Aesthetic Surgery and Symbolic Capital in South Korea

Aesthetic surgery in South Korea has become a significant phenomenon and a regular news item: the latest aesthetic enhancements carried out on the nation’s favourite stars are headline news, and cosmetic surgery has reportedly become so commonplace that even 12-year-old girls now have their eyelids 'enhanced'.

There is a pressure on both women and men to transform their physical appearance to conform to popular ideals of beauty, and the cosmetic surgery industry was worth 0.5 trillion Won in 2002 (Samsung Economic Research Institute 2002).

'Beautiful' appearance is considered of such importance that, according to news reports, up to 50 per cent of South Korean women have undergone procedures ranging from double eyelid surgery to more invasive surgery such as calf-muscle trimming. Reports claim that 40 per cent to 60 per cent of young women want aesthetic surgery (The Hangyoreh 2007).

Beautiful' appearance is considered as essential to ensure social and career success. A recent study among high school girls found that nearly 80 per cent were unhappy with their appearance and viewed aesthetic surgery as a remedy.

The hugely successful movie comedy 200 Pound Beauty (Minyeoneun Goerowo 2006) draws on this narrative, portraying an overweight woman that undergoes full body surgery to become a pop sensation and find love. Aesthetic surgery is so normalised in Korean culture that the government perceives it as a way to improve employment success, offering income tax deductions against the costs incurred.

However, existing studies of aesthetic surgery overwhelmingly assert that it reflects an individualistic desire to conform to white, middle-class feminine beauty norms, and that women engage in aesthetic surgery in order to achieve beautiful bodies for the benefit of the male gaze.

Davis (1995) has argued that aesthetic surgery represents a desire to 'normalise' what is perceived a defective body, but the primary investigator's research has challenged these dominant approaches that presume that women subject themselves to procedures simply because they lack agency to resist dominant discourses of 'normal' femininity and beauty.

'Ethnic' aesthetic surgery further complicates the generalisations at the centre of much academic work on aesthetic surgery: most existing research focuses on 'ethnic minorities' in the West, theorising surgery as 'internalised racism' and 'surgical passing'.

Kaw (2003) interviewed Asian American women undergoing double eyelid surgery in the US, who said they were proud of their racial heritage and considered surgery an investment for future economic success, yet Kaw concludes that this procedure is the product of racist and patriarchal ideologies informing the medical profession.

This interpretation of 'ethnic' aesthetic surgery oversimplifies the complex ways that 'race' intersects with gender, class and sexuality, while approaches that frame 'ethnic' cosmetic surgery only as a characteristic of minority ethnic groups within a 'host' country are unduly static, failing to recognise global cultural connections and networks.

Outside of Western cultural settings, the practices and meanings of aesthetic surgery are informed by the interplay of complex discursive formations, rather than simply reflecting 'Westernisation'.