By VALERIE WU, USA
In the year 1954, an American plastic surgeon by the name of Ralph Millard entered the country of South Korea as part of the United States Marine Corps. With him, he brought decades of knowledge in the plastic surgery field, as well as a strong interest in the cosmetic potential of the Asian face--an interest that would quickly develop into a racial obsession.
Originally designed to treat victims who had been severely injured during the Korean War, plastic surgery was deemed as a medical necessity when it was first established in South Korea. With the assistance of Millard, the procedure soon became more aesthetically based.
Through his time spent as a Westerner in a foreign country, Millard became convinced that Asians had been drastically excluded out of what was to become an “emerging international economy” (Stone). In essence, plastic surgery was still a corrective procedure, but it was now corrective in another sense: a racial one. The dominant progression of Occidental ideals over Oriental ones would later turn out to become the most prominent feature in South Korea.
The impact of Westerners in South Korean society was noticeable in the changing attitudes of Korean citizens, who had gradually become aware of the differences in appearance between the traditional “Asian” look (monolids and flatter noses) and the Occidental one (double eyelids and high nose bridges). The medical-turned-beauty sensation became a normality, a way for South Koreans to assimilate into the Darwinian society, a society that played by the rules of natural selection. What natural selection was perceived to have determined was this: traditional Asian standards were racially inferior. There were two sides--yellow and white--and the balance of scales was not tipping in favor of the darker color. The competitive community culture only further enhanced the evolutionary race to look the most “white,” to be on the superior side.
That race is one that has continued to this day. Today, there are approximately one in five South Korean women undergoing plastic surgery procedures, and South Korea has become known globally as “the country where everyone is beautiful.” True to its theme, however, the perception of plastic surgery is significant in that through its history, differentiations, and worldwide effects, outsiders to South Korean society have only been looking at the surface than what lies beneath it. According to data from the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, South Korea has the highest rate of plastic surgery in the world. Although South Korean plastic surgery was first started by an American, the developments that have been made since its inception are ones that are truly reflective of Asian standards and their appeal.
The top procedure in South Korea is double eyelid surgery, which consists of creating a crease in the upper eyelid of the patient. This ends up producing eyelids that emulate Western ones. Double eyelid surgery is most known for its ability to make Asian eyes appear larger, a capability that is coveted by those with the customary “small Asian eyes.” Yet another in-demand procedure is rhinoplasty, also known as nose surgery. Rhinoplasty, designed for producing an enhanced perception of the face, increases the length of the nose for that specific outcome. Other types of surgeries common in South Korea include jaw reductions, hair transplants, as well as chin and forehead augmentations. The diversity in operations has allowed for an end result that has spread not only through the country, but worldwide.
Plastic surgery in South Korea has become a rite of passage, not just in South Korean and other Asian cultures, but in Western ones as well. The practice has spread by cultural diffusion through various forms of media. With an influx of K-pop as well as K-dramas and films, the widespread cultivation of Korean entertainment is known as Hallyu, or “Korean wave.” The wave of pop culture has been readily welcomed by many foreign cultures, including Western ones (“Hallyu: Korean Wave”). In an article published in The Asia-Pacific Journal, Johanna Elving-Hwang (professor of Korean Studies at the University of Western Australia) states that she analyzed the Korean television show “Let Me In” to obtain a firsthand look at the way plastic surgery has been portrayed in the media. What she found was that the show--a program dedicated to showcasing the physical transformations of young Korean girls after cosmetic surgery--was, in all actuality, very similar to American television series such as “Extreme Makeover,” “The Swan,” and “Ten Years Younger.” Her observation only serves as a reminder that a certain ideal of beauty has dominated both worlds, becoming a global sensation.
But the origins of Asian plastic surgery cannot be forgotten, and there are those who have difficulty in living up to the phenomenon’s history. Young Asian girls today feel pressured to conform to these beauty standards, to elevate their noses and widen their eyes, to prevent their jaws from jutting out, to cultivate their faces in the way one might care for a beloved pet or animal. Alicia Chon, a student at the University of Pennsylvania, states that while on a trip to South Korea, she was asked who her plastic surgeon was. She realizes she has come to resent South Korean culture, how the society seems to be built on empty promises of beauty. “It’s not about the type of cosmetic surgery or the motivation behind the decision,” Chon stresses, “it’s about the lack of emphasis on one’s own beauty” (Chon).
Eudie Pak, a Korean-American journalist at the Huffington Post, too highlights the “ugly truth.” Having been a teacher at a South Korean school, it was common for others to point out all her facial flaws, and she felt pressured to conform to the status quo. She struggles with her dual identity as both American and Korean, her “double” heritage, but decides to remain optimistic. “Even though it wasn’t a party growing up with that bicultural tension--the American side of me embracing my individuality, while the Korean side nagging me to conform to the status quo--I feel lucky to have had the tension,” Pak says, “Had I been monocultural and born in South Korea, I just can’t imagine the psychological pressure of cloning a singular, generic look” (Pak).
As for that “singular, generic, look,” what does it reveal about the human identity? While some may argue that uniformity is what makes a country beautiful, it has long been an emphasized fact of society that differences should be celebrated. Plastic surgery has become a face mask for one’s own country, and South Korea’s face mask is exactly what it is: a mask for one’s face. As time passes, however, it becomes an inevitable fact that how we think of a country is determined by how we think of its people. Society today faces that dilemma: should our world be made up of countries where everyone is beautiful? Or should the diversity be not in the plastic surgery operations, but in the people themselves? At some point, there must be a balancing of the scales, an end to the race. A country’s rite of passage is a definite life-changing transformation, and true to the theme of plastic surgery, one must look below the surface to find it.
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