The Issue with South Korea's Cosmetic Surgery Culture Isn't the Actual Surgery

It's not about the type of cosmetic surgery or the motivation behind the decision. It's about the lack of emphasis on one's own beauty.
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Last summer in Seoul, I was approached by a college student on a subway. She asked me who my plastic surgeon was.

To be clear: I have never gotten any plastic surgery, but I cannot say the same for thousands of South Korean girls who have undergone surgery or intend to in the near future. When and how this became such a commonplace practice remains unclear, but cosmetic surgery is undeniably ingrained in Korea's culture. This, however, is not a phenomenon exclusive to Korea, but rather is a trend extending to the entire Southeast Asian region. I am simply honing in on Korea because as a Korean-American, I am most familiar with its culture.

Today, South Korea has emerged as a technological echelon when it comes to plastic surgery, an impressive feat that should be lauded. I am certainly not opposed to cosmetic surgery. "Your choice, your body," my teacher used to remind us. Plus, the way skin grafts can heal severe burns or reconstructive surgery can reverse birth defects like cleft lips are a testament to the miraculous benefits of such corrective procedures.

Instead, my trepidations lie in the fact that I cannot saunter through Gangnam without seeing illuminated advertisements of before-and-after surgical polaroids. I can't walk through Apgujeong, Seoul's teeming version of a happening location like Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, without seeing blown-up billboards for the "Plastic Surgery Plaza". That is why when the Buzzfeed article about the identical-looking Miss Korea 2013 contestants was published, I could not dispute because it was true. In fact, based on the similarities between the pageant contenders, one could argue that the pageant guidelines listed "big doll eyes and heart-shaped jaws" as entry requirements.

I think the empty promise of an ugly duckling transformation into a white swan is misleading. When speaking with friends about what the 'end goal' of these surgical procedures were, answers spanned the gamut of "looking as pretty as [actress] Kim Tae Hee or [figure skater] Kim Yuna" to "eventually finding a good husband." This suggests that these girls believe surgery will yield a 2.0-version of oneself, but I challenge that a thinner chin should not be correlated with increased popularity among boys.

Then there is the qualm with the timing of these surgeries for young girls. I chatted with my Korean friend, Kate*, to grasp the general rationale of why girls prefer to schedule surgeries prior to freshman year of college. Three years ago, she received double eyelid surgery, removed her beauty marks and moles, and got a "minor" nose job. Kate explained that if she returned to Korea to get the nose job during high school, the physical transformation -- albeit subtle -- would be noticeable among her peers. The golden period during the summer after high school, therefore, allowed her to forgo the incessant gossip and hallway whisperings about her improved face. It was like a Get Out of Jail Free card. An added bonus was that her new friends in college would assume that this narrower nose was a genetic blessing of some sort.

What more, surgery should not be used as motivation. My friend, Stella*, admitted that her mother told her in seventh grade that if she gains admittance into a university on par with Harvard, she will be rewarded with cosmetic surgery. That means that at the age of 12, Stella began looking forward to a double eyelid surgery that would make her eyes look larger and more "western". To her, the trade-off was sleep in lieu of studying, but more taxing was that until she received the admission letter, she lived under the impression that she needed to change to be beautiful.

And here lies the missing link: inner beauty. It's not about the type of cosmetic surgery or the motivation behind the decision. It's about the lack of emphasis on one's own beauty. Before I traveled to Asia in 2004, my grandmother told me that I can buy as many clothes, shoes, or food as I desire, but one thing I should never undergo is plastic surgery. Puerile as it may sound, she reminded me that I am beautiful exactly the way I am, and this is the one message that we should remind each other more often. After all, why change what's not already broken?

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