From the second that we arrived in Korea, our senses were inundated by towering buildings, the smell of pastries in the train stations and colorful advertisements with the faces of young people on them. Of course at first, I did not give them a second thought. However, as soon as we were on the streets, they were everywhere! We were informed that they were soliciting cosmetic surgery. Beyond the billboards and subway station advertisements, the streets of Gangnam were lit up with “plastic surgery plazas”, almost as if it were a popular destination. The people in the advertisements are young, mostly female, and to me, were trying to portray what looked like westernized standards of beauty. The before and after photographs that were on the advertisements were incredible; the people didn’t look anything like they did before.
As an American, I feel fairly desensitized from the existence of plastic surgery; after all, it’s commonplace. What intrigued me about these advertisements was that the models were super young and were virtually changing their entire facial structure. What was this communicating? Why were they trying to completely alter the way they looked? What was the cultural standard for beauty?
Korea is a popular destination for cosmetic surgery because it affordable and the medical facilities are allegedly efficient, convenient, and an “international forerunner in robotic surgery”. The country markets itself as a destination for medical tourism, thus attracting many Chinese and other international visitors. In a seminar that we attended at the University of Seoul, we were informed that medical laws dictates that the medical tourism industry should be not be used for profit, but for non profit. This was an interesting and confusing notion as when seeing an advertisements, it’s intended purpose is to market a product or service and thus must be focused on some bottom line, presumably financial.
In a recent article on Huffington Post, it was explained that girls will seek plastic surgery procedures as early as high school and that sometimes it is a reward from parents for an achievement. Following this article, there are several that describe instances where women were having to bring alternate identification because their passport photographs were being questioned because of how different they looked. “Double eyelid” surgery seems to be the most popular procedure. This creates an upper eyelid, essentially making the eyes look wider. Other leading procedures alter the shape of the face, and the hairline. I guess my biggest thing with this is, everyone can do what they would like to their bodies. But, for a country that maintains a certain level of traditional values, such as respect for yourself and others within your culture, why has this trend become mainstream among young people?
After further research, there is no definitive answer to any of it. There are obviously different standards of beauty in every culture, in fact Korea has several. The advertisements will be one of those unique characteristics of a culture that remind me how different every society is in how they market themselves and their people.