I only recently saw the photos of 20 remarkably identical-looking Miss Korea contestants. The shots of these polished young women inspire both horror and confusion. They look like they were made from the same cookie cutter, mass-produced at some beauty queen factory, like the same model iPhones in a Chinese manufacturing plant. It also makes you wonder if they are just one person, fashioning different yet still eerily similar hairstyles and outfits.
Of course beauty pageants are sexist and degrading to women. But these photos say more than that. They are at once a testament to the national pursuit of conformity and the social malaise that has taken over the country.
Appearance rules supreme in South Korea. Tiger moms bankroll the $20 billion private tutoring industry to launch their kids into a successful life trajectory, starting with higher education. Like university diplomas, beauty — a uniform concept of beauty — has become another qualification one must possess to ratchet up job and marriage prospects.
No one can get around in Seoul without being barraged by cosmetic surgery ads. One bus poster reads, “Jaw realignment surgery you can get on weekend”, presumably so that you can go back to work on Monday. (It’s curious how people recover so quickly after having their bones shaved off.) Subway cars are plastered with shocking before-and-after photos of young women. At a stop in the tony Gangnam area, where hundreds of clinics form South Korea’s renowned “beauty belt”, the subway announcement tells you which exit to take for a particular plastic surgery clinic.
The pursuit of beauty is apparent in the country’s $5 billion plastic surgery industry. With 13.3 procedures for every 1,000 people, it has the highest cosmetic surgery rate in the world. It also boasts the highest number of plastic surgeons per capita. With booming medical tourism racking up hundreds of millions of dollars and a million medical tourists projected to arrive annually by 2020, Korea has transformed itself to a cosmetic surgery mecca.
It’s an obsession that transcends gender. Turn on the TV to witness the feminisation of the South Korean male race: almond-shaped eyes, plump lips, sumptuous hair and zero personality. It takes the meaning of “cotton candy” to a new dimension. Plenty of plastic surgery clinics cater only to men. In 2011, South Korean men spent $500 million on skincare, one fifth of the global market sales. This is no small feat since the entire male population is only 25 million. The same year Marie Claire declared South Korea “the new France” in skincare.
Given that South Koreans are forever striving to become like everyone else — graduate from the same prestigious university, land the same well-paying job and marry the same impeccably-credentialed spouse — it only makes sense that they’d also strive for the same look. It’s what sets it apart from countries like the U.S., where success is defined by distinguishing oneself from the crowd.
Sure, there is comfort in looking and thinking like everyone else. The problem is, conformity cannot be achieved without penalizing those who deviate from the norm.
Going under the knife to get the same look as everyone else is exactly like hammering the nail that’s sticking out, as the Japanese saying goes. It kills creativity and individuality. It’s like rendering the previously uniquely charming Renee Zellweger unrecognizable, looking like a million other beautiful people. It’s churning out masses of Samsung middle managers, but no Nobel laureates.
I’m not suggesting we neglect the way we look. Our bodies are the vessels that carry us through life’s journey and we should take good care of them. Nor am I opposing plastic surgery altogether. For many, it can remove scars from painful, traumatic accidents. And a little bit of nip and tuck, as we age, could boost morale. I’m also all for “your body, your choice”. If a generation of women and men are determined to invest their resources in looking like one another and feel great about themselves in the process, more power to them.
But South Korea would do well to take a step back and wonder if it wants to be a nation espousing a weekend jaw reconstruction surgery. Not only is this harmful — there is no shortage of horror stories of botched plastic surgery by unlicensed doctors — this relentless pursuit of the diamond standard look is based on a false premise: Appearance alone can fulfill the desires and needs we have as humans. It obscures the reality that we are made up of equal parts body and mind.
And here, we arrive at a broader definition of beauty: It’s not the shape of our jaws, but how we smile and carry ourselves. It’s about acts of kindness, generosity and empathy. A fine-looking woman who can’t be bothered to hold a door for an elderly person behind her isn’t beautiful; she’s inconsiderate.
This is why the fixation on our appearances makes us vulnerable to becoming like a Rolex knockoff. We are not what we appear to be on the outside.
Maybe there is a way to redirect our collective zeal. Every year some 1,500 women around the world become victims of acid attacks, which leave them permanently disfigured and often disabled. South Korean plastic surgeons could put their excellent skills to repairing burned skin tissues, instead of augmenting body parts that don’t need any augmentation. If every plastic surgeon helped one victim, we’d still have over 500 surgeons left. It would help the victims get a second shot at life and redefine South Korea’s reputation as the capital of plastic surgery, for the better.
One of the all-time best sellers in South Korea is the quintessential French novel The Little Prince. This book is so popular that South Koreans even built a French cultural village in the countryside east of Seoul, reflecting the book’s theme of flowers, stars and the little blond boy. Maybe for once, we can honor our love for the book, not by building something that looks pretty, but by trying to live one of the book’s enduring lessons: “The most important things can’t be seen with the eyes”.