Mass Media, New Beauty Ideal and Cosmetic Surgery in South Korea

A visual essay by Jun Wu


With the dramatically developing technology, it is now no longer a dream to achieve the perfect body and pretty face through cosmetic surgery. The South Korean’s ‘obsession’ with cosmetic surgery has especially been well acquainted in Asia as well as in the West due to the spread of mass media. In an era of high technology and consumerism, plastic surgery has been seen as an effective and investment-worthy way of amending undesirable physical flaws, which might further contribute to a better chance in the marriage and job market. It is no longer restricted to women who take part in the activity – men also contribute an increasingly greater part to the reportedly high take-up rate – with a number of around 15 percent in 2010 estimated by the Korean Association for Plastic Surgeons (Holliday and Elfving-Hwang, 2012: 58). Besides, according to a survey conducted by a Korean employment website, around 44 percent of male college students were considering some form of aesthetic surgery (Kang and Cho, 2009). With over 980, 000 recorded operations in 2014, South Korea has the highest ratio of plastic surgeries on earth (Jung & Forbes, 2007; White, 2005) and it takes up 24% (about $5 trillion) of the world plastic surgery market share (Fair Trade Commission Republic of Korea, 2014). It is then not that surprising that a typical high-school graduation gift for a Korean teenager is either a nose job or a double-eyelid surgery (Marx, 2015). From liposuction, eyelid surgeries (blepharoplasties), breast enhancement to ‘nose jobs’ (rhinoplasties), cosmetic surgery has been normalized rather than excepted in the Korean society – clinics that offer such services are now commonplace, to be ‘walked in’ in urban shopping malls, procedures are marketed much like a visit to a health spa in the UK (Holliday and Elfving-Hwang, 2012: 59). As one of the leading industries of the nation, the aesthetic surgery industry is occupying a significant part in the global market through the state’s promotion of medical tourism in Korea. It is no longer merely an individual choice, but a salient social issue that involves different kinds of agency, from the consumer, the producer, the mass media to policy makers of the state.

Existing research about cosmetic surgery in Korea lays their emphasis on mainly two aspects, namely the result of western cultural influence (E. Kim, 2008; Gimlin, 2007) or the idealization of western norms, or the women’s continued subjection to patriarchy in a new form (T. Kim, 2003; Park, 2007; Cho, 2009). Holliday and Elfving-Hwang (2012) illustrate that “the meanings and practices of aesthetic surgery represent a process of negotiation between multiple discourses concerning national identity, globalized and regionalized standards of beauty, official and non-official religion, traditional beliefs and practices […] as well as the symbolic practices of coming of age, caring for the self, marking social status and seeking success”. Based on this argument, I would like to explore the dynamic process hidden behind the cosmetic surgery industry in Korea, where the Neo-Confucianism has been dominant in every aspect of the Korean’s life for a long time and where the body was considered to be sacred and not be altered. In this paper, I would like to concentrate on the mass media, to shed light on this “process of negotiation”, the process of changes. It is necessary to first look at what happened before changes, what remains unchanged and what has changed during the process. First of all, I would like to take a look at the historical background, the Neo-Confucian influences on the Korean attitude towards the body, especially the female body. Then, I will examine the changing role of Korean women’s bodies in the new era, the continuing influence of collectivism, the new beauty standard constructed by the mass media and their mutual influence on the cosmetic surgery industry.

The Neo-Confucian Body

From the nineteenth century onwards, Korea has gone through a rapid and dramatic change of its identity and culture. This radical transition has rendered many Korean feeling “insecure about their culture, society and identity as Koreans”, forced to accept “a new world-view with new standards, ideals and goals” (T. Kim, 2003: 97). Under this condition, the way the body is perceived and understood has profoundly changed – it is now transforming to “a field of cultural signification and a ‘mark’ of political and economic issues, as well as the center of consumption and economic production practices” (E. Kim, 2008:5). During this transformation process, the Neo-Confucian body, especially the female ones, was seen as “symbols of resistance to foreign incursions” (Hoffman, 1995: 118).

For 500 years, Neo-Confucianism was adopted as the official ideology of Korea. And the body, which was given by one’s parents and closely linked with filial piety, was supposed to be respected and protected from any kind of alteration. Since it was something passed down from the ancestors, it was seen as a “form of collective asset belonging to one’s family and tied to one’s social status” (E. Kim, 2008:7). Connected with one’s identity and propriety as a human, the body should not be changed as one wishes.

When it comes to the Neo-Confucian body, Taeyon Kim mentioned the crucial concept of ki (T. Kim, 2003: 99): “A material form which links the body and mind into one system, ki flows through all things, giving them form and vitality.” Ki is everything, so the self and the universe becomes one – thus Neo-Confucian men were encouraged to give up their ego and become selfless, to make the individual self melt with others (T. Kim 2003: 99). Ki was something that could be inherited throughout different generations, functioning as a material link between ancestors and descendants (Lee, 1993: 606). So within each family body, it flows the same ki, which “was considered the essential self more than one’s own physical body” (T. Kim 2003: 99). However, the way that the female body was perceived was different from men’s – their ki was considered as inferior to that of men, and their bodies were more acting as the childbearing tool, as subjectless ones. Different from men, who were supposed to improve their mind and ki through self-cultivation in order to transcend the corporeal body, women were treasured for their carnal body, which provided the environment for the future child, specifically son, to grow. In spite of the importance of their carnal body, women’s bodies were to a large extent invisible – any part of their bodies was forbidden to be exposed to others and even the body shape was hidden behind layers and layers of clothes (T. Kim 2003: 101).

During this long history, the body was not only something that was closely linked with the family, the ancestors, but also the social status, which could not be changed. And the female body, as part of the family body, was significant for its birthing function but became invisible through “techniques of concealment” (T. Kim 2003: 102). In the past few decades, these traditional attitudes towards the body seem to have completely changed, even abandoned – as the plastic surgeries proliferate. How is it possible for the radical changes to take place in a country where the Neo-Confucianism was deeply rooted in the culture? Or does it actually remain unchanged in the contemporary society?

Construction of a New Beauty Ideal via Media

Entering the 20th century, Korea has gone through a series of radical changes – enforced modernization under Japanese rule, the civil war, the division of South and North Korea, rapid industrialization, and the gradual shift from dictatorships to liberal democracy. The Korean women’s bodies have also become visible step by step – during the time of rapid modernization and industrialization, women began to take part in the burgeoning work force, be driven out of the domestic sphere and entered the public sphere (T. Kim 2003: 102). As the Korean society moved on and integrated in the global neoliberal order, the function of the bodies of Korean women has shifted to what Bryan S. Turner (1996) calls the capitalist body – from a reproductive body in pre-industrial society, to a laboring body in the industrial period, and finally to a consuming body in the post-industrial stage (Turner, 1996: 2-6). Women now no longer have to hide their bodies as the Neo-Confucianism commands, but become visible in the public space and are now available for scrutiny and consumption. Instead of being treasured by their reproduction ability, beauty has become “the new standard of a woman’s value” (T. Kim 2003: 103). In an era of the so-called “lookism” (Park, S.U., 2007: 51), appearance has become a crucial factor for judgment, for example, the standard for Korean women in the workplace is even harsher than the Western ones. It is common for the job applicants in South Korea to submit a headshot with their resume, which implies that the appearance is open to judgment by the employers and physical attractiveness could even be count as addition to their professional qualifications (Stone, 2013). In order to chase after a new beauty ideal to succeed in the marriage and employment market, Korean men and women are ready to reshape their body and face. And the mass media plays an important role in constructing the new beauty ideal in a society of consumerism.

As the globalization goes on, western media is now penetrating almost every corner of Asia, the international magazine distribution has significantly increased. Korean women’s magazines and journals are one of the most influential agents that help to shape the beauty ideals. They are influential not only in the sense that they provide Korean women with different kinds of beauty instructions, from keeping a slim body to removing wrinkles, but also in that it is implying what others think as the beauty ideal. In a society where collectivistic values has been the rule for a long time, conformity still plays a key role in the present day Korea. So the standard of beauty is not a mere individual thing, but socially constructed and is expected to influence the individuals in the society. The idea of “beauty” is rather admired by a collective group, instead of an individual. Under the pressure from normalized ideals, men and women often suffer from forced comparison in the society, with standards that are hardly attainable through natural ways.

However, the beauty ideal of Korea is to a large extent westernized – many of the models in the magazines and journals are Euro-American or look Euro-American (T. Kim 2003: 103), and this trend has been reinforced by the revision of laws, which permitted the Korean advertising industry to use foreign models and celebrities (Byun, 1997: 32-3). With the implementation of this revision, not only foreign products were promoted with foreign faces, but also domestic goods were marketed to Korean consumers with foreign stars. Although in the recent years, the number of domestic models has clearly increased, most of them embody features that meet the westernized beauty standard, or at least characteristics that mix the Asian with Western – the popular ‘Euroasian’ look, with pale skin and double eyelid.

The number of pale-looking models has obviously shown the acceptance of the Western ideal of beauty among Korean women. The white body is not only considered as flawless, but also as a symbol of higher status. However, the admiration of light skin tone in Korea is less connected with the noble, European-based racial group, but more related to its representation of wealth and privilege. This worship of fair skin in Korea and other Asian societies actually predated the European influence – there is even one ancient saying in Japan, Korea and China, “A white complexion overrides three appearance flaws” (Bray, 2002). People from upper class do not have to perform manual labor; they hire other people to do the work outside in the sun for them instead. In the modern society, it also shows the ability to consume the superior whitening service from clinics.

Besides, thinness has also been considered as the standard characteristic of beauty in present day Asian societies. As an outcome of globalization, Korea has also abandoned the traditional norm of beautiful body, which considered average or overweight body as the better ones, for it represented abundance (Han, 2003). Nowadays, almost all the models appear on the magazines and journals are with thin bodies, implying that slim and pretty women are more attractive and popular and encouraging all the women to mold their bodies into similar ones. At the same time, the articles and advertisements are conveying messages that heavy woman is supposed to be unhappy or less successful in private life and career, so that they will have to transform their body into a slim one in order to escape the miserable life.

Another trend that should never be overlooked is the double eyelid, which enjoys great popularity in Asian countries like China, Japan and Korea, for it helps to shape the ‘westernized eyes’, or at least helps to produce “a less stereotypically Asian appearance” (Munzer, 2011: 245), since many Asians are born with mono-eyelids. By modifying the eyelids themselves and the inner corner of each eye (Munzer, 2011: 246), the double eyelid can be shaped, which also makes the eyes look larger and less Asian. Even the former President Roh Moo Hyun and First Lady Kwon Yang Sook received the eyelid surgery (Kim, 2007), which confirmed its national wide popularity in the country.

The standard of beauty has seldom derived from objective standards, but from the various editorial rooms. The attractive people are to a large extent constructed by the mass media, portrayed as more desirable, credible, and inspirational (Solomon, Ashmore, & Longo, 1992). They are constructing a homogenized representation of beauty and attractiveness, and the tradition of uniformity in Korea becomes a significant prerequisite during the process. The word that people often heard in Korea, “woori”, which means “we” or “us”, and the tradition that the families conduct daily routines such as dining and living together still goes on, showing the Korean’s inclination to collectivism. The uniformity is not shown in the way that people distinguish themselves and look prettier than the others, but in the way that they try to achieve the same beauty standard as other people from the woori group. Apart from embracing the tradition of uniformity, people from the same group often suffer from forced comparison.

Of all the influences on Korean beauty standard, the Korean Wave (K-Pop, K-drama, etc.) might be one of the largest. It has not just affected the local people, but gone global, especially in the Asian area. Not only their music, but also the physical appearance of the K-pop idols has greatly influenced the beauty standard in Asia. They have to constantly perfect their appearance and taste in order to always stand on the frontline of fashion, or at least the fashion style promoted by the fashion magazines, and to increase their fan base. Improving their appearance via plastic surgery is in a certain degree coherent with keeping a slim body through exercise, it is a means for showing their self-discipline and their effort to always refine their image as stars. Especially in a country like Korea where there has been a long tradition of embracing beauty, women who did not take care of their look outside would be considered to be lazy and lack of self-discipline. As celebrities who show up in the public, they are supposed to demonstrate a socially appreciated look. As Thomas Looser, a professor of East Asian studies at New York University points out, the idols are related to certain kinds of styles, which is essential to the sense of identification of the mass:

“The use of plastic surgery, or hair dye or even just clothing are really all just shifting variations within the more globalized expectations of the highly produced, very spectacle-like culture of Asian pop music. People expect it to be formalized: choreography of dance as much as the formulaic quality of image, and that’s what helps people to identify with it.” (Ariana DiValentino, 2013)

Similar to the Korean music, the standard of beauty has also been formalized and conducting cosmetic surgery has been normalized. The K-pop idols with big double-eyelid-eyes, V-shaped faces, small pointed nose and slim bodies are representing a certain trend to be identified and followed by the mass.

The various films, TV shows and dramas about cosmetic surgery further facilitate this industry to boom in South Korea. The popular reality TV show Let Me In (“Me In” is a homonym for “beauty” in Korean) is a typical example, showing the transformative power of the plastic surgery. First premiered on 2 December 2011 and has been extended to the fourth season by now, the show has received both acclaim and criticism. In every episode, several contestants would be chosen to receive the cosmetic surgery for free. The show always starts with some self-contemptuous and bashful contestants telling their miserable life story before the surgery, revealing their desperation towards life due to their ugliness. And eventually the reborn contestant will show up to the audience, accompanied by their oohs and wows and claps and cries. This has a similar strong visual impact as the “before and after” photos on the advertisements, emphasizing the positive benefits and life-changing effects of the bodily transformation. The representation of cosmetic surgery in films such as The 200 Pounds Beauty (Kim, 2006), in TV drama series such as Before and After Cosmetic Surgery Clinic (MBC, 2008) and The Birth of a Beauty (SBS, 2014), also serves to demonstrate a rather romanticized image of the practice, seldom mentions the side effects, the painful period of recovery and the terrible experience if the procedures gone wrong. The entertainment industry tends to hide the blood and pain of the practice, and blur the fact that it is a surgery, not just a small treatment, and beautify it as a transformation of the body and the self.

Surprisingly, according to the statistic of Seoul TouchUp (, a government-approved medical tourism agency in Korea, there are a rather large amount of men who conduct cosmetic surgery in South Korea – around 28% between the years 2011 to 2014, which is quite considerable in comparison to Western countries. Although women still take the lead in this practice, one can clearly recognize that men are more willing to invest in cosmetic surgery in the recent years. The ‘soft masculine’ visual image has been spread with the rise of boys’ band as well as Japanese and Korean manga since the late 1990s in Japan and followed by Korea. With the popularization of TV drama series Boys Over Flowers (KBS, 2009), the so-called kkonminam, which means beautiful flower boys in Korean, has attracted many young men to chase after this ‘softer’ image – a less angular jaw, double eyelids and a prominent nose tip, at the same time a defined body with pectoral and bicep muscles (Holliday and Elfving-Hwang, 2012: 61). The masculinity with feminine characteristics becomes the new trend in East Asia among young men in their twentieth.

Since it is impossible for most of the people to achieve the ‘perfect’ appearance in a natural way, they will have to seek help from unnatural means. Cosmetic surgery gives the imperfect people who would like to achieve success in marriage and employment market a chance for both mind and body to reborn into the one that meets the standard approved by the society and the mass. Instead of mere physical changes of the face and body, the mass media and advertisements often claim the makeover to be a transformation of the self. The representation in the mass media might explain partly why the public attitudes towards cosmetic surgery in Korea have become more and more positive, for the practice is generally perceived as “a worthwhile and understandable investment in the body, rather than a sign of vanity (as it is often understood in the West)” (Holliday and Elfving-Hwang, 2012: 61-62). It is then not that stunning that in a recent survey, the result showed that seven out of ten people are not against plastic surgery (Yang, 2007. Quated in Holliday and Elfving-Hwang, 2012: 62).

However, in many cases the mass media tends to exaggerate the influence of aesthetic surgery on a person’s life. Many clinic websites incline to underplay the negative after-effects, instead they emphasize the positive effects by showing the dramatic ‘before and after’ photos. The cosmetic surgery is to some extent boosted as a magic tool, which blurs the ‘middle’ part of the process and the painful in-between period of recovery. The romantic films and TV dramas showing how the fat and ugly woman is transformed into a goddess also tend to neglect the in-between period and the potential failure of the surgery. It also shows the social trend of attaching too much importance on the outside look rather than the inner spirit. The mass media sometimes may impose unwanted beauty goals on ordinary people and trigger unnecessary bodily dissatisfaction on them. One should rethink whether the cosmetic surgery is a personal choice or forced choice influenced by the people around and the social atmosphere of “lookism”. In a background of consumer culture, beauty becomes product and is often equated with economic and professional success in the last two decades – and the mass media serves as a tool for attracting more consumers to buy products. Yet in many cases, consumers choose to change their face and body not out of individual need, but because the society wants them to, and they do so in order to be fit in the society, in the job and marriage markets. For Korean women, who has finally liberated themselves from the invisible role in the domestic sphere, cosmetic surgery can on the one hand be a medium of empowerment, a technology of self-management and self-improvement, but on the other side a trap that forced them to stuck in uniform standard of beauty and a compulsory comparison, as Dennis Hart’s (2000) research on Korean women and media pointed out, media embodies the new codes of proper body management and presentation, and are strictly followed as neo-Confucian codes used to be. So that the female bodies seen in the Korean streets are most identical to the bodies portrayed in media. Individual expression is seldom the purpose; instead they are trying to follow the rules and the mainstream. In this sense, beauty does not mean to distinguish oneself from others, but to become the same. When the homogenization of beauty goes extreme, beauty then may even bring fatigue – an example is the Netizens’ mocking attitude towards the pictures of Miss Korea 2013 Contestants shown up on Reddit. The 20 pageant contestants look extreme similar, with double eyelids, pale skin and V-line face that are on special demand in the cosmetic surgeries. One can hardly tell the difference among them except the hairstyle and dress. It is then understandable why the Netizens mocked the contest to be “a clone parade”, with each of the contestant having a typical “Korean plastic face look” (Nolan, 2013).

Promotional Image via Kotaku; Miss Korea 2013 Contestants

Promotional Image via Kotaku; Miss Korea 2013 Contestants

Image via The Atlantic; Mihija Sohn, Miss Korea 1960

Image via The Atlantic; Mihija Sohn, Miss Korea 1960

Comparing the photos of Miss Korea 1960, Mihija Sohn, with these resembling-looking Miss Koreas, the changes of beauty standards in South Korea are clear. Miss 1960 has a round face, flat nose and rather small eyes – close to the natural characteristics of Koreans. Though she might not have lived up to the standard of western beauty ideal, she has her own attractiveness that distinguishes herself from other Korean women.

One cannot deny the fact that there is a certain standard of beauty in the society, yet does it mean everyone within the society should chase after this ideal and give up their individual characteristics? In addition to that, the existing beauty standard is also not without a doubt – changing their inborn physical and facial characteristics into a man-made western looking one, does it mean that their appearance is inferior to Western women? Is this beauty ideal of double-eyelid, V-shaped face and fair skin a globalized and universal ideal of beauty, or rather an Eurocentric one?

Nowadays the trend in East Asia goes towards the ‘natural’ beauty, distinctions are often made between the ‘natural’ and ‘surgical’ beauty (Holliday and Elfving-Hwang, 2012: 62). The re-assertion of the significance of ‘naturalness’ – enhancing Korean features instead of producing an unnaturally ‘Western’ looking – displays the still strong sense of “ethnic homogeneity” in South Korea. The degree of naturalness of the cosmetic surgery becomes an indicator of one’s socioeconomic status – only the affluent people are capable of affording the high-quality services of the best clinics. Hence the emphasis on ‘naturalness’ and ‘Koreaness’ is again a result of consumerism and the re-direction of the mass media. The beauty ideal is never individual, but collective.


In this paper, the cosmetic surgery practice in South Korea, which could be seen as ‘a process of negotiation between multiple discourses’, has been taken into discussion. I mainly focus on the mutual influence between the cosmetic surgery practice and the mass media.

First of all, the Neo-Confucian body has been introduced as historical background. The body, which was closely related to filial piety, was supposed to be treasured and not to be altered. In the traditional concept, women’s bodies were considered to be inferior to men’s and mainly functioned as childbearing tools, which were to a large extent invisible. Having gone through a series of radical changes in the 20th century, Korea has entered the new era of liberal democracy. Korean women have also entered the public sphere, not restricted to domestic sphere any more. Their bodies have become visible as work force and consumer, and beauty has become the new standard of a women’s value. This new standard has pushed women to reshape their face and body in order to be competent in the job and marriage market. As globalization goes on, mass media plays a crucial role in redefining the beauty ideal. In a country of a long tradition of conformity, the beauty ideal is not at all an individual, but collective thing. However, it is to a large extent westernized, with Euro-American look models, or the popular ‘Euroasian’ look. The pale skin, double eyelid, V-shaped face and slim body have been promoted by the mass media as the dominant standard of beauty. The Korean popular culture has great influence of constructing this beauty ideal. However, the mass media, especially the entertainment industry, tend to overemphasize the positive transformative power of cosmetic surgery. Besides, it shows a trend that the society is laying too much importance on the appearance rather than the inner beauty. It is worthy of discussion whether cosmetic surgery empowerment for the women or rather a trap, a personal choice or a forced decision. The excessive conformity can also lead to an ironic situation, as the attitudes of the Netizen towards the photos of 2013 Miss Korea contestants show.

In spite of the doubts and critiques, cosmetic surgery is still a booming industry in Korea. It involves a dynamic process that is constantly changing, exchanging, excluding and including new elements. It should always be examined from local and global scales as well as from social, moral and economic perspectives.


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