There is little more that annoys me than the statement that Korean people, or Asian people in general use plastic surgery to make themselves look more Western. It’s a statement that has been so wholly accepted as fact that I’ve heard Asian people who have grown up in the West parrot it themselves, particularly about South Koreans who have earned themselves the reputation of being a nation that love to fix their faces.
I don’t have much to say about how common plastic surgery is in Korea (not uncommon sure, but also not as widespread as some media makes out- statistically about 20% of Korean women have had some kind of procedure), except that it’s a situation that has arisen from the combination of access, availability, reasonable pricing (depending on the procedure) and general societal acceptance. That combination of factors I’d argue would have the same result anywhere considering the worldwide obsession with youth and beauty.
However, the repeated (and erroneous) assertions that Korean people desire plastic surgery in order to look more Western, or white, is typical of a casual, subconscious colonialist attitude which assumes ‘minority’ cultures are filled with self-loathing, and vindicates the superiority of white behaviour/looks/lifestyles in one fell swoop, and I am officially irritated by it. Rampant plastic surgery is undoubtedly a juicy topic that speaks of contemporary first world malaise, but in being placed in an ‘exotic’ context, the surrounding narrative immediately shifts to suggest plastic surgery as a form of self-mutilation rather than an intense search for beauty. In a Hollywood context, plastic surgery is monstrous merely for its vanity and superficiality, but in Asia, the subtext to plastic surgery from a Western perspective, is a cultural self-hatred.
The automatic assumption that Western beauty is the ultimate form of beauty, and therefore the ultimate goal, informs so much of this narrative, that any feature that coincides with a Western conception of beauty is used as evidence of a desire to be more “white”. Western people do not have a monopoly on privileging large eyes as a marker of beauty, nor are they the only race that have “double-eyelids” (let me state that a huge proportion of Asian people have naturally occurring double eye-lids), but apparently South Korean women’s desire to have this eyelid surgery is synonymous with the desire to look Western.
To illustrate how ridiculous that association is out of context, consider the Western obsession with a myriad of lip-plumping products and lip enhancing procedures. Large, plump lips are a physical trait that we often associate with black women, but no one is shouting that this must mean that white women want to be black. It is the automatic Western reflex that always privileges the white experience, that creates this narrative in which any other standard that deviates from its own is wrong/ugly, and creates the logic/myth “We don’t find Asian beauty appealing [hyperbole for sake of argument] therefore they must not either, hence any attempts to make themselves look more beautiful must mean they want to look more like us.” In a nutshell. The same logic is applied not only to Asia, but any number of “othered” cultures.
The search for beauty is complicated, and what constitutes beauty more so. We can attempt to rationalise elements of beauty: ‘facial symmetry suggests health therefore we can consider symmetry beautiful’, however what we find beautiful, is undoubtedly subjective and dependent on personal experiences, which is why it is so obviously ridiculous to assume a universal ideal of beauty like the West too often does. For instance, many Korean women desire the literal desire to be white- to have skin that is super pale, because it is a distinct marker of privilege (versus the more tanned appearances of those that labour outside). The same signifier in the West, tanned skin, implies the exact opposite- here, the tan represents privilege, the ability to enjoy the outdoors, to holiday, to laze in the sun.
I’ve lived in Australia my entire life, I’ve spent way more time in a Western environment than an Asian one, which is why my aesthetic tastes tend to lean more Western, despite my ethnicity. However I’ve been surprised in the last few years myself, how more exposure to Korea, having more Korean friends and watching more Korean entertainment in general has caused my tastes to change, and for me to be distinctly aware of those differences in the first place. Even recently Hayley and I were discussing my current Korean TV obsession “Win: Who is Next” (turn on captions for English subs- WIN is a discussion all of its own, I just can’t bring myself to write about it because I have too many feels), and it hit me, my idea of what a good looking Asian male looks like has irrevocably changed in the last decade. I was attempting to point out my favourite boys on the show to Hayley- which is not based on how attractive I find them, but I was jokingly commenting on how cute they were to Hayley’s relative bewilderment when I realised in this respect I’ve become far more “Korean” in my tastes- I know, that is shockingly vague, however it is as specific as I’m willing to get- the average age of the boys on the show is about 18, nobody needs to know the details of pedo-noona tendencies. My point is merely 1) I think most of them are super cute and good looking, but 2) I don’t know if I would have thought so, or to what degree I would have found them appealing several years ago through a largely Western filter.
Korean conceptions of beauty naturally differ from Western conceptions of it- on a basic level we can see this play out in the difference in aesthetic styles- Korean women dress differently, do their hair and makeup differently, favour different trends than women in the West. Any form of beautification, be it a hairstyle or a makeup look is an expression of a very specific time and place, so it’s illogical that Korean women would overlook their own instincts about what is fashionable, pretty and aspirational, to look at Western women and a foreign culture and desire something that doesn’t quite look right. This is not to say that Western and Asian conceptions of beauty and fashion do not intersect, of course they do, especially in an increasingly globalised society. It is also far too presumptuous to say Western beauty has not had an influence on Asia or South Korea- of course it has, just as non-Western cultures have had a similar effect on the West. However, even though the exchange goes both ways, the assumption that the whole world wants to be “White” is uniquely Western, uniquely White, and it is this very attitude, this insidious form of cultural imperialism that becomes its own self-fulfilling prophesy. The world is increasingly Westernised because privileged white people assume that everyone wants to be like them, with every culture retroactively re-written as searching for Whiteness.
UPDATE: Since I did post this in the ‘Dancebreak’ Category, here is some Taekwondo dancing that is awesome. Everyone needs more taekwondo dancing.