Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Life in Plastic: Fantastic?

Brace yourselves: this week I’m going to write about something I probably have no business writing about. (Again.)

Jezebel, one of my favorite blogs, recently posted a reaction piece inspired by a segment from the radio show This American Life. The episode was about self improvement, and it was anchored by a brief interview with a woman who had moved to South Korea to teach English at an all-girls high school. Like any true American, she was stunned to realize that people in other parts of the world don’t necessarily think the way we do: There were full-length mirrors and scales on every floor of the school she taught at. Her students used both regularly, and dreamed of the day they would be rewarded with plastic surgery for having passed their college entrance exams.

As an American who’s spent the past year using television to be a peeping tom into Korean culture, this interview and article made me uncomfortable on a few levels. First of all, both are predicated on the assumption that America is somehow different from Korea, a place where physical appearance doesn’t matter. Anyone who truly believes that—as the interviewee obviously does—is both naive and uninformed.

While Korea may embrace plastic surgery in a way America doesn’t (yet), the two nations aren’t that different. I suspect you could easily find girls longing for plastic surgery in high schools from Maine to Alaska to California. And while we give a lot of lip service to equal opportunity and social mobility here, discrimination based on looks is not illegal, as the presenter of This American Life helpfully reminded listeners. Our resumes and college applications don’t have spots for our photographs, unlike the ones prepared in Korea. But studies still show that in America taller people tend to be more professionally successful than shorter people; heavier people are less likely to be hired than their thinner counterparts; and men make more money than women. Discrimination based on race actually is illegal, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. So what’s better? Pretending that looks don’t matter in your society, or acknowledging that they do?

I suspect the author of the Jezebel article and I have similar reactions to plastic surgery being used for solely aesthetic purposes—a mixture of anger and sadness. What makes us believe that we’re not good enough as we are? Why must everyone on the planet look exactly the same? What is it that drives us to remake ourselves from the bone up, just so we look like someone—or something—else?

Ultimately, though, I acknowledge that this is just a particularly tempting kind of hypocrisy. As a liberal who believes I should have full rights to my body—whether I want to eat a Twinkie, get thirty-five piercings in places that can be hidden by a bikini, or become a nudist—I also have to allow that plastic surgery is a personal choice, and that it’s none of my business when someone else makes it. The Jezebel article is too busy gawking at the (admittedly horrifying) Tumblr devoted to Korean plastic surgery to make this connection. But when the first article in your latest news section is about the importance of Roe v. Wade, the American court case that legalized abortion, it seems somehow less than kosher to be critical of people who undergo surgery just because it isn’t in line with (y)our ideology. 

It is true that South Korea has the highest per-capita rate of plastic surgery in the world. According to the Economist, one in five women in Seoul have gone under the knife for cosmetic reasons. It’s hard to say just why plastic surgery is so widespread in Korea, but a recent CNN article about Seoul as a travel destination for surgery offered an interesting theory: “To Koreans, beauty is something that is attainable through hard work—just like anything else. ‘It’s not just about desire,” says [plastic surgeon] Kwon. ‘I prefer to use the word ‘challenge’—Koreans see plastic surgery, and becoming prettier, as a challenge.’” These are people who have seen their homeland change from an agricultural backwater to an economic powerhouse in a few generations, all thanks to hard work. Why shouldn’t a body be at least as malleable, as improvable, as a nation?

As a drama watcher, the commonness of plastic surgery in Korea isn’t exactly news to me. Korean standards of beauty seem to be both extremely precise and largely unrealistic. An affinity for Kdrama has expanded my vocabulary by leaps and bounds, but no single category of words is as new to me as the ones describing beauty. S-line? V-line? Ant waist? Double lids? “Your face is so small!”: None of it meant a thing to me before Kdrama came into my life. It’s true that I’m a frump from northern New England who buys her shoes at a store called Farm Way and has been known to slip into a polar-fleece vest on occasion, but I’m still relatively sure that most of these concepts don’t exist in American English. As far as I know there’s no real counterpart to them, either.

Any illusions I may have had about natural beauty on Korean television were shattered early on in my obsession, when purported before and after photos of actress Park Min Young became ubiquitous on the Internet. The first picture is from a school yearbook and therefore isn’t particularly flattering (some things really are universal, aren’t they?). Park Min Young is not quite smiling in this photo, and her head is tilted at the same inquisitive angle photographers demanded for my own school photographs. She’s waring a dark blue dress shirt buttoned to the very top button, and her hair is hanging in a smooth, low-maintenance bob. Her face is full but pleasant. Her eyelids are uncreased (or monolided, in Korean parlance), her nose is small and low-bridged, and her jawline is U-shaped. The second photo is so different that I’m genuinely unconvinced that it’s really the same girl. Taken from a lower angle, it emphasizes the V of her pointy chin, a pair of impossibly huge doe eyes, and a nose that’s both high-bridged and sharply defined. This version of Park Min Young is wearing a ton of makeup and has outgrown her baby fat, which can account for some of the changes.

Eventually Park Min Young admitted to having both a nose job and eyelid surgery, and if this before photo is to be trusted that might actually be the tip of the iceberg. No matter how common plastic surgery is in Korea, it’s not something celebrities are proud of or usually discuss candidly.

Since seeing these photos, I’ve spent much more time than I wanted to speculating about the surgical histories of drama stars. I think it’s safe to say that many of the actors we see regularly in Korean drama have been altered in one way or another. Sometimes they’ve even had so much work that I can barely stand to watch them. With their faces scrubbed of any hint of humanity, these folks bring to mind the uncanny valley, a hypothesis explaining how humans might react to robots with increasingly human appearances. As long as they’re either very robotic or incredibly human, we’re fine. But when they’re in the uncomfortable “almost human” zone, the theory states that people will react with revulsion. This is an exact description of my response to Lee Ji Ah’s face in Me Too Flower, and the faces of many other Korean actresses since.

From the perspective of someone who watches a lot of Korean television, I’d be happy to see less plastic surgery. And from the perspective of a human being, I think the growing acceptance of plastic surgery around the world is worrying. Just what are you supposed to do when you need to have your jawbone shaved to get a job, but can’t afford to have your jawbone shaved because you don’t have a job? Will this create an underclass of people who don’t have the means for plastic surgery?

And what will happen in ten years when styles change? Will future generations feel forced to upgrade to the hot new nose implant in the same way we upgrade to the latest computer hardware? My mother’s high school best friend fell victim to a trend of the early 70s: she plucked her brows down to almost nothing and drew new ones on, mimicking Greta Garbo’s arch. After a while of this her eyebrows just stopped growing back. Forty years later she’s still stuck drawing them on, just as she did on the day her senior picture was taken. I bet she regrets the whole thing. And someday all these sharp-chinned Korean girls might regret their hands-on approach to skeleton ownership, too.

12 Men in a Year: A happy customer

One of the arguments for plastic surgery that comes up in the Jezebel article is that it gives people confidence. Maybe that’s true for a while, but every cosmetic procedure ever invented won’t change the person you are on the inside. I have comparable experience on this front: when I went away to college, I lost a ton of weight. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that on the outside I became another person. But on the inside? Nothing had really changed. I was still quiet and shy and preferred my own company, and it’s hard to imagine that the results of plastic surgery would be any different.

The idea of changing our bodies in accordance with popular fads reminds me of the 1931 book Black No More by George Schyuler. In it, a doctor develops a treatment that makes black people become “white,” utterly removing their ethnicity. For a while everything is fine—most black people receive the treatment and experience life without prejudice. But in the last chapter it’s realized that they’ve become truly white, while people who are primarily caucasian are actually lots of shades other than white—“pale pink shading down to a sand color and a red.” And, of course, a whole new system of racial oppression is invented, this time focused on people with skin that’s too light.

The moral of that particular story, I think, is that we are who we are. It’s how the world works that we need to change to find happiness, not ourselves.

Read More
(1/24/13: A new discovery over at Soompi. Gee. I wonder if all the plastic surgery the older celebrities have had has something to do with their perceived ages.)


  1. The whole plastic surgery thing is definitely more than just a yes or no question, and it would be quite impossible for me to take a real stance in it. I don't mind people "fixing" their appearances, whether by make-up or plastic surgery, but I do feel that there is a point where obsessing about appearances goes too far.
    So let's just say that I'm not against people having plastic surgery for it is their own choice, yet I don't I find it easy to look at faces that look uncomfortably plastic.

    One thing though that I don't understand is this natural beauty being superiour to "plastic" beauty in K-ent. I mean, what does it matter if you're being judged by your naturally pretty face or by a pretty face achieved by plastic surgery? Actresses/actors/idols are still being judged by their appearance. Netizens dig out old photos to prove whether the star got surgery or not, because when the star has always had a pretty face they are somehow better than those who didn't. So I kinda understand why stars are so against admitting surgery. First they are pressured into changing their appearances just to make it in the industry, and then they are judged because their beauty is not "natural". It is hypocrisy at its best.

    1. I'm totally conflicted about plastic surgery. On the one hand, I think it's actually evil and encourages us to be shallow, but on the other hand, a lot of those "after" pictures on the tumblr looked amazing. (But then again, some of them looked freaky, too.)

      The flap about plastic surgery reminds me of the controversy about genetically modified foods in America. In truth, practically every food any of us has ever eaten is genetically modified. The ears of corn we eat today are nothing like the ears of corn that grew a thousand years ago, because people have been selecting them for desired traits since the beginning of agriculture. It's the same with plastic surgery. It's just another, more scientific way to do what we've probably been doing since our species crawled out of the muck—try to make ourselves look better.

      All I know for sure is that I miss Lee Min Ho's old, imperfect nose.

  2. wow. thanks so much, Amanda. I have been thinking about this topic for a while myself and am very grateful to you for this deep piece. Personally, I find plastic surgery (for non-medical purposes) repulsive and sad. Do so many people really believe that a certain standardized look will make them more happy?

    1. I had actually considered and discarded the idea about writing about plastic surgery because I thought I didn't really have anything to say about. I was wrong, as it turns out ;)

      The Global Post article I linked above has an interesting line about everyone ending up looking alike:

      "But the lure of plastic surgery in Korea — a trendy item for Asian women who want the pointy nose and larger eyes they consider beautiful — is apparently wearing off too.

      'I should be careful. I don’t want to look like those K-pop girls. Too fake,' she said. 'And those K-drama men, ugh, they look girly. Too much make-up.'

  3. What makes me a bit confused here is the reason why many people say they dislike plastic surgery. It's because a person cannot accept her "unique" beauty and it's sad, bad and not a good thing. We think that people should accept themselves as they look like, end of story.

    And yet often we think totally opposite. Fat people SHOULD change they appearance, says society. Many people strive to become "better" inwardly, they learn not to do some stuff or to do it differently, what ever. We actively encourage people to change themselves what comes to their personality. Some habits maybe "objectively" bad, but some are just personality traits, like being shy, introverted or whatever. Those things can of course bother people who have them, but why don't we just tell them to accept them instead of writing books how to change those things? There are tons of self help books to become a person you want to become. That's ok, that's good, that's encouraged.

    But when you want to do the same to your looks with knife, that is bad.

    This begs a question: why?

    1. That's a really interesting question. Maybe because it's so new, and people perceive it as "taking the easy way out"? Like how society seems to look down on people who get surgery for obesity, instead of running a marathon or something.

      I'm always interested to see that Kdrama sageuks show women applying makeup in eras when Western women probably would have been burned at the stake for doing such a thing. (Maybe not literally, but they definitely would have been seen as behaving in an unacceptable way.) Maybe Korea's always been more open to changing the physical self for aesthetic reasons.

    2. Fat people should change their appearance not because they look bad but because it's bad for their health, as well as the resources that go into keeping them (over)fed and to cure their illnesses like diabetes that come from their inability to look after themselves properly.
      The rest you say is not wrong, though.

  4. wow. you do a lot of research ,don't you? it feels sad,though to read stuff like this.

    1. This is kind of a serious topic to write about without doing some research. Also, I'm a geek who loves doing that sort of thing ;)

  5. when i first started watching k-dramas, i would often google the actors/actresses to know more about them and see their pictures. i wondered why no matter who i google, a search suggestion would always be then the words "plastic surgery". eventually i found out about how commonplace plastic surgery was in korea. since then, i hated finding out that an actress i really found pretty actually had some work done. don't get me wrong, i'm all for self-improvement. i don't mind the lengths koreans go through to take care of their skin. i mean, song joong ki has NO pores and blemishes at all! haha i would love to have such a clear face like that!

    but it's a different story when people don't even recognize you from your before pictures. if i were them, i wouldn't be happy if someone said i'm beautiful knowing that it wasn't what i looked like originally. and everything will show once they have kids anyway...haha

    i guess in a perfect world, physical improvement can be achieved by hard WORK...that you do yourself. losing weight by eating right and exercising, avoiding the sun to protect your skin, etc...

    but we are not a perfect world. and VANITY is really one of the favorite sins, isn't it?

    1. I've also noticed that google loves to suggest searches for plastic surgery when you're looking for information about Korean actors. And no matter how hard I try to stop myself, I always end up doing that search.

      I bought some of those paper facial masks they're always using in dramas, but after reading about all this plastic surgery stuff I'm a little weirded out about using them. Apparently skin bleaching is even more common than surgery, and these masks may include some bleaching ingredients. I'm pale enough as it is! (Although I'd buy it in a heartbeat if they could invent something that would take some of the red out of my complexion.)

  6. I'm reading this now, having just read how YG's new upcoming girl group members will be banned from having plastic surgery - to preserve their 'innocence and natural beauty.' *bows down to YG* But I can't help think how this may in part be a reaction to the sheer amount of plastic princesses already out there in Kpop world (including and especially YG's own 2NE1). Make it a way for the girls to actually stand out and be different. How strange is that? Seems coincidentally like good marketing to me...

    Plastic surgery always gives me the shivers, especially the obvious ones. Sometimes though, it's to nice effect. And sometimes I can't help but want to gag. That hideous girl in FBND... yikes. I actually find her severely ugly.

    1. I first realized how appearance-mad Kpop media was when they started making a big deal about the members of some girl group having legs so thin they need to special order their boots. Because, you know, that makes them remarkable and special. It's a sad statement that the best way to stand out on the crowded Kpop field is the be known as the band that doesn't allow plastic surgery.

      (Even though I'm so obsessed with Kdrama, I know nothing about Kpop. If someone's not Psy, I assume he must be G-Dragon. And if someone's not Girl's Generation, I assume that they must be 2NE1. Which is sort of lame of me.)

    2. Lol. I'll forgive you. The Kpop boat is even more perilous than (and almost as time consuming as) Kdrama.

      Special boots... wow. Sad fact: I was showing my mother some idol group, and one of the females has in my opinion 'healthy thighs' meaning.. there's just a tad bit of meat on those bones! (I'm impressed) and my mother, my own mother says - wow she shouldn't be wearing That with thighs like hers... -_-

  7. I appreciate your point of view. I'm in two minds about this, although I lean more toward sympathy. First, it really is their business if they decide they want a straighter nose or slimmer jaw or what have you. Second, if you're facing job interviews or group dates, where every other girl is perfectly symmetrical and pixie-like...well, I'd see where they would feel the pressure.

    I really do think it's not such a big issue to them - just like women here save up to buy a designer bag to up their social cachet, Korean women just fixate on a prettier face. And in a society, ANY society, a prettier face will make life a little bit easier.

    On the other hand, surgery is a darn drastic step, and some of those actresses have crossed the line. Lee Ji Ah, like you mentioned...the first time I saw her I just had this repulsed feeling by her bland, over-smoothed, over-symmetrical face.

    And personally, I think there's far more to be gained by doing the best with what you have, rather than going full-out to look like someone else.

    Thanks for a well-written and thought-provoking article!


  8. Great post! This is a topic I feel really conflicted about. Ever since I've started watching K-drama I've obviously come across the idea of plastic surgery, and how prolific it is in Korean culture. It has made me start to wonder what cosmetic and outward things western society focuses on, and how that is different/the same as plastic surgery. I know that the US currently has a trend for the stomach-size reducing surgery where they put the band/surgically alter the size of the stomach so that people pretty much stop being able to eat large amounts of food and therefore lose a lot of weight. Personally I find the idea of this super scary, and dangerous, and the lifestyle change it requires is so drastic, that I could only really understand if someone was morbidly obese and needed the surgery to help them be healthy. But I digress. The whole topic of plastic surgery has made me question about where the line is between cosmetic alterations and plastic surgery for medical reasons (like people missing parts of their bodies/face/burn victims/people who have needed face transplants. It's also made me think about why in the world I wear make-up, or try and dress well, and it comes back to how confident we feel within ourselves, and I think also what cultural expectations we live with. And it makes me wonder when Korean society became so radically obsessed with weight and cosmetic beauty. Anyway, I am sort of rambling, but I think the more I think about it, I cannot judge someone else because I don't fully understand (and I am not saying that anyone else here in the thread is judging either). I just don't think that I would ever have plastic surgery for cosmetic reasons, but I am definitely not going to give up wearing make-up. So I guess I live within my own cultural expectations too.

  9. I guess what really bothers me is not whether people go under the knife or not.
    What bothers me is that it feels like Korean culture puts so much emphasis on having certain physical features to the point that other important factors that make a happy, attractive woman are seemingly ignored. They put so much emphasis on actresses having big double-lid eyes and the perfect nose and jaw line, but the female characters that populate Kdramas seem so... lacking of everything else. Like maturity, emotional security, empathy, intellect, etc.
    I approve of self improvement but when it's all about looks, it feels unhealthy, like other important things that make a person attractive and lovable are being sacrificed. And age and gravity win in the end anyway.
    And what's so wrong with having single lid eyes? I've always thought that my cousin's single lid eyes are prettier than my double lid eyes.

    1. *nods* :) K-dramas are no longer appealing to me, and that's one of the reasons. I also often dislike the way they speak. I'm like "when will I ever see different types of beautiful women in a k-drama?". You know, sometimes, I see a cameo or a non important character for a brief moment and I'm like "hey, she looks gorgeous and different!"

      I also think that it's not the individual that should be blamed but society/culture. When someone say "it's their personal choice", I don't really believe so in many cases, they've been brainwashed or shamed to the point of doing surgery. So I no longer get judgemental at someone who had a nosejob or a boobjob, after thinking about it more.

      Moreover, Korea has this obsession over rationalizing beauty by making it as simple as an equation: pale skin + big eyes + v-line + thin face = pretty. So if you have that, no matter what you look like, you'll be considered gorgeous, but it shouldn't be to me. You can have those features and look very average, sick or weird. It also excludes other types of beauty among Korean women, it's sad. I feel that in the West, there are several types of beauty. Not one-dimensional very rationalized single beauty like in Korea. Look at actresses like Gwen Paltrow who has strong jawlines or Jennifer Love Hewitt's thin face...2 different beauties!

  10. I think the most disturbing part, for me, is that people in Korea (and perhaps in other parts of the world too) are feeling increasingly forced to have the surgery.

    It's a completely different thing than having surgery just coz you want to feel prettier or more confident. It's becoming more and more of a must if you want to get ahead, or just get a job, even. And that's just not right. One shouldn't be forced to get surgery just to make a living in the place of one's birth.

  11. My point of view on this is that there is a difference between wanting to look better for your own self-confidence versus the peer pressure to look a certain way. I understand that many Korean teenagers get plastic surgery as a gift from their parents when graduating high school (or middle school). This I disagree with completely. But it is part of their culture and their desire for their children to have the best opportunity possible to succeed in life. But what you need as a teenager can be drastically different from what you need as an adult and adulthood lasts a lot longer than your teenage years.

    As a way over middle aged American female I am considering having a tummy tuck and liposuction. I have worked very hard to lose weight and go to the gym regularly to try to "tone" up this old bod. In the end certain things remain and there is only one way to change that. I am also considering a face lift so that I look a little younger than I am. I am not changing my real appearance, just enhancing it. I have the wicked witch of the East's nose, but it's my father's nose, and I wouldn't change it for anything. I am in excellent health and hope to have many years ahead of me as, in my retirement which is fast approaching, I plan to do a lot of traveling. My concern is, and I'm still researching this part, what will be the effects down the road if I have this done. How much maintenance is involved? What can go wrong? (no, I don't want to really know because that can happen with anything). Needless to say, this is a very expensive decision and hopefully I am approaching it in as a matter of the fact way as possible. So, except for the face lift, most of the work I want done will be under wraps but will make me feel younger and overall look better.

    This is a very intelligent group. I would really appreciate any feedback from any of you about what I'm considering.

    1. I say, GO FOR IT! I'm in my mid-30's and I've been overweight for the past several years. Like you, lately I've been working like crazy to get back in shape. Unfortunately I've done some permanent damage to my body - stretch marks, loose skin, etc. My skin just doesn't have the elasticity anymore. If I could afford a tummy tuck and face lift, - girl I would! I should have gotten in shape like this 10 years ago! I could kick myself! If it makes you feel better about the body you've worked for then do it.

  12. Great post Amanda! I browsed that Tumbler site and the whole time my jaw was hanging open. There were a few After photos that made me think "plastic doll" because the woman had obviously taken things to the extreme and now resembles an Asian Barbie. But some of those examples of jaw surgery I couldn't help but think surely there was a medical consideration as well as a beauty one, because some of those Before shots looked so shocking that I can well understand them choosing surgery, and I was glad to see their After shots showing someone looking, dare I say it, normal. I am happy to see that not every one in Korea chose to blindly copy their favourite star or idol to do a surgery makeover.

    One last thought, genetics will win out, so I guess more and more Koreans will be getting cosmetic surgery in the years to come. I als wonder how this changes things in the Korean match making scene, will the mothers be insisting on seeing middle school photos before agreeing to the marriage?

  13. Excellent post!!! Plastic surgery is a really difficult topic, personally I'm against it but unfortunately we live in a society where being pretty,thin or have 90-60-90 measures,and wear the trendiest clothes is the norm to "succeed". This is a issue not only seen in South Korea but in other countries like Mexico(where i grew up)and where most of the entertainers have been under some type of plastic procedure .If we look at fashion magazines, you will only see flawless,tall and very thin models or gorgeous celebrities advertising the latest cosmetic. Our fashion and cosmetics choices are wheter we like it or not influenced by this shallow/plastic world. Plastic surgery is just a more drastic step in our search for the perfect beauty.

    I have no right to judge any woman/or man who proceeds with this method but its really sad that we cannot accept ourselves as we are....imperfections makes us unique!!!!

  14. Ah, plastic surgery. I've had some pretty intense conversations with my sister about this, and I used to always say, "No, no, no!" She'd ask me why, and I'd be dumbstruck. I had such a visceral reaction to the question, and I was SO SURE I was right, but I couldn't explain why. And all this because we started watching kdramas!

    I gave it many a good long thought, and now I have this 2-pronged approach to it. Overall, as a general practice, I'm very wary of it, for a variety of reasons--body shaming and policing, how it's usually women who are being forced to give in to patriarchal notions of what they should look like so they can be considered beautiful, the aversion I have to how we tie looks to worth, how much plastic surgery feeds into already well established ugly prejudices, how much more power plastic surgery gives tv and movies and marketing, which already hold so much sway over our daily lives and our perceptions of ourselves, and this romantic notion I have of wanting to live in a world where people can look the way they look and feel comfortable in their own skin and be loved the way they want to be loved (when I read A Wrinkle In Time as a kid and again later on--it's one of my favs--my favorite character was Aunt Beast, who had no eyes and so couldn't "see," but that didn't make her blind because on her planet blindess couldn't exist because no one could "see"). On the other hand I'm totally ok with what each individual person decides to do with their body. Like, I don't feel I have to interrogate someone if they decide to have plastic surgery, and I'm working on changing the way I used to think, which was immediately to leap to thinking that they were personally contributing to all those things I listed that make me iffy about plastic surgery. And, of course, this is making it much easier to watch kdramas and fawn over the actors and actresses, because some of my favorites have had a lot of plastic surgery, like Park Min Young and Yoon Shi Yoon. 'Cause it would be pretty hypocritical to be so against plastic surgery and support the actors who benefit from it, lol.

    I think plastic surgery would be a lot less of a thorny issue if societies had a larger, richer, deeper, more complex understanding of beauty, especially feminine beauty. Then we could appreciate it and even cultivate it without necessarily segregating groups of people, casting one super tiny elite as the "beautiful people" (and then acting as if this small number of people are the way everyone is supposed to look) and everyone else as not, and, as a consequence of casting the "beautiful people" as the norm, making everyone else to be freaks or lesser or something. Like, we are not supposed to look like people on tv!

    Anyway, great post.

  15. I heard that episode of This American Life too, and although I agreed with most of what she said, the way she said it bothered me. Maybe it's because I think sexism, along with a stratified and stressed economy, plays a major role in Korea's appearance-conscious culture. Women (and poor men) are a lot more likely to buy into objectification when opportunities for recognition in other spheres are limited.

    I came across an interesting project by a young American filmmaker, Kelley Katzenmeyer, about stresses on Korean high school students. She's still fundraising to finalize the film, but you can see 18 minutes of it here. The first few minutes are about study pressures, but after that, she addresses beauty standards, which she argues are a major stressor for young people. One of her goals for the project is to research just when and how these standards came about, which I'm really curious about myself. Prepare yourself for a seriously disturbing demonstration of eyelid gluing.

    BTW, This American Life got it wrong, sort of. Employment discrimination based on appearance IS illegal in some U.S. jurisdictions (NYC, SF, and DC, for example). Nationwide, lawsuits have established legal precedents for the argument that appearance is not a legitimate employment qualification, except in very specific contexts.

    1. Thank you so much for that link—the documentary looks fascinating. I just did my part by donating and will look forward to seeing the whole thing. (And a handwritten note from Korea. Teehee. I love Kickstarter's impact on funding drives.)

      I also think there's a lot of truth in the relationship between objectification and recognition in other spheres. Even athletes like Son Yeon Jae, the rhythmic gymnastic that seems to be all the rage in Korea, are presented as physical objects ("oh, she's so cute!"), not dynamic beings. Although there's a bit of that in America (e.g., the flap over Gabby Douglas's hair, and the long-suffering everywoman Hillary Clinton), there's at least some freedom to excel at something other than being pretty.

      Here's hoping that federal law will catch up with these jurisdictions.

    2. Amen. Appearance discrimination causes enormous injustice and anguish.

      Korea's focus on beauty is quite reminiscent of the mid-twentieth century U.S. It took decades to broaden the perspective on what women are good for and diversify beauty standards. The teacher in the radio piece was, I suspect, too young to recognize that concepts she takes for granted were a relatively recent development in her own culture.

      One of the most fascinating things about Korea is the pace of change. A newer running skit on the KBS comedy program, Gag Concert, features female comedians addressing various stereotypes. It's a female version of an older skit with men, but IMO, the women are much funnier.

      Spunky heroines aren't just a dramatic device. Real Korean women can be pretty feisty, so I predict interesting times ahead for Korean gender politics. Let us not forget that they beat us to having a female president, even if she is more Thatcher than Clinton.

      BTW, I watched Park Min Young in Glory Jane last year, and she's not nearly as narrow-faced as the "after" pic. It's probably photoshopped. That's common in model photos. Which raises the question of why they even bother with real people, but that's another post :)

  16. Hi there! I'd like to remain anonymous because I, like the girl in the radio interview, am an English teacher here in South Korea. When I was 18, with no real pressure from my boyfriend or immediate family I chose to undergo plastic surgery on my chest. It was painful and after all these years I still am not completely in love with them, but I learned a great deal about happiness through progress (it's a farce.) My point here isn't about my own journey, but about how difficult it is for me to teach my awesome SK girls to love their imperfect chins and wide cheeks and small eyes when I chose not to love my imperfect breasts. I have tried to philosophize this in so many ways that, at this point, I have no more arguments. My desire is for them to be truly loved, secure, important, respected, and celebratory about life but I just don't know if that's possible for them without surgery. Every time we take a picture together my girls cover their mouths or V-line their jaws with "peace signs" and it makes me want to cry. It also frustrates me to no end: how long do we have to sell ourselves until the "laws" of being a women will just leave us the f*ck alone?

    1. I think it's a beautiful thing that you're so mindful about how society's opinions can impact how your students see themselves. That alone, along with being exposed to someone who doesn't necessarily buy into plastic surgery as a panacea, could really be a life changing experience for them.

      The hardest thing about working with kids (or raising them) must really be the fact that—to some extent—they just have to make their own mistakes. You can tell them until you're blue in the face that the stove is hot, but until they touch it they're not really going to believe you. All you can do is be a positive force in their lives and share what you yourself have learned the hard way.

  17. Maybe what you have to offer them is your firsthand knowledge of what plastic surgery can't buy. Or the hollowness of what it does buy.

    CR groups were a real turning point for American women in redefining femaleness, success, and even love. In isolation, most woman felt defective and inadequate. Once women started talking to each other and discovering that everyone else felt the same way, it became a whole lot clearer that the problem was cultural, not individual. I'm really curious whether young women in Korean share their pain about trying to measure up to impossible beauty standards.

    It took a good 60 years of persistent struggle for American women to get to where we are today, and we're not done yet, so don't expect too much of yourself. But also, don't underestimate the impact you can have in simply modeling that a different perspective exists. You may not be around to see the impact, but never doubt that the experiences you bring to your students now will become a part of them for life.

  18. Great article; this definitely fills in a necessary gap--understanding between women rather than judgment.

  19. Great article!!But sometimes i envy some korean actresses like kim tae hee ,han ga in, and lee min jung even though I knew that they had their faces done . I want to have surgery too hahaha

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