Plastic Perfection: Are South Koreans Infatuated with Beauty?

An ad promoting jaw surgery in South Korea.

An ad promoting jaw surgery in South Korea.

An opinion piece by Kimchee Magazine contributor, Andrew Fraser

Lately, South Korea has been getting a lot of negative attention online from people all around the world due to its increasingly casual attitude toward plastic surgery. It isn’t breaking news that Korea has one of the fastest-growing plastic surgery industries, and Koreans are being mocked and criticized for having an easy-going attitude about going under the knife. One important thing to keep in mind, though, is that Korea is NOT the only country that has turned plastic surgery into a popular trend. The U.S, Brazil, Japan, China, and the U.K all have a fairly large number of its residents deciding to get surgery. So we can’t act as if South Korea is the only place where these surgeries are taking place.

Personally, I have never had any plastic surgery done and I don’t think I would ever consider it. I’m more than happy with my face and body, imperfections and all. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t support a friend or loved one if they decided that getting surgery would have a positive impact on their lives. There are conditions that come along with my support, though. I can understand getting surgery if it is related to health problems that the individual is facing or if they are verbally or physically abused by the people who surround them. In the end, we all deserve to be happy. We all want to be accepted by our friends and loved ones. We all want to live a normal, successful and fulfilling life. So, I have nothing wrong with supporting the idea of getting plastic surgery – as long as it is to help build confidence to help you become the best that you can be.

A Lack of Support: One of the biggest issues with plastic surgery popularity in Korea is that people who are labeled as being ‘ugly’ by the general public aren’t given the support they need to build confidence about their appearance or abilities. Instead, they are led to believe that the most obvious way to fix the problem is to just get surgery. Most Koreans believe that in order to get the upper hand in the competitive job market, they need to be beautiful. As a result, Korean youth have developed deep-rooted anger related to beauty ideals and are under the impression that good looks, above all else, give you the best chance of securing a high-paying, well-respected job in modern-day society.

A screenshot from 'Let Me In': One of Korea's most popular plastic surgery 'beauty transformation' programs.

A screenshot from ‘Let Me In’: One of Korea’s most popular plastic surgery ‘beauty transformation’ programs.

Plastic Surgery on Television: Considering how popular plastic surgery has become in Korea, it was only a matter of time before several television shows appeared that were dedicated to showcasing success stories of those who have undergone surgery and ended up with flawless results. ‘Let Me In’, the most popular plastic surgery transformation program in Korea, invites women with ‘abnormal’ facial or body issues and presents them with the opportunity to undergo surgical procedures to help improve the parts of their physical appearance that they are most self-conscious about. It is important to understand that this is not a free makeover; there is a large selection committee (including plastic surgeons and a psychiatrist) who only select candidates who can be substantially helped by getting surgery. I personally believe that this kind of program takes the high road by highlighting what benefits plastic surgery can have on our lives, and in famous cases like that of plastic surgery success story Huh Ye Eun (before & after shot above), she was able to gain confidence and strength that she never knew she had.

What About Natural Beauty? Stop comparing! I need to take a moment to step back, though, because I think that only a small portion of the Korean population actually get work done for these personal, health-related reasons. To most foreigners, Koreans are beautiful enough without any need to undergo plastic surgery procedures, but some of them can’t accept that fact because they are constantly compared to others who are apparently ‘more beautiful’ than them. On top of that, if someone is chubby or have been cursed with a look that doesn’t match what the majority of the population considers to be attractive or worthy of success, those ‘ugly’ people might end up feeling betrayed and could label themselves as unworthy. They are basically forced to write themselves off as failures before even getting a fighting chance.

Mirror, Mirror, On The Wall… Who Is The Fairest Of Them All? So what kind of face and image are considered to be MOST beautiful in Korea? Well, for women, the ideal look is that of actress and model, Kim Tae Hee. For men, Won Bin is considered to be the most handsome in the eyes of most. Of course, there is no doubt that these two celebrities are attractive and have undeniable charm, but it doesn’t mean that every Korean should feel the need to constantly compare themselves to these unattainable ideals. Furthermore, Koreans seem to be going for a more ‘westernized’ look, one that includes double eyelids, smaller cheekbones, button nose, and a sharp, defined jawline. Without these features, they feel as if they will be criticized and picked on for looking too traditionally Korean. But, could it end up going too far? Could they start to lose their identities in the process of all this change?

Kim Tae Hee: Considered to be one of the most beautiful female celebrities.

Kim Tae Hee: Considered to be one of the most beautiful female celebrities.

This is the one part about living in South Korea that was hard for me. I met a ton of gorgeous, kind-hearted people – both inside and out. I would compliment a person on their looks, and would often get a response like: “No way! I wish I looked more like Kim Tae Hee…” “I’m not beautiful, I’m just ugly!”. Even though these comments were followed by laughter and a seemingly positive tone, I knew they were suffering underneath.

The Conclusion? We shouldn’t look down on people who choose to get plastic surgery. We must look at it on a case-by-case basis. There are individuals all around the world (not just in Korea) who suffer and cannot find happiness within themselves. Plastic surgery, when done for the right reasons, can help give people a second chance at life.

Won Bin: One of Korea's Sexiest Men

Won Bin: One of Korea’s Sexiest Men

On the other hand, if it is used to improve upon something that clearly doesn’t need to be improved – that is where the problem is. We need to celebrate natural beauty, and it is important to never forget that we are all individuals. We have traits we inherited from our blood relatives, and if we get surgery to take that away, we lose our identity along the way. As long Koreans start to learn about the importance of celebrating one another for being beautiful in different ways, the plastic surgery ‘issue’, won’t really be an issue any longer.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with my opinion?
Do YOU have something that you want to add to the conversation?
Have YOU ever had plastic surgery or are you considering it?
Tell us your story in the comments below! I’d love to hear from you.

Author’s Note: First, I want to acknowledge that, after reading several threads and articles online, I realized a lot of people hate on South Korea for its apparent ‘obsession’ with plastic surgery. However, I want to make it clear that no one should be spewing hate or negative comments about Koreans before taking the time to really understand what life is really like in South Korea. We all have a right to our own opinions, but try to read through this article and listen to both sides of the story – and then feel free to tell me how you feel. I tried to be open-minded about the topic, and even though I shared my personal opinions, I tried to write this article in a neutral manner, highlighting points from both sides of the argument. If you have any praises or criticisms about this article, please feel free to share them in the comment section at the end of the article. 

2 thoughts on “Plastic Perfection: Are South Koreans Infatuated with Beauty?

  1. option1 on

    What really is “natural beauty”? Should we celebrate someone simply because they were born physically “superior”? We can’t decry people who get plastic surgery any more than we can condemn people who go the gym. If anything, we can be thankful that those who really want to get surgery in today’s Korea can afford it where-as 10-15 years ago they could not. As far as I know, Lasik eye surgery is also extremely common (and cheap) in Korea…

    However, I do agree with your point that South Korean society standards are extremely harsh and demanding homogenization ultimately destroys the individual. A world where beautiful is the norm doesn’t sound interesting.

    Great article!

  2. Min on

    Awesome article !!
    Sometimes, people have to have plastic surgery beacuse of some accident like a car accident.
    But some korean have a surgery for just their beauty.
    Most young Korean or some people over the world interested in Korean culture may know a word ‘성괴’.
    성괴 means ‘성형괴물’ and people can see them easily at rich village as Gangnam.
    Their face look like ‘Doll’ sold at Department store -not good meaning, just look like copy.
    I mean…they have similar face!
    I totally agree with you, but
    My sister will have a surgery after test for studying at university…hahahahahaahaha
    She wants big nose hahahahahaahaha
    이번글은 좀 어려운거 같은데ㅜㅜㅋㅋ
    외국인이 한국 성형에 대해서 글 적는게 쉽지 않았을건데

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