Growing up in a Chinese family, I'm pretty used to hearing all kinds of statements made about my appearance. In true Asian fashion, my parents, relatives and family friends commented on everything, from the size of my face (the smaller -- or narrower the better), to the shape of my head (round and egg-shaped is preferred over flat and wide), the colour of my skin and my weight. Yup. When you grow up in a collectivist culture everything is open to group evaluation, for better or for worse.
But when I first came to South Korea, however well-versed I thought I was in the art of interpersonal assessment, nothing could have prepared me for the slew of similar yet strikingly different questions I would get.
"Are your eyes real?" New friends, acquaintances, even strangers would ask out of the blue as if we were talking about what school I went to.
They were referring to my bodacious pair of eyelids, or lack of epicanthic folds btw.
"Yes," I'd say.
" -- What about your chin. Is that natural too?"
Even now, inquiries about my chin throw me off. But whether your features are god-given or shaped by the scalpel gods, such questions are normal here. In my experience, anyway.
Beyond the casual manner in which these queries are asked, I find it interesting that a "is it, or isn't it real?" discussion even takes place. I wonder why it matters; especially when 'being real' is good or bad depending on who you ask.
"When we got our year-end bonuses, my manager told me I should use mine to get a nose job," a friend who works in consulting once told me. "People think that if a woman doesn't have a face that looks done, they look unsophisticated. Like a village person."
As with most places around the world, looking good is connected with social and career success. It can mean the difference between getting hired or getting a pass; being praised at work, or becoming a scapegoat just because you look the part.
On the other hand, in Asian tradition, altering the body your ancestors gave you is the most un-confucian thing you can do as a neoconfucian. These values are being re-thought, although judgement still applies: the term "seongyong-gui" or plastic surgery monster is used to to shame people -- especially women, who've had plastic surgery. "Shallow," "golddigger," etc, are some other connotations that come with it.
Of the people I've spoken with, some think it represents freedom, a democracy of beauty and the right to be beautiful. Others think the industry has contributed to narrower beauty standards, impossible and tyrannical. But there are so many different types of procedures, on top of the multitude of reasons why different people get anything done. Much like in the West, the practice is morally complex; and people have mixed feelings about it.
There are also complex layers of identity politics surrounding the issue. For example, some people say it's about beautification and self-improvement rather than westernization and Eurocentric standards, aka. looking white.
But while that is being debated, no one can dispute that the origins of double eyelid surgery in South Korea are in fact rooted in post-war American imperialism.
The procedure was first conducted in Korea by celebrated American surgeon David Ralph Millard, who improved upon the technique (that was already being practised in Japan and China,) and called the country a "plastic surgeon's paradise". For the full story on the American origins of Korean plastic surgery, check out this illuminating feature in the Wilson Quarterly.
For anyone interested, the webtoon Gangnam Beauty illustrates the pressures of looking good, plus the double-edged sword of having achieved it. I highly recommend looking up a translated version if you want to understand the moral ambiguity and double standards women, especially, face. Lookism is also another good one that addresses the standards for male health and beauty.
Interested in reading more? Check out the outtakes on my story about the Kbeauty industry.