Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Seriously, What is Up With Extreme Grooming in South Korea?

Despite all the hand-wringing about America’s youth- and beauty-obsessed culture, it turns out that the U.S. ranks only sixth in the world in cosmetic surgeries per capita.  Number one on the list? South Korea.  As many as one out of every five women has gone under the knife—the most common surgical procedures include double eyelids to give Koreans the Caucasian crease associated with western eyes.  Also common are nose jobs and liposuction (because Asian women are so fat :S).  The (frankly western) beauty standard also includes thin, tall, light skin, and "v-shaped" face.

I first learned about this phenomenon on a recent episode of This American Life, where an American schoolteacher in South Korea spoke with Ira Glass about the intense beauty obsession common to young girls in particular; full length mirrors and bathroom scales had been installed all around the school where she taught (see here for a similar reflection on extreme South Korea obsession with looks).  As it turns out, looks make a material difference in South Korea, possibly beyond what is common in the west.  Jobs and even places in universities hinge at least in part on whether women meet these fairly western standards of beauty; photos are typically appended to job applications, and their appearance factors into the selection process.

By the way, I learned almost by chance that there are ways of creating the double eyelid naturally by wearing some sort of plastic tape on the eyes for a few months, coaxing the eyelid into the characteristic double eyelid.

(The above video is long and the hosts a bit precious for my taste, but you get the idea…)

Then there are the hardcore surgical makeovers that make many women unrecognizable.  These guys are not messing around when it comes to surgery—you get the sense that “subtle change” is not one of the things they ask for during their surgery consult, even shaving their jawbones to make their faces less round.  A South Korean company, Korea BigEyes, also makes "circle lenses"--contact lens specifically designed to extend beyond the wearer's natural irises, which creates an anime look; many similar products by Korean companies can be found here.  The following before and after photos of South Korean women went viral recently:

(There is a Tumblr called Korean Plastic Surgery, which features more before and after photos.)  Commentators have remarked on how "unsettled" they are about the apparent drive toward a singular beauty ideal; others have noted that the "after" pictures, while not exactly Anglo-Saxon, are certainly far more western in appearance than the "before" pictures.

Nor is extreme grooming restricted to women.  Following South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun’s 2005 operation to get a double-eyelid, cosmetic procedures for men have been skyrocketing. The aesthetic is, strangely enough, feminized features such as a narrow face, and small chin and nose.

Weirdly, South Korea also ranks first in the world for men’s makeup.  South Korean "flower men" consume 21 percent of global production (nearly half a billion dollars) of items such as men’s skin products, foundation, eyeliner, bronzer, and blush.  They see it as a way of getting ahead in the business world.

Despite the apparent freakshow that is South Korean beauty industry, I actually think that South Korea represents the future of body modification.  We are already moving to a place where people (particularly women) are expected to do a great deal to improve their appearances.  Beyond keeping fit and thin, we are expected to care for our hair with regular appointments to the salon, use makeup, shave/wax/otherwise remove body hair, sculpt our brows, straighten and whiten our teeth, get manis/pedis, etc. And this is without even touching the wide world of cosmetic procedures that begin with botox and end with butt implants.

The question is whether we will eventually be morphing into an army of anime characters…