isolated from the rest of the world?

  2. Christine July 1, 2015 at 12:59 pm #

    It’s crazy how big plastic surgery is in Asian cultures. Even here in the States, I know so many older ladies (and men) who have had some sort of plastic/cosmetic surgery. Even my mom has mentioned wanting to get some “work” done. I don’t know if it is their generation since they were all born in Asia but it’s like no big deal to them… kinda like people in California jk lol.
    Christine recently posted…The Sound of Salzburg, AustriaMy Profile

    • Andrea July 13, 2015 at 2:13 pm #

      I know, so weird! I mean, maybe I will feel differently when I’m older, but right now I don’t see the appeal and think I would prefer to just age naturally. And CA is funny, definitely more like Asia in that way!

  3. Courtney {Alkeks Abroad} July 2, 2015 at 12:08 am #

    This is so interesting. I had no idea how appearance obsessed Korea was. I grew up in South America for a good portion of my childhood and the attitude on plastic surgery was pretty similar.
    Courtney {Alkeks Abroad} recently posted…Falling in Love with Queenstown, NZMy Profile

  4. Courtney {Alkeks Abroad} July 2, 2015 at 12:08 am #

    This is so interesting. I had no idea how appearance obsessed Korea was. I grew up in South America for a good portion of my childhood and the attitude on plastic surgery was pretty similar.
    Courtney {Alkeks Abroad} recently posted…Falling in Love with Queenstown, NZMy Profile

    • Andrea July 13, 2015 at 2:12 pm #

      I’ve heard that about South America before, interesting! I wonder if it’s just because the surgeries are literally cheaper in those places and therefore the culture can grow more?

  5. lee July 2, 2015 at 8:52 pm #

    Hello, Andrea. I’m Korean guy and just found your website.

    Honestly, I find madness of the Korean society in this matter.

    I have two nieces, and the mother is always telling them that they are

    so ugly so they should get a plastic surgery and they are very convinced

    that they are ugly and they need to get a plastic surgery.

    and I bet you the mother is not a only one who is doing like that to

    own children. even though they are her children, I think it’s so rude

    to tell them they are so ugly so they need to do something

    about it. also I meet many Korean people who think it’s ok to talk

    about other’s appearance in front of them. discuss about every single part of

    your looking.

    even though I’M Korean,

    this part of the Korean culture has been disturbing me for a long long time.

    I think nobody has a right to talk about other’s appearance in any way,

    whether it’s good or bad,

    but so many people are just pointing out ‘ how you would be better if you

    didn’t have or have’ I really don’t understand why the people think it’s fine to

    openly pointing out other’s complex or completely normal appearance as

    that is a problem. I think this is so stupid and pathetic but this weird

    culture will not be change in a short period of time.

    • Andrea July 13, 2015 at 2:11 pm #

      Hi, thanks for reading! This part of the culture really surprised me, but it’s not unique to Korea. LA is similar. It just surprised me that it was such a commonplace and talked about thing.

  6. Marcella @ WhatAWonderfulWorld July 4, 2015 at 8:43 am #

    I really enjoyed reading this article and hearing your point of view. One of my best friends has lived in South Korea for the past four years and she has had to ban mirrors in her classroom as they were such a distraction!

    • Andrea July 13, 2015 at 2:09 pm #

      At my school every classroom had a mirror in it, so bizarre for an elementary school!

  7. Drew February 8, 2016 at 7:20 am #

    It is sad to see that this is the culture there. Cosmetic surgery can be a great thing but you need to pursue it or the right reasons. Thank you for sharing your story.
    Drew recently posted…How Can I Get Rid of Age Spots?My Profile

    • Andrea February 8, 2016 at 9:52 pm #

      It’s definitely an interesting cultural difference, that’s for sure! Thanks for reading!

  8. Eliza September 4, 2016 at 1:41 pm #

    Thank you for this insightful blogpost!
    I think it’s sad that pretty, young girls in Korea feel that they need plastic surgery, but honestly, I understand them. My dream was to go to Korea, but then I realized… I do not fit Korean beauty standards! Being exposed to the beautiful and ‘ideal’ Korean celebrities made me consider getting plastic surgery in the future, although I used to be against it. I thought: “I can’t go to Korea, land of the beautiful people, looking like THIS, so maybe I should change something about myself”. I searched information about jaw reduction (which, by the way, is VERY dangerous) to fix my square jaw. I also wanted to get rid of the bump in my nose, and even more things I hated about my face. Soon enough, I realized this was crazy and I’m not going to let people cut into my face in order to fulfill my dream.

    But this did teach me a lesson. I noticed how easily people start believing they’re ugly if they’re constantly told so, even if they didn’t think that in the past. I was so surprised that I, someone who lives in a country where plastic surgery is a lot less popular, started looking for possible procedures! Sorry this was such a long comment, but I just wanted to share that.

    I’d like to add that I’m NOT Against plastic surgery, but I am against people telling others they need it. I’m also in no way hating on Korean culture, as I know it’s my fault for caring so much what others think!

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