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East Asian Youth Cultures Spring 2015

Globalized Identities, Localized Practices, and Social Transitions

Dwayne Dixon, Author

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The Normalization of Cosmetic Surgery in South Korea: Investment in Self-Development & Women as Consumer Bodies

“We are all in and on the market, simultaneously customers and
–Zygmunt Bauman

Under the current system of consumer capitalism, where the acquisition and creation of profit is the main priority, the South Korean cosmetic surgery industry has experienced remarkable economic success. What was once limited to a select group of movie and television stars has now become an accessible industry of mass consumption (albeit for those who can afford it). One of the key reasons behind the success and profitability of the cosmetic surgery industry in South Korea has been its effective normalization of cosmetic surgery procedures. The way in which the industry has been able to achieve (and still continues to guarantee) this normalization is primarily through its emphasis on self-development as well as its valorization of beauty with regard to social capital. Furthermore, the industry employs these notions of self-development and beauty in targeting women in particular as the primary consumer class. Consequently, through this process, women’s bodies have become objectified as ‘consumer bodies’ in which they fall subject to the standards of beauty being dictated by a masculine consumer capitalist system. That being said, the fact that the number of Korean males seeking cosmetic surgery continues to increase cannot be ignored as young men in Korea also fall victim to the emphasis on physical appearance in an extremely competitive job market. In fact, this recent phenomenon has opened up and invited many fascinating discussions on the topic, such as the convergence of feminine and masculine beauty ideals through a “soft masculinity” discourse (see Holliday and Elfving-Hwang for more on this topic). Nonetheless, women still remain the largest group of cosmetic surgery recipients and it is evident that they are the main targets of consumption. The primary concern of this paper will thus be to address women in particular. 

Due to the highly competitive education system and labor market environment in South Korea, it is evident that there is a strong societal emphasis on self-development and the burden of self-development placed on the individual is largely intensified. At the same time, this notion of self-development gets commodified under the neoliberal capitalist system, wherein an individual’s social capital is dictated and measured by material commodities so that it may align with consumer capitalist culture. Accordingly, the South Korean cosmetic surgery industry places a strong emphasis on self-improvement, guaranteeing that surgical modification of the body increases an individual’s chances of securing marriage and/or finding employment. In fact, rather than being perceived as a sign of vanity, cosmetic surgery is largely perceived as a worthwhile and comprehensible investment in self-development (Holliday and Elfving-Hwang 61). In addition, a number of studies indicate that physical appearance plays a significant role in job recruitment. For instance, a study conducted by recruitment agency JobKorea found that 80 percent of recruitment executives considered a candidate’s physical appearance to be an important factor in the hiring process (Holliday and Elfving-Hwang 73). Correspondingly, the fact that a photograph of the candidate is a requirement of all job applications in South Korea further suggests the importance of physical appearance in the hiring process. Holliday and Elfving-Hwang suggest that this emphasis on physical appearance is related to the persisting South Korean traditional belief in physiognomy, wherein one can determine an individual’s character solely by looking at their face and thus altering the physical appearance of one’s face can in fact alter his/her fate (Holliday and Elfving-Hwang 70). However, they are careful to not overemphasize the role of physiognomy in acknowledging that women’s surgical preferences have significantly changed in the context of consumer capitalism and popular culture. For instance, they note that under traditional physiognomy, round eyes for women were associated with lasciviousness and that a large ‘moon face’ was associated with fertility. Contrastingly, round eyes and a narrow face shape are currently seen as desirable amongst Korean women (Holliday and Elfving-Hwang 71). Nevertheless, it is evident that physical appearance is greatly valued in the South Korean employment system, and South Korean society thus endows physical appearance with considerable power (Woo 62). This ‘power of appearance’ is then further established and reinforced by the cosmetic surgery industry in its ability to produce the consumer’s desired outcome— namely marriage and employment. In addition, the consumer capitalist system frames this notion of self-improvement in such a way that it is only achievable through ‘proper’ consumption practices (such as cosmetic surgery).  

Moreover, the pressure placed on the importance of physical appearance in finding employment as well as securing marriage is arguably significantly greater for South Korean women than it is for men. As Woo argues, women are taught that physical appearance is the most important attribute in defining their worth (Woo 78). Possessing highly developed skills alone is therefore insufficient and in order to compete in the labor market, women must also possess a ‘pretty’ face. As she goes on to assert, “Good looks—not skill—make women more competitive in the job market” (Woo 62). This emphasis on appearance over abilities implies that beauty is the primary standard in determining a woman’s value. Therefore, women who fit this standard of beauty are seen as more likely to succeed in work and marriage (Kim 108). As Taeyon Kim contends, “The more beautiful a woman is, the more her value increases in both the marriage and employment market” (Kim 108). Furthermore, the perceived notion of the power of beauty becomes further legitimized once women experience a real increase in social power (Woo 63). Correspondingly, as Elizabeth Pyon affirms, “Korea, in particular, has rewarded beautiful people with well-paying jobs, improved marriage prospects and respect” (Kim 108). However, perhaps the perceived tangible benefits of cosmetic surgery are overemphasized— namely the monetary benefits. Soohyung Lee and Keunkwan Ryu’s findings indicate that for most recipients of cosmetic surgery, the monetary benefits of surgery are on average lower than the surgery costs and therefore not large enough to justify the surgery costs (Lee and Ryu 243). Hence, this suggests that cosmetic surgery is justified more by its consumption value, rather than by its investment value (Lee and Ryu 243). Nonetheless, the cosmetic surgery industry continues to primarily emphasize self-improvement and perceived notions of cosmetic surgery as investment in human capital continue to disseminate. Whether or not cosmetic surgery actually delivers the anticipated outcomes is another question in its own and seems to be of less importance as consumption of cosmetic surgery continues to increase.  

Not only does the cosmetic surgery industry promise women empowerment through physical beauty, but it also frames beauty as a source of pleasure. As Woo states, “Their corrected bodies now bring them more than power—they bring the experience of pleasure” (Woo 65). The cosmetic surgery industry also depicts cosmetic surgery as a solution to and means of liberalization from abnormality, in which the female body becomes fragmented and the physical features that exist outside of the ideal standard of beauty become isolated as objects in need of repair. However, it is important to note that this ideal beauty standard is a constructed image— ever elusive and constantly changing— which inevitably more advantageous to capitalistic consumption. Moreover, Woo states that women adopt a gendered discipline of self-grooming from the moment they are born, and believe that by undergoing surgery, they will be liberated from this obsession with self-grooming (Woo 68). However, she argues that the opposite effect paradoxically occurs. On the contrary, women find themselves pulled even further into the obsession, in which they become trapped in a vicious cycle and inevitably become more dependent on the industry. 

The subordination of Korean women to the cosmetic surgery industry thus raises the broader question of whether the pursuit of beauty can ever truly be a free choice. And more specifically, are women are truly exerting agency in their decision to undergo physical violence against their otherwise normally and healthily functioning bodies, or are ultimately forced to adhere to cosmetic surgery as a means of both self-improvement and conformity? On one hand, Woo argues that women are active, conscious and highly informed consumers that “look upon the cosmetic surgery industry from a market perspective and situate themselves as consumers in relation to it” (Woo 71). She also notes that women use the Internet as a key source of information. She then goes onto assert that women “approach the industry rationally, and invest time in visiting different clinics before they make their decision, as much as they would when shopping for other commodities” (Woo 71). Hence, she concludes that in their active pursuit of precise information, women exercise their power as consumers (Woo 71). On the other hand, Kim argues that in the context of the highly competitive Korean employment market, the choice to alter one’s body is a “necessity rather than an option” (Kim 108). Furthermore, she claims that the high level of conformity within the Korean cosmetic surgery industry demonstrates the fact that Neo-Confucian principles of conformity and ‘harmony with others’ continue to dictate women’s social position as subjectless bodies (Kim 105). She thus contends that beauty for Korean women “has become a requirement of decorum” (Kim 107) and that ultimately, “Beauty is compulsory” (Kim 108). Finally, somewhere in between these two perspectives, Karupiah contends that “women are neither passive individuals following the ‘prescriptions’ of society, nor are they totally free in making their choices” (Karupiah 14). Regardless of the varying nature of these perspectives, however, one aspect still remains evident: the cosmetic surgery industry encourages cosmetic surgery as a voluntary and self-empowering choice, and its main intent in doing so is the accumulation and continuation of maximum profit. 


Holliday, Ruth, and Joanna Elfving-Hwang. "Gender, Globalization and Aesthetic Surgery in South Korea." Body & Society 18.2 (2012): 58-81. SAGE Journals. Web. 

Karupiah, Premalatha. "Modification of the Body: A Comparative Analysis of Views of Youths in Penang, Malaysia and Seoul, South Korea." Journal of Youth Studies 16.1 (2013): 1-16. Web. 

Kim, Taeyon. "Neo-Confucian Body Techniques: Women's Bodies in Korea's Consumer Society." Body & Society 9.2 (2003): 97-113. SAGE Journals. Web.

Lee, Soohyung, and Keunkwan Ryu. "Plastic Surgery: Investment in Human Capital or Consumption?" Journal of Human Capital 6.3 (2012): 224-50. Chicago Journals. Web.

Woo, Keong Ja. "The Beauty Complex and the Cosmetic Surgery Industry." Korea Journal 44.2 (2004): 52-82. Web.

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