From Asian to Caucasian: Update

(Businesswoman, by the_toe_stubber)

A recent comment on my post From Asian to Caucasian: Response From a Reader from last year, and which I’m sure you’ll all agree is worth highlighting here rather than having it wasted unread in obscurity on an old post!

With permission, in a moment I’ll place you in the capable hands of Anna then, to whom I’m extremely grateful for the time and effort she put into this. But first, because I haven’t really made it clear previously, I should mention that I’m always open to guest posts (which this 2500+ word ‘comment’ has surely become), as for reasons of time, resources, and/or personal interest, I am simply never able to write as many posts on as many subjects as I like. If you’re ever interested, and please don’t be put off by thinking that there is a minimum word-limit(!), then please just drop me a line.

Now, without any further ado:

…Hey James,

Your work is fascinating and is quite hilarious at times. I am currently writing a thesis on cosmetic surgery in South Korea and your blog really caught my interest. I wanted to just add to the comments here and to also add to your discussion. Beware, this might get a little long.

First of all, I know people can get quite defensive when people say Korean women are undergoing cosmetic surgery to become “white.” (evidence of the comments above). I mean honestly, nobody would like to hear that. Also, Korean women, as was mentioned in your blog and in other people’s comments, don’t go around piping that they did their eyes to look white. One of the driving factors in contemporary society as to why Korean women go under the knife is because 1) cosmetic surgery is a marker for upper class wealth 2) social mobility and 3) economic stability. Women get their faces done or whatever part they deem necessary to look prettier because beauty gets jobs and husbands in an extremely competitive market, and I mean both the market for jobs and husbands.

Furthermore, If you take the time to read Korean forums on cosmetic surgery, a majority of women undergo cosmetic surgery to gain self confidence. It is quite interesting and tragic as well that many of the Korean women who post on these forums talk about how cosmetic surgery will bring a new stage in their lives. Beauty is everything. And they talk about searching for self-esteem like they never had it in the first place and the only way to be “reborn”, “transformed” or to gain their lost self-esteem is through cosmetic surgery. Some of these Korean women are aware of the pressures on them from society to get cosmetic surgery as well and they complain about those reasons too. Korean society is not only very conscious about appearances but how those appearances conform with what the cultural norms are. Therefore, if one girl gets a job because of a pretty nose or eye job, then there will be tons of women who will go get that nose job in the hopes that their chances for getting the next job will be increased. Its a dog eat dog world.

Now set that all aside. I believe that everything has a historical context and cosmetic surgery in South Korea is no exception. Cosmetic surgery in South Korea didn’t just appear in the 1990s to attain a “universal beauty standard.” Nor is the pervasive popularity of specific procedures just because of modernization and the consumer culture it brings. First of all, I take issue with the claim of a “universal beauty standard”. Modernization and globalization has complicated a lot of things so what may seem true now may not ring true when societies were isolated from each other. Korea, for example, was known as the hermit kingdom due to their refusal to open up to foreign influences until they were basically pried open. BEAUTY STANDARDS THEN did not fall in line with “universal” beauty standards now, to say the least. An oval and round face as well as small features were considered beautiful. If you look at old portraits of Korean women, do you see women with overly sized dopey eyes and shaved V-line chins? Or whatever the damn letter is? It is quite the opposite.

Beauty standards may all seem the same way now but that is because we have been socialized to think a certain way due to overwhelming western influences. I know this is an argument that some people get tired of hearing but that is just the truth. Modern history was dominated by our Western/European counterparts and as globalization is rapidly changing the way information is disseminated, such beauty ideals are able to really influence the individual sitting in the living room in any part of the world privy to a TV or any other popular media outlet and those channels in their native language that send such messages. Korean media is no exception. As we all know the Korean media is largely responsible for the beauty standards that Korean women consume.

Now, lets talk about history some more. Since each country has a different history, such history should be used to help explain why certain practices become widespread. Yes, cosmetic surgery is a universal phenomenon in that people do it all over the world. But depending on the place, certain plastic surgery procedures are preferred over others. The question here that we need to ask, in which James has been eloquently trying to answer, is why do women go for such particular procedures?? To attain a universal beauty standard?? Well that answer would make everything too easy now wouldn’t it? And I already said that in Korea, beauty was quite different until they were confronted with different bodies such as the west.

Korean people are first and foremost going to do cosmetic surgery on their eyes, nose, and chin. The most popular being the Double eyelid surgery. Now James emphasizes why the double-eyelid??? Why is this procedure the most popular?? Just because the SUPPOSEDLY universal standard dictates this? Or because Asian women just want to be white?? We really need to probe a lot deeper. WHY, to Korean women, is the big dopey double eye lid considered beautiful when arguably before the infiltration of the west, it wasn’t?

Now, I know there is a percentage of Korean people who already have the double eyelid, so whats the big deal? Well the big deal is that those who didn’t have the double eyelid were considered just as good looking until this ideal changed. The fact that the single lid was problematized after a certain point in Korean history is telling of the fact that perceptions in Korean society began to change. Beauty standards is not in fact universal. Something was influencing Koreans to change their mind. Now what was it??

I look at Korean history in the past century as a whole bunch of successive traumatic events which modernization has just served to confuse and exacerbate Korean society. You have Japanese colonization, then independence which was short-lived with the U.S. occupation, then the split of the peninsula, the fratricidal Korean War, and the ensuing U.S. dominance that followed afterwards. Then without much time in between Koreans were caught in a nationalistic frenzy to economically develop, then democratization happened, and then market forces opened up and voila! in a matter of 30 years Korea is not only a democracy, it is one of the biggest economies in the world, and is still experiencing the onslaught of modernization. What does this equal?? A very confused and unstable society. I honestly think the Korean people have not been able to properly digest their traumatic past. Now what does this have to do with cosmetic surgery? Read on if you haven’t been bored out of your mind yet.

Now starting from Japanese colonization, Koreans were taught to believe they were inferior. Since the Japanese didn’t look too different from Koreans, they couldn’t really harp on the whole racially different argument to establish their superiority. However, it was a traumatic experience nonetheless, in which the Korean people were subjected to mental and psychological degradation where they were made to believe, they were not “good enough.”

Now with the entrance of the Americans during and after the Korean War, this is where I believe Koreans began to see their bodies, their PHYSICAL FEATURES as defected and flawed. Other scholars such as Tae Yon Kim and David Palumbo-liu discuss this affect on the Korean people as they were confronted with an overwhelming presence of American bodies. The Americans, upon coming to Korea to “help” the “poor people”, were confronted with a curious looking bunch. One of those Americans, by the name of Dr. Millard, set out to fix such faces in order to “read” the Koreans better. Dr. Millard was a military surgeon who was sent to Korea on a good will mission to reconstruct war-damaged bodies. Dr. Millard, in addition, to reconstructing such “war damaged bodies” became obsessed with making the Korean or “oriental” legible for the American people. He thought the single lid made Koreans look lazy, sneaky, untrustworthy and basically dumb. He became the first white person to create a double-eyelid surgery for the Asian face. This is monumental. Although double-eyelid surgery was present in Japan before the introduction of cosmetic surgery in Korea, what David Palumbo-liu states and other authors also cite him, is that cosmetic surgery actually reached its popular high point in Korea during this time frame. Dr. Millard began to “treat” Korean patients and he has photos of his first Korean patients in his original work, Oriental Peregrinations. It’s fascinating and extremely disturbing at the same time. Basically the Korean people were mentally brainwashed to view their eyes, their facial shape as inherently flawed. Their natural features were a defect meant to be fixed. The introduction of Dr. Millard’s double eyelid surgery during the Korean War really shows how cosmetic surgery is tied up with trauma, war, and foreign domination. The words he used to describe Korean eyes in his articles, are used in Korean websites, in present day Korean websites to describe natural single lidded Korean eyes. Why is it that the words used to describe Korean eyes by a an American military surgeon during the Korean War, used to describe Korean eyes in modern day society?? Korean websites are carrying on the tradition of passing on this idea that Korean eyes are naturally defected, if you have the single-lid that is. And the only difference is that now, double eyelid surgery is cloaked under the label for women to look more beautiful.

There are more linguistic connections in descriptions of the Asian eye that harks back to Korea’s traumatic history but I won’t go into it.

So Korean women undergo cosmetic surgery to look more beautiful and yes we can just stop it at there. They just want to look beautiful. But why I ask again, those CERTAIN aspects? Why did those certain aspects become what was “Beautiful?” when it wasn’t before? Although Korean women may not know that they are changing their eyes based on white standards of beauty, (in fact many wholeheartedly believe the double eyelid surgery is tailored to make Asian eyes more beautiful) single-lidded eyes were problematized because of confrontations with the West and now it has become so commonplace in Korea that these origins have been forgotten and it is now a natural thing to think. That single lidded small eyes are ugly and big dopey eyes are pretty and that is just the way it is because they are told that and they consume that every day of their lives.

I think, saying Korean people are fixing their eyes to become more Caucasian is not the right way to put it. In my opinion, Korean people are fixing their eyes because they are naturally made to believe that it is flawed, a legacy that was left by Korea’s historical trauma. I see cosmetic surgery in Korean society as a way Korean people are trying to reconcile their “flawed bodies” and “fix” themselves. I look at cosmetic surgery a bit differently and it might seem a bit far fetched but when you keep digging, sometimes you can’t help but think this way.

This is where trauma comes into the picture. My argument, basically sees unresolved trauma as a major factor in the pervasive practice of cosmetic surgery, especially the double eyelid. I won’t go in depth there because that would require me to talk about trauma and how trauma can last for generations. But anyways I hope that my comments show cosmetic surgery in Korea is wrapped up in a lot of complex issues.

IT IS NOT just about attaining a beauty standard or to look white. There are historical consequences that explain as well as add to the modern picture of why Korean women flock to clinics to get their eyes done.

This message probably won’t be read but this was a really great exercise for me to keep my mind active and up to date with all the stuff I have to read for my research. I know it was quite selfish of me to post such a long entry so my apologies.

But hopefully somebody learns something and gains or at least thinks again when discussing this subject.

Addendum (in a follow-up comment):

Also, I read my post again and I didn’t specify what kind of Korean websites, I meant Korean cosmetic surgery websites.

Also another piece of interesting information is that cosmetic surgery originally had a bad reputation due to its associations with prostitution during and after the Korean War. Basically cosmetic surgery was seen as disreputable because Korean war brides were the ones who mostly underwent cosmetic surgery in order to better assimilate into their new American husband’s life. These Korean War Brides were seen as prostitutes and some of them really were. So another little interesting piece to the whole picture –> forwarding now 50 years later cosmetic surgery is such a pervasive practice that it is now quite the cultural norm.

I have provided some readings that briefly talk about this, because cosmetic surgery in Korea is such a little explored subject in Academia, and the majority of the articles just skim the surface, the literature below I believe has done some justice on the topic as well as how U.S. domination has affected Korean society.

• Dissertation called the “The Moving Eye: From Cold War Racial Subject to Middle Class Cosmopolitan, Korean cosmetic Eyelid Surgery, 1955-2001″ by Taeyon Kim

James: I haven’t been able to find a copy of that online unfortunately, but in case the name sounds familiar, I discuss her 2003 journal article “Neo-Confucian Body Techniques: Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society” at great length in my series entitled journal article “Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society”, starting here.

• Nadia Kim, Imperial Citizens: Koreans and Race from Seoul to LA (2008)

• David Palumbo-liu, Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier (1999)

(ELP_NIKE_KOREA, by gkristo)


And here’s an update from Anna…

Hey James!

I was just doing some more reading and I realized that I had written incorrect information about the Japanese not being able to use racist ideologies during Korea’s colonization. In fact they did, in terms of Japan being the superior blood race–>a focus on ethnonationality. Japan differentiated itself from Korea by focusing mainly on the centrality of blood. Although Japan outwardly promoted a Pan-Asian ideology where the Japanese would protect their Asian neighbors from Western imperialism, the brutality of the Japanese towards the Koreans obviously showed that this was all bullshit. The oppression of Japan towards Korea also helped Korean individuals foment Korea as a “nation” around blood as well. Nadia Kim says this is connected to why Koreans are so obsessed with blood types…pretty funny. So “race” for Koreans originally focused on ethnonationality and purity of blood and blood ties. Then the West came in and complicated the picture with their own racial ideologies of black and white which also the Koreans were pretty primed to accept due to their already hierarchical associations to the lighter skin/darker skin complex.

Also, I won’t go into detail too much because I have probably lost you already, but it seems like the concept of lighter skin and the color white as pure and good was a pretty salient concept in Korea before the West. Koreans and the Japanese have seemed to have an obsession with white for a while.

Kim writes, “The country has valorized white as representatives of its people’s purity and desire for peace since the Three Kingdoms Period of 57 B.C. to A.D. 668. One manifestation was Koreans’ primarily white clothing, earning them the moniker the “white-clad nation.” Because the Koreans continued to wear solely white clothing through the middle twentieth century, Western visitors would be captivated by the “enormous white waves sweeping the streets” (27).

(Korean War Museum and Memorial – Seoul 090501, by anja_johnson)

She then goes on and talks about how lighter skin/dark skin also corresponded to where you stood in the rigid neo-confucian hierarchies of Korean society. But basically, this shows how Koreans were pretty well “primed” to accept the White/Black dichotomy that was brought by its relations with the US/West.

So to wrap up and reiterate again, the Japanese did use racial ideologies but focused mainly on blood purity, the superior “blood race”, although I’m sure they also used other things to establish their superiority.

I really really recommend reading her book its pretty awesome.

94 thoughts on “From Asian to Caucasian: Update

  1. A very good read. I’m amazed at the connections that the author discovered. By the way, does the letter-writer have a public blog or website too? (don’t worry, I’ll always be a fan of this blog)


    1. LOL to being a fan of this blog, but although I could ask, unfortunately Anna didn’t link to one in her name in her comments, so it doesn’t look like it. But she definitely should, yes?^^


      1. Hey Chikjin! Thanks for the comment!

        I do have a blog but it is rarely used and only has hormonal rantings of a 19/20 year old. And some random posts of when I went to Europe last summer so its a pretty obsolete thing.

        I can never keep up with blogs because schoolwork consumes my liffeeeeeee.


  2. Thanks for posting this, and thanks to Anna for writing it. The part about Dr Millard “fixing” Korean faces so that Americans wouldn’t see them as sneaky orientals is one of those things that sounds too unbelievable to be true but fits in so well with other, less outrageous ideas – it’s the crazy icing on the cake to the bald sociological fact that Korean ideals of beauty have changed under western influence, like the relationship between Park Chung-hee’s blood oath to Japan and service in the Manchukuo army and the demonstrable influence of Manchukuo on South Korea (and thanks for that mind-blowing post too, James).


    1. I know, when I found out about Dr. Millard and then got a hold of his original stuff, I was appalled and felt like I was in some kind of crazy movie…. It’s a such a gold mine of information and yet not enough people know.

      Thanks for enjoying the post, it was James that put it up!


  3. Indeed, a very good read.

    I think it’s probably fair to say that the vast majority of people everywhere who have elective plastic surgery do so because they see a part of their body as flawed, and your commenter provides an excellent theory as to why this may be the case for so many Koreans.

    The fact that people the world over have cosmetic surgery, and that therefore all over the world there is a percentage of people who see their body as flawed is interesting, because that being the case, there’s far more of such people in Korea than in other countries, relatively speaking.

    This, however, does lead us back to that unfortunate point that ideals of beauty really are more universal in Korea. The commenter has done an excellent job in explaining why these beauty ideals came about, but I find it interesting that such ideals exist on such a large scale in one country. On top of that you have the importance of fitting into that near-universal standard, which has been dealt with here and by the commenter before. I think this is a situation virtually unique to Korea, where conforming is so highly valued.

    Another thing I find interesting is that the Korean trend is to alter your appearance in a way which makes you appear more “white” (not saying this is their motivation), whereas I would say that in the west, East Asian women in particular are not judged to be more attractive if they look more “white.” I understand this is related to things like oriental fetishism and so on, but that doesn’t change the fact that it seems to be quite accurate. And it’s a curious contrast, don’t you think?

    Early on in my first period in Korea I witnessed a Korean man say to a woman something like “wow, you really look like a white woman!” And the woman’s reply was, “Really (high pitched excited squeal)? Thank you!” I didn’t really give much thought to this sort of thing back then, but that exchange stuck with me. It seemed such an odd thing to say, from both of them. I couldn’t understand why the man said that as if it was a compliment, and why the woman was so pleased to hear it.

    I’ve heard the argument many times that Koreans have surgery, use skin whitening creams etc just to look a bit different from other Koreans, to stand out a bit. To be honest, I suspect this may be an argument tailored for ‘western’ ears. After all, anyone who mixes enough with Koreans will know that most Koreans would not appreciate being told they looked “black,” referring to having dark skin, showing that’s it’s not so much about having features that make you stand out. I think these two examples show that the beauty standards clearly have some sort of basis in perceptions of race. I am however aware that the example of using “white” as a compliment refers to the woman’s features in general, whereas using “black” in a derogatory way in Korea only refers to darkness of skin.

    On top of that, I’ve been told by Koreans arriving in Britain that most of the people they see around aren’t the “white people we (Koreans) think of.” And it’s true, because in my experience when Koreans think of white people, they think of attractive, glamorous (probably in both the real and Korean usage of the word ;) ) people, the people they see on tv and in films, and it always amuses me to see that the reality actually surprises some of them. But it also reveals that “white” features are generally held in unnatural/unrealistic high regard in Korea.

    This high regard of “white” features, combined with the commenter’s analysis of what I suppose could be called an appearance-based inferiority complex, all in a society where physical beauty is held up as a virtue on a par with kindness, sense of humour etc, and where striving to conform is the path to success, all leads to the high numbers of cosmetic surgery in South Korea.

    It would be very interesting after all of this to see what North Koreans made of the beauty ideals of South Koreans – what they thought of the numbers and types of surgeries performed, what they thought was an attractive ideal for an East Asian face, and how it differed from the thoughts of South Koreans.


    1. Hey Seamus!

      Great observations! Yes indeed it is quite unique how this phenomenon exists on such a large-scale in Korea. I think one of the reasons why it does for Korea is because it is such a small country and it is also arguably the most connected country in the world in terms of internet. Everyone virtually has access to the internet world which is why the internet is such a ubiquitous part of everyday Korean lives, not to say it isn’t anywhere else but especially in Korea. Which is one of the reasons why comments and critiques on the internet for actresses and singers are so avidly watched and can literally cause suicide….I also read an article about Korea, maybe it was the New York Times, a couple of years back where there was a growing concern because children were being descovered dead in PC rooms or computer rooms because they would go without days of eating or drinking water and just dying from dehydration or whatever the hell you die from when you sit and stare at computer screens forever. So in response to that, there were programs, like cyber camps created to help wean children off from the computer and introduce them to outside physical activities. I understand its extreme cases but I mean…that’s how connected and important the computer is in a korean individuals life. Everything, I mean everything is on there. Not to mention other popular TV shows/dramas and the like. Such avenues of communication, coupled with Korea as a conformist society, I believe, really help ideals travel and seep into every layer of Korean society. Things can travel at lightning speeds.

      And to your comment about skin color, yes, in contemporary society, “white” or “black” does have connections to its perceptions of race but only after Koreans were subject to experience first hand what “racism” really looked like.

      Remember, before borders opened up to foreigners in Korea, it was a very homogeneous society and “white” to them was, like James and some other commentators noted before, a marker of being part of an aristocratice elite or noble background. And to be “black” or “darker” was related to working in the fields and being a peasant which was heavily looked down upon. Now such difference in meaning for markers of skin color already existed but it wasn’t baced on race but on class. If you had whiter skin you were from the higher class, if you had darker skin, you were from the lower rungs of society. Now when did race become mixed up in the picture?

      Well, Nadia Kim’s book does an excellent job of talking about this but basically things got more complicated when American GI’s came into the picture and brought racism with them. In Korea, those who were in most contact with American GI’s or any Americans for that matter were prostitutes in camptowns or military prostitution camps. Moon’s book Sex Among Allies, is also really great for this, but anyways Korean prostitutes began to experience first hand the discrimination against Black People from White People. Black GI’s were treated as second grade citizens and were segregated and treated badly by their White male counterparts. The drama spilled into the prostitution camps when White GI’s would not have sex with Korean prostitutes who slept with Black soldiers or if they found out their prostitutes had sex with a black man, they were blacklisted from being serviced by other white soldiers. OF course such treatment caught on, and with White GI’s paying a lot more than Black soldiers, Korean prostitutes understood who were more “dominant.” Military prostitution camps began to be split along lines of Black and White and there were women who served solely white and women who served solely black patrons and if any of them dared to cross the color line, there would definitely be problems and pretty violent.

      Racist riots were becoming to be such a problem within these military camptowns. Black soldiers were complaining that they weren’t being treated fairly by bar owners or prostitutes, and a lot of fighting within camps could damage morale so the U.S. military officials as well as the Korean Government got together to try and solve this problem, but it took a lot of pushing for the ROK government to listen, and not until other political and international factors were present did the ROK finally decide to do something about these problems. They made it seem like the racism was fueled by the bar owners and prostitutes but in reality these prostitutes were simply going by the dynamics between white and black GI’s because their livlihoods were on the line.

      However such encounters with racism brought by the west has definitely complicated how Korean people now see white and black and due to media interpretations of such events (its been awhile, I wish I could tell you exact details of the events and how violent or racist the events within the prostitution camps were framed to the public) Koreans now see being “white” or “black” along more racist lines with of course the associations of class still standing.

      This probably convolutes the picture once more lol hahaha. But anyways, it gives another perspective as to how Korean people began to perceive white as good and black as bad along racist lines.

      Hopefully my response helps!


      1. Hi Anna, thanks for the reply!

        I think you slightly misunderstood my point about the use of “white” and “black” among Koreans. I’m aware of the history you refer to, but that’s not exactly what I was getting at. My point was that beauty ideals were drawn away from the specific features and were racialised in discourse within society. What I was getting at was the way the word 흑인 is sometimes used amongst Koreans in a joking but slightly mocking way of saying someone has dark skin, rather than just saying they have dark skin. So this discourse becomes racialised. In the other specific example I gave of the man telling the woman she “looked like a white woman,” he said that instead of just saying he thought she was pretty, and yet this is how she understood it. So attractive features became racialised in the way they thought about beauty. The fact that white was positive and black was negative, or the idea of some sort of racial ranking concept isn’t really the important point. What is important is that the preferable “white” was conceptualised as the beauty ideal. And really, I wasn’t talking about skin colour, but rather people’s features in general. “White” features have come to be seen as inherently attractive, which is what leads to such high numbers of sometimes bizarre-seeming cosmetic procedures in Korea.


        1. Hey Seamus! I’m sorry for the misunderstanding!

          I am a little confused about the sentence “흑인 is sometimes used amongst Koreans in a joking but slightly mocking way of saying someone has dark skin, rather than just saying they have dark skin”

          Would you mind a clarification? Do you mean that when a Korean individual tells somebody that they look like a 흑인, it is only referring to the darkness of their skin color but there is no underlying message that they look like a Black person? Because 흑인 means, literally a black person. I’m sorry if I’m totally messing up that sentence.

          Also, I understand what you are getting at when you are saying “white” features in general have become more attractive and you state that “attractive features became racialized in the way they thought about beauty.”

          Well in order for people to start seeing “white” features as beautiful starts from beginning to think that “white was positive and black was negative,….or some sort of racial ranking concept”

          If we flipped the historical events on its head in Korea and black people were seen as dominant rather than the other way around, and this was accepted across the world, then I’m sure general features of black people would become the conceptual beauty ideal. So basically, that was what I was trying show–>the start of when Korean people began to think of the white/black dichotomy along racial lines which has helped, if not one of the main reasons, why “white” features have become beautiful.

          Racial hierarchies and what we perceive as “better” has definitely contributed to how we see beauty.

          Sorry if I am misunderstanding more stuff!! I rarely blog so I might just be retarded hahaha.

          This is great conversation though, I don’t really get to discuss this subject with my peers because we are all intensively involved in different projects! Its so refreshing!!!!


          1. Hello Anna! First off I would like to say that I loved your little article for the blog that was put up! It was very eye opening, for I haven’t researched or studied the many layers of Korean society when it comes to race and beauty! Being fascinated with Korean culture lately your post was very helpful and I thank you again (you too James!). So my question is what course/s is it that you took that you are studying this in and have you ever been to Korea


          2. Hey Ero!!

            Thanks!! I am an international studies and political science major and flirted with a Korean studies minor but there wasn’t a particular class that I was studying this in. Actually this is independent research that I have been doing for almost a year now for an honors thesis in my international studies department. I have poured forth my blood, sweat, and tears into this project and its due next month with a shitload more to do! ahhhhhhh!

            So if you are interested in something, classes can help but if you have a mind to it, start doing some digging and it will be amazing to what you can find!

            I went to Korea when I was 11, only once unfortunately because of money but I’m thinking of actually going for the second time this summer! I’m very excited if this comes into fruition. But I am Korean and I know how to read, write, and speak in Korean well enough to do this project hahaha. Although academic Korean can be a freaking headache… so I usually dig my head in translations and english articles on Korea, it seems to still works for this undergraduate!

            Ero, what do you study?


          3. Hey Anna!!!!

            Thanks for your reply in advance! That’s very interesting that you are an international studies and political science student! I wish you all the luck on your paper next month! International Studies sounds like something interesting to take! I myself am a grade 11 high school student, and so don’t study at universty! I was asking what you took cause I was thinking ahead and it really intrigued me your research. I myself would love to go to Korea one day, and should start planning a trip! Thanks you once again for the intrguing research and beautiful article, you’ll do fine on the paper! Thanks James for posting this series and also keeping the informative blog going!

            Ero Sennin


          4. Hey Ero!

            Highschool! Thats fantastic! I highly recommend international studies! I love love love it! Well if its your thing of course =)

            Good luck with everything! Especially when it comes time to apply for college!!!



          5. Hey Anna,

            Thanks once again for everthing and hopefully your fantastic insight will stay with us on the blog!

            Ero Sennin


          6. Sorry, I knew I wasn’t explaining my point very well in either my original comment or this one. Basically, if you were to tell someone they have dark skin, you could say “you have dark skin.” Also, anyone can have darker skin, regardless of race. However, Koreans sometimes can be seen to use the word “흑인” – which as you rightly said, means a black person – to function as saying “dark skin.” I don’t mean they are saying someone looks like a black person. What they are doing, is taking a feature that has nothing to do with race – dark skin – but defining it in terms of race.

            You’re absolutely right about the historical reasons and context, but my point was actually far less deep than that! I was simply trying to say that while Koreans who get plastic surgery are almost certainly not “trying to look white,” the overall outcome is that they alter their features in a way which has this effect, and furthermore it’s possible to argue that they are aware that the features they see as attractive also coincide with those that are regarded as “white” features.

            I feel the need to say this from time to time, but I’m not saying what I’ve written here is 100% correct, I’m stating it as a possibility, with a line of reasoning which led me to see it as a possibility. When I talk about “Koreans,” I don’t mean all of them, or necessarily most of them, but an observable but as yet unmeasured number of Koreans.


  4. This was really interesting (and terribly sad). I’m curious, though – I know you (Anna) said that most of the customers for double-eyelid surgery back in the day were war brides, but I’m assuming Dr. Millard performed the surgery on a few men, too – ? What I guess I wanna know is, why do you think that women internalized the message so much more?


    1. Yes, Dr. Millard did perform on a few men! but I don’t think he did many of them though. I think they were quite rare. But I think one of his first customers, if I remember correctly was a Korean male who worked as a translator? or some kind of job where he worked with Americans and he wanted to open his eyes so he looked more intelligent, lively, and friendly to his clients. So Dr. Millard did the surgery and he has pictures of this “successful” procedure in his articles. The before and after picture of course, even 50 years ago its still the same–>the Before picture shows the Korean man looking sad, nonsmiling with his normal eyes and then the after picture shows the Korean man smiling, almost laughing as the picture is taken with his new eyes.

      The question on why women internalized the message more is a very good good question. I would like to know more about this as well. I think a lot of it has to do with gender construction in Korean society but first off, since customers for double eyelid surgery back in the day were mostly war brides, the females believed they had to “change” for their husband’s best interest. Now such thinking I think is not new to many societies. I think women are usually expected to conform to their husband’s way of life and thinking. Especially in such a patriarchal society like Korea, women are expected to be good to their husbands and back, 50 years ago, as Korean females were entering a whole foreign life with their new GI husbands such a procedure would seem like a good idea. Korean men on the other hand did not need to undergo cosmetic surgery unless you were the Korean translator who I mentioned above, hehe, on such a large scale because they were not marrying into a foreign environment.

      Cosmetic surgery was a practical matter back then predominantly for war brides and since there weren’t a lot of war grooms, Korean males I don’t think felt the need to do the procedure. And now that cosmetic surgery is related to enhance feminine ideals of beauty (although this is changing, cosmetic surgery in Korea for men is now on the rise), it would make sense that women are subjected to these ideals more than men although once again men are becoming sensitive as well.

      Also there is an interesting theory, supported by a number of authors on colonization and gender issues, that basically say men who have been colonized by a dominant Other, internalize this dominance, in order to regain the masculinity that was lost by this Dominant Other. They then turn around and oppress their own society with similar methods (sexual domination is big) with women being largely the victims. Korean males have been “emasculated” in this regard due to Japanese colonization and the following U.S. domination, and now the western beauty standards that these Korean males now accept have been internalized. We cannot ignore that Korean women change their faces largely because they are trying to be acceptable and pleasurable to a KOREAN MALE GAZE. Korean males are predominantly the ones that choose which women will get the job and women change their faces to look more appealing in the marriage mart for Korean husbands. SO it seems as if the Korean males have internalized western ideals of beauty as their own and is expecting such ideals to be consumed by their women.

      I mean it is quite interesting that Korean women, 50 years ago, underwent cosmetic surgery on the eyes and the nose for White men

      And now Korean women are undergoing those exact cosmetic surgical procedures, for
      not white men but for Korean men.

      Hmm… I wonder if that helps answer the question. There are PLENTY OF OTHER aspects of this comment that needs to be touched upon like traditional ideals and the way Korean women have always been portrayed in Korean society, to help understand your question in depth but I’m sorry, I do not think I could do it justice. I still have to do some more research myself in this regard as well.

      Sorry for the long replies, there is just so much information!! And this is me trying to tailor stuff down. Korea is an extremely dynamic and complex society where you just have to look at a lot of things in order to really answer or understand an issue.


      1. O and also sexual violations in Korean society against women is a monstrous problem and ways to address such issues are slowly coming. A “women studies” subject for Korean academia didn’t come about until, correct me if I’m wrong somebody, but around like the 1980s or 1990s. I mean trying to address women rights, especially in regards to sexual harrassment still needs LOTS of improvement. This aspect can be seen to fit into the theory because of the fact that Korean men turn around and doubly oppress their women through sexual violence, and Korea has plenty of it without a lot of protective measures for women.

        It is just something to think about, although I cannot say, I know enough to firmly stand behind it. But basically Korean females have to deal with a lot of shit.


      2. I think an important part of this issue is simply (simple, what is this simple?!) that it’s far more important for women to meet beauty standards than it is for men in Korea. As you said, it’s generally the men who make the decisions, and the men themselves have up until recently rarely been judged by their physical attractiveness. Women, on the other hand, are frequently judged on their appearance, even when it has no bearing on the situation, like during an interview for a desk job. Therefore, regardless of exactly what the beauty ideal is, it’s far more important for Korean women to try and match up to it than it is for men. Although, as you mentioned, this is starting to change, really only in this latest generation, with men starting to consider their outward appearance to be more and more important.


  5. Hey James!!

    Thanks for posting this up! Its awesome!! Hahaha I never even thought it would have been read.



  6. Korean cosmetic surgery is highly prestigious and the envy of other Asians (as an industry and as a cultural practice). As the last pic in the post reminds us, the purpose of the body’s existence is as the primary locus of discipline, now that Koreans aren’t making much money with their bodily labors (farming, fishing and mining).


  7. Anna,


    For someone who’s clearly intelligent, James has been a little mulish in his insistence that Korean women are striving to look “Caucasian” and in his dismissal of theories that suggest otherwise (for instance, here: so I’m grateful for your perspective.

    Your historical perspective illuminates quite a few things and I particularly like your suggestion that the eyelid fascination allowed Koreans to (begin to?) localize amorphous feelings of “inferiority”.

    Can I make a suggestion?

    Your post hints at historical phases and I think, to be more accurate, further discussion should distinguish between (at least) two distinct phases of Korean beauty history which have been blurred in our discussion of how Korean women “are” and why they do what they do.

    1. The initial stage in which Korean features were problematized, as you mentioned. 2. Modernization, the birth of the leisure class, adoption of (an inherently Western) consumer culture and beauty industry.

    Given the jagged, traumatic nature of Korean history a well-researched discussion would probably entail further subdivision, but distinguishing between these two might be a good start.

    And apologies for any snottiness that slips in here, James, but: Are “white” people even white? Has semiotics replaced actual physicality? Do Caucasians have a monopoly on being light-skinned? Or let’s try another angle: Is being white even a Caucasian standard of beauty? Should we look at the Caucasians in…I don’t know…People Magazine’s latest 100 Most Beautiful People as reference?

    If a Caucasian woman dyes her hair black and goes on a diet can we say she’s trying to (subconsciously perhaps?) look like a slim, dark-haired Asian? Aren’t those the features which Asians just so happen to naturally have in far greater numbers than Caucasians? Or is that argument too simplistic?

    Thanks for the forum, James, and thanks, Anna, for your words.


    1. For someone who’s clearly intelligent, James has been a little mulish in his insistence that Korean women are striving to look “Caucasian” and in his dismissal of theories that suggest otherwise (for instance, here: so I’m grateful for your perspective.

      Well, I don’t think I even deserved that characterization two years ago when I wrote that post of mine that you link to, albeit my first and admittedly rather amateurish one on the subject. But 300 posts later, maybe 30-50 of which are directly or indirectly related to it, then my opinions have become much more nuanced as either new information has come to light and/or readers have debated things with me (and/or made me see the errors of my ways). Indeed, I think you’ll find that by now I’d probably be the least likely person in the K-blogosphere to “insist that Korean women are striving to look Caucasian and [to dismiss] theories that suggest otherwise,” one telling example being my very last post on the subject in January, in which I wrote the following in response to the question of why there are so many Caucasians in Korean cosmetic surgery advertisements:

      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.

      So to put it mildly, I think that you way you describe my views is a little unfair, or at least very out of date.


  8. Anna,

    Ah, never mind I just read your reply to Marilyn in which you differentiate between 50 years ago and now. Awesome.

    Who are you?


    1. Truemoboy,

      The question is, who are you? =P

      Thanks for your comments by the way!

      But I would like to say a couple of things. On your comment about, “Do Caucasians have a monopoly on being lightskinned?” This of course is not true when you look at it purely physically speaking. I mean we have some pretty light-skinned asians, as evidence of one of Jame’s articles that Korean women have one of the most lowest levels of Vitamin D. I mean alot of Koreans are not yellow, I mean I swear, I see white on them skins…But in reality, a majority of people see “white” as being Caucasian. Although I wish it wasn’t true, it’s the way most of the world sees it, BUT it does not mean that it’s not a problem. In fact, because this problem, you have a whole bunnnccch of people studying its affects like bloggers such as James, like you, and like inconsequential students such as me.

      Also, I know that tanning is a crazy fad in the United States and girls like to look orange and put themselves into scary coffin-like sci-fi boxes, so someone might muse that “white” might not be a Caucasian standard of beauty anymore. But, I wouldn’t say that too quickly without some hesitation. Also “white” doesn’t only correspond to just the skin color but the Caucasian/European facial features as well. Its a pretty packed word.

      And your last comment. It is a bit too simplistic hehehe. I wish I could say that to a Caucasian women. “Hey, you tryin’ to look Asian or somethin?” Maybe if she was blatantly dressed in a hanbok, or had some kind of Chinese gab on I’ll be able to say something but other than that, it would be a no-go and I would just look ridiculous.

      In reality, nobody will really think that way because that’s just not how most of us has been socialized to think. Scary, perhaps a lot of us are just MINDLESS ROBOTSSSS.

      We live in a bizarre world.

      Sorry if any of these comments has misinterpreted any of your comments!!! I apologize beforehand!!


      1. Let me clarify, not “nobody,” but a lot of people on first thought wouldn’t think that way. But you truemoboy are obviously the exception! =)

        Thanks Again!


  9. Anna,

    I’m just a rock star with a kickass guitar.

    My last comment was a sour attempt to make what I took to be James’s stance look absurd–so, sorry for the mix-up. I’m not actually that insane.

    IMO: The encroaching monoculture of consumerism has me thinking that the discussion is getting screwed when we think of standards of beauty as being explicitly racialized. That’s too caveman. Nowadays we’ve been trained to think in terms of “cool” and “beautiful” more than “Black” or “Asian” or whatnot. I doubt that Russian kids dying for Levi’s think those jeans will make them more “White”–but they DO want to be cool.

    The lexicon of affluence and cool employed by fashion and beauty relies heavily on Caucasian models, however, and that might ostensibly lend credence to a “wannabe white” argument.

    All this to say: The semiotic fields of “cool” and “beautiful” do encompass clusters of racial…signification, but they’re woven so deeply within the complex sales pitch of beauty that we can’t just prize them out like little gems, and say: “Ah HA! I knew it!”

    There’s more digging to be done there to unpack that whole mess, and your angle is one way to get off to a great start.

    Can you talk more about the issue of cosmetic surgery as status symbol, and rite of passage for many Korean women? And what about just wanting to look different? Possessing traits that are rare in your gene pool? Brunettes do go blond now and then.


    On the subject of wanting to look different: in a study conducted by anthropologist A.B. Edmonds, most of the female Brazilian subjects who underwent surgery cited as motivation wanting to look special and different. Then, when they were asked to choose attractive features from photos piecemeal-style, they selected the features most *common* in their gene pool. The conclusion was (and I’m raping his work with my crappy memory here) that maybe wanting to feel special actually meant just wanting to fit in.

    I have to wonder if this applies to Korea with a slight variation. Or what we can learn by applying this to Korea. Women now wanting to look how everyone else is looking? The modern consumer’s fear of inferiority in being different and “left behind”, as Zygmunt Bauman might put it, as the evolution of the historical inferiority you mentioned?

    Edmonds has actually done some interesting work on cosmetic surgery in Brazil, once considered surgery capital of the world. There, ugliness is classified as an illness so surgery is subsidized by the state. Pretty sweet, right?

    Have you read his stuff? It might be helpful.


  10. James,

    You didn’t deserve my knee-jerk prickishness. Any time I catch even a whiff of that age-old “The feminized Other wants to please us and be us–perhaps even do one for the sake of the other!” argument, I just flame out in nerd rage.

    I haven’t read enough of this blog to know how your opinions have evolved, but consider me a regular reader now. =)


  11. Great post Anna! I’ve never bought into the idea that Korean women have surgery in order to look like their white counterparts. If that were the case, there would be more girls going in asking to look like Jessica Alba rather than Lee Hyori, although unfortunately there was such a case in China :

    Creepy and disturbing to say the least. Not only that, it illustrates that in this age of globalization, countries that are modernizing and increasing in wealth are just as susceptible to changing beauty standards. But your excellent historical explanation really highlights why cosmetic surgery, especially for sankapuhl, is so pervasive in Korean society as compared to somewhere else like Japan or China.

    Korea is such an interesting case study because it is so culturally and ethically uniform. I would think that it would make cultural phenomena such as cosmetic surgery more easily explainable, yet it seems like it’s not focused on or even thought about in Korean society. That’s the feeling I get. If it were otherwise, maybe Koreans would have an understanding of how warped the beauty standard is and maybe have some PR campaigns or programs in schools saying it’s okay not if you’re not as skinny or big eyed as Sonyeoshidae. Instead, I hear my young female Korean cousins complain about how fat they are compared to me.

    It’s just such a curious thing, because as a Korean American, I have no desire to get sankapuhl surgery and I’m quite content with my body image despite my flat chest and my moo dari. I’m always perplexed to hear non Korean Asians whisper about the propensity of Korean ladies to get surgery and how plastic they are. I feel like plastic is breast implants, gastric bypass surgery, botox injections, etc. Different standards leads to different outcomes indeed.

    But I digress. I’m not saying that there is a simple explanation for high rates of cosmetic surgery in Korea either. There are so many other factors, like above commenters mentioned. Beauty and surgery as a display of wealth makes me think about the inequality in Korean society, and whether or not that inequality is the source of unhappiness for a lot of Koreans. Then that leads me to think about Koreans and their sense of self worth and how modernization really broke the strong Korean collectivism and individualized the society, establishing this very strange almost opposing idea of not only being like everyone else, but also being better than everyone else in order to be happy. Of course there are parallels to my society, and that’s why it’s so interesting!


  12. Thanks for sharing with us your views on historical underpinnings to Korean plastic surgery, Anna. I have a couple of questions:

    1. How do you know that prior to Dr. Millard’s surgeries, Korean women with small eyes and epicanthic folds were considered just as beautiful as women with large eyes and double lids? If one wanted to explore changes in standards of European beauty over time, one could look at paintings and read poetry. Have you used primary sources to determine traditional beauty ideals? If so, which? Medieval European paintings are more true to life than Oriental paintings of the same period, so I suppose it’d be hard to judge but worth a look.

    2. Would a US doctor performing surgeries on Korean brides of US soldiers really have an influence over beauty standards of Koreans as a people? Even back in the 50s, I don’t think the socioeconomic status of the women who dated and married GIs was that high.

    Your opinions do bring to mind thoughts I had while viewing a photo of a concubine of either King Kojong or his son, King Sunjong. Her hair pulled back tightly into a bun and her face not heavy with makeup, she looked plain. I wondered why a king would fancy her. Was she pretty by the standards of the time or did her personality, character, and wit attract the interest of the king?

    The widespread use of plastic surgery by Korean female and increasingly by male entertainers is one reason why I cannot watch Korean historical dramas. The producers spend money on lavish costumes and sets, boasting about authenticity, then give roles to actors with very modern-looking faces. I recall the director of acclaimed movie Sopyonje(서편제) explaining how he had to search for an actress with a natural face and common features to play the lead role.


    1. Yes, I’m glad you brought up the idea of determining beauty ideals. We tend to throw around such terms pretty casually: o they’re latching onto *Caucasian beauty ideals*, etc. That’s the *East Asian ideal of beauty*, etc. but these ideals are neither static, nor do they exist in a vacuum gallery alongside the slowly spinning Platonic form for a triangle.

      So how do we learn what these contemporary beauty ideals are? And how do we keep up with the changes?

      Great point about using primary sources like poetry and painting (these days I might have to replace “painting” with “the red carpet” or People magazine, however). These ideals need to be constantly reified and re-inscribed into the discourse, after all.

      A few thoughts about your comment:

      1.On the usefulness of looking at paintings: we should differentiate between a) portraits of actual people and something like b) Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” in which beauty ideals wouldn’t be limited by or have to adhere so stringently to a model’s features.

      2. We should omit portraiture as evidence altogether. A photo-realistic method doesn’t necessarily entail photo-realistic accuracy. Might a hungry Bronzino, tossed a commission for a cross-eyed Maria de’Medici, not be tempted to un-cross those eyes? Just a bit? But not so laughably much as to call attention to those crossed eyes in reality? Then to sharpen the chin?

      This is just conjecture, but I doubt such “airbrushing” was unheard of then, and if so it would be hard to tease out what is idealized in a portrait and what is an obligation to reality.

      Furthermore, and most importantly, these portraits weren’t created for the sake of an audience eager to consume the subject’s “hotness” as with today’s beauties. The subjects usually weren’t considered hot at all. They were just powerful or rich.

      This might leave us with only b) as viable evidence, unless we had literature to corroborate the hotness of a).

      3. You say: “Medieval European paintings are more true to life than Oriental paintings of the same period, so I suppose it’d be hard to judge but worth a look.”

      European oil painting evolved a photo-realistic aesthetic while East Asian opted for more stylization, but why would this matter when we’re talking about beauty *ideals*? We’re not talking about how people might have looked, but how they *should* have looked, right?

      Then, finally (phew!):

      “Your opinions do bring to mind thoughts I had while viewing a photo of a concubine of either King Kojong or his son, King Sunjong. Her hair pulled back tightly into a bun and her face not heavy with makeup, she looked plain. I wondered why a king would fancy her. Was she pretty by the standards of the time or did her personality, character, and wit attract the interest of the king?”

      We might have to consider whether this concubine was famed for her beauty, or her wit. Not all concubines were hot. Nor did they have to be. Is there any corroborating literature on her?


      1. I think portraiture should stay. As you noted, modern evidence of beauty ideals might include People Magazine, which doesn’t restrict its photographs to beautiful people. What will people 200 years from now make of Bombshell McGee?


        1. The enlightened people of the future would shake their heads sadly as they pedaled past on their flying bicycles.

          I thought I’d given enough reasons for why portraiture is inaccurate not to be so cavalierly dismissed by a one-liner =( …but that’s OK, maybe these might alter your stance a little:

          1. *Medieval* portraiture in particular would offer us little to no information about the ideals of sexualized beauty because:

          A) Accurate facial features weren’t stressed. Instead, portrait painters were more concerned with conveying a subject’s spiritual beliefs, political power, social standing, etc.

          B) Human subjects were painted as they wished to be remembered for the ages, not as they were. While this idealization might appear to offer us information about idealized *beauty* as well, the focus of these portraits was not beauty, but, mostly, power–social, political, spiritual, etc.

          C) Look at the subjects of Medieval portraiture. Writers, saints, holy figures. None of whom are famed for their beauty.

          D) The photo-realism you find lacking in Eastern art was similarly lacking in European Medieval art. The techniques simply weren’t sophisticated enough to capture features well, thus the highly stylized figures and faces, the lack of perspective, proportion, etc.

          Look at the mutant babies! Google any single Virgin Mary from this period.

          Even IF these portraits had attempted to capture beauty, they could neither have recorded it nor depicted it well.

          CONCLUSIONS: These subjects weren’t hot. They weren’t famous for being hot. Furthermore, the aim of these portraits wasn’t to record or convey or exaggerate any hotness. Even IF such were the aim, the era’s skills weren’t good enough to do any of that with any accuracy

          2. Let’s move on into Renaissance portraiture. Here, again, these are NOT primarily “beautiful” subjects whose beauty simply had to be recorded, reproduced for and consumed by a desiring public.

          These people are just rich. They’re just powerful. Their beauty has nothing to do with why they are the subjects of portraits. If you’re not a patron, artist, a friend or a relative of a patron, or a friend or relative of an artist, you’re probably not getting your portrait painted.

          Therefore, beautiful people are NOT the most common subjects here. The most common subjects are NOT famous for beauty.

          I’ll cut this short.

          3. On the other hand, while People Magazine does include beauties of debatable merit (as you mention, Bombshell McGee), it is–let’s face it–a star rag full of people who Americans want to look at.

          Celebrities cannot be celebrities without a focus group somewhere confirming that, yes indeed, they are easy on the eyes. We may point to the occasional “ugly” celeb (Nic Cage? Yes…he’s a Coppola, though.) but they are the exception, not the rule. If enough people deem a celebrity unworthy of their continuing attention, that celebrity would no longer be a celebrity, and would not appear in People. (Keri Russell post-tragic haircut?)

          People magazine shows celebrities. Celebrities are thought to be beautiful. It’s a straightforward syllogism, I think. It’s a magazine (only mostly, I’ll concede) full of people who are rich for being beautiful. On the other hand, portraiture (in the periods we’re discussing) had little or nothing to do with beauty.


          1. Always fun chatting with you, whatsonthemenu ^^…Once again I indulge my inner pseudo-pedant douche.

            (no offense!)


          2. Of course, portraits were not a medieval equivalent of FM’s Top 100. However, they would be worth looking at because, as you noted, the painters would have depicted their subjects in the most flattering yet fairly realistic way. In any case, we are looking at 1600s art with 2000s eyes. It’s not a matter of tabulating the percentage of women with large eyes or big noses. We can only interpret to the best of our reasoning.


          3. And I would add that given the hard-scrabble existence lived by most peasants in medieval times, I doubt many commoners were hot. Evolutionary hotness implies both fertility and overall health.


  13. “I feel like plastic is breast implants, gastric bypass surgery, botox injections, etc. Different standards leads to different outcomes indeed.”

    Got news for you. Breast implants are common among Korean female entertainers and increasingly common among upper middle class and middle class women, too. Korean women stay with realistic sizes and usually go up only a cup or two, so their post-surgery chests aren’t obviously fake. Botox and other facial injections appear to be just as common among middle-aged Koreans as they are among middle-aged Americans. Even entertainers in their 30s, whose career involves close-up images of their faces, appear to get cosmetic treatments to erase early lines and plump up the skin.

    As for gastric bypass, it is surgery, but it is NOT plastic surgery. There is nothing vain about undergoing a risky procedure to bring one’s weight down from dangerous obesity to within a healthy range. I have a friend who has successfully maintained a healthy weight after having this procedure done a couple of years ago. Her primary motivation was better health, not better looks.


  14. when they were asked to choose attractive features from photos piecemeal-style, they selected the features most *common* in their gene pool. The conclusion was (and I’m raping his work with my crappy memory here) that maybe wanting to feel special actually meant just wanting to fit in.

    You are onto something here. I recall reading a research study which manipulated digital images of faces to determine ideals for men and women. The study found that “high average” got the highest ratings. That is, if large eyes were preferred, then images with eyes a little larger than average got the highest ratings, higher than images with very large eyes. If small noses were preferred, then noses a little smaller than average got the highest ratings. Legs a little longer than average were ranked highest. Extremes are not considered attractive, even extremes of beauty ideals like large eyes and long legs. This makes the choice of elective surgery to make the eyes appear very large or enlarge the chest to a 40 EEE suggestive of a body dysmorphic disorder.


  15. i love this article! i think a lot about the extensiveness of hair-straightening among women of African descent, and I think that it’s a similar situation, albeit with a different history. i definitely like the idea that it’s not simply “black women are trying to be white” – though Tyra Banks will specifically feature those women on her show *rolls eyes* that’s not the majority opinion.

    Fellow college student and culture geek – i salute you :) i wish my senior thesis was as interesting as this…


  16. Hey James!!

    Woah!! thanks for adding the update. There are some really great questions out there but right now I am just slammed to get some schoolwork done before spring break (I feel like everyone is playing except me!!!!) so I can’t answer them all right now but I will get to them, I promise!

    I just wanted to say, thanks for the interest and the awesome comments. Also, as I wrote this in a moment of inspiration and just poured forth a whole crapload of information in the comment box without double checking, I’m sure there are other historically inaccurate errors that I have missed and so i apologize beforehand for that. I do not want to be spreading around false information, that would be tragic and the death of me so if there is anything historically inaccurate or something that you believe is not right, please feel free to let people know.

    Also, I wanted to remind people that although these Korean women are not saying that they go for certain cosmetic surgery procedures to look white, we must acknowledge however that these procedures are based on white standards of beauty. So, when thinking about this post, please keep in mind that this is also part of the complex picture in which I was trying to convey.

    Okay! Cheers Guys!


    1. Not at all, and my apologies for not making it clearer that it had been updated. You see, normally I’d add, well, “Updated” to the title to do so, but “From Asian to Caucasian: Update (Updated!)” didn’t sound very appealing at the time.

      Over my cold and able to think clearly for the first time in a week now though, I love it…!


  17. Thank you for your post on double-eyelids. Am an adolescent and I have monolids and not Korean, but Vietnamese. But the ironic thing is I never cared about my “non double-eyelids” until I began becoming a fan of K-pop. It gets frustrating to question whether my favorite K-pop singer had plastic surgery or not.


  18. Unbelieavebly good piece.

    As a newcomer,this blog (and all the linked ones) is really helping me out deciphering what I see around in the streets.

    Still to read through all the comments, though!


      1. I have a question you may answer: is there in Korean language a specific expression for the Japanese concept of “gaijin”?
        I am going through “The other in Japanese advertising”, (Creighton: 1995) and I was wondering if those findings could apply to Korea, too.



  19. Hey!

    I haven’t even got around to reading the 55 comments yet, but I’d just like to say that this blog-entry/comment-reply was very intriguing! I got all the way through and found it thoroughly fascinating!

    Now to put together an essay on this topic in the next 48 hours :P

    Thanks heaps!



  20. Jesus…I can’t believe anyone would start a huge web blog about something as simple as this o_O..

    I’m Asian (and please don’t tell me or try sourcing how you know better because you’ve done research into their history since I’ve been and lived as an Asian person for 25 years) and I’ll tell you bluntly why Korean women get double eyelid surgeries and go for skin whitening.

    It all has to do with balance of features for OUR race.

    First thing I would like to point out is this, whoever wrote these articles is extremely Eurocentric. EVERY race of people on this planet has double eyelids, NOT just Caucasians. Asians are the only group of people that have the epicanthic fold and even then, it’s more of a 50-50% trait. Throughout history East Asian (what you call Northeast Asian in your articles) cultures have idealized the double eyelids and you can see this in paintings and in literature. An example would be for the Chinese, the “phoenix eyes” – which are a type of double eyelids – were thought of as an exceptionally attractive feature to have: And truth is doube eyelids DO look better on Asians than single eyelids do because it adds an increased level of expression. So then why do Koreans, more than any other Asian group go for double eyelid surgery? Well Korea is a very seclusive country in the olden days so their genepools are more isolated. MOST koreans had single eyelids while the standard beauty throughout the rest of northeast asia is the double eyelid which countries like China and Japan (Asia’s melting pot) had in good numbers. If Koreans got double eyelid surgeries to look more Caucasian, then they would not only have to get the extra slit, but also perform procedures to raise their browridges as well which produces that sunken-in effect on Caucasian people.

    Now let’s tackle the skin whitening agenda. Again, it’s the same deal here. Asian features stand out the best on pale white skin tones. Remember, Asians have flatter faces in general so our beauty really stems from the more subtle features such as lips and eyebrow shape. Having pale white skin makes the other features on our faces stand out more. There really is a general standard skin tone that makes a certain group of people look their best and that is the truth. That can be seen with all ethnic groups, blacks look best when they have lighter skin tones because their features stand out more (unless the black person has say green eyes because they already have a feature that stands out and captivates). Scandinavian whites have a more ejected bone structure which already stands out so MOST of the time their ideal skin tone is have a hint of golden brown because their natural skin is so pale and pasty that it ends up taking away from their other features.

    So in the end, Koreans like all other groups just want to possess features that will make them most physically attractive.

    I want to point out now that not all Asians look better white pale skin. There are always exceptions.


    1. Hmm…this response is problematic, ahistorical, and once again problematic.

      but i’ll respond later because I have to go to a Thanksgiving dinner.

      And this particular article wasn’t written by James but a Korean lady ust 4 years trailin’ behind ya.

      Enjoy the holiday break!


    2. Jesus…I can’t believe anyone would start a huge web blog about something as simple as this o_O..

      Perhaps your disdain for it explains why you missed simple things like who the author of the post was? (in my experience, only Westerners ever get accused of Eurocentricism). But regardless, it’s strange you don’t see the hypocrisy in criticizing its length yet writing such a long comment in return.

      Not that that automatically makes what you say in the rest of your comment invalid of course, but it already gives me low expectations. Just saying.

      I’m Asian (and please don’t tell me or try sourcing how you know better because you’ve done research into their history since I’ve been and lived as an Asian person for 25 years) and I’ll tell you bluntly why Korean women get double eyelid surgeries and go for skin whitening.

      Well, that didn’t take long…

      But let me make sure I understand: you’re Asian, so you’re automatically more of an expert on all things Asian then anyone from any other part of the world, regardless of how much research into their history and/or living experience in Asia he or she has?

      If so, and you genuinely don’t have any respect for people’s arguments simply because of their race? Then continuing this conversation is a waste of both our times.


  21. See the problem with you guys is that you WANT to make this some huge deal. You want to believe there is this huge deep rooted reasoning behind why Asians get double eyelid surgeries and go for skin whitening when simply it’s because it creates features that are suited for that group. The Supposed Korean woman that wrote this is obviously obsessed with the research rather than the simple truth. And yes, because I am an Asian that grew up in a predominantly Asian community ( comprising of many east Asian groups, I do know better than a white person that grew up in a white household). It is sickening that you would even attempt to say you know better or are know as much. It’s like white people that try to spoon feed blacks because apparently “they understand.”. And here’s another truth for you, Asians want that milky white tone that is almost exclusive to Asians(the natural pale ones) and do not want the pasty white shades that Caucasians have.



  22. And one more thing James. It’s funny how you don’t even tackle a single argument I’ve made. If you think I’ve insulted you by claiming that this article is Eurocentric and that the views are misguided, then you’ve insulted our people as a whole by endorsing an article like this one, one that wants to make the claim that Asians have an inferiority complex to their white counterparts. THAT is disgusting.


    1. Tay, let me put it simply for you: if you take the position that because you are “an Asian that grew up in a predominantly Asian community…that [you] do know better than [any] white person that grew up in a white household”, that “It is sickening that [I] would even attempt to say [I] now better or are know as much”, and finally that I shouldn’t tell you “or try sourcing how [I] know better because you’ve done research into their history since [you’ve] been and lived as an Asian person for 25 years)”, then pray, please tell me what is the point of a White person tackling a single argument you’ve made? (let alone your stereotypes of White people)

      I refuse to waste time having a debate with someone who takes the position that no matter how much I live in a country, speak the language, and academically study it, that I will always know less about it than someone who was simply born there.

      In the future, if you do genuinely want to correct what you see as White people’s flawed notions about Korea, and help then better understand it, then I highly recommend not starting by patronizing them with all of the above. Perhaps then they will indeed tackle your arguments.


      1. Here’s the thing James, sure you can be very adept in our history. Sure you can speak the language well. But you will never adopt a similar mentality since the world obviously looks at you differently. Anyway, since this article is entirely based on stereotypes, it felt more than appropriate to throw in a few of my own.

        But you bring up a good point – “what is the point of a White person tackling a single argument [I] made”? One can’t help but wonder why a white person would so concern himself with matters such as these since they in no way affect you directly. I can only think of two reasons:

        1) Beneath, you do feel a sense of racial superiority since you try very hard to prove that Koreans and other northeast Asians try very hard to mimic or obtain features associated with those of the “Caucasian standard.”


        2) You genuinely care about the negative impacts of Western influence on Korean and other Asian media. In that case, you want to act as some type of messiah for these people in pointing out how superfluous Asian cosmetic surgery has become to reach that “white standard.”

        By the way – *Yawn* It seems you’re got a trend being dismissive toward other’s opinions.

        “By your logic, you could say that Albinos have light skin too, and Koreans don’t want to look like Albinos, so Koreans wanting light skin can’t have anything to do with Caucasians having light skin. Yawn. You could continue with inane examples like that all day.

        Yes, double-eyelids would technically make Koreans look more African. Yawn again. Racist attitudes are not known for their hard-headed logic.”

        -James Turnbull

        on May 24, 2008 at 10:50 am

        James, I think “I am simply not going to waste time having a debate with someone who takes [your] position” in such a rigid manner.


        1. Oh don’t worry: I’m not going to give you the chance. I’ve got a three-strikes policy for commenters on this blog.

          Considering what you wrote in your first few lines here, I don’t think anyone reading will be particularly surprised at how quickly you descended into spouting racist bile about myself and White people, and you’ve definitely vindicated my original decision not to engage with you.



        2. Hmm….have you got your face done as well?

          Perhaps that is why such the bitter and acidic response?

          This blog is about opening dialogue and making you think critically about social dynamics in Korea especially when it comes to gender constructions. And that means there is always room for debate. Academia is a place where you will find more questions than answers, so by no means do we claim that what we write is “THE TRUTH.” So if you would like to contribute, that is perfectly fine and always welcome but there is no need to be defensive, dismissive, and overall sound horrifically juvenile. I mean, after your last response, suddenly your tone of voice reminded me of the viscious matchmaker in the Disney movie Mulan.

          And I’m not a “supposed Korean woman” I am REAL. True story. Promise. Albeit I straddle two worlds, Korean American. It seems you might be able to relate.

          But other than that, this exchange, with James trying to hold the fort against some pretty aggressive claws was really funny.

          I mean, this sentence –> “In that case, you want to act as some type of messiah for these people in pointing out how superfluous Asian cosmetic surgery has become to reach that “white standard.”

          It’s like something you would read in conspiracy theories.

          After a tired, long, but fantastic trip of traveling, coming home and opening my laptop to 8 emails notifications of this exchange was quite the amusing end to my night.

          Genuinely though, best of luck to you Tay!


          1. Thanks for that Anita. I don’t want to feed the troll by acknowledging him, but he actually got much much more sexist and racist in his 15+(!) additional comments that were sent to my moderation folder unfortunately.


          2. Hi James and Anita! I just want to start by saying that I could not be more grateful for the great amount of information and insight about this subject that you shared with the rest of us more or less curious to see what really lies beneath the Koreans’ appeal to plastic surgery and body modification. It was a real thrill joining you along the way in somehow trying (hoping) to get to the bottom of it. It just happens that I am writing a paper for my masters about Korean plastic surgery and your blog and these series of posts are by far the richest sources online I could find.

            I have spent one year in Korea and when (in my first month) a girl openheartedly confessed how she got double eye lid surgery and how confident it made her, my “looks are important but what really counts is…” bla bla values got a well desevered (in hindsight) blow. I must admit I was totally unprepaired for the great Korean experience, therefore after a six months cultural shock and 2 years later (in the meantime going back home) I decided it is time to take this the right (scientifical) way. After a two years break in my studies, I started watching Korean movies and conducting a couple of interviews (at the moment only 4 with Korean students here, in Romania that is ^^) and, of course, getting lost on forums and blogs. My main limitations are the language as I am only a beginner in Korean and what for the moment seems the scarce literature. Altough body has become for the last two decades more important to anthropological/sociological studies, works on plastic surgery are still pretty rare. This is partly why I opted for an explorative research that I hope might cover up for these gaps :) Two articles caught my eye and if you have not already come across them, I would like to recommend it: Medicalization of Racial Features: Asian American Women and Cosmetic Surgery, Eugenia Kaw (full article here and ‘The Poor Have the Right to Be Beautiful’: Cosmetic Surgery In Neoliberal Brazilby Alexander Edmonds (that truemoboy also mentioned; full article here

            I must admit that there are two main issues that made me ponder upon, that you,James, have also dealt with: how plastic surgery and neo-confucianist values come to terms and if/why the Koreans really alter their body towards a Caucasian ideal. Regarding the latter one, I just want to share a two replies I got from a male subject at one of my interviews. To the question if he thinks the Koreans want a more Western face when going throug plastic surgery he replied: it depends, but generally a face with bigger eyes and a higher nose is more beautiful. To my question to describe how the ideal face would look like and provide an example, he replied: Big eyes, long straight hair, for example Angelina Jolie ^^

            Just to end this longer than expect comment, Anita, I hope your paper went well :) By the way, is it online anywhere? I would like definitely like to reference it:)
            James, thanks again and keep doing a great job!


  23. to all the Beautiful People
    i”d like to say that In my opinion you shod be Proud of who you are .and the way you look
    I’d like to point out the Psychological aspects of self-hat and the message being sent bay
    The attempt to look and be lick the culture you’re adapting to
    I now self-hat is a ruff word to use but for sum it is true.
    They message is that you agree with the stereotypes and want change them
    History teaches us that Racism will never and . Thaw if you love and respect yourself the others will to
    And if they don’t “f @!%ck” them their not worth it .


  24. I think the rationale for changing oneself in South Korea is to appeal to the white masses. The responses that some have given for doing so: marriage, jobs are what the plastic surgeons ads state it sounds like. It does not change one personality or DNA. The children will come out looking like their parents before surgery. How do the parents deal with their decision to change themselves as reflected in their children’s faces?

    Some of the faces that I’ve seen in kland are horribly disfigured as the changes make some look alien. And, now the “natural beauty” articles are including those who have had CS. It’s a pity that a county so proud as this one is seemingly suffering from mental illness on a large scale.


  25. I agree with Gloria. Changing oneself in South Korea is to appeal to the white masses. So why is it that the Korean female husband preference are just white males regardless of looks? I guess it’s just their skin color that matters. Just my experience as a U.S. military service-member here. You can say that’s not true all you want but, Korean female interactions with white males that I’ve seen are quite obvious. It’s amazing how white-washed this country really is!


  26. I see. Interesting post. But why must many of them deny the fact they had plastic surgery?
    Where does the insecurity of many Koreans come from? Are they really that self conciouse about their Asian heritage in terms of looks? Even Korean parents encourage there children to have plastic surgery, why do they want to project such shallow and superficial idea of the world to the child? I think its obsurd! truly. -___-

    Even CNN did a documentary on Plastic surgery in Korea (link below)


  27. Interesting article, Anna. I’d never heard of Dr. Millard prior to reading your article, and I do wonder if one doctor could’ve had such a large impact on an entire country. I’m guessing there probably aren’t a lot of sources out there that have researched this issue thoroughly, but it would be interesting to see if there are other books/articles out there that talk about him and his impact on Korean society.

    My understanding has always been that the primary purpose of getting double-eyelid surgery is to make one’s eyes bigger–and to my knowledge bigger eyes have been preferred in Korea for centuries over smaller eyes (though, of course, moderation and proportion are also key. To this, I do think there is some sort of universal standard of beauty, perhaps similar to the Greek golden ratio that’s applied to one’s facial proportions–which seem to largely coincide with what many Koreans have long seemed to look for in a beautiful face. I think the same thing could probably be said for many other ethnic groups as well.). Koreans with single-lidded yet naturally big-enough eyes don’t face nearly as much social pressure to get double-eyelid surgery, and those who do often do it of their own personal choice. I’m Korean-American and have single eyelids. When I was in Korea, Koreans would always tell me that I didn’t need double eyelid surgery because my eyes were big enough, and some even discouraged me from getting it. And as another commenter previously pointed out, double eyelids is something that is prevalent in all races and ethnic groups–obviously, a lot of Koreans (and Asians in general) have natural double eyelids.

    And to provide another anecdote (sorry, I’m not writing a dissertation on this topic, so I don’t have any data or primary sources to back up my statements–only my own personal experiences from living in Korea and stories I’ve heard from old Koreans :) ), my aunt worked as a nurse at a Korean hospital during the Korean War. Her Korean colleagues thought she was the most beautiful nurse who worked there (she had big eyes and a well-balanced face), and pretty much everyone she knew thought she was pretty–except for the American soldiers who came to the hospital. None of them told her she was pretty, and in fact many of them thought the prettiest Korean nurse there was the one that was considered by the Korean employees to be by far the ugliest (she had a flat nose, really small eyes,…you can guess the rest), so my aunt felt pretty shocked and offended by that. She’d tell the story over and over, and I remember laughing every time I heard it.

    Plastic surgery isn’t considered a status symbol in Korea–natural beauties are valued far more, trust me. That’s partly why actresses like Kim Tae Hee and Song Hye Kyo are held in high esteem–even though the former can’t act and the latter is getting old. And sometimes you’ll hear Korean men complaining that they can’t tell the natural beauties apart from the “plastic” ones.

    As for the prevalence of skin-whitening creams, there is a historical basis for it, which I believe someone else also pointed out–whiter skin was often associated with the “yangban” or upper class in Korean history (and thus with cleanliness, nobility, and elegance), while darker skin was often associated with the working/peasant class (since naturally they’d get tan and dirty while toiling under the sun) and thus with poverty, dirtiness, and being of lower class/status. Of course, there’s a host of other reasons as well (including the fact that most Korean girls don’t like to get tan b/c their skin is thinner and extra-sensitive to UV rays, which causes them to get freckles and blemishes more easily than other women–and the whitening cream is supposed to hide the blemishes and even out their complexion).

    I could go on about this issue, but I realize it’ll probably always be a very controversial one, so I’ll just stop here.

    James–great blog you’ve got here, by the way. I discovered it recently (thanks to Ashley from Seoulbeats) and have been reading some of your well-written articles with great interest.


  28. South Koreans always get bash on Youtube plastic surgery . One person put 95% of Koreans are fugly anyway Chinese and Japanese are way better looking. I put” you saying that because Japanese and Chinese are more likely to produce Double eyelids”. Don’t everyrace have its ugly and pretty.


  29. The ugly truth.

    Is it a good thing for someone to think they are prettier when they look like a group that has an ethnic trait they don’t? Even if it isn’t about looking like White people, you think it’s better that your family wants to look like you? Even if they aren’t trying to look like a White person they do not feel pride in their ethnic traits and ethnicity and that’s sad. If there was no plastic surgery they would just have to live like that, and honestly I don’t think that kind of insecurity goes away even if you fix the outward “problem”. I know becuase I have been there.

    Oh and it is about adopting a White standard of beauty. When Black women relax their hair they don’t look White either but it is still about not seeing your features as beautiful becuase you have been surrounded by the features of another people.


  30. You cannot betray that which you have not sworn loyalty to. Our genetic should have no claim on how we decide to live our lives. Is a gypsy boy who purchases a home mortgage a bad person for going against his genetic heritage of remaining a nomad? We are not given a choice on what heritage that we are born into, therefore is it fair for that heritage to hold us bondage to its values.


  31. Asian girls in particular would be white man’s wh*re esp. the korean, chinese, and japanese/Phillipinos. don’t get me wrong you and ur kind are frankly pathetic for making so called “excuses” that u only date white guys even though WHITE guys commited gen0cide around the world including in Japan/Korea/Phillipines/Vietnam/China, and Thailand-Laos etc.(white man’s paedophile whor* country). This is just so pathetic and wrong on so many levels. Asian girls IMO suffer from this which is worse than cancer. i would trteat u less than human. BTW i’m Indian. i’m being factual and absolutely no personal opinion and nothing here is exageration. go do ur Asian surgery to ur face, change ur name, and religion…like pretty much everything.


    1. Hi James

      As someone of mixed Korean/Caucasian descent I am an avid reader of your blog. I understand that this topic is something you may no longer be focusing on, but I do wonder how you go about moderating your comments. For example, you’ve blocked Tay above (who you found offensive and ‘racist’), but some of the other comments you have apparently allowed are extremely offensive and racist e.g. Prakash’s comment above. Surely Prakash’s statement about East Asian women above is equally offensive yet for some reason you’ve allowed it through your comments. It may be that you are no longer moderating but that aside, I’d be interested to know how you deem whether a comment is too offensive to be displayed on your blog or not. Other comments of a similar nature hinging on distateful and racist (about how Korean/Asian women love white men) similarly appear on your comments pages without any further comment by you. How do you decide whether something is offensive enough to not be allowed on the comments page? Is it when you feel a comment (such as Tay’s) offends you and white people personally? Is it only ok to be offensive towards Asians in your comments but not white people? I’m sure that is not the case but that is how it comes across. Look forward to your response.


      1. I am sorry that you get that impression Laura. But please don’t make mountains out of molehills. Considering the last time I commented on this post was November 2010, then I thought it would have been obvious that I’m not actively moderating the comments on this very old post, which from my perspective is just one of nearly 600 posts to deal with on the blog. So, frankly I resent your implying that I only ban commenters who are racist and offensive towards White people.

        Rather then explaining my comments policy, I’ll just let my comments on more recent posts speak for themselves.


        1. That’s fine. Your response certainly speaks for itself. I’m sorry that you evidently get resentful every time somebody seems to bring up a point which questions you.

          In no way was I rude during my comment and I was just genuinely curious as to how things came across, being aware that it was probably not your intention. You are the one making a mountain out a molehill here.


          1. No, I get resentful every time someone implies I’m a racist just because I’m no longer moderating a 2 year-old blog post. There’s a difference.

            If you genuinely can’t see how rude and accusatory your comment was though, let me suggest an alternate way you could have written it:

            As someone of mixed Korean/Caucasian descent I am an avid reader of your blog, but I do wonder how you go about moderating your comments. For example, you’ve blocked Tay above (who you found offensive and ‘racist’), but some of the other comments you have apparently allowed are equally offensive and racist e.g. Prakash’s comment above. I understand that this topic is something you may no longer be focusing on, but even so, please be aware that blocking some offensive commenters and not others may give the wrong impression.

            Instead of leaving it at that though, you elaborate on that wrong impression at length, throwing choice phrases at me like “Is it only ok to be offensive towards Asians in your comments but not white people?”. Let me ask you: whatever the context, how would you feel reading something like that about yourself? Sorry, but just because you finish by saying that you’re “sure that is not the case,” that doesn’t give you carte blanche to say what you like about me.

            I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt though (as I should have to you), and assume that your comment was intended to be constructive criticism. If so, then thank you, and I’m sorry that we got off to a bad start. But still, I do find the way you provided that criticism to be misguided, and don’t think I was just being defensive by being offended by it.


  32. There is so much here but I don’t know if anyone mentioned that whiteness of the skin is not because of western culture being introduced but because fair skin relates to affluence. And white clothing as well. Hard to maintain white clothing if you are laborer in the countrysides. Also there seems not enough evidence that the wish to have larger looking eye is somehow to be like white. Eyelid surgery is new (after the war) so it is entirely possible that before the western influence (lets say during the war and after) that those with double eyelids were considered more beautiful than those that did not. However back in the old days there is less importance placed on looks as bloodline played the biggest role (maybe only role) in your fate. I think if you wanted to do a real analysis of a culture outside of your own, you would be advised to get honest inputs from the locals. However beware that due to many reasons (some probably you are not able to understand) you may not get the cooperation to the degree you want. This is because by reading the comments its clear to me that neither Anna nor James understands the full depth of this issue from the Korean’s point of view.


    1. There is so much here but I don’t know if anyone mentioned that…

      Strongly implying that you didn’t actually read much of the post or comments, despite what you say later.

      The issue of fair skin and how it relates to affluence was repeatedly mentioned in both, and in all the posts linked to.

      I think if you wanted to do a real analysis of a culture outside of your own, you would be advised to get honest inputs from the locals. However beware that due to many reasons (some probably you are not able to understand) you may not get the cooperation to the degree you want. This is because by reading the comments its clear to me that neither Anna nor James understands the full depth of this issue from the Korean’s point of view.

      You have no basis whatsoever to accuse Anna or myself of not getting input from the locals, but nevertheless chose: to lecture us on doing so; to claim that there’s some mysterious reasons that we wouldn’t get as much cooperation as we would want anyway (even though we did, unless our Korean partners, spouses, friends, and coworkers all chose to lie to us); and to argue that neither of us understand this from Koreans’ point of view, yet are too lazy to actually articulate that point of view to ignorant Westerners like Anna and myself.

      After 5 years of writing about Korea, I’ve come across hundreds of people like yourself who clearly bring strong negative stereotypes about Westerners to the conversation, and who chose to criticize me or other commenters because of those stereotypes alone, not because of anything we actually said or wrote. From experience, there’s no use trying to change the opinion of someone so opposed to actual evidence, and I’m not going to waste my time doing so here.



      1. Observers affect the observed. Questioning affect the questioned. One way to start considering how this phenomenon might affect research might be with the controversy surrounding Margaret Mead’s ‘Coming of Age in Samoa’, then tracking how these basic epistemological concerns, central to any cultural anthropological or ethnographic fieldwork, have been dealt with over time. Malinowski was one of the first, in ‘Argonauts of the Western Pacific’, to try for methodological/academic rigor and not just ‘looking at stuff’ and ‘asking people questions’ so that might be a fun read too.


        1. Thank you for your comment Mike. By way of reply, let me remind you of one of your own at The Atlantic from from 5 months ago:

          …James Turnbull is a bright guy whose observations on Korea are marred by a condescendingly quasi-Imperialist perspective. For instance, on skin lightening products: Koreans want to look white because they want to look White. Durr. Is this insight or a bad pun? Westerners love him because he says what they want to hear and reaffirms their own sense of superiority, the classic Imperialist narrative: Everyone wants to be like us. Turnbull is not a cultural anthropologist, ethnographer, social scientist, etc. and has had no training in these fields. He’s just a guy. Living in the bubble-world of an expat in Korea does not make one qualified to speak on the country.

          A little later from that same thread:

          Who reads without issues on the table? Do we somehow turn off who we are and what we believe when we read? And does reading Turnbull with issues on the table somehow make Turnbull less patronizing, quasi-racist, or misogynistic?

          I guess you’re entitled to your opinions of me Mike, but still: when I read that I couldn’t help but be curious as to:

          1) How you could possibly know how much of an expat bubble I lived in or not, and

          2) Why you’ve ignored the fact that, since my first writings about Koreans and cosmetic surgery several years ago, I’ve repeatedly acknowledged my (albeit completely natural) mistake in assuming that Koreans received certain cosmetic surgery operations and/or wanted to lighten their skin because they wanted to look more Western (most recently here).

          That you wrote what you did then, demonstrated that you haven’t actually read my blog in many years, yet somehow still felt qualified to comment on it, and/or that actual evidence was of little concern to you. Whatever the case, there didn’t really seem much point in replying.

          As for your comment here, it’s a little arrogant and patronizing of you to assume that I was unaware of your spewing shit about me elsewhere, and that I would still want to have some kind of conversation with you nevertheless. But still, thank you for your valiant attempt at educating someone as “patronizing, quasi-racist, and misogynistic,” as myself. However, just like I did with Bill above, I really do wonder why you’re automatically assuming that I’m just too thick and/or ignorant to know of the very very basic methodological issues you describe. Add that to your charming comments about me earlier, and hopefully you’ll understand why I still don’t really see much point in engaging with you now either, and have banned you so that you won’t waste any more time on trying to educate someone who you already feel “isn’t qualified to speak on the country.”


  33. changed my whole perception, I kept reading and reading to find the root of where the ignorance started from.
    very much like african and mestizo people and their choice to skin bleaching. The people have a long history of being mentally broken leaving them prone to colonial ideas or superiority.

    however i couldn’t wrap my mind around the whole korean plastic surgery craze, and many patients saying they indeed did it to look more caucasian then others saying just because…

    it was the same stories i’ve heard off and on from ethnic people and knowing very well the history behind it.
    but this read clears up plenty of my questions, its really unfortunate but there is hope through the better educated and consciously aware people. its really sickening to watch and read all these forms of news on people of color going through these means of physical modification. often when interviewed by whites they have this very embarrassed yet proud look when they justify these means of body modifications. weather they did it for personal taste or because they desire what was ingrained in their head to be more “beautiful”

    as a people no matter what race we definitely have to remind the youth who they are, where they came from and that they should never conform to someone else’s standards of beauty.

    we look different for a reason, the most hurtful thing I’ve heard in my life was a young girl saying she hates her racial identity.


  34. this was an awesome article, that should be shown on the discovery channel. It was a very informative article, and I have never heard of Doctor Millard before. I will do more research my to further educate myself on this south Korean plastic surgery trend. I never thought how one man’s perception on beauty can cause so much damage in the long haul. This article was mind opening thank you.


  35. wonderful and eye-opening (pun intended) read)! thanks to anna, james, and even the trolls! any chance we’ll get to read anna’s paper (wink wink)

    two thums up to anna and james and cheers to all!


  36. This is interesting but to bring a broader regional perspective to it, actually the standards like V line (in Chinese: melon seed face), “red in white” skin i.e. light skinned, high nose, and double eyelids “phoenix eyes”, “grape eyes”, have also been a part of the historic Chinese beauty standard. Maybe this has spread to Korean culture as well.

    This is because the standard of beauty in China was that of women from the southern Suzhou and Hangzhou regions, where people tend to have: light skin, a high nose, and double eyelids.

    Actually what I have heard is that double eyelid surgery, specifically the non-incisional kind, was invented in Japan in 1890. I think the whole thing with Dr Millard is very specific to Korean history, and it came up in different places at different times. Just my $.02.


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