Corée du Sud La quête du galbe

Corée du Sud La quête du galbe Eva John(Source)

For French speakers, a Libération article about body image and cosmetic surgery in Korea that I was interviewed for recently. Many thanks to Nouvelles d’Asie ‏for and A G on Twitter for passing it on, and for the above photo.

Unfortunately, it’s one Euro for a month’s access. But you can’t ask for much cheaper than that!

Update: The article is freely available now.

Media and Body Image Workshop, Bar Carmen, Seoul, Sunday 30th, 5-8pm

(Sources: left, center, right)

Yes, it’s back on, and I promise that none of my relatives will be in hospital this time!

Once again, please see Disruptive Voices’ Facebook Event page for more details and RSVPs, or if you’re not on Facebook then please feel free to ask any questions in the comments here, and/or to just turn up to Bar Carmen in Itaewon on the day. (Note that it’s not on the main drag though, but on the other side of the hill: see here or here for maps.)

Those Damned Double Eyelids…

How can a society still have Caucasian beauty ideals if its members explicitly don’t want to look White?
Park Bom 2NE1 Can't Nobody Screenshot(Source)

Ubiquitous skin-whitening ads. Cosmetic surgery clinics with only Caucasians on their websites. Until a few years ago, almost never seeing a Korean lingerie model.

With parents, hagwan-owners, and recruiters demanding only Caucasian English teachers too, you can hardly be blamed for assuming that the corollary of White privilege is Caucasian beauty ideals. Add the large numbers of Korean women who get surgery for double-eyelids or more prominent nose-bridges, features widely perceived as much more common among Caucasians than Koreans, then who hasn’t once thought that Korean women go under the knife because they want to look White?

Of course, actually talk to Korean cosmetic surgery patients, and most take great offense to that notion. And they would surely know their own motivations—much better than any outsiders or newbies to Korea, who may not realize what intellectual baggage and racial stereotypes they’re bringing with them. Also, light skins have been associated with non-farming elites for millennia; Caucasians may be used on cosmetic surgery websites more in an Occidentalist sense to signify class and lifestyle than specific body features (limited stock photography options may also be a factor); and Caucasians were really only used in lingerie modelling because moonlighting pornography actors tainted it for Korean models. Even double-eyelids may not be as Caucasian as thought, as it is commonly claimed that possibly as many as 50% of Koreans have them (although in my experience, little to no evidence is ever provided for any figure—even by academics).

Korean Cosmetic Surgery Clinic Website(Source)

That said, I think commentators can sometimes come across as a little smug and superior as they point out the mistakes of “expats-turned-anthropologists“; after all, they’re just strangers in a strange land, trying to make sense of the place. What’s more, they don’t form their opinions in a vacuum, they’re not all simply racist, and I hardly countered all their observations with that last paragraph. So it would be incredibly myopic and defensive to just dismiss them, and/or to pretend that current Korean beauty ideals haven’t been at all influenced by the “the very real presence of white people” in Korea in the last 60 years.

In short, Korean beauty ideals are complicated. And sure: perhaps by all those “expats”, I’m really just talking about myself (that’s complicated too). Either way, over the years I’ve been reading about body image in Korea, I’ve often been taken aback by the number of academics who didn’t acknowledge how convoluted the subject is. Some just seemed to take Caucasian body ideals as a given. Why? Were they just being lazy? Were they simply parroting the narratives about Korean cosmetic surgery that dominate the English-language media? Hadn’t they ever—damnit—actually talked to Koreans, who would have vehemently denied wanting to look White?

Reshaping the Female Body, Body Image(Sources: Left, right)

Apologies though, for not taking note of who said what at the time, but I’m not here to attack some convenient strawmen. Instead, I want to pass on an alternative explanation that I’ve just come across:

  • First, that because different body features, types, and weights have different positive or negative associations (e.g., fat people are lazy), however unfairly and irrationally (jumping ahead, flat noses and eyelids without a crease have negative connotations in the US).
  • Next, that because these associations are legitimated—indeed, perpetuated—by the seeming scientific rationality and objectivity of cosmetic surgeons
  • That consequently, Korean cosmetic surgery patients tend to choose from a limited number of (positively-associated) procedures that tend to make them look more Caucasian (or, more accurately, a heavily Caucasian-influenced, Westernized, increasingly global ideal) than Asian, rather than the other way round (with the proviso that “Caucasian” and “Asian” are largely social constructs).

In other words, they can still retain Caucasian beauty ideals despite not wanting to look Caucasian personally.

Caveats abound. One of the most obvious of which is that it sounds like I’m saying any empowerment patients feel—and most do feel empowered—is really a sense of false consciousness, their choice of positively-associated procedures really being heavily circumscribed by society, their surgeons, and themselves. I’m very wary of any notion of consumers as dupes though, so I was glad to stumble across the work of Kathy Davis for an opposing viewpoint, as described in Body Image: Understanding body dissatisfaction in men, women, and children by Sarah Grogan (2nd ed., 2007). Yet she too acknowledges empowerment still occurs within the context of culturally-limited options (page 70, my emphases):

The question of why women are willing to undergo unnecessary surgery to make their bodies conform more closely to accepted norms may help us to understand the nature of body dissatisfaction in women. Kathy Davis (1995) in Reshaping the Female Body: The Dilemma of Cosmetic Surgery looks at cosmetic surgery from a broadly feminist viewpoint. She argues that understanding why women engage in a practice which is painful and dangerous must take women’s explanations as a starting point. She attempts to explore cosmetic surgery as one of the most negative aspects of Western beauty culture without seeing the women who opt for the “surgical fix” as what she calls “cultural dopes”(i.e., by taking seriously their reasons for having cosmetic surgery).

Page 71:

Women she interviewed [in the Netherlands] reported that they experienced the decision to have cosmetic surgery as a way of taking control of their lives, and that cosmetic surgery was something that they had decided upon for themselves, rather than under pressure from partners or knife-happy surgeons. They were clear that they had made informed choices, based The Politics of Women's Bodieson weighing up the risks and possible benefits of surgery. Davis takes the position that cosmetic surgery may be an informed choice, but it is always made in the context of culturally limited options. She argues fiercely against the idea expressed by many authors, including Kathryn Morgan (1991), that women who opt for cosmetic surgery are victims of male lovers, husbands, or surgeons. She also disagrees that women who opt for cosmetic surgery are the dupes of ideologies that confuse and mystify with the rhetoric of individual choice.

Davis (1995) sees women as active and knowledgeable agents who make decisions based on a limited range of available options. She argues that women see through the conditions of oppression even as they comply with them. The women she interviewed reported that they had made free choices, although these “choices” were limited by cultural definitions of beauty and by the availability of particular surgical techniques. The “choices” need to be placed within a framework that sees women’s bodies as commodities.

But the journal article which inspired this post is “Medicalization of Racial Features: Asian-American Women and Cosmetic Surgery“, Medical Anthropology Quarterly 7(1), pp. 74-89, March 1993 by Eugenia Kaw, which I read on pages 167-183 of The Politics of Women’s Bodies: Sexuality, Appearance, and Behavior, ed.by Rose Weitz (1st edition, 1998; source, above-right). Originally, I intended to summarize it for you here, but since i started writing I found a PDF of the article, so frankly I see no need—interested readers can download it and read it for themselves. Instead, let me provide some copy and pastes here to give the gist for any much-too-busy-but-still-quite-interested readers.

First, from page 79, on the negative associations of “Asian” features:

Eugenia Kaw 1From page 81 on the how the medical industry legitimizes and perpetuates those negative associations:

Eugenia Kaw 2Finally, from pages 85-86, on the clear patterns that emerge despite patients making “truly individual choices” (alas, Kaw too is guilty of casually throwing in that 50% figure!):

Eugenia Kaw 3Again, caveats abound. Not only is Kaw’s article quite dated, but there are dangers in extrapolating studies based on Bay Area surgeons and patients to Koreans (to be clear, Kaw herself never does so). As Ruth Holliday and Jo Elfving Hwang explain in “Gender, Globalization and Aesthetic Surgery in South Korea”, Body & Society, June 2012 18: 58-81 (page 7 at this downloadable link):

In researching cosmetic surgery in Korea, a further problem of ‘ethnic’ cosmetic surgery studies which focus on Asian-Americans is that their results have been generalized to apply to ‘countries of origin’; that is, Koreans in Korea. Accordingly, what are seen as ‘whitening’ practices in the West are also presented as ‘Westernizing’ practices in the East without much consideration of localized discourses that intersect with more globalized practices of cosmetic surgery. Explanation of Korean cosmetic surgery only in terms of Westernization seems unlikely given Korea’s strong sense of nationalism, as well as its national relationship with other regional powers, for example, Japan.

Indeed, their article is a real eye-opener in its own right (no pun intended!), and made me realize how Korean cosmetic surgery is even more complicated than I imagined, and how much more I have to learn. For example, from page 13 (source, below-right):

Blepharoplasty [eyelid surgery] in particular has often been explained in terms of ‘Westernization’. However, it is worth remembering that whilst many Koreans already have a double eyelid, many Westerners undergo blepharoplasties too. Wider eyes signal youth, energy and alertness. Korean women have used temporary eyelid tapes and glues for decades, most usually justified as easing the application of make-up. Eye surgery is seen as a more convenient permanent fix (the surgery takes ten to twenty minutes depending on technique) which saves time and allows greater participation in sports and swimming, for example. Blepharoplasties (like breast augmentations) Korean Eyeappear to have originated in Japan (the first performed by a surgeon named Mikamo in 1896) and were originally used to treat children born with one single and one double eyelid (Miller, 2006). East Asians tend to have more adipose fat in the eyelid than Caucasians and importantly men and women who have too much fat removed are seen negatively as artificially western. Wider eyes may be desirable, but they must be wider Korean eyes, not Western ones. The most important aim of cosmetic surgery is to create a natural look that ‘enhances’ the body without losing the ‘Koreanness’ of the subject who undergoes surgery.

Like most epiphanies then, this is really a starting point for me rather than the final word, and I realize it may already be familiar to the many readers who’ve done more research into cosmetic surgery than myself (thank you for indulging me!). Nevertheless, I do think that the Korean public and cosmetic surgeons and patients will share many of the same associations as their Bay Area counterparts. And, even if I’m mistaken about that, investigating public associations of and (especially) medical discourses surrounding certain body features promises to be a fruitful new line of investigation for understanding body image in Korea. I’d be very interested and grateful to hear your thoughts on that, and your own observations.

Update: It wasn’t really relevant to the making of this post, but Joanna Elfving-Hwang’s “Cosmetic Surgery and Embodying the Moral Self in South Korean Popular Makeover Culture” in The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 24, No. 2, June 17, 2013, focusing on the Korean show Let Me In, would be an excellent starting point for more on those medical discourses.

Update 2: I’ve been blogging for so long, sometimes I forget what’s already been posted! Please see here for one of my most-heavily commented posts, in which a reader discusses how those negative associations of monolids came about.

Media and Body Image Workshop, Bar Carmen, Seoul, Sunday 23rd, 5-8pm

Pear Banana Body Shape(Sources: left; right, “Bunch” by Amanda S. Lanzone)

And I’ll be the guest speaker! Please see Disruptive Voices’ Facebook Event page for more details and RSVPs, or if you’re not on Facebook then please feel free to ask any questions in the comments here, and/or to just turn up to Bar Carmen in Itaewon on the day. (Note that it’s not on the main drag though, but on the other side of the hill: see here or here for maps.)

Blogging-wise, unfortunately the timing is terrible sorry: my father-in-law is having a major operation in Seoul in a few days, and my wife will be attending to him, leaving me to look after our children until the night before the workshop. A demanding enough job even when we’re both here, that means that all my spare time will be spent on preparing my presentation (yes, they really do take that long!). So, apologies to readers, and I’ll get back to writing here as soon as I can.

Update, Saturday 22nd: PRESENTATION HAS BEEN CANCELLED — I’m not used to this sort of thing sorry, so I’ll just say it: I’m afraid my father-in-law’s condition has rapidly deteriorated, and there’s a possibility he may not make the night. I’ll keep you posted, but of course I can no longer give the presentation. Sorry everybody, and thanks for understanding.

Update, Sunday 23rd: To clarify sorry, the workshop itself is still going ahead.

My father-in-law is still in critical condition.

Update, Thursday 27th: There were some very scary moments, but I’m happy to say that father-in-law recovered earlier in the week, and is due to be discharged today :)

Korean Sociological Image #80: Fashion’s Complete Body!

Sometimes, I wonder if I exaggerate Korea’s alphabetization craze. Then I come across advertisements like this one:

Korean Body LinesThe advertisement on the left reads:

Tight chestline, Sleek braline; Slender waistline, No-cellulite bellyline; and Attractive y-line, Smooth legline. Fashion’s Complete Body! Summer Event. 10% Event Discount.

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Please see here and here if this is the first you’ve heard of “alphabetization” though, with the latter link focusing on Western historical parallels and the Y-line specifically. Alternatively, see here for more on the physically impossible X-line!

(For more posts in the Korean Sociological Image series, see here)

Guest Post: Challenging Korea’s Body Image Paradigm

Korea Body Image(Source)

If you are a person living in Korea, you are likely to have had your weight or appearance commented on. “You have gained/lost weight!” is a customary greeting. Dieting is the most common topic for daily conversations. Ads promote unrealistic beauty standards for both women and men. Worse, if you don’t look like them, you are likely to be discriminated against or dismissed as some who needs to get some work done. Self-love is prohibited unless you look like a Barbie doll. There are voices and messages everywhere, both internally and externally, that arouse insecurity around your looks. Body-policing is a common practice.

Prospecs W Get Slim Kim Yuna GIFOverwhelmingly obsessed with thinness, I dare to call Korea an eating-disordered society. I know this because I have been struggling with eating disorders for 9 years, now marching on the road to recovery. Living here, staying on the recovery-track is extremely difficult because all the internal eating-disordered voices and negative self-talk, which I have worked so hard to detach myself from, become real external voices to attack my vulnerable psychological wounds. On the other hand, recovering from eating disorders in this country is double-strengthening my immunity to these eating-disordered voices. I am well-aware of how self-destructive and unproductive these voices are, and how I can protect myself from them.

But, what about those who haven’t been consoled? So many Korean people, especially women of all ages, believe there is no other way to be loved or socially recognized without dieting or getting plastic surgery. Men believe women should naturally look like the ready-made Barbie dolls in fashion magazines or entertainment shows when they are in fact extremely unrealistic. I guarantee there is not a single woman in this country who hasn’t felt insecure about her looks or body parts. Under such circumstances, women and men are likely to fall victims of eating disorders. Statistical data can’t speak for the reality because people are not even aware that these voices are ‘disordered’ voices. Obsession with thinness, extreme dieting, judging others by appearance and feeling insecure about their natural looks feel too ‘normal’ for people to acknowledge them as problems. Walking on the streets, I would hear fat talk or negative self-talk 99% of the time. These voices kill me, even more so to realize that there are so many souls who are suffering from from-mild-to-severe forms of eating disorders but are not even aware of it (Source above — unknown; source, below).

Men like thin pretty womenThe need for body image activism in Korea is dire, for the consequences of continuing the eating-disordered talks in public are obviously disastrous, both for individuals and the society. So, I have brought the Operation Beautiful campaign to Korea to counter the prevailing negative self-talks. I have been posting about it on my (Korean) blog Your Stage is the World, Not the Scale, along with my personal stories of overcoming struggles with distorted body image as well as critiques on dieting ads that make one feel insecure. I am working on compiling these stories to publish a book under the title, Surviving Eating Disorders Where Barbie Dolls Reign Supreme (but I think this will take decades). Currently, I am planning workshops for improving body image, to create safe space to talk about struggles with negative body image, to promote body diversity (healthy-at-every-size approach) and media literacy. I don’t want to force people to stop dieting and start loving themselves immediately. Instead, the most ultimate goal for all these activities is to give people agency over their own bodies and self-esteem, which will allow people to see what really matters and what is there to enjoy in life regardless of how they look.

The movement is only fresh. I am aware that social change doesn’t come easily or fast. However, I have a strong faith that by transforming ourselves, we can transform the society we live in. We individuals construct the society; we are not to be constructed by it. We are active agents. I want to tell my stories to you and listen to yours. I am collecting personal stories of struggles with negative body image or external pressure to conform to the unrealistic standards of beauty. Then, I want to open up off and online discussions on how we want to redefine beauty that suits us healthily. Hopefully, we can remind each other how beautiful our bodies are just the way they are; encourage each other to love our own bodies instead of fitting ourselves to someone else’s standards to get approval.

Please share your thoughts, stories, comments, anything you want to say about this movement. Thank you!

Minji.