Korean Sociological Image #93: Korea’s Dark Circles

Very busy with work and deadlines these days (sorry), I picked up these daily planner post-its to try to make more efficient use of my time:

Daily Planner(Source: ebay)

Korean Sleep Deprivation 1I don’t recommend them: at 8cm in diameter, they’re much too small to write in, whatever language you use. Much more interesting than my frustrations with my pudgy fingers though, is that example daily plan provided. It reads:

  • 11:30pm to 6am: Sleep
  • 7-9: Prepare for Conference
  • 9-12pm: Attend Conference
  • 12-1: Lunch
  • 1-3:30: Attend Exhibition
  • 3:30-6: Attend Hagwon (Institute)
  • 6-7:30: Skip 300 times
  • 7:30-9: Memorize English Vocabulary
  • 9-11:30: Watch Online Lectures

Did the copywriters consider that a typical worker’s daily plan? Or more as one the ambitious professional should aspire to, starting with the strategic investment of 1500 won for a pack of 30?

Either way, it’s an interesting example of how Korea’s study-hard, work-hard, sleep-when-you’re-dead norm gets manifested and perpetuated in daily life, and one that would probably be little changed for consumers in other (developed) East Asian countries. In contrast, US adults, for instance, may also get less than seven hours daily sleep in practice, but the eight-hours ideal is an enduring myth. And very, very few aren’t achieving that ideal due to attending hagwons.

Korean high school students sleepAnother manifestation of Koreans’ attitudes to sleep comes from a high school teacher friend of mine, who says a common saying students there goes something like “Four hours sleep, go to a SKY university; five hours sleep, you fail.” I was recently reminded of it by the second “dark circle” on the right, which you can read more about at the Hankyroreh.

In both cases, frankly I’m surprised that the sleeping time is so high

How about you?

Update: Some statistics, via The Korea Bizwire:

Toz, a business that rents meeting rooms, conducted a survey on 1,800 high school seniors who used their study center. Results showed that 31 percent of the respondents slept five to six hours a night, and 30 percent answered that they slept four to five hours.

In other words, six out of 10 high school seniors were only getting five hours of sleep every night. Those who slept more than seven hours represented only five percent of the respondents.

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

Brains & Beauty: With Korean women achieving higher education, why do so many rely on the scalpel?

Hanbok Fashion Show(Source: Republic of Korea; CC BY-SA 2.0)

“I believe in equality and love the Free the Nipple movement. After four years in Korea, I am still intrigued by its thirst for modernity mixed with its fear of losing its cultural past, sometimes to the point of schizophrenia.”

And with that self-introduction, how could I not accept Manouchka Elefant’s proposed guest post?

As well as being a long-time reader, she’s also a Swiss recipient of the NIIED scholarship, and has just completed her Master’s in finance at Yonsei University (see here for her LinkedIn bio). She adds:

“Anyways, a few friends read my paper [for my Modern Korean Society & Culture class] and found it very interesting and suggested I publish it. Since your blog is my reference on the subject I thought I’d send it to you.”

Flattery will get readers everywhere. So, without any further ado, let me present her post:


Women in Korea have come a long way since the beginning of the century. They have more freedom, greater access to education, and higher spending power thanks to their increasing participation in the workforce. This emancipation of women has been accompanied by a seemingly paradoxical phenomenon: the explosion of the beauty industry and in particular the normalization of plastic surgery procedures. Per capita, South Korea is the number one country for non-invasive and invasive plastic surgery performed and counts the highest number of plastic surgeons (Raitt 2014). The peninsula’s history and Confucian heritage has a tremendous impact on women’s growth in society as well as on contemporary beauty ideals. Today cosmetic surgery can be seen as the two sides of a same coin, it is both an appropriation of one’s body and conformation to society’s expectations of women in Korea.

Historical heritage

Analyzing womanhood in Korea requires us to understand the country’s Confucian heritage and its revolutions. Typically, the contemporary obsession for beauty in Korea is seen as “conformity to patriarchal version of femininity in order to maximize women’s chances of success in marriage and the economy” (Ruth Holliday 2012). However, in a relatively short period, the Confucian ideal has gone through a lot of transformations, notably in the 1930’s and after the Japanese occupation.

Confucian Ideal

Confucian scholars would be quite surprised to see that Korean people no longer appreciate women with beautiful moon faces. In their time, “virtuous femininity” meant that upper class women conformed to an exacting Confucian decorum (Ruth Holliday 2012). Whether a wife, mother, or daughter, a woman’s self was fully dependent on that of men. They were restricted to the domestic sphere, and their success was in their “ability to mimic a concealed and deferential ideal, defined by virginity or maternity” (Ruth Holliday 2012).  Chastity and modesty were highly valued and expected of women from a young age (Lee 2014). To some extent, Korean women are still expected to portray an image of innocence and modesty no matter their age.

Also inherited from the Choson dynasty is the concept of embodying one’s social class through one’s appearance, with the “practice of displaying social status through class-appropriate clothing and decorum, and the ways in which they are interpolated in neoliberal discourses of self-improvement and class mobility are evident in the ways in which cosmopolitan subjectivity is embodied through cosmetic surgery as a sign of a desired class, social or gendered identity” (Elfving-Hwang 2013), leading to one of the theories behind cosmetic surgery as a way to achieve social class identity, which seems to be only part of the phenomenon.

Modern Girl

The 1920-1930’s with its fun flapper girls in the West, dancing to jazz and smoking were in stark contrasts to the Confucian doctrine, yet this new “modern girl” had a strong impact on Korean women and their an seok-ju modern womanaspiration to emancipate themselves from constraining paternalism (appendix 1, source: Gusts of Popular Feeling; rather than in the original separate appendix, I’ve posted images and tables as they came up—James). The modern girl’s short hair was in direct clash with Confucian values and was seen by many as a sexual revolution (Chung 2012). However, the modern girl was associated to decadence, bourgeoisie, and conspicuous consumption.  “A woman drawing attention to her own sexuality – body and desire- was frowned upon in traditional Korea” and the modern girl came to symbolize more than women’s freedom, but also the “fracturing of class [poor versus bourgeois] and citizenship [Korean versus Japanese]” (Chung 2012).

Furthermore, the modern girl was not a mere imitation of Japanese or American influences, it went deeper than hair and clothes, “it mirrored the changing social consciousness, the collective identity of traditional womanhood as an aspect of modernity and modern conditions in colonial Korea” (Chung 2012).

Additionally, the modern girl “challenged the traditional gender roles and centuries of Confucian morality by accumulating products that enhanced female beauty and sexuality” (Chung 2012), which also meant that one was able to alter their appearance and other’s perception of them through consumption. We can wonder if it was a precursor to contemporary Korea’s constant availability of cosmetics and clothing shops.

However, in the context of occupied Korea, the modern girl was highly criticized for being influenced by the Japanese media and to some extent for supporting the colonial agenda. It was seen as another way in which Japan attempted to impose itself as a modernizer over Korea and that “the modern girl phenomenon evolved in the framework of this cultural and economic subordination of the era, which led to its conflicting popular reception” (Chung 2012). Paradoxically, people were attracted to this new image of femininity, spurring their “voyeuristic participation in mass culture, titillating the public while inviting condemnation at the same time” (Chung 2012). It can be similarly observed with today’s pop-culture idols, with the public simultaneously attracted by these sophisticated girl bands while criticizing their over-sexualized image.

Wise Mother Good Wife

At the other end of the spectrum is the ideal of wise mother good wife and although it also served to empower women, its motivations were quite distinct from the modern girl. This concept was at the complicated “intersections of patriarchy, colonialism, nationalism, and western modernity” under which women followed, fought back, or appropriated the predominant male dominated world (Choi 2009).

The wise mother good wife ideology was used by different groups, each with its agenda. Korean nationalists reinforced the role of mothers as educators of Korean children and as supporters for their husbands. Japan’s gender program used it both at home and in colonial Korea “with the aim of producing obedient imperial subjects and an efficient, submissive workforce” (Choi 2009), while protestant missionaries saw it as a way to spread their faith with a “pious mother and wife as a moral guide in the Christian family” (Choi 2009). All of this contributed to the education of women in Korea.

This ideology was deeply rooted in a patrilineal social structure, promoting chastity, marriage and motherhood. It was in direct clash with the modern girl, which was highly criticized for her vanity, her consumption, and her relatively open sexuality. Nevertheless, wise mother good wife also served as a platform to empower women, even if within a restricted domain. The women who “benefited from this education centered in domesticity paved the way to new domains for career women” (Choi 2009). Women were however, not educated for their own benefit and advancement as individual beings, but rather for what they brought to men and society, therefore not for their emancipation. Nonetheless, it set the path towards higher education and more freedom for Korean women.

Women’s Growth in Korean Society

Women’s Education

As we saw, there were several different movements promoting women’s education in Korea, from the protestant missionaries to the Japanese regime. However, some Confucian scholars, influenced by the West, also associated the advancement of women as a sign of a modernized society. They thought that “woman is the foundation of human society and the girder of the house and thus if she is weak or ignorant, she would not be able to fulfill her central role” (Choi 2009).

With Korea’s independence and its efforts towards development, education became widely available to both genders. Educating women therefore was modernizing Korean society, as well as increasing the Higher Education trend for men and women in Koreaworkforces’ overall education level to achieve economic development. In 1966, only 33% of girls went from elementary school to middle school. Similarly, 20% continued to high school and 4% to university. However, by 1998, 61.6% went from middle school to high school and 61.6% to university (Korean Overseas Information Service n.d.). By 2006, the number of women reaching higher education was as high as that of men, with 81.1% and 82.9% respectively entering college and university (table 1)  (Ou-Byung Chae 2008).

This remarkable progress in the number of women achieving higher education also came with its own challenges. Although women achieve higher education there is still a strong gender bias both in the educational curriculum, in the family sphere, and in the workplace.

Women’s Employment

Today, Korea is known for its high educational standards but also for the high inequalities between men and women in the workplace. Last years’ World Economic Forum ranked Korea 111th out of 136 nations in its Global Gender Gap report. While in 2012, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) pay gap report placed Korea in the top of the list with a 39% differences between men and women’s pay (McKay 2014).

Although women have made a lot of progress in Korea’s work environment, according to Statistics Korea’s latest figures, they still only participate for about 50% in the workforce, whereas men reach over 73% participation. Furthermore, the market research firm CEOScore found that in 2013 about 1 out of 1,430 employed women reached a corporate management job against 1 out of every 90 men (McKay 2014). On top of it, Korea also shows the poorest level of female graduate employment among the OECD countries (McKay 2014).

Granting the Korean government has made it part of its objectives to change the situation, a number of factors create this tense work environment for women. It is commonly perceived that women in Korea suffer from higher job discrimination, starting from the hiring process all the way to corporate advancement. The Korean work culture and social expectations of gender roles both have an important effect. High unemployment further reduces women’s chances of finding good jobs, with the economy feeling global pressures and a staggering number of overqualified job hunters, women are often passed over for men in an environment where youth unemployment has been around 8% since 2010 (Park 2014). Both women and men, see being good looking as the next level to compete in the job market and “employment cosmetic surgery” is growing in popularity with both genders (Korean Overseas Information Service n.d.).

Furthermore, preconception of women’s gender roles as mothers and wives results in discrimination in the workplace. The government’s policies to increase women’s participation in the workforce are not “working well because companies still view men and women’s societal duties as different” (McKay 2014). Additionally, the prevalent perception that women are supposed to quit working after getting married to focus on raising children means that “women are being forced to choose between having a career or having a family” (McKay 2014). Very few women go back to work after having had children in Korea, not necessarily by choice. During recruiting, a lot of companies prefer male recruits over young women, apprehensive at the prospect of them getting pregnant (maternity leave cost). As a result, a lot of women choose to delay having a family (Lee 2014).

Breaking the glass ceiling is particularly difficult, with a male dominated work culture. After-work bonding, involving copious amount of alcohol, can improve work relationships and even impact promotions. However, these are not widely considered as appropriate for women, especially if they have children, and whom often don’t want to drink as much as their male colleagues. With numerous reports of male colleagues using alcoholic intoxication as an excuse for sexual harassment, it also puts women in a vulnerable position. Of reported workplace sexual harassment 44.5% of them happened at a hoesik (McKay 2014).

Additionally, there is a strong form of blatant sexism in the workplace. Taking the form of pressure against women not to take roles with responsibilities, to their abilities being questioned on the basis of their gender. Today’s sexism “arises from […] subordination for male authority, especially in the current capitalist environment where women are gradually gaining influence” to the point that some men feel threatened by women taking jobs they consider as being theirs (Lee 2014). Even more, “powerful women are facing negative sentiment among people in general” (Lee 2014).

On top of it all, women are expected to be feminine and complacent, to conform to social expectations (Lee 2014). In Korea, this usually means conforming to the rigid code of beauty.

The Female Ideal of Beauty

In all cultures and societies, beauty norms and representations are not frozen in time, but are constantly changing. The place of women in society has a very strong impact on what is deemed appropriate for their appearance. “Historically, Korea is a nation founded on Confucianism that places women at the bottom of the hierarchy and that treats women as inferior to men” (Lee 2014). Furthermore, Korea seems to be special in the way that the traditional model of beauty from the Choseon era lasted a long time without drastic changes until the country opened up to external influences (voluntarily and involuntarily) and at which point it was completely transformed. During the colonial period new beauty ideals started to emerge, but it is from the 1960’s on that a beauty revolution took place and accelerated with the country’s development.

Korean Beauty Standards

With the rapid transformation of Korea from a rural economy to a developed one, the role of women in society tremendously changed and with it the norms and customs of beauty. Looking back at pictures from the first part of the 20th century (appendix 2, below), we can see women with round faces, often with a center part in their hair. For many centuries, thick glossy hair, fair skin, thin eyebrows and small lips were the symbols of beauty. Make-up was often home-made from spices and plants and used minimally to enhance features. It was only acceptable for entertainment ladies to wear white powder or colorful products. In the 1930’s the Korean garb still was the norm and only very wealthy women would occasionally wear western clothing. Since the Choseon period (1392-1919) a simple yet elegant appearance, associated with a dignified behavior and humble manners, were considered the quintessence of beauty and elegance following Confucian standards. However, as the country suffered from poverty, most women did not have the means to spend on their appearance, only wealthy women could. Western fashions were for the wealthy and city folks while the average person still wore traditional clothes. “Korea was not a strong country, and people’s efforts to protect and preserve their identity served to strengthen their conservative values” (Lee 2014), which also translated in the way they portrayed themselves. This shifted slowly until the 1980s when Korean clothes started being reserved for special occasions and western fashion became the norm.

Examples of Korean women in the 1900’s(Appendix 2, L-R: Portrait of four women, Peng Yang, Korea, 1924; Bride, Gishu, Korea, 1926; A young ‘kisaeng’ in full Korean traditional dress, ca. 1904. Source: University of Southern California Library)

After the war, Korea opened up further to western culture, which became synonymous with development and modernity. Until the 1987 Democracy Movement “Confucian tradition was largely responsible for dictating the roles of women” (Lee 2014) and with it the way they should present themselves in society, but The 'S' Shapethis new era transformed both the role of women, bringing them from the home to the workplace, and the perception of beauty. “Under consumer capitalism Korean women’s bodies have entered the public sphere, no longer hidden away but now available for scrutiny and consumption” (Ruth Holliday 2012).

In Korea, there is tremendous pressure on women to conform, and most women are conscious of the “harsh criticism that comes when [they] deviate from the norm” (Lee 2014), leading to a strictly defined beauty ideal. The contemporary beauty ideal is quite far from the prevalent model of only 20 years ago. Nowadays, the Korean ideal of beauty looks nothing like the moon-shaped beauties of the past. Fair skin is still admired, but beautiful features are singularly different than in the past. Eyes should be big and open, the bridge of the nose should be high and its tip slender, the face should be small with a narrow jaw, the body should be very slight yet show an “S” shaped curves (appendix 3, source: The Grand Narrative). To some extent, this new ideal looks more like a comic book character than a realistic image of women, and can rarely be achieved without constraining one’s body or altering it drastically through cosmetic procedures. Yet it is omnipresent in the media, advertising, and in the messages directed to children from an early age (appendix 4).

Bean paste S-line V-line(Appendix 4: Messages directed to young children carry messages of beauty, physiognomy and conformity, here in an advertisement for bean paste. Source: The Grand Narrative)

This standardization of beauty is especially strong among young women who want to emulate celebrities and are constantly being reminded by the media and society that showing good care for one’s appearance is essential for achieving a good marriage and a successful life. The popularity of cosmetic surgery is such that it is considered normal for celebrities to be redone and still represent role models. It is hence no wonder that Korea is the countries with the highest number of children having plastic surgery and double eyelid surgery is a common gift for graduation from parents.

The paradox goes even further, asking women to embody simultaneously images of innocence and purity, while being glamourous and exciting to the male gaze. However, “expressions of sexual subjectivity remain a big taboo in Korea” where we “can have a 25 year-old’s S-line quite literally highlighted for a heterosexual male gaze, but heaven forbid she admit to having sexual feelings and experience herself” (Turnbull 2012).

Standardization of beauty is also spread through the assignment of different letters to exemplify the ideal shape, “while this practice is seemingly frivolous on the surface, it actually belies much more pernicious trends in society at large, when you have celebrities vocally espousing their alphabet-lines and therefore actually objectifying themselves as a conglomeration of “perfect” body parts rather than as whole, genuine people” (Turnbull 2013).

Fueling the Korean cosmetic industry’s steady growth of more than 10% per year for the last few years, the beauty obsession is constant, from adds for plastic surgery and dieting in public transportation to the “mushrooming cosmetic shops, which have increased 37% a year on average” (Raitt 2014). In a patriarchal society where women are not yet treated as equals, these all reinforce the belief that “pretty girls are more valuable” (Lee 2014) and push for conformity. It is a new way to impose the demure Confucian-influenced image that is wanted and anticipated of women.

Conforming to the Ideal

Some researchers assign plastic surgery in the “Neo-Confucian ‘culture of conformity’, where the unity of the whole is more important than the individuality of the one, producing beauty as a new requirement of decorum’ for women” leading to an environment where women are “obsessed with their appearance” (Ruth Holliday 2012).

Furthermore, the backlash in Korea can be very strong and according to scholar Lee Sang-Wha three factors have “helped uphold Korean society and eventually led to the demure girl image of today: gender segregation, division of gender-assigned labor and the subordination of women” (Lee 2014). It left no place for feminism in Korea’s Confucian heritage where the old values still push them to “appear subordinate and innocent” (Lee 2014).

However, important changes in Korean society can offer another reason behind contemporary beauty trends. The political and economic transformations of the past 30 years, accompanied by an incredible speed of democratization and industrialization, offered new social opportunities for women. As we have seen earlier, university attendance is extremely high, and Korea actually has one of the highest rate for women’s enrollment in college globally according to the OECD.  Some sociologists argue that this “recent upsurge in female societal empowerment may be associated with an oppressive backlash in media portrayals of gender ideals” (Turnbull 2013). This unrealistic expectation on women has also been observed in other regions and “historical data suggest that societal shifts toward gender equality are often accompanied by increased media portrayal of unrealistic gender norms as a reactive “tool of oppression” by mainstream society” (Turnbull 2013) further pressuring women to conform to the beauty ideal.

All of these negative forces appear in the private and the public spheres. The “care of self and cosmetic surgery increasingly link notions of ‘correct’ or ‘appropriate’ appearance with performing adequately in society as a social subject” (Elfving-Hwang 2013).

Plastic Surgery’s Normalization

The numbers speak for themselves, the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons’ global ranking places Korea number one in procedures per capita in 2010 (table 2, below), ahead of the United States and Brazil, and also tops the list with the biggest number of registered cosmetic surgeons per capita (Elfving-Hwang 2013). According to the Korean Association for Plastic Surgery, “1 in every 77 people in South Korea has had [at least one] plastic surgery (Raitt 2014). The Fair Trade Commission also stated that one quarter of the world’s plastic surgeries take place in Korea, representing a 500 billion won industry (Raitt 2014).

Plastic Surgery Procedures per 1000 population, 2010There are two categories of cosmetic procedures. For the non-surgical procedures, the most popular ones are in order of importance: Botox, hyaluronic acid injectables, laser hair removal, autologous fat injectables, and IPL laser treatments (Raitt 2014). These petite surgeries are highly popular as they are non-invasive, cheaper, and require no down-time, exemplified by Botox which counted 145,688 procedures in 2012. On the other hand, the surgical procedures in order of popularity are: lipoplasty, breast augmentation, rhinoplasty, blepharoplasty (double eyelid), and abdominalplasty (table 3, source: source: the Korean Consumer Agency).

Top plastic surgery procedures in 2010As shown by these statistics, plastic surgery in Korea is increasingly normal, with more and more women, and men too, opting to go under the knife. However it is important to point out that women are not passive consumers of beauty, on the contrary they are “highly informed, active agents in their engagements with cosmetic surgeons” (Ruth Holliday 2012). Cosmetic surgery is seen as something positive, that enables access to a desired social status and becomes a symbol of middle class and gendered identity (Elfving-Hwang 2013). Furthermore, the liberalization of cosmetic surgery is also seen as “democratizing practice” and the high growth rate of complex surgeries with high risks, such as the chin and mandibular reduction operation, reflect the trivialization of the practice (Elfving-Hwang 2013).

Confirming earlier arguments about the culture of appearance, plastic surgery has become a marker of consumer middle class identity, of wealth and social status. In turn it “emerges as a highly effective force encouraging individuals to perceive aesthetic surgical intervention as a practical and normative option for self-improvement” (Elfving-Hwang 2013). However, it carries an important weight as well, creating an internalization of patriarchal beauty standards, where “women constantly examine their bodies in a negative and pathological light” (Ruth Holliday 2012) in their insatiable quest to an unrealistic body image.


Women’s place in Korean society, their assigned gender role and idealized representation, is the fruit of the country’s Confucian heritage as well as external influences from the West and Japan. Korean women have not yet reached emancipation as shown by the fact that they still do not own they own body and image and that they are subjected to the paternalistic ideal of beauty. Women’s higher education level is met by tough sexism in the workplace, and although they have more freedom and spending power they still suffer from the constant pressure to conform to beauty standards and expected behavioral traits. The strong backlash against those who do not conform also serves as a way to keep women in check and limit their emancipation.

However, all is not negative. With the new generation coming of age, more and more women are fighting against the system to gain recognition and equal rights in the workforce and it ripples to the private sphere through their increased independence. Korean gender roles are still changing and women will find a way to reconcile their need belonging to the group and their want for self-determination.


Choi, Hyaeweol. 2009. “”Wise Mother, Good Wife”: A Transcultural Discursive Construct in Modern Korea.” Journal of Korean Studies, Vol.14(1) , pp.1-33.

Chung, Yeon Shim. 2012. “The Modern Girl (Modeon Geol) as a Contested Symbol in Colonial Korea.” In Visualizing Beauty: Gender and Ideology in Modern East Asia, by Aida Yuen Wong. Hong Kong University Press.

Elfving-Hwang, Joanna. 2013. “Cosmetic Surgery and Embodying the Moral Self in South Korean Popular Makeover Culture.” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 24, No. 2.

Kim, Taeyon. 2003. “Neo-Confucian Body Techniques: Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society.” Body & Society 9(3): 97–113.

Korean Overseas Information Service. n.d. “Women’s Role in Contemporary Korea.”

Lee, Annie Narae. 2014. “The Fight for Equality: Women’s Struggle to Defy Prejudice, Stereotypes and Tradition.” Groove, Issue 91, pp.58-65.

McKay, Anita. 2014. “The Working Woman: Is Korea Ready for Women in the Workplace?” Groove, Issue 91.

Ou-Byung Chae, Jung-Hae Choi. 2008. “Korean Society in Change: Statistics and Sources (I, II, III, IV).” Korean Journal of Sociology 42.

Park, Hyejin. 2014. “Qualified, trained and nowhere to go.” Groove, Issue n.91.

Raitt, Remy. 2014. “The Big Bucks in Beauty: From cosmetics to eyelid surgery, vanity spurs Korea’s economy.” Groove, Issue n. 91.

Ruth Holliday, Joanna Elfving-hwang,. 2012. “Gender, Globalization and Aesthetic Surgery in South Korea.” Body & Society, Vol.18(2), pp.58-81.

Turnbull, James. 2012. “Bikinis, Breasts, and Backlash: Revealing the Korean Body Politic in 2012.” The Grand Narrative, Korean Feminism, Sexuality, and Popular Culture.

—. 2013. “Revealing the Korean Body Politic, Part 3: Historical precedents for Korea’s modern beauty myth.” The Grand Narrative, Korean Feminism, Sexuality, and Popular Culture.

Thinking About Getting Cosmetic Surgery in Korea? Make Sure You Read This First

Korea Cosmetic Surgery(Sources: left, dongA; right, The Kyunghyang Shinmun)

The more operations, the more possibilities for complications, mistakes, and patient deaths. So, with the highest per capita number of cosmetic surgery operations in the world, you’re always going to hear a lot of harrowing, even terrifying experiences of going under the knife in Korea. Korean cosmetic surgeons, who are no more unethical or incompetent than those from any other country, shouldn’t be singled out for horror stories that can happen anywhere.

But it’s more than just numbers. With so many clinics lacking even basic first-aid equipment; doctors clamoring to break into the lucrative cosmetic surgery market whatever their training and specialization; patients receiving little to no warnings of side-effects; little regulation by the Ministry of Health and Welfare; insufficient support staff because they’re too expensive; and patients doped-up to disguise the fact that the hot-shot surgeons they’ve hired have been replaced with cheaper ones, then the whole industry is well overdue for a makeover. In hindsight, it’s amazing that such an important growth market, and symbol of Korean skill and technological prowess, is really such a cowboy industry.

I learnt how bad things were from translating and following-up on the following article, but frankly it’s not the best source in itself. Feel free to skip through to the links at the end instead, which I hope provide a valuable resource for readers:

성괴 대신 내면미인 뜨는 세상 꿈꾼다 / I Dream of a World of Inside Beauty, Instead of Cosmetic Surgery Monsters

The Kyunghyang Shinmun, 22.05.13, by 이보람 / Lee Bo-ram (boram@k-health.com)

‘성형대한민국’에서 벗어나려면… / How to change this cosmetic surgery republic…

2013년 대한민국의 성형은 과열양상을 넘어 광(狂)적인 면까지 보이고 있다. 이를 잘 나타내는 말이 ‘성괴(성형괴물의 줄임말)’다. 최근 젊은 층에서 유행하는 말인데 똑같은 얼굴의 여성들이 강남거리를 활보하고 있다는 한 웹툰 작가의 만화에서 비롯됐다. 이러한 현상을 없애고 올바른 성형문화가 자리 잡기 위해 선행돼야 할 것은 무엇일까. 전문가들은 무엇보다 ‘내면의 아름다움이 평가받는 나라’가 돼야 한다고 입을 모은다. 특히 우리 사회에 만연된 외모지상주의가 먼저 타파돼야 한다는 지적이다.

In 2013, cosmetic surgery has just gotten crazy in Korea. This is shown in the arrival of a new term, ‘cosmetic surgery monster.’ Popular among young people, it originated from a webtoon about women on the streets of Gangnam all strutting about with the same face. What things have to be done in order to resolve this situation, and cultivate a proper cosmetic surgery culture? Experts say we have to be a country where inner beauty is also evaluated. In particular, we have to do away with the lookism that is deeply entrenched in Korean society.

SNL Korea Plastic Face 1(Source: Roshiel. See also: “SNL 코리아 Satirizes Korea’s Cosmetic Surgery Craze)

외모 편견·차별 사라져야 사회정의 구현 / Social Justice Requires the End of Judging and Discrimination based on Appearance

미국 스탠퍼드대 데버러 로우드 법대교수는 저서 ‘아름다움이란 이름의 편견’에서 외모지상주의의 문제점을 꼬집었다. 그는 전반적으로 외모가 떨어지는 사람은 고용이나 승진가능성이 외모가 뛰어난 사람보다 낮았으며 매력적인 외모를 가진 정치인은 그렇지 않은 정치인보다 두 배 이상 많은 표를 얻었다고 말한다. 또 외모를 법적·정치적인 평등의 문제로 바라볼 때 비로소 외모로 인한 편견과 차별을 없애고 진정한 사회적 정의를 구현할 수 있다고 강조한다.

Stanford University Law professor Deborah Rhode pointed out the problems of lookism in her article “Prejudiced Toward Pretty” (2010). She said that, overall, chances of employment and promotion decrease with one’s appearance. Attractive politicians also receive twice as many votes as uglier opponents. Also, she emphasized that in order to realize social justice and end discrimination, it is necessary to think of differences of appearance as a legal and political issue.

건강과 대안 이상윤 책임연구원은 “요즘 우리 사회를 보면 외모에 의해 성과나 능력이 평가되는 것이 도를 넘어섰다”며 “중장기적으로 외모지상주의에 대한 국민적 인식전환이 필요하고 개인의 능력과 성과로 평가받을 수 있는 사회가 돼야겠지만 지금 상황에서는 성형에 대한 피해와 규제부분 등을 보다 정확하게 알리고 천편일률적이고 획일화된 아름다움의 기준이 변할 수 있도록 모두가 노력해야한다”고 지적했다. 전문가들은 이와 함께 성형수술에서 나타날 수 있는 의료분쟁은 물론 의료사고에 대한 인식수준을 높이는 것이 필요하다고 강조했다. 즉 수술을 원하는 이들이 수술에 대한 위험성과 후유증 등을 정확히 알 수 있게 하는 통로가 필요하다는 것이다.

Lee Sang-yoon, chief researcher at the Center for Health and Social Change, said that “When we look at our society these days, it’s ridiculous how much ability and achievements are based on appearance,” and pointed out that “In the mid to long-term, we need to change our attitudes to lookism. We have to become a society in which people are evaluated based on their own individual abilities and achievements. But for now, it is more important to make people aware of the dangers of cosmetic surgery, to regulate it more, and to promote the idea that there is more than just one, monotonous beauty standard to aspire to.”

Experts emphasize that people considering cosmetic surgery should educate themselves more about side-effects and their legal options should problems arise. Both should be made easier for prospective patients.

실제 의료분쟁조정 신청이 매년 증가하는 가운데 성형외과와 관련된 의료분쟁도 큰 축을 차지하고 있다. 한국소비자원 소비자분쟁조정위원회 의료분쟁조정 신청조사 결과 올해 1분기에 신청된 의료분쟁조정사건은 233건으로 전년 동기(73건) 대비 약 3배 이상 증가했다. 진료과목별로는 내과, 정형외과·성형외과, 치과, 신경외과 순이었다.

한국소비자원 관계자는 “치료방법의 장단점을 숙지하고 고령이나 수술병력이 있는 환자의 경우 치료방법에 따른 효과나 부작용, 비용 등을 충분히 고려한 후 수술은 최후에 신중하게 결정해야한다”고 말했다.

Medical malpractice suits are increasing every year, a large proportion of which are cosmetic surgery-related. According to a survey by the Korea Consumer Agency, in the first quarter of 2013 there were 233 suits, over three times those in the same period the year before (73). In order of ranking, most were internal medicine related, followed equally by orthopedic surgery and cosmetic surgery, then dental, and finally neurology.

A spokesperson [A guess—literally, the term is “person connected to”] from the Korea Consumer Agency said “People have to weigh the good points against the costs and possible side-effects of cosmetic surgery very carefully. Older patients and those with preexisting conditions and medical histories should really consider if it is necessary at all.”

성형수술피해자 ‘인권·구제’ 사각지대서 방황 / Cosmetic Surgery Victims Are at a Loss

또 성형에 대한 ‘정확하고 올바른 정보 제공’이 필요하다는 지적도 이어졌다. 사실 지금으로선 성형외과수술에 대한 정보는 일부 병원이나 업체에서 운영 중인 포털사이트 카페나 관련 블로그 글들이 대부분이다.

Accurate and unbiased information about cosmetic surgery is also required. At the moment, information is mostly available from portal sites and blogs run by hospitals and the medical industry.

한국환자단체연합회 안기종 대표는 “사실 성형수술피해자들은 인권이나 구제 부분에서 사각지대에 놓여있는 상태”라며 “아무래도 본인이 원한 수술이었기 때문에 수술 후 의사에게서도, 가족에게서도, 나아가 사회에서도 외면 받는 상태”라고 말했다. 안 대표는 “본인이 예뻐지고 외모적인 만족을 얻기 위해 수술을 했지만 수술 후 부작용이 생겼거나 의료사고가 발생했다면 당연히 그에 합당한 법적 보호를 받아야한다”며 “정부가 정확한 성형피해자 실태조사에 나서 적극적으로 보호받을 수 있는 통로가 마련돼야한다”고 주장했다.

An Gi-jong, a spokesperson for the Korea Alliance of Patients Organization, said “In fact, cosmetic surgery victims are in a bit of a blindspot in terms of their support and legal rights,” as “because the surgeries are voluntary, when things go wrong they receive little sympathy from society, their doctors, and even their families.” He insisted that “even if the victim underwent surgery to improve their appearance, if malpractice occurs they should still receive legal protection,” and “the government should look into the current status of cosmetic surgery malpractice cases and implement a more proactive way of safeguarding their rights.”

현장에선 성형진료 허용 놓고 ‘갑론을박’만…. / The Pros and Cons of Limiting Cosmetic Surgery Licenses

이처럼 성형수술이 과열양상이 보이면서 일각에서는 성형진료를 성형외과 전문의에게만 받을 수 있도록 한다든지 전문의와 비전문의를 보다 확실하게 구분할 수 있도록 하는 대안이 필요하다는 목소리도 나오고 있다.

As explained, cosmetic surgery is getting out of control. So, one school of thought holds that only specialists should be permitted to perform operations.

대한성형외과의사회 이상목 회장은 “성형외과가 난립하고 각종 성형과 관련된 의료사고가 빈번하게 발생하는 이유는 전문의가 아닌 이들이 성형관련 진료와 수술을 하기 때문”이라며 “정부는 보다 확실하게 성형 전문의와 비전문의를 차별화해 국민들이 제대로 선택할 수 있게 하는 방안을 강구해야한다”고 말했다.

Lee Sang-mok, chairperson of the Korean Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons, said “One reason there are so many clinics popping-up and the number of malpractice suits is increasing is because so many non-specialists are performing surgeries.” Consequently “The government should make a division between specialists and non-specialists and help patients to choose doctors appropriately.”

하지만 전문의와 비전문의를 차별화하고 전문의에 대한 정보만 제공할 경우 오히려 일부 전문의에게만 시장독점권이 부여돼 비용이 높아지는 문제가 생길 수 있다는 반론도 만만치 않다.

However, if such a division is made, and patients are directed only towards specialists, there is a danger of monopolization and increased costs for consumers.

보건복지부 보건의료정책과 관계자는 “현재 의료법상에서 의사면허를 취득한 이들은 성형이나 피부 등의 의료행위를 할 수 있다”며 “전문의와 비전문의를 나누는 등의 규제는 오히려 한쪽에 독점적인 권한을 주게 돼 가격심화현상이 빚어지게 될 것”이라고 말했다.

A spokesperson [Again, technically a person connected to] from the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s medical welfare department said “According to current laws, anybody with a medical license can perform cosmetic surgery or dermatological operations,” and agreed that “a division between specialists and non-specialists would result in monopolization and higher costs.”

여기에 과도한 병원광고나 마케팅 등을 규제하고 제지할 필요가 있다는 의견도 꾸준하게 제기되고 있다. 이에 정부는 과열된 미용성형수술 오·남용 사안을 점검하고 예방대책을 강구하기 위한 ‘보건의료안전관리대책협의회’를 꾸린 상태다. 정부는 협의회를 통해 무분별한 미용성형광고를 제지하고 이용을 부추기는 부분에 대한 규제를 검토 중인 것으로 알려졌다.

In addition, there are an increasing number of voices raised against excessive hospital advertising and marketing, and are calling for their regulation. In response, the government established the Health Safety and Prevention Association in order to investigate how to cool down the cosmetic surgery fever, its marketing, and to and prevent abuse and excesses within the industry (end).

Korean Cosmetic Surgery CartoonHere are some links for further reading, in chronological order. Naturally, most cover much of the same material as each other, so for busy readers I’ve highlighted some of the most important points from them here (source, right: 헬스경향):

A very old article of course, but its description of the industry could easily pass for 2014.

Cut throat competition among the growing number of plastic surgeons has driven some to promote more radical procedures that others might not offer…

…A doctor with the Korean Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons said the procedure took off around four years ago when a Seoul dental clinic ran a major ad campaign promoting the cosmetic benefits.

As it became popular, plastic surgeons began offering the surgery, causing the price to fall and making it more affordable to more people.

“If we are seeing more complications, that’s largely because the sheer number of people getting the surgery has increased rapidly in such a short period of time,” said the doctor, who declined to be identified.

As the number of plastic surgeries has risen in Korea, so too has the risk for accidents. According to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, 650,000 plastic surgeries were performed in Korea in 2011. But experts also point to lax regulations and inadequate facilities as cause for concern.

About 839 out of 1,091 cosmetic surgery clinics nationwide lack proper emergency medical equipment, according to an assessment by the Health Insurance Review and Assessment Service. And many clinics go without hiring anesthesiologists or trained professionals to cut costs.

By law, any doctor with a medical license can perform a cosmetic surgery, even if he or she does not specialize in the field. The clinic in North Chungcheong, where one patient died in March, did not have a specialist.

Experts point out that clinics should be equipped with appropriate medical equipment to deal with emergencies that can occur during a surgery.

However, most do not have this or any other measures in place.

In data provided to Rep. Choi Dong-ik of the main opposition Democratic Party (DP), 77 percent out of 1,100 clinics performing cosmetic surgery were not equipped with defibrillators or ventilators, which are mandatory devices for first aid. Only 1.2 percent of such clinics in Gangnam have emergency equipment…

…Laws governing medical advertizing state that such billboards must have warnings included details of the potential side effects of surgery, but most have these in such small lettering that it is barely legible. An abundance of plastic surgery ads appeared after the government allowed medical institutions to set up promotions outside their premises in 2012.

…the Ministry of Health and Welfare has been taking a hands-off approach to plastic surgery because it is not covered by national health insurance.

“The Ministry of Health and Welfare does not guarantee the appropriateness of medical activity or the safety of new medical technology,” said Kim Jun-hyun, a member of the policy board for the Health Right Network. “The Ministry should at least assess the safety of operations offered by plastic surgery clinics through an official investigation.”

The number of complaints involving botched procedures almost tripled from 1,698 in 2008 to 4,806 last year, according to the Korea Consumer Agency. Among the 71 people who got help from the KCA in settling disputes over botched plastic surgery in the first half of 2013, only 15 percent said their surgeons warned them of the risks and potential side effects in advance.

Lee Sang-mok, the president of the association who also led the probe, said that his team had discovered instances of ghost surgery among doctors, which is the practice of substituting one surgeon for another without the patient’s knowledge.

The association also acknowledged that some doctors would administer to patients large doses of sleeping pills in order to conceal the fact that a different surgeon was performing the operation.

The president attributed such cases to excessive competition in the industry and low moral standards among surgeons.

Related Posts:

(Hat tip to Hong Kong Law Blog for some of the links)

Korean Sociological Image #86: Sex and the Single Korean (Household)

ZigbangAs of last year, one in four Korean households had just one person. That was the same as Australia, and just shy of the US.

Yet just four years earlier, only Seoul was remotely close to that figure, with one in five. That wasn’t expected to rise to one in four until 2030, let alone the rest of country.

It’s a remarkable rise (one of the fastest in the world), and companies have been responding with such things as smaller food portions, more home-delivery services, and smaller appliances. And then there’s the start-up Zigbang (pron. jeekbang) founded in early-2012, which takes the hassle, legwork, and pitfalls (ㅋㅋㅋ) out of finding studio apartments through real estate agents by arranging everything online instead. If you’ve taken the subway recently, probably you’ve seen their ad above, featuring comedian Kim Ji-min (source: Platum).

Much more interesting though, are the ads you probably haven’t seen. Covering everything from the hassles of long commutes and living with one’s parents in your 20s and 30s, to gaining independence and sexual liberation, they provide an interesting look at some of the push and pull factors behind this singles trend. Most are amusing, and some are very, very Korean too. Here’s a small selection from Zigbang’s Facebook page:

zigbang nagging parents(Source: Zigbang Facebook)

Title: “I’m sick of this bloody nagging! I want the independence of my own place!”


  • “When on Earth are you going to…”
  • “Because of you, your younger sister can’t get married…[she can’t get married before you do]…”
  • “Look at Mi-sun next door, she’s already had two children…”
zigbang 9pm news(Source: Zigbang Facebook)

“Even if I finish exactly on time, I only ever get to see the 9pm news.”

In reality though, that’s not necessarily because of long commutes:


zigbang sister borrowing clothes(Source: Zigbang Facebook)

“Is she my sister or is she a thief? I have to get my independence before people find out…[how I live]!”

I'm 30, a curfew is unacceptable(Source: Zigbang Facebook)

“I’m 30! A curfew is too much!”

By coincidence, Kim Ji-min is 30 in Korea, or 29 in “Western age.” Apropos of that, these next two ads have a much more adult slant…

zigbang blind dates(Source: Zigbang Facebook; alternative version here)

“I have a 100% success rate on blind dates.” Presumably, because she has her own place to take them home to.

zigbang do you want something hot to eat(Source: Zikgbang Facebook; alternative version here)

I think the text is badly chosen: literally, it says,”Do you want to eat noodles and go?”, which would mean the object of her affections is already at her place, whereas “Do you want to go eat noodles at my place?” would make much more sense (update: actually, the line is from a movie—see below). But either way, the double-entendre is obvious, and if not then a helpful Korean “R18” symbol makes it clear.

Which is interesting in its own right, and a good counterexample to my recent post on Sookmyung Women’s University students being given a dresscode. Because whereas our natural reaction to such news may be to label Korean society as sexually conservative, or to shoehorn narratives of progression onto to it because of these ads, really there’s abundant evidence of both. Also, even if one does find some definitive, profoundly conservative aspect of Korean sexuality, it can be very modern in others—just like everywhere else.

Even more remarkable though, is that those last two yahan ads made it from the confines of Facebook to Seoul subway stations, all the better to corrupt Korean youth. Here’s two photos of them by reader Thibault Deckers, whom I have to thank for inspiring this post:

zigbang blind dates stationzigbang do you want something hot to eatAds don’t necessarily reflect a change in social attitudes of course, nor necessarily spark one, but I think the sheer numbers of single households are surely having effects. One recent article found that 70% of 30-somethings prefer their own company for instance, and I too have noticed that my students will no longer react in horror upon learning that I always go to the cinema alone (I prefer sitting in the front row).

What changes have readers noticed? I’d be especially interested to hear about knock-on changes in attitudes towards cohabitation, given how difficult it was to find a reader to find interviewees for his MA thesis on that just a few years ago (as in so scared of being found out that they would frequently cancel, not that they didn’t exist). Or do you think this is all exaggerated, not least by companies like Zigbang?

Update 1) I forget to mention that despite Zigbang’s focus on 20-30 somethings, most people living alone in Korea remain middle-aged professional men, and elderly women living in poverty. Likely, the latter don’t use Zigbang at all, but it would be interesting to know how much of its business comes from the former, despite being ignored in its marketing.

Update 2) With thanks, a clarification to that confusing line about noodles. It’s from the 2001 movie One Fine Spring Day:

Here’s a video with the scene, and an explanation:

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

Korean Sociological Image #84: What’s that old, fat, bald, white guy doing here?

S Diary Busan Play Audience(Sources, edited: Interpark, Miscellaneous Maddness)

GLASGOW (n.): The feeling of infinite sadness engendered when walking through a place filled with happy people fifteen years younger than yourself.

The Meaning of Liff, Douglas Adams and John Lloyd (1983)

Ever been tempted to watch S Diary, because of its eye-catching posters? Don’t. It’s decidedly less raunchy than it looks, even by 2004 standards, and it’s strangely serious for a romantic comedy. Instead, watch it for what it is: “a simple exploration of a woman’s past romantic relationships and how they influenced her,” and for the insights — and confidence in future relationships — that can be gained from doing so. (Also, for Kim Sun-a‘s suburb acting.)

Customer Demographics BusanAs my first Korean play then, and the first night out my wife and I will have had together since we had kids, we could do much worse. But we noticed something strange when we went to check the dates and times: scroll down the page on the ticketing site, and you’ll notice an age and sex breakdown of those customers who’ve already bought tickets online, as seen on the right.

This one is for the Busan play; interestingly, the sex ratio is reversed for the Seoul one (click here if you are reading this after its run has ended). Also, the data may not be entirely accurate: when my wife does buy two tickets, will those be counted as two 35 year-old women in the data (which would make no sense), or will she be asked to—possibly even required to—provide more information about the other attendee?

We’ll let you know, once my sister-in-law tells us when she’s available to babysit(!). (Update: All booked. My wife wasn’t asked for information about the second ticket holder.) Either way, it turns out that providing these statistics may be standard for online booking sites in Korea, as indicated by a similar breakdown for online tickets to the The Fault in Our Stars movie on the CGV website. It gives the same results regardless of the cinema chosen, so I presume that they’re nationwide figures (again interestingly, the male to female ratio is the exact opposite of what you’d expect for a romance movie):

The Fault in Our Stars -- Customer Demographics(Source: CGV)

I’d appreciate it if readers can send any more examples, and/or let me know if they’re also available when booking tickets online in other countries. If not, and they turn out to be unique to Korea and/or (I suspect) the East Asian region, what significance do you think that has? Does it speak to any wider feature of Korean society or culture?

Of course, Koreans are not alone in tending to avoid events where they’re likely to be significantly older or younger than the majority of other participants or audience members. The main question is, why do Korean companies make this information available to them? Is it simply testament to the importance of age in Korean relationships? Is it because more people would go if they felt the audience matched their own demographic, than be dissuaded because it didn’t? Or it is just useful extra information given on a whim, which shouldn’t be overanalyzed? Please let me know your thoughts.

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

Revealing the Korean Body Politic, Part 7: Keeping abreast of Korean bodylines

Park Shin-hye and Doll  (Source, edited)

Yes, I know. Korean bodylines again. Surely, I really do have some kind of fetishistic obsession with them, as my trolls have long maintained.

Perhaps. Mainly, it’s because I’ve been very busy (sorry) giving this presentation about them at Korean universities these past two months. Even, I’m very happy to report, getting invited back to some, and finally—squee!—making a small profit too. S-lines, I guess, are now very much my thing.

Instead of feeling top of my game though, frankly I’m wracked by self-doubt. I constantly worry about coming across a real fashion-history expert in the audience, who will quickly reveal me to be the rank amateur I really am.

skeletor bullshit(Source: Heal Yourself, Skeletor)

So, to forestall that day for as long as possible, here is the first of many posts this summer correcting mistakes in my presentation I’ve found, and/or adding new things I’ve learned. But first, because it’s actually been over a year since I last wrote on this topic, let me remind you of the gist:

1) Korea’s “alphabetization” (bodylines) craze of the mid-2000s has strong parallels in the rationalization of the corset industry in Western countries in the 1910s to 1940s.

2) Fashion and—supposedly immutable and timeless—beauty ideals for women change rapidly when women suddenly enter the workforce in large numbers, and/or increasingly compete with men. World War Two and the 1970s-80s are examples of both in Western countries; 2002 to today, an example of the latter in Korea.

3) With the exception of World War Two though, where the reasons for the changes were explicit, correlation doesn’t imply causation. Noting that bodylines happened to appear during in a time of rapid economic change in Korea does not explain why they came about.

Maybe, simply because there’s nothing more to explain, and we should be wary of assuming some vast patriarchal conspiracy to fill the gap, and/or projecting the arguments of Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth (1990) and Susan Faludi’s Backlash (1991) to Korea. Indeed, arguably it’s mostly increased competition since the Asian Financial Crisis that has profoundly affected the demands on job-seekers’ appearances, of both sexes. Also, the financial demands of the K-pop industry go a long way towards explaining the increased sexual objectification in the media in the past decade.

Which brings me to today’s look at the evolving meaning of “glamour” in American English, which I use to illustrate the speed of those changes in World War Two:

Slide76Slide77Slide78Slide79Slide80Slide81Slide82Slide83Slide84These are necessary generalizations of course, whereas the reality was that contradictory and competing trends coexisted simultaneously, which you can read about in much greater depth back in Part 4. But this next slide was just plain wrong:Slide85With that, I went on to give a few more examples to demonstrate how glamour, then meaning large breasts, soon came to mean just about anything. But then I read Glamour: Women, History, Feminism by Carol Dyhouse (2010), and discovered that the word has always been very vague and malleable (albeit still always meaning bewitching and alluring). Moreover, to my surprise, “breasts”—the first thing I look for in new books these days—weren’t even mentioned in the index (nor, for that matter, “glamour” in Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams {2013}). Given everything I’ve said and written about them, I feel they deserved more attention that that (although she does cover them in the chapter “Princesses, Tarts, and Cheesecake” somewhat), but certainly there was only ever a strong association with glamour at best. Also, my timing was wrong, for that association began as early as the late-1920s, (see the introduction or from page 134 of the dissertation Hollywood Glamour: Sex, Power, and Photography, 1925–1939, by Liz Willis-Tropea {2008}), and didn’t peak until after the war.

For instance, take this excerpt from Uplift: The Bra in America by Jane Farrell-Beck and Colleen Gau (2002, page 103; my emphasis):

The War Production Board severely restricted the use of chromium-plated wire for civilian-use products. Brassiere manufacturers improved fasteners, but renounced wiring. Besides, glamour was not what brassieres were about in 1941-45. Posture, health, fitness, and readiness for action constituted the only acceptable raisons d’être for undergarments-at-war, dubbed “Dutiful Brassieres” by the H & W Company.

Indeed, it turns out those lingerie ads in one of my slides come from 1948 and 1949 respectively (and I’ve no idea what that girdle ad was doing there!). And here’s another excerpt, from The Home Front and Beyond: American Women in the 1940s by Susan M. Hartmann (1983, page 198; my emphasis):

Women adapted their appearance to the wartime look, which deemphasized physical differences between the sexes, but they did not completely abandon adornments symbolizing femininity. While some adjusted to the disappearance of silk and nylon by going barelegged, others used leg makeup and some even painted on a seam line. Women emphasized their lips by favoring dark colors. The focus on breasts did not peak until later, but the sweatergirl look, popularized by Lana Turner and other movie stars, had its origins in the war years, and women competed in Sweater Girl contests as early as 1943.

In short, the trend is still there, and, “much of women’s social history [being] embedded in clothes, cosmetics, and material culture” (Dyhouse, p. 7.), remains fascinating for how, as a product of the era when cinema first began to have a profound impact on fashion, it set the standard of slim waists and large breasts that largely remains in Western—and global—culture today.

But covering all that in a stand-alone presentation, which I’ve really struggled to get down to an hour a half? In hindsight, it’s a poor, unnecessarily complicated choice to get my point about rapid change across.

Bagel Girl(Source: How do ya like me now?)

Likely, I fixated on glamour because it’s where “Bagel Girl” (베이글녀) derives from, a Korean bodyline that’s been popular for about 4-5 years. A blatantly infantilizing and objectifying term, I was happy to read back in 2011 that Shin Se-kyung at least has rejected being labeled as such (alas, Hyoseong of Secret is quite happy with it), echoing Lana Turner’s distaste at being the first “Sweater Girl.”

Then I discovered the Bagel Girl had a precedent in the “Lolita Egg” (롤리타 에그) of 2003, which, as the following advertorial explains, likewise emphasized the childish features of female celebrities (then) in their early-20s—who would surely have preferred being better known as adults instead. While I genuinely despair that its authors and interviewees actually got paid for their work (you’ll soon see why!), it does demonstrate the remarkable historical continuity to medical discourses about “Western” and “Asian” women’s bodies, and of the incessant drive to infantalize their owners.

Lee Hyori Lolita Egg‘롤리타-에그’ 얼굴 뜬다…2000년대 미인은 ‘어린소녀+계란형’ The “Lolita Egg” Face …Beauties of the 2000s have ‘Young girl + Egg Shape’

Donga Ilbo (via Naver), November 2, 2003

이승재기자 sjda@donga.com, 조경복기자 kathycho@donga.com / By Lee Sung-jae and Jo Gyeong-bok

‘롤리타-에그 (Lolita-Egg)’형 얼굴이 최근 뜨고 있다 The ‘Lolita Egg’ Face Trend Has Been Booming Recently

1990년대 성숙한 미인상으로 각광받던 ‘계란(Egg)’형 얼굴의 연장선상에 있으면서도, 길이가 짧은 콧등과 좁은 턱, 넓은 이마 등 어린 아이의 이미지로 ‘롤리타 콤플렉스’(어린 소녀에 대한 성적 충동·롤리타는 12세 소녀를 향한 중년 남자의 광적인 사랑을 담은 블라디미르 나보코프의 동명 소설에 등장하는 소녀 이름)를 자극하는 ‘이중적 얼굴’이 주목받고 있는 것.

While the 1990s trend for mature, beautiful women with egg-like faces continues, now it has combined with a short nose-bridge, narrow chin, and wide forehead, reminiscent of a child’s. This ‘double face’ stimulates the ‘Lolita Complex’, based on the Lolita novel by Vladimir Nabokov (1955), about a middle-aged man’s insane love and sexual urges for a 12 year-old girl of the same name.

Lolita Cover Detail(Source)

‘롤리타-에그’형의 대표는 탤런트 송혜교(21)와 가수 이효리(24)다. 또 드라마 ‘선녀와 사기꾼’(SBS), ‘노란손수건’(KBS1)에 이어 SBS ‘때려’에 출연 중인 탤런트 소이현(19)과 영화 ‘최후에 만찬’에 비행(非行) 소녀 ‘재림’으로 나오는 신인 조윤희(21)도 닮은꼴이다.

Representative stars with the Lolita Egg face shape are talent Song Hye-Kyo (21; Western ages are given) and singer Lee Hyori (24). Other women that resemble them include: the drama talent So Yi-hyun (19), who has appeared in Fairy and Swindler (SBS), Yellow Handkerchief (KBS1), and is currently starring in Punch (SBS); and movie rookie Jo Yoon-hee (21), who played the character Jae-rim in The Last Supper (2003).

조용진 한서대 부설 얼굴연구소 소장은 “이 얼굴형은 자기중심적이면서도 콧대가 높지 않아 ‘만만한’ 여성상”이라며 “경제 불황이 장기화하면서 퇴폐적이면서 유아적인 여성상을 찾는 동시에 수렁에서 구원해 줄 강력하고 성숙한 여성상을 갈구하고 있다는 표시”라고 분석했다.

Jo Yong-jin, head of the Face Research Institute affiliated with Hanseo University, explained “While this face shape is self-centered, the nose bridge is not high, making it a manageable female symbol,” and that “While the recession prolongs, people long for a decadent but childlike female symbol, but at the same time also strongly long for a mature female symbol to save them from the depths.”

롤리타 에그’ 얼굴의 특징 Unique Points about the Lolita Egg Face

얼굴선은 갸름하지만 전체적으론 둥그스름하고 부드럽다. ‘롤리타 에그’형은 90년대 채시라와 최진실에서 보듯 갸름한 듯하면서도 약간 네모진 미인형에 비해 특징이 적다. ‘어디선가 본 듯한’ 느낌을 주어 대중성이 강하다.

The face-line is slender, but overall it is roundish and soft. As you can see from images of Chae Shi-ra and Choi Jin-sil, in the 1990s the Lolita Egg face shape The Wrong Deodorantalso looked slender, but compared to slightly square-faced beauties didn’t have many characteristics. It was massively popular, because it gave the feeling of a face you could see anywhere (source, right).

얼굴의 포인트는 코. 채시라 등의 코는 높으면서도 콧등이 긴데 반해 이 얼굴형은 콧등이 낮고 그 길이가 짧아 ‘콧대가 높다’는 느낌이 없다. 다만 코끝이 버선코 모양으로 솟아올라 비순각(鼻脣角·코끝과 인중 사이의 벌어진 정도·그림)이 90도 이상인 것이 특징. 코가 짧은 동양적 특징과 비순각이 큰 서양적 특징(한국인은 평균 90도가 채 못 되나 최근 120도까지 끌어올리는 성형수술이 유행이다)이 동시에 나타난다.

The point of the face is the nose. Compared with the cases of Chae Shi-ra and so on, whose noses are high and have long nose bridges, the nose bridge of a Lolita Egg face is low and short, so it doesn’t give the feeling of a high nose bridge. However, the tip of the Lolita Egg nose is marked for resembling the tip of a bi-son (a traditional women’s sock), soaring upward, and the philtrum is more than 90 degrees (see picture). A Lolita Egg face has a combination of this philtrum, which is a Western trait (Koreans typically have one less than 90 degrees; however, the trend in cosmetic surgery is to get one between 90 and 120 degrees) and a short nose, which is an Asian trait.

미고 성형외과 이강원 원장은 “다소 나이 들어 보이고 노동을 즐기지 않는 듯한 느낌을 주는 긴 코에 비해 짧고 오뚝한 코는 귀엽고 애교 있으며 아이 같은 이미지를 준다”고 말했다. 이런 코는 이미연의 두텁고 귀티 나는 코가 주는 ‘접근하기 어려운’ 느낌에 비해 ‘만인이 사랑할 수 있을 것 같은’ 느낌을 유발한다.

Migo Cosmetic Surgery Clinic head Won Chang-un said “A long nose gives an impression of age and that one doesn’t enjoy one’s work, whereas a short but high nose gives one of cuteness and aegyo. A thick but elegant nose like that of Lee Mi-yeon’s [James—below] gives a cold, stand-offish impression, but a Lolita Egg one gives off one that the woman can be loved by all.

이미연 (Lee Mi Yeon) and Niece(Source)

턱은 앞으로 다소 돌출했지만 턱의 각도가 좁아 뾰족한 느낌도 든다. 이는 일본 여성의 얼굴에 많이 나타나는 특징. 28∼32개의 치아를 모두 담기엔 턱이 좁아 덧니가 있는 경우가 많다. 어금니가 상대적으로 약해 딱딱한 음식을 씹는 것에는 약한 편.

[However], while the jaw of the Lolita Egg protrudes forward, it is narrow, giving a pointy feeling. This is characteristic of many Japanese women [James—see #3 here]. But because 28-32 teeth are crammed into such narrow jaws, there are also many cases of snaggleteeth. The molars also tend to be weak, making it difficult to chew hard food.

눈과 눈썹은 끝이 살짝 치켜 올라가 90년 대 미인상과 유사하나, 눈의 모양은 다르다. 90년대 미인은 눈이 크면서도 가느다란 데 반해 이 얼굴형은 눈이 크고 동그래 눈동자가 완전 노출되는 것이 특징. 가느다란 눈에 비해 개방적이고 ‘성(性)을 알 것 같은’ 느낌을 준다.

The end of the eyes and eyebrows raise up slightly at the ends, resembling the style of 1990s beauties, but the shape is different. Compared to that large but slender style, the Lolita Egg eyes are rounder and more exposed. This gives a feeling of openness and greater sexual experience.

얼굴에 담긴 메시지 The Message in a Face

‘롤리타 에그’형의 여성들은 남성들의 ‘소유욕’을 자극하는 한편 여성들에게 ‘똑같이 되고 싶다’는 워너비(wannabe) 욕망을 갖게 한다. 예쁘면서도 도도한 인상을 주지 않아 많은 남성들이 따른다. 이로 인해 이런 여성들은 선택의 여지가 많아 독점적으로 상대를 고르는 듯한 인상을 주기도 한다.

you chumpsOn the one hand, the Lolita Egg stimulates men’s possessiveness, whereas to women it turns them into wannabees. It’s a pretty face shape, but doesn’t give off a haughty, arrogant impression, proving very popular with men. Women who have it can pick and choose from among their many male followers (source right: unknown).

인상전문가 주선희씨는 “낮은 코는 타협의 이미지를 주는 데 반해 선명한 입술 라인은 맺고 끊음이 분명한 이미지가 읽힌다”며 “이런 얼굴은 남성을 소유한 뒤 가차 없이 버릴 것 같은 느낌을 주기 때문에 여성들이 강한 대리만족을 얻게 된다”고 말했다.

Face-expression specialist Ju Seon-hee said “A low nose gives an impression that the owner will readily give-in and compromise, whereas the clear lipline of a Lolita Egg gives an image of decisiveness,” and that women with the latter can gain a strong sense of vicarious satisfaction through using (lit. possessing) and then discarding men.”

최근 인기 절정의 댄스곡인 이효리의 ‘10 Minutes’ 가사(나이트클럽에서 화장실에 간 여자 친구를 기다리는 남자를 유혹하는 내용)에서도 나타나듯 “겁먹지는 마. 너도 날 원해. 10분이면 돼”하고 욕망을 노골적으로 강력하게 드러내는 이미지라는 것이다.

Like the lyrics of Lee Hyori’s song 10 minutes say (about a woman who seduces a man at a nightclub while he is waiting for his girlfriend in the bathroom), currently at the height of its popularity, “Don’t be scared. You want me too. 10 minutes is all we need”, this a strong and nakedly desiring image. (End)

Western vs. Eastern Ideals of Beauty(Source)

For more on the negative connotations of “Asian” bodily traits, perpetuated by cosmetic surgeons and the media, please see here (and don’t forget Lee Hyori’s Asian bottom!). As for the infantilization of women, let finish this post by passing on some observations by Dyhouse, from page 114 (source, right; emphasis):

Nabokov’s Lolita was published (in Paris) in 1955: the book caused great controversy and was banned in the USA and the UK until 1958. Baby Doll, the equally contentious film with a screenplay by Tennessee Williams, starring Carroll Baker in the role of its lubriciously regressive, thumbsucking heroine, appeared in 1956. The sexualisation of young girls in the Glamour Women History Feminism Carol Dyhouseculture of the 1950s had complex roots, but was probably at least in part a male reaction to stereotypes of idealised, adult femininity. Little girls were less scary than adult women, especially when the latter looked like the elegant Barbara Goalen and wielded sharp-pointed parasols. Images of ‘baby dolls’ in short, flimsy nightdresses infantilised and grossly objectified women: they segued into the image of the 1960s ‘dolly bird’, undercutting any assertiveness associated with women’s role in the ‘youthquake’ of the decade.

Did I say you shouldn’t project Western narratives onto Korea? I take that back. Because goddamn, would that explain a lot of things here!

Update: See here for a Prezi presentation on “Trends of beautiful faces In Korea.”

The Revealing the Korean Body Politic Series:

The Women’s Issue

Groove May 2014Sorry for the slow posting everyone: I recently had food-poisoning, some editing deadlines and my students’ end of semester exams are looming, and on my days off I’ve been on a mini-whirlwind tour of Korean universities giving presentations about body-image. But I hope to be posting again soon, and, until then, the latest issue of Groove Magazine will easily provide more than enough insights and new information to whet your appetites!

If you can’t get a physical copy, please click on the image above to read it at Issuu (a quick registration is required), or to download a PDF (click on “share” to get the link).

Update: I forgot to mention that I was interviewed for Annie Narae Lee’s article on page 58, but it may not appear online unfortunately. Also, I’m still too busy to listen myself, but Groove’s recent podcast on abortion in Korea sounds useful and interesting.