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Research Centre for East Asian Studies Groningen Blogs and Postcards

Plastic fantastic in Seoul, is it vanity?

Lisa van den Broek
Advertisements for plastic surgery clinics in a subway station
Advertisements for plastic surgery clinics in a subway station

Beauty can be made, if you are not beautiful you either lack the will to improve yourself or are too poor to do so

This statement would come across as quite odd or even shocking in many countries yet is a common belief held within South Korea. South Korea and especially Seoul has become the plastic surgery capital of Asia with a higher ratio of plastic surgeons compared to other medical specialisms than any other country within the region. One in every fve women in South Korea has had plastic surgery and there is a growing demand amongst men to have plastic surgery. Moreover,it has become quite common for parentsto gift their children with a double-eyelid surgery, by far the most popular surgery within South Korea, once they graduate from high school. While these statistics and practices might come across as shocking at frst to someone who is not from a country where plastic surgery is that common, one will quickly start to understand the motivations behind this phenomena after talking to some Seoulites.

South Korea is a country with a highly urbanised population of whom nearly 50% live in the capital Seoul. Seoul is thus very densely populated. Hence, Koreans and especially Seoulites are confronted with lots of people every day who relatively speakingall look quite similar due to the relative ethnic homogeneity of the Korean population. Because of this relative homogeneity, the society has only formedone beauty idealfor the entirepopulation to pursue. Thus only one certain ideal (generally a small nose, double eyelids, a pointed jawline, a fair skin tone and having a fairly thin body shape) is considered beautiful which is quite different from countries with a more diverse population as those countries tend to have more than one beauty ideal.Hence, the Koreansare all pursuingone beauty idealthat is embodied by nearly all the popularentertainment industry workerssuch as the kpop idols and the Korean actors and actresses. Moreover, plastic surgery clinics place very visible and public advertisements in public transport including posters in subway stations and advertisements with before and after pictures in local busses. Thus Koreans are constantly confronted with the one standard beauty ideal by the media and advertisements as well as by their fellow Koreans who are all pursuing the sameideal.

Moreover, because of the large population of whom a majority are highly educated combined with the declining economic growth, the labour market is very competitive. Thus life in South Korea is very competitive and having any edge to beat the competition is seen as very important. The large drive for education that has created the phenomena of so called Goose fathers is a testament to this. Beauty is considered a competitive edge as people who are beautiful will be preferredand get hired sooner when two people are equally qualifed. Hence, the idea that buying beauty is an investment for your future as it will increase your competitiveness and subsequently your job opportunities is a widely believed idea in Korea.

Contrary to a belief held by some people that the Koreans must be quite vain because they have such a high rate of cosmetic surgery, it appears that Koreans are not driven by vanity to have cosmetic surgery.

Rather, the Koreans are motivated to have surgery and view it as an investment, due to the high competitiveness of the Korean society and the constant confrontation with the one existing beauty standard. The Koreans just want to be hired for a good job and try to ft in just like everybody else on this planet but for Koreans part of the process of obtaining these goals is having plastic surgery. Yet, one should not overestimate the importance of plastic surgery. While plastic surgery clinics indeed dominate certain neighbourhoods within Seoul, for example the Apgujeong neighbourhood, there are many areas without a single clinic. Moreover, not everybody is getting surgery done although it might like that sometimes when taking the subway in thegangnam district where you can count people with the same.

Instead it is a minority of the population that gets surgery done just like in other countries but because of the plastic surgery clinics dominated neighbourhoods and the relatively high presence of plastic surgery amongst celebrities it appears as if every single Korean gets plastic surgery done. Thus while plastic surgery is a common element in the lives of Koreans and especially Seoulites, it should not be made more important than it really is. Besides, when looking at the motivations, with vanity not being an important motivation at all, to get the surgery it becomes more understandable why such a relatively high percentage of Koreans have plastic surgery.

Last modified:06 December 2017 2.23 p.m.