The Paradox of Wanting Plastic Surgery as a Korean

More plastic surgery takes place in South Korea, per capita, than anywhere else in the world, which is hardly surprising given that they’re the country of overachievers; beauty is not exempt from their culture of high standards. But is chasing an unattainable Western standard of beauty just as fruitless as it is ironic? 

Courtesy of JK Plastic Surgery

I was thirteen when I seriously considered plastic surgery for the first time.

As a Korean girl, it was hard not to notice how drastically different every aspect of my face was from every beautiful protagonist in a movie, every headline singer, every perfectly coiffed model. To yearn for the ski-jump nose and prominent cheekbones was engrained within me from the moment I was old enough to process information.

I watched as half of the Korean girls in my year underwent various surgeries, ranging from minor to a complete reshuffling of features. While teenagers undergoing plastic surgery may seem drastic to some, the notion isn’t so foreign in Korea. It has been estimated that between one fifth and one third of Korean women have gone under the knife, which makes South Korea the country with the highest rate of plastic surgeries per capita. Double eyelid surgeries and nose jobs are frequently used as ‘gifts,’ or rewards for good grades and being accepted into university.

It’s hard to say, exactly, where the fascination of chasing physical perfection stems from. While being insecure about your appearance is a given for almost any person on the planet, regardless of race or gender, Korea is the nation that puts their money where their mouths (or noses, or eyes, or jawlines) are. For Koreans, beauty is something that can be achieved with hard work and determination, just like everything else in life. In Korea’s Confucian-rooted morals, conformity is prized, and looking as close to the Westernised image of beauty is the ultimate desire. South Korea is known for its hyper-competitiveness, so why wouldn’t beauty fall under the same category?


Courtesy of Al Jazeera

The normalisation of cosmetic surgery is evident on the streets of Seoul, before-and-after advertisements are plastered on every corner, bus and subway. Even more evident of the culture of cosmetic surgery is the flood of women wearing masks over their face – the two-fold benefit of protecting themselves from polluted air, and hiding tell-tale bruising and stitches.

It wasn’t until I turned 18 that I started to wonder if my yearning for cosmetic surgery was something that I should deeply question. After all, the most sought-after features in Korea – high cheekbones, thin pointed nose, big eyes – are all predominately Caucasian. Admitting to myself that I thought aspects of my face could be improved, seemed to be admitting that I wanted to be white. Or, rather, that I didn’t want to be Korean. What made me look like “me” were the same things I viewed as making me unattractive.

I found myself thinking about it more while sitting in a waiting room of a plastic surgeon in Seoul. It was one of the thousands just like it on that street alone: Seoul has entire suburbs dedicated to cosmetic surgeons, the ‘Beauty Belt’ in fashion district Gangnam. (Yes, the suburb from that viral song.) Here was my opportunity, and I found myself hesitating. Would a new nose, a shaved jaw, bigger eyes, make me more attractive? Or would it make me closer to what is inherently perceived as attractive through the narrow lens of Western ideals?

Courtesy of KSU MAIGC

I had just finished high school and was waiting to meet a distant uncle, who also happened to be a cosmetic surgeon. He greeted me and before he could even congratulate me on my graduation, he had my chin in his hand, turning my face from left to right. Although I only came to have a few freckles on my cheeks removed, he pushed another procedure onto me with a smile. “A graduation present,” he called it, before injecting silicon into the tip and bridge of my nose.

When it was over, I walked to the mirror and examined my ‘new’ nose. It was, undoubtedly, different: closer than ever to the nose I had so yearned for. What I hadn’t anticipated, of course, is how such a small difference, millimetres of difference at most, would impact the rest of my face. The silicon faded, eventually broken down by my body, and with it, any wish I had of undertaking another procedure. I’m 23 now, and any thought I had of going under the knife is long gone.

It seems redundant to say that if you actively dislike an aspect of your appearance, change it. Hence why we wear the clothes we do, pick the eyeshadow that most suits our skin tone, work out when we can. What differed for me, though, was the active altering of features that are indicative of my nationality. My grandmother chastises me for dying my hair, lamenting that I “don’t want to look Korean”. So how would she react had she known I considered altering my facial features: the biggest tell of my heritage?

It’s a strange balance, and one I still find myself trying to make sense of today. In wanting plastic surgery, I was seemingly departing from my own nationality, yet the nation as a whole is obsessed with cosmetic procedures. The chase for perfection, as we all know, is a fickle one. No matter how many procedures are undertaken, I will never be able to achieve the unattainable face that has been pedalled to me, to us all.