Over the past several years, the South Korean plastic surgery industry has become a sensationalized spectacle in mainstream American media as evidenced by some of the headlines published by BuzzFeed, which I’ve included above. Much of the conversation around plastic surgery and Korean women’s decisions to undergo cosmetic procedures has been centered around claims of an oppressive uniformity that is striving for whiteness. In articles such as the ones listed above, Korean women are often articulated as “victims” of internalized self-hatred and racism which implicitly heralds the US as a superior nation that is the source of desire and envy. However, this logic ignores and obscures the institutional players that have structured the development and success of the Korean plastic surgery industry. Dominant discourses around plastic surgery often lack a historicized and nuanced understanding of the political and economic forces at play such as the ways in which Japanese colonialism and US imperialism have shaped the practices, ideas, and ideals of South Korean beauty. Instead, mainstream media has suggested that Korean women’s desire for lighter skin, bigger eyes, and thinner, higher, and pointier noses indicates an envious yearning for “Western” and “American” physical traits. However, as Sharon Heijin Lee argues, this discourse “takes white Western women’s experiences as the telos of modernity” by situating white liberal American women as enlightened, liberated, and empowered.
The rhetoric surrounding the seemingly incomprehensible extremes that Korean women subjugate themselves to in their quest for perfection is one that posits the Korean body as a site of not only looking, but also active consumption. Articles such as BuzzFeed’s, “31 Crazy Before And After Photos Of Korean Plastic Surgery” and Gawker’s “Plastic Surgery Blamed for Making All Miss Korea Contestants Look Alike” attempt to construct the psyche of the Korean woman as irrational, illogical, and unstable by suggesting that deep-seeded insecurities have left young Korean women vulnerable and impressionable to the beauty demands of Korean society. Even the language used to describe the pageant in the Gawker article relies on trivializing and denigrating the pageant participants as “clones” in a “parade” that evoke a “Twilight Zone” quality. Through mainstream discourse and representation, the Korean body has been stripped, scrutinized, distorted, and dissected — both visually and rhetorically.
Furthermore, in “Koreans See Themselves With Plastic Surgery” and “Koreans Get Photoshopped With Double Eyelids And It Was So Weird”, Korean bodies take on a performative role as a result of a fetishized interest in the alteration of such bodies. Participants in the aforementioned videos function as visual reminders of natural beauty whose self-esteem has persevered, which simultaneously serves to implicitly chastise those who have gone under the knife. BuzzFeed’s penchant for virality situates Korean bodies as hyper-visible which reinforces the hegemonic white gaze and reifies the moral judgements made by such gaze.
Jezebel’s “I Can’t Stop Looking at These South Korean Women Who’ve Had Plastic Surgery” as mentioned in Lee’s piece, bears similarities to an article titled, “19 Grotesque Portraits Taken Directly After Plastic Surgery”, published by BuzzFeed which “reveals the agony that many Koreans undergo to attain beauty” as indicated by the author, Gabriel H. Sanchez. Both Stewart and Sanchez invoke a sensationalized narrative that carries a tone of not only disbelief, but also condemnation. The photographs included in Sanchez’s article portray the reality of post-surgery bodies without the glitz and glamor of Korean plastic surgery makeover shows such as “Let Me In”. However, the voyeuristic gaze which we, as viewers, are deploying through the practice of looking is structured around a power imbalance that privileges the viewer. The very nature of the “Miss Korea gif” and before-and-after photosets are online media productions designed to elicit a visceral response — one of mixed shock, disgust, and discomfort. Therefore, Korean women and plastic surgery practices offer the white Western audience not only a spectacle that is highly entertaining and addictive, but also serves as a case in point that reaffirms and reassures the US of its role as a global beacon of democracy and inequality, which follows an imperial logic of “West is Best”.