Life In Plastic: The Westernised Beauty Standards of South Korea
For many, South Korea seems like a cultural paradise. Yet belying the surface is a set of damaging expectations that are almost unattainable.
Recently, it’s been almost impossible to ignore the repeated calls for transparency amongst celebrities. In a world where parasocial relationships have become almost second-nature, we feel we deserve the truth from our beloved stars.
From this desire, Instagram accounts have been created, as well as YouTube channels, all designed to expose and speculate upon the enhancements that our dear celebrities have undergone.
Whilst many celebrities have simply not responded to these claims, others, until recently have denied it. Established model Bella Hadid is a great example, eventually revealing that 'she underwent a rhinoplasty at 14', despite previously denying these claims.
Whilst it seems that there are serious questions surrounding authenticity amongst more westernised celebrity culture, fans of Korean pop stars and celebrities have done the opposite.
They have assumed a protective role over those that they idolise, whenever their idol is accused of plastic surgery, they are quick to tear the commenter apart. Often calling them liars, and claiming that their idol simply grew up, or as many fans claim, that they just ‘went through puberty.’
Surgical enhancements are seen as utterly shameful, and a stain on the expectation of ‘natural beauty’ from everyone’s favourite idols.
An open-secret would be the best way to describe the attitude towards plastic surgery in South Korea. Appearance is at the centremost of everyone’s lives, whether they deny it or not, yet in South Korea, this focus is even deeper.
Jaehee, a 26 year old young woman from Seoul, spoke to me about her experience of beauty standards, living in the so-called ‘capital of plastic surgery’.
‘When you apply for a part time job in Korea, you get more offers if you send a photo, almost every person puts a photo on their application because if you don’t, you probably won’t get a response.’
Jaehee’s explanation may seem rather shocking, but to her, this is extremely normal. A focus on appearance is deeply rooted within Korean society, so much so, that it can affect job prospects.
Despite the time that has passed, the shameful and outdated terminology of the ‘occidental’ and ‘oriental’ appearance still remain ever present, just perhaps more subtly referred to.
The westernisation of South Korean society has been present since the divide of Korea following the Korean War. America’s presence within South Korea cannot be understated, they are a key factor behind the division of Korea.
As Jaehee emphasises, ‘America has a big influence, their largest overseas military base in the world, is located in South Korea.’
Racism is ever present, especially towards those with darker skin tones and it seems to have perpetuated a form of self-hatred that is only increasing. The ideal Korean beauty standard is to have very pale skin, it is seen as a form of purity, and it is the ultimate standard.
Yet many Koreans have naturally dark skin, and are forced to change this to fit the standards that surround them. This has led to a boom in dangerous practices, such as skin bleaching. Jaehee attributes the popularity of this practice to ‘prevalent westernised beauty standards’
Another practice that is common in the country, is known as double-eyelid surgery, which Jaehee believes to be the ‘most common procedure.’ The surgery creates creases in the upper eyelid, to simulate a more westernised look.
Almost every K-Pop or TV idol has undergone the procedure, and it is considered to be a right of passage. There is immense pressure to undergo these surgeries, with talent agencies pushing their idols to change their appearance, to be more 'appealing' to their audience. The agencies will often fund these procedures, as they are considered a key part of the development of the artist.
When I asked Jaehee, who she believed most accurately represented the Korean beauty standard, she suggested K-pop star Jang Won-young, who is only 18 years old.
The former member of renowned girl group, Iz*One, is now one of the most popular idols in Korea, re-debuting in 2021, under a new girl group IVE, who have achieved immense success.
Whilst Jang’s talent and beauty have cemented her as the current ‘It girl of Korea’, there has been an equal amount of concern over her appearance.
Recent appearances by Jang have sparked concern, over her drastically decreasing weight. Jaehee describes Jang as ‘an unrivaled popular member of IVE, with some young girls admiring her body, wanting to become like her.’
What particularly worries Jaehee is the fact that IVE is ‘extremely popular among elementary school students’, making Jang's influence on this vulnerable age group a matter of concern for the future.
While the true impact of this influence will become evident in the coming years, one cannot help but sympathize with Jang. At only 18 years old, she faces an immense amount of pressure to conform to an almost impossible standard of beauty.
Although Jaehee asserts that many doctors ‘advise against plastic surgery until one reaches legal adulthood’, it is evident that the K-pop industry adheres to a different set of guidelines.
Jang is but one of many idols, who at an increasingly young age, is speculated to have undergone a variety of surgical procedures, all to obtain a more ‘doll-like’ appearance. However, this has not been verified by Jang herself.
Coloured contact lenses and rhinoplasty surgeries are some methods that are used to create this more westernised, ‘doll-like’ appearance. With this immense pressure to reach an almost ethereal level of beauty, it’s no wonder that so many idols suffer with mental health issues.
It is no secret that the K-pop industry and Korea in general has an issue with suicide, with the highest suicide rate amongst OECD countries since 2003.
Many famous idols such as Sulli, Goo Hara and Kim Jonghyun took fans aback when they suddenly took their own lives. Yet, with the standards of success and beauty that these idols are placed under, should it really be surprising that some of them crumble?
The financial aspect of this issue needs to be clarified too, for many these enhancements are unaffordable and out of reach. Yet, they are presented as essential. The desire to become a fairer, more westernised Korean is present across almost every billboard, advertisement or music video that one watches.
Of course, there is no shame to those who decide to get these procedures, but the fact that many are pressured into them is the problem.
The main issue is transparency, and there is a severe lack of it in Korean society. Despite surgery being an open secret, idols need to be open about their looks, and how it was attained.
They need to reassure their fans that what they are seeing on the screen is highly doctored and surgically enhanced. Otherwise, fans will become dissatisfied with their own beauty, simply because it does not reflect the artificial reality that they see all around them.
On the other hand, fans also have a responsibility to be more empathetic towards their idols. They need to stop holding them to impossible standards that can easily cause breakdowns or suicides. The vicious rhetoric that is shared by fans of idols, especially within the K-pop community needs to stop.
Fans assume that idols are almost inhuman, indestructible dolls that can be altered and criticised for the most insignificant mistakes. Yet they fail to recognise themselves in those they admire. They have the same standards placed on them, the same insecurities, perhaps amplified, yet still they fail to act with respect.
The truth is that it’s possible for both of these groups to be victims at the same time. The idol is not the perpetrator, neither is the fan. Idols are forced to coalesce with an impossible beauty standard that is both unhealthy and gruelling.
Their beauty is a form of currency and the visuals associated with their acting or musical performances are part of their identity. They are forced to forgo their natural, eastern features and shamed and berated by the industry.
The ultimate antagonists in this situation are the rulers of the industry e.g. talent companies such as SM entertainment who reinforce these societal pressures.
Insecurity is utilised as a tool by these corporations, the more of it the better. It is deeply encouraged solely for the reason that it will generate more profit via investment in the beauty industry.
This is obviously an issue we face daily in the western world, but South Korea seems to be morbidly ‘ahead’ of us, in terms of the prevalence of their beauty standards.
They have effectively undergone a process of cultural erasure, dissecting eastern culture, savouring that which aligns with western ideals and discarding that which does not. One can only speculate where this erasure will lead to, but culture as we know it is being shamed and altered, in largely negative ways.
We all are collectively to blame for this, and it’s not just a Korean issue at all, we are increasingly expecting ourselves and others to act and present themselves in ways that are simply inhuman.
Appearances are expected to be perfect, as well as behaviours and etiquette. We are distancing ourselves completely from what being human entails, imperfection and shame, qualities which allow us to create long-lasting, meaningful connections with others.
If you feel you need with some of the issues mentioned, here are a few resources:
Beat Eating Disorders Helpline - 0808 801 0677 (England)
Samaritans - 116 123 (Support for emotional distress)