If you hear the word “Korea”, what are the top 10 things that come to mind?
I’m going to take a wild guess that somewhere between “kimchi” and “Samsung”, there was “plastic surgery”. Indeed, with 20 procedures per 1000 people, Korea has had the most surgical operations per capita in the world since 2009.
Source: The Economist
Are Koreans really more image-obsessed than people from other countries?
I wouldn’t exactly say so.
There’s a much more extensive cultural backdrop to this statistic and I’ve gathered 5 key reasons for the plastic craze in Korea:
#1 Cultural Collectivism
The “Group Taste”
Ever had a hard time following the plot of a Korean drama because the actresses looks so similar in every scene? Or perhaps you have seen this picture of Miss Korea 2013 finalists and sympathized with the poor judges.
If westerners want to use plastic surgery to exaggerate their features and stand out in looks, Koreans seem to have a very strict beauty mold that they aspire to. Large eyes, thin nose, v-shaped face, pale skin tone, and a golden measurement.
Korea, like many east Asian countries, is culturally uniform, largely due to little ethnic diversity. People have a strong preference for similar tastes. And when you have a strictly uniform beauty standard as opposed to having a variety of looks that are deemed beautiful, more people will need to alter themselves to achieve that standard.
Conforming to a Standard
Another interesting mindset is that the focus is not on praising those who meet that standard, but on seeing those who do not try to meet that standard as non-conforming. It’s not about looking good, it’s about not looking bad.
In a way, it works kind of like humility. The sort that I was taught as a traditional Confucian value. Don’t brag about your strengths, but always be responsible for what you don’t do well enough on. This relates to the virtues of conformity and harmony that underpin most East Asian societies.
It’s About What Others Think
Koreans care a lot about what other people think.
You know yourself. And you know your value based on what you have both on the inside and on the outside. Most other people can only see what’s on the outside of you, and they judge you based on that.
Now some people may not care about what others think of them, allowing them to have more control of their own self-worth. But in a culture where a person’s value is determined more by others than him or herself, Koreans tend not to be so laid back about this.
When a Korean girl’s mother tells her to sharpen her jaw in the hopes that she would be more attractive for her future husband, looks become not a selfish and superficial matter. It becomes a collectivistic and social matter.
#2 Hyper-Competitive Economy
In Korea, photos are submitted along with the resume to the employer as part of the job application. And looks are judged.
It’s a fact anywhere in the world that beautiful people are more likely to be promoted or get preferential treatment. But Korea is a little less subtle about this.
Now if looks are going to matter for your job prospects, this kinda becomes a survival issue. And Koreans are keen for success.
Asian nations are perceived as being more intensely competitive, a large part due to high density in population and limited resources. Korea is no exception.
It isn’t a comforting idea, but people who are smarter, prettier, and more popular tend to be more competitive and successful. Koreans are hard on themselves and strive for perfection in many ways as a result of a competitive environment. So after you’ve done your best to raise your qualifications in skills and knowledge, what else can you improve on?
#3 Persuasion by Pop Culture & Commercial Media
Aside from social encouragement from friends and families, there is the unbridled force of advertisement and marketing.
Every day, Koreans are bombarded by plastic surgery advertisements in the subway stations, bus stops and trains. The ads tell them things like: “Everybody’s done it but you”, “You’ll finally be able to get married.”
Here is a list that certainly impressed me.
Promising happiness and success, these ads drill to the core of a persons self-esteem.
Then theres the K-pop industry. With synchronistic dance moves, bright flashy colors, and hyper sexualized images, the packaged boy and girl bands are held as role models by young fans.
It is no secret that the faces of many of these flawless celebrities have got a lot of work done. All the kids know it, and they know exactly what they want for their graduation present.
#4 Convenience & Affordability
Korea is probably the easiest country to get plastic surgery.
In the famous streets of Gangnam, there are over 500 plastic surgery clinics.
It’s a serious industry where businesses are highly specialized to cope with the large demand.
Many clinics operate like factories, systematically pumping out finished products in very efficient time frames.
Plastic surgery is also quite affordable in Korea, and can be about half of what is charged in the US. The Korean government, who is keen on promoting medical tourism, have eased regulations and even helped the hospitals with their marketing efforts.
Oh, and, there is no legal age limit to get plastic surgery in Korea.
#5 Natural Human Desire
We’ve all done it. At one point of our lives, we have spoken about plastic surgery with a tone of disdain. But we have also stood in front of the mirror, and wondered what if our nose was smaller, or our skin was smoother.
Let’s be real here, it’s a natural desire to want to appear beautiful. (or to be smarter, richer, more successful…) Given the choice, wouldn’t you rather look like Margot Robbie than Quasimodo?
To have less of these desired qualities makes people sad and determined to change. It’s not hard to understand.
Under the same living environments, I don’t think that the average Korean person would necessarily place more focus on appearances. Obviously, this cannot alone explain why Koreans do more plastic surgery but it is an important reason for why they do.
It is clear to me that plastic surgery isn’t purely a matter of vanity here.
In a culture that promotes conformity to a standard and having a sense of responsibility to strive for excellence, I can see why people feel the need to alter their appearance.
So if you have thought about getting plastic surgery, rather than feel bad about being shallow, perhaps try digging deeper.
What is prompting your need for perfection?
And putting costs and risks aside, is it really a sin to desire more success and social acceptance? Maybe it doesn’t truly make you happy, as you have been wise enough to find out. But for some, it does.
Should you blame them?