Why are Koreans too obsessed with looks

"I did it because I wanted to"


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But the great importance of appearance in South Korea goes even deeper. Elfving-Hwang assumes that it can be traced back to Neo-Confucianism, which became powerful in the 14th century. "This includes the idea that a proper mind is expressed in a proper body." In addition, there is no ideal of the authentic body in South Korea. Plastic surgery is not seen as a betrayal of the self.

This is probably one of the reasons why the members of the girl band Six Bomb are so relaxed about it. I met her a few months ago at a press conference. "I'm one hundred percent satisfied," said one band member of her changed face. "I did it because I wanted to." It is sentences like this that are supposed to justify cosmetic surgery. You sound self-confident and feign free will - as if cosmetic surgery was a kind of self-empowerment. But what is self-confident about bowing to a rigid social norm? What is liberating about submitting to an ideal that is sometimes misogynistic and racist?

You don't have to look far to find out which ideals of beauty are used in today's Korea. The cosmetic stores are full of lightening creams. The advertising banners in the department stores show European-looking models or Asians with white skin. People love Emma Watson's "little face" (a narrow face shape is considered beautiful) and the big blue eyes of California model Bella Hadid. If, on the other hand, my skin is tanned in summer, I have to listen to stupid comments: "You look like you came from Southeast Asia." And that's not meant as a compliment.

The white, western icon has shaped the Korean imagination for decades. The first known cosmetic surgeries in the country were performed in the 1920s. In her book Cosmetic surgery Feminism researcher Tae Hee-Won writes: "The early interventions were carried out in a social environment that admired the West and sought to modernize Korea along the lines of the West." The transfigured view to the west still exists. One example is the ideal of beauty in K-pop. Like many young Koreans, I grew up listening to this music. I looked up at the singers who, with a few exceptions, were fair-skinned, slim, doe-eyed, and all of them were very girlish. They had flowing hair and wore mini skirts. There were slight variations, but basically the image of women in K-Pop was always clear. This image is mainly determined by men: the heads of the ten most successful K-Pop agencies are all male.

"I didn't like my reflection anymore"

Although men in Korea are also coming under increasing pressure from the beauty industry - they spend more on skin care products than men elsewhere - the discrepancy is still large. According to government statistics from 2017, 22 percent of Koreans have had plastic surgery and only 2 percent of Koreans.

A few years ago I studied in the US for a while, and during the summer vacation I visited my hometown Seoul. I remember feeling uncomfortable walking through the hustle and bustle of the subway stations. I saw beautiful women everywhere, they wore high-heeled shoes and had obviously spent a lot of time on their makeup. Every few meters the dreamlike smile of a celebrity beamed at me, which reminded me of how I didn't look. I didn't like my reflection anymore and walked through the city with my head down. This feeling was the opposite of empowerment.

Since then I have stopped trying to talk friends and acquaintances out of plastic surgery. How do I know how imperfect it is when I felt so powerless myself that summer? Plus, cosmetic surgery seems to have become so common that I feel old arguing against it.

But there are prominent voices who do that. Take the Escape the Corset movement, for example, which is gaining momentum on social media. Young Korean women upload pictures of destroyed make-up utensils or cut their long hair in front of the camera. Symbolically, they break out of the corset of the ideal of beauty. "I wore make-up every day," one of them wrote on Twitter, "I kept talking about the cosmetic surgeries I want to have. But all the make-up just made me tired. I felt like I was going to be lose. From now on I want to be free. " The freedom to look how you want - it's actually a humble dream. Didn't you dream of it in Korea of ​​all places?

Translated from English by Alexander Krex