In a recent class debate, the question was raised about the increasing obsession with appearance. This infatuation is rife in Korea, which boasts the world’s highest percentage of plastic surgery per capita. It’s not only permanent alterations that are prominent, but also perms and hair dyes, which children procure from a ridiculously young age. Also, many teenage girls undergo cosmetic surgery for their birthday when they are approaching university. The most common procedures are a nose job or blepharoplasty, where a crease is inserted in the eyelid in order to have a western style double eyelid.
Appearance is a constant concern for many of my teenage students. There have been numerous occasions when I have observed one of them spending the whole of break time peering into their handheld mirror and perfecting their selfie. Or I will struggle to maintain a straight face whilst I teach a girl who is sat with a roller pulling her fringe into the perfect curl. Therefore, I was worried that this concept would fail to rile any kind of discussion amongst students who appeared to view a flawless appearance as the norm. However, they amazed me (as they often do), with their open-minded recognition of the situation.
One student highlighted that it is very difficult to look and dress differently in Korea, because you will attract unwanted negative attention. There is an aversion to this scrutiny in Korea which stems from Confucianism which is the foundation of the society. Confucianism emphasises the importance of others evaluations of you, in contrast with your own beliefs about yourself. This stands in opposition to the common ethos in the west that you should follow your own path irrelevant of those around you, and you should strive for individualism.
Generally, Koreans are very stylishly dressed, and there’s a tendency to wear sleek asymmetrical clothes. Despite their stylish exterior there is something that reeks of conformity. It is rare that you will happen upon a Korean who is dressed in a distinctly unique fashion, or wearing an overly revealing outfit. By dressing in the style of the collective you become a part of society, and this idea is mirrored in the cosmetic industry. Korean’s who undergo surgery tend to gravitate towards an optimal image of beauty. That is one with a V-shaped jaw line, big eyes, high cheeks and a ski-slope nose. Plenty of the girls parading around Korea comply with this image, and their clothes are often so similar that they could even be clones.
Another student commented on the compelling beauty of most of the actors and singers. She claimed that you rarely see a successful celebrity who isn’t good-looking. Unlike the former comment, this is also applicable to the west. Television screens are overrun with dazzling beauties, and this paints a picture that attractiveness comes hand in hand with success. This impossible ideal leaves people feeling insufficient, so it becomes understandable that they opt for plastic surgery in order to bridge the gap.
Often I feel contempt for what appears to be an unashamed compliance with vanity that runs through Korea. However, I’ve grown to view it as an issue of self-confidence, where people are unable to be their natural selves. We’re all unique to a certain extent, and we should be proud of our weird and wonderful characteristics. I feel sympathetic to those who comply with an accumulated identity instead of reveling in their own individuality.