Beauty and the Monster: Aesthetics and Plastic Surgery in Globalized South Korea

In this post, So Yeon Leem of the Collège d’études mondiales, Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, France, gives an overview of her current research project, an ethnographic study of plastic surgery in South Korea in the context of globalization. To join the debate and contribute to the Beauty Demands project please email Jan Kandiyali. 

Since the turn of the 21st century, there has been a new kind of plastic surgery boom in South Korea. While the old trend of plastic surgery aimed to modify the size or shape of certain parts of a face such as the eyes or nose, the new trend of plastic surgery – facial contouring or facial bone surgery – is mostly concerned with the overall shape and structure of a face, which is claimed to enhance aesthetical values of a face more drastically and fundamentally. In my work I pay attention particularly to ambivalent discourses of a surgically- made beauty related to this new plastic surgery phenomena – plastic beauty (成形美人) vs. plastic monster (成形怪物). Although both terms may refer to the same person who receives plastic surgery, they have very different implications with ambiguous boundaries between them. ‘Plastic beauty’, often without a direct mention of ‘plastic’, is associated with the success of plastic surgery, a desirable beauty, and therefore a Korean style of beauty; in contrast, ‘plastic monster’ refers to one whose face has been excessively modified by plastic surgery usually due to overly widened eyes, a too prominent nose, a unnatural shape of the mouth, and/or an absurdly narrow jaw. More interestingly, on the one hand, the former – perhaps, a good hybrid of western and Korean authentic beauty – is appropriated to promote Asian plastic surgery industries along with pan-Asian popularization of Korean popular music and drama, and, on other hand, the latter becomes an object of ridicule and concern among Korean young people as it is seen as a hyper-westernization of a Korean body. From these extremely ambivalent plastic surgery discourses and practices, my work reveals the emergence of ‘globalized’ visions and aesthetics in the 21st century Korean society, which is distinguishable from ‘westernized’ ones in the 20th century.

Supporting data for this work is drawn from two sources: firstly, I have examined media coverage of plastic surgery in two major Korean daily newspapers from 1960s up to present; and secondly, I have conducted long-term ethnographic fieldwork at a plastic surgery clinic, Seoul, South Korea, between 2008 and 2011.

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