Korean Sociological Image #28: Cosmetic Surgery Advertisements Featuring Caucasians


I’ve never done any systematic study of advertisements for Korean cosmetic surgery clinics. But still, I’d wager that the overwhelming majority do not feature Caucasians.

And why should they? Like frequent commenter Whatsonthemenu pointed out in an email to me, she has never seen a tanning product advertisement in North America, for instance, that used a model of African descent, and most models look European or possibly Hispanic. Similarly, advertisements for hair straightening products, generally aimed at Black women, always use Black models (usually light-skinned ones), never Caucasian or Asian.

One reason for this is that correlation does not imply causation, and that tanned Caucasians happen to look darker does not necessarily mean that they want to look like Africans. Rather, the consensus view of tanning’s origins is that it developed as a status symbol, implying the wealth to take vacations to warmer climes.

In the case of hair-straighteners however, let me pass on Whatsonthemenu’s comment that “the desire for straight hair almost certainly originates in the desire to look closer to Caucasians,” and that this stems from back when house slaves, who were more likely to have Caucasian fathers or grandfathers, had higher status than field slaves. Which leads one to ask what Caucasians’ absence in advertisements implies?

Perhaps that when it comes to something as personal as dramatically altering one’s body and/or appearance in particular, there is a universal tendency to deny one might be imitating some aspect of another culture, race and/or ethnicity? After all, not to implies acknowledging a (perceived) flaw with your own, unlikely to go down well with other members of it.

Which is what makes Koreas’ exception to the rules so interesting.

(Source: unknown)

Whatsonthemenu noticed this advertisement for the BeautyMe Clinic on The Chosun Ilbo’s website last weekend, clicking on which took you to their homepage above. The Caucasian woman you see there is featured quite prominently throughout the site, and, judging by the the single page discussing double-eyelid surgery for men also featuring a Caucasian man, the choice of her race is not due to mere laziness or accident on the web designer’s part.

So why?

One obvious answer is that some Korean cosmetic surgery patients genuinely do want to look more Caucasian. But I think that they’d be a very small minority, even among those getting only those procedures that ultimately have that effect. Meanwhile, probably the vast majority don’t have that goal, either explicitly or subconsciously, and would justifiably take great offense at the suggestion.

However, clearly the intended customers would have no problems with associating cosmetic surgery in general and/or specific operations with Caucasians, nor find the choice of the model’s ethnicity strange. If they did, then presumably the proprietor of BeautyMe Clinic and others with similar advertisements (see here and here) would have chosen a Korean woman instead, as most do.

Yet they didn’t, and that those (positive or neutral) associations presumably existed prior to exposure to the advertisement puts paid to any notion that “Caucasianness” has had absolutely no role in Koreans’ modern ideals of beauty. And, in turn, to the notion that Koreans finding light skins and double-eyelids and so on attractive today are merely continuations of unaltered historical Korean tastes that existed prior to contact with Caucasians. Indeed, like blogger Michael Hurt wrote in 2005, it’s high time to acknowledge:

…the big, fat, white elephant in the room that is America and the West. You have to consider how having white skin here in Korea is not simply a matter of lightness anymore, of being a sign that one doesn’t have to work outside in a field. The relative pallor of one’s skin is now inevitably linked to notions of civility and class that are also reflected against the very real presence of white people, who are not surprisingly, positively associated with notions of civility and class.

But, and I stress, to do so is not to deny a role – and probably a much greater role – for historical Korean beauty ideals (and definitely not to claim that Koreans just “want to look White”). For a sense of the weight of the respective roles of each, and their possible mechanisms, please see the debate in previous posts.

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

17 thoughts on “Korean Sociological Image #28: Cosmetic Surgery Advertisements Featuring Caucasians

  1. Light skin has long been a cherished beauty feature in Asia, and there is a widespread preference for large eyes across cultures. The increasing number of nose jobs defies historical or evolutionary explanation, however.


    1. Forgive me if I’m misinterpreting your comment – I got very little sleep last night – but when I was writing the post I was at pains to stress that I was aware that a preference for light skins and large eyes predated East Asians’ large-scale contact with Caucasians, and that this was primarily but not fully responsible for their modern tastes. Regardless of how clear I was or not though, your comment prompted me to edit the last paragraph a little, including throwing in that quote of Michael Hurt’s (just for the record, in case anyone now thinks that your comment looks a little unfair!^^).

      Although I readily believe it, I wasn’t aware that there was an increasing number of nose jobs in Korea (if in Korea specifically was what you meant), and I’d like to follow it up at some point. How did you know about it?

      Finally, and before I forget, thanks again for all your help with this post! :)


      1. I don’t have stats. It’s just my perception. When I first arrived in Korea, the only obvious plastic surgery was rudimentary eye jobs that involved stitching a fold to make a double lid. Surgeons hadn’t yet figured out how to remove the fat, so surgically acquired double lids looked weirdly fake. One famous actress who comes to mind is Lee Seung-yeon, who appears to have had her eyes redone as surgical techniques improved. If you look at photos of Korean entertainers from the 80s to mid-90s, you will notice that the faces looked more natural and distinct, except for the puffy lids. I don’t recall any popular actors and actresses sporting Pinocchio noses like Han Chae-young or Lee Min-ho nor can I recall any entertainers with alien-like pointy chins.

        If you’re interested in doing a post and can’t find statistics, you could compare faces of the 80s and 90s with currently popular entertainers. Think Lee Mi-sook, Lee Mi-yeon, Choi Jin-shil, pre-surgery Kim Hye-soo, Shin Ae-ra, Lee Young-ae, Kang Su-yeon, Shim Hye-jin, Hwang Shin-hye, Jin Hee-kyung. Rhinoplasty has been around for decades, but either it wasn’t as common for entertainers or the work was subtle.


  2. nice. as a long time skim-reader of your blog, i’ve been trying to be more aware of issues like these… may i humbly ask you to read about my demi moore america vs korea w magazine cover post. keep up the good work~ ^^


    1. Well, next time include a direct link to make it easier to find!^^ I’ve changed the link in your name to the post itself so people reading this in the future – when it’s no longer on your front page – will still be able to find that.

      After all that, I don’t realy have anything to add to your post sorry. But it was an interesting quick read, and I agree that it’s curious and ironic that the least photoshopped, more-fuller figure version of the W cover was for the Korean edition. And also that while Demi Moore’s skintone may have been deliberately lightened, it could just be a side-effect of lightening the entire cover as a whole like you say. It’s difficult to tell.


  3. I don’t have a problem with very minor surgery (as I define it, anyway), a small tweak is ok. But if you look substantially different after, it is just weird and creepy. It suggests to me that the person is probably a bit too worried about “looking better/perfect”, or is overly worried about what other people think.

    I find it ironic that many Western people (with generally fair skin) still want a “healthy tan”, though, as the ads inform us here in Aust, “tanning is skin cells in trauma”, and “there’s nothing healthy about a tan”. There is a fairly large tanning industry here, not to mention sunny weather and beaches. In India, many people have varying shades of brown skin, and light skin is considered very desirable (see photos of Bollywood stars, light skin suspiciously frequent). My guess is the skin whitening industry there is booming. In most East and South East Asian countries, (corpse) white skin is also the fashion/obsession. In HK, it was bizarre seeing the vast array of skin whitening products. The whole whitening industry seems to be huge around the region, which is odd considering that white skin is the norm in East Asia.

    And, as I think you have noted, a lack of sun exposure means that women, especially, lack vitamin D that normally comes from short exposure to the sun.


    1. Indeed. Neither do I have a problem with very minor surgery, and the longer I write about it the more I accept the very real psychological and material benefits that can accrue to women getting it done. Particularly in Korea where they are judged on their appearances so much more than in Western countries (not that they aren’t also done so there of course).

      I agree and disagree about the irony of generally fair-skinned Caucasians wanting tans. One reason I detest skin-lightening creams and so on of a woman of any race is that I find a fit and healthy lifestyle attractive, which of course entails going out in the sun at some point. And slightly reddened skin, which one can get from tanning, is innately attractive on women for physiological and reproductive reasons, as I explain at the bottom of this post.

      On the other hand, having lived half my life in Australia or New Zealand, I’m well aware of the dangers of too much sun. And considering how terrible my own skin is these days, I’m considering beginning to wear sunscreen every day, at least in the summer.

      Not by coincidence, one of my favorite songs is “Wear Sunscreen” by Bahz Luhrmann!^^

      Finally, you’re quite right: I have mentioned the Vitamin D thing many times. If you haven’t already read it though, you may also be interested in the fact that a lack of exposure to sunlight in childhood causes short-sightedness also, something that is beginning to seriously concern many East Asian governments.


      1. Yeah, if a small change can make their lives much easier and happier then that is ok. But the fact that they are pressured to look a certain way and are heavily penalised if they do not is very unfortunate.

        I read your previous post about cosmetics and their use in hiding whether women are fertile or not, and your inference that the obsession with thick makeup in SK may partly explain the massive sex industry there. An interesting idea, has there been any research about the amount of makeup used and the sex industry? Perhaps this is also a factor in Japan, another country where makeup thick enough to shovel off is common, where white skin is also an obsession, and where there is a thriving sex industry. Or possibly the cultural similarities explain this.


      2. 15 minutes a day on the face and hands is sufficient for very light-skinned people. Any more than that is unnecessary because the body starts breaking down vitamin D as it synthesizes new vitamin D to avoid toxicity.

        I forget which Mediterranean country’s popuilation has the highest vitamin D levels, but I believe that Sweden is #2, thanks to a diet high in vitamin-D-rich cold water fish. The Swedes also have one of the longest life expectancies. There’s more than one way to get vitamin D, and it’s thought that the combination of vitamin D and omega 3 fatty acids in cold-water fish have a synergic effect superior to sun-induced vitamin D alone. Cod liver oil contains both, and I take a half-teaspoon daily during the months of less sunlight.

        I suspect your outdoors lifestyle and tanning association is more cultural than evolutionary. Very light-skinned people who acquire a suntan have probably gotten too much exposure. Melanin-inducing UVA is always present in sunlight whereas vitamin B-inducing and skin-burning UVA is present only when the sun is within a certain angle range overhead, or in plain English, only during midday hours in the spring, summer, and fall at far northern or southern latitudes.


        1. correction: healthy outdoors lifestyle

          Our ancestors spent more time outdoors than we do, but there probalby wasn’t much skin exposure. North American Indian tribes in middle and southern states used to cover their kids with bear fat to keep away insects and to insulate against the cold.


    2. East Asians are light yellow to pale black in skin color. They are NOT white. When East Asians tan their skin color turns brown. That’s a major reason they stay away from the sun. White skin is exclusive to people of European descent. When white skin TANS it turns a golden color.

      East Asians are very avaricious. Yes, they want to look European. Few non-whites want to admit that white people are the most beautiful but the evidence is overwhelming. When Johann Friedrich Blumenbach categorized races he selected the people of the Caucasus region the most beautiful and the birth place of all white people. This is where the term Caucasian originates. He found East Asians and Africans equally ugly and placed them at the bottom.


  4. Actually, in Seoul, there’s been a fair number of ads for cosmetic surgery clinics that *do* feature caucasian models . . . it’s not the norm, but I’ve seen quite a few ads in the past few months like that. I’ll try and get some pics for you when I get back to Seoul.


    1. Thanks in advance for those, although I wouldn’t say that there’s all that many with them in Busan; I wonder if there’s a genuine regioal difference? But regardless, one more Busan example I forget to mention in the post was this one, discussed in this post on why Korean cartoon characters tend to look Caucasian also.


  5. As for skin being lighter. I think that was just a universal thing. Slaves were darker and so you had to be light or bein the same class as measly floor scrubbers, yuck!

    As for eyes and nose. Man! Seo IN Young, Kim Sn Ah and Uhm Jung Hwa come to mind for pointy noses.

    Seo In Young and Kim Sun Ah in 2009 both had their pointy noses redone so they looked more “natural” now but with cases such as Uhm Jung Hwa. I dunno what had been done but I think her bridge was manipulated too much and she’ll forever have the dreaded pig nose.

    If they are using causcassian models, I don’t think it means anyting other than “look like a causcassian”. Just like if the company featured any other race than East Asians of similar features. If I saw a butt reduction/enhancement advertisement and they all had black people. I’d be like wadda! It’s the same here really.

    Other than that, I think it’s just media hounding with s lines v lines jayjay lines moomolines honey thighs melon bust radish fingers whatever food stuff hey’ll use next, makes people more insecure. The surgeries been around but the pressure to be “good looking”. damn!

    I think in Iran nose surgery is very popular because they are generally “born with big noses” so they make them pointier and petite to be more attractive and such. This is the females.


    1. I don’t mean same features like oh the stereotypical vie we hear. I mean like, you’d be less likely to feature someone from Thailand or India when selling to Koreans. However, I read an article somewhere that many people go to Korea because it has a large cosmetic surgerry market and it’s apparently “cheap”


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