Sunday, September 23, 2012

What Price Beauty?

Beauty is but a vain and doubtful good,
A shining gloss, that fadeth suddenly;
A flower that dies, when first it 'gins to bud;
A brittle glass, that's broken presently:
     A doubtful good, a gloss, a glass, a flower,
     Lost, faded, broken, dead within an hour.
William Shakespeare, "The Passionate Pilgrim"

One cannot travel anywhere on public transport around Seoul without being confronted with the latest fad: young Koreans obsession with plastic surgery. You wouldn't believe it until you see it — advertisements everywhere, on the subway and on buses, showing before and after photos of enhanced faces and altered bodies. Walk around Gangnam and you see signs plastered on building exteriors for plastic surgery clinics. I haven't yet figured out where I would need to go if I had the flu and needed to see a doctor, but I would have no problem finding a place for a face lift. It's shocking!

Imagine going down a subway escalator and seeing this ad

In general, the fixation with looks goes beyond anywhere else I have traveled in the world. Walk around anywhere in public on a typical day, and you'll see a Korean woman in an idle moment with her hand mirror out, examining her face. In this week's news, I read that South Korea is the world's biggest market for male cosmetics — a country of 50 million people makes up 21% of global skincare sales! That's a lot of fancy moisturizer being used by a metrosexual bunch. My newsfeed also pulled up an announcement of 15% off tour packages to Korea this month for cosmetic procedures. And recently one of my colleagues suggested I watch the Korean film "Cinderella", a horror flick showing poor teenage girls scraping each other's faces.

Having done a little reading on Korean culture before arriving in August, I knew that plastic surgery was becoming a thing here. I had read the New York Times piece last November documenting the dramatic rise in cosmetic procedures. The article quoted a 2009 survey, which found that one in five Seoul women between 19 and 49 admitted to having undergone plastic surgery. It said that the double eyelid fold procedure, designed to make the eyes look larger and rounder, was "so common here that most women on Seoul streets seem to have a double fold, though only one in five Koreans is born with one."

This woman looks happier "After".  Shocking...

What's the look that Korean women are going for? You'd be surprised. Says a plastic surgeon quoted by NYT: “Koreans agree on what constitutes a pretty face...The consensus, now, is a smaller, more sharply defined youthful face — a more or less Westernized look."

So this explains the obsession with the bigger eyes. And bigger busts. Rhinoplasty to create a more defined nose bridge. Contouring the chin and cheeks. Even (I kid you not) calf reduction surgery!

But why the obsession with the Western look? And why throw tens of thousands of dollars into getting it? Partly it could be due to the popularity of Western media, American movies and the like. Koreans do very much like things they perceive as European or American, which connote a sense of wealth and prestige. Hence the love of Starbucks Coffee. And golf. And BMW cars. But the tentacles of Western media creep far and wide in this world. And in most other countries, women don't feel compelled to take scalpels to their faces to show their love of Hollywood.

I think the reason for the surgery boom is the hyper-competitiveness of the Korean culture. I recently finished the book "Korea Unmasked" by Won-Bok Rhie, a cartoonist who tries to explain the idiosyncrasies of being Korean, especially what makes it different than being from China or Japan. One of the themes which came out of the book for me was the predominant group culture here. Koreans feel very drawn to groups with which they share things in common, and therefore feel a desire to keep pace with the group. In America, we have an idiom for social benchmarking called "Keeping up with the Joneses" — in Korea you could translate this into "Keeping up with the Kims". In Korean society, this trend manifests itself in the education system, where students work morning to night to study to keep pace with their classmates. It manifests itself in Korea's recklessness with credit card debt — the average household debt burden exceeds that of the US before the global financial crisis! And now, I think, you see this trend with plastic surgery. If your neighbor gets her cheeks tweaked and her nose fixed, then finds a husband or gets hired for a good job, you'll probably do the same.

The label for this beverage says (in English) "I'm on a Diet. Look at me!"

As a foreigner from a country where beauty is certainly important but an obsession with which is seen as undesirable vanity, the whole surgery trend strikes me somewhat as a country gone mad. Don't get me wrong — I certainly appreciate a women who is well-put-together, eats right, exercises. And I understand that the genetic lottery has given some people more fortunate appearances than others. But in all this cutting and scraping for the ideal look, there must be something lost in Korea. As a trained economist, certainly I see an economic loss from throwing all this money into the rather unproductive plastic surgery industry. As a human*, I wonder why the elements of uniqueness and diversity, which are also beautiful, are so undervalued here. In a region of the world already mocked for having everyone looking the same, these elements are badly needed, but Koreans seem to be going down the path towards external conformity, sadly.

* (which, perhaps, is the opposite of being an economist!)

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