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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/Homogenization of an 'Ideal' Beauty Standard: Capitalist Strategy & Globalization

Not only has the South Korean cosmetic surgery industry normalized cosmetic surgery, but it has also normalized and homogenized a single ‘ideal’ standard of beauty. However, it is important to keep in mind that this image is constantly changing and in a state of flux, which is ultimately more advantageous to capitalistic consumption. Generally speaking, this beauty standard appears to entail three key features: wider eyes with a double-eyelid, a high narrow dorsum with a sharply defined nose-tip and a narrow, well-sculpted jawline. Though on the surface it may seem as if this ideal beauty standard being promoted by the South Korean cosmetic surgery industry signifies a desire to appear ‘westernized’, it is actually more of a globalized beauty standard. 

That being the case, Holliday and Elfving-Hwang are insistent to tackle this ‘westernization’ myth, cautioning against positioning Korean cosmetic surgery in a static, binary relationship of nonwhite versus white. In particular, they draw upon double-eyelid surgery as a key example. They argue that in general, “Wider eyes signal youth, energy and alertness” and that although wider eyes may be desirable, they must be “wider Korean eyes, not western ones” (Holliday and Elfving-Hwang 71). In fact, Korean women and men who have too much fat in the eyelid removed are “seen negatively as artificially western” (Holliday and Elfving-Hwang 71). In addition, as new distinctions are being drawn between what is ‘natural’ and what is ‘artificial’ beauty— in which ‘natural’ beauty is still recognized as superior— Holliday and Elfving note that unsuccessful strategies are “often defined as producing an unnaturally ‘Western’ appearance” (Holliday and Elfving-Hwang 62). They thus conclude that the desire of the Korean cosmetic surgery industry is primarily to “create a natural look that ‘enhances’ the body without losing the ‘Koreanness’ of the subject who undergoes surgery” although they are careful to point out that ‘Koreanness’ itself is constantly in a state of flux (Elfving-Hwang 71). Moreover, they raise the point that although one could claim that the ubiquitous desire amongst Korean women to have paler skin signifies a desire to westernize, this cannot thus explain the common desire amongst western women to have tanned skin (Holliday and Elfving-Hwang 75). Finally, they point out that breast augmentation amongst Korean women is seen as ‘whitening’, and yet the same procedure for white women is explained as feminizing and not related to race (Holliday and Elfving-Hwang 66). 

Hence, this ‘ideal’ beauty standard is not necessarily a Caucasian nor an Asian standard, but rather a transcultural standard that “promotes an aesthetic assemblage rather than a given ethnic type” (Davies and Han 152). In fact, Davies and Han argue that this ideal standard is more of a ‘scientific’ ideal than an Asian or Western ideal  or so it is marketed that way through scientific notions such as the ‘Golden Ratio’ (Davies and Han 152). As they go on to state, “What is more pertinent is that these idealized features are largely effaced of ethnic and racial significance because they are advertised as a consumer ideal of beauty” (Davies and Han 149-150). Correspondingly, as Holliday and Elfving-Hwang conclude, “The globalized body is already ‘mixed’ and bears little resemblance to actual women either in the West or the East” (Holliday and Elfving-Hwang 75). 

Above: the alleged scientific 'Golden Ratio', as marketed by ID Plastic Surgery Hospital Korea

Nonetheless, the key reason that the industry demands this globalized standard of conformity is that it is simply more economically efficient. And in order to achieve this efficiency, cosmetic surgeons must induce customers into conforming to industry-determined standards and trends. Woo describes these procedures as being unified procedures that “homogenize genderization” and enable the mass production of bodies in a unified way (Woo 74). In addition, the cosmetic surgery industry emphasizes innovation and promotes new technologies in so far that it may secure the continuation of demand and profit. Similarly, the cosmetic surgery promotes aesthetic improvement as something to be achieved incrementally, in order to appeal to a wider consumer base (since few have the means to afford a complete makeover all at once) and guarantee the continuation of profit through separate procedures (Davies and Han 152). However, although the mass consumption of cosmetic surgery does indeed allow for increased accessibility and consumption, we must not misconstrue this as masking class differences between consumers. It is therefore crucial to keep economic inequality in mind. After all, as Woo states, “The development and popularization of plastic surgery technology does not guarantee that the road leading to beauty will be open to everyone” (Woo 77). 

Furthermore, the cosmetic surgery industry not only benefits most from this normalization of an ideal beauty standard but it also simultaneously helps to institutionalize it in the process, through effective mediums such as popular culture and digital technology. This homogenization of an ‘ideal’ beauty standard and the use of these effective mediums thus allows the cosmetic surgery industry to efficiently export these procedures as commodities in the global market. With this in mind, these two topics will be addressed and explored in the subsequent pages. 


Davies, Gloria, and Gil-Soo Han. "Korean cosmetic surgery and digital publicity: Beauty by Korean design." Media International Australia Incorporating Culture and Policy Nov. 2011: 146-56. Academic OneFile. Web. 

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