How can a society still have Caucasian beauty ideals if its members explicitly don’t want to look White?
Ubiquitous skin-whitening ads. Cosmetic surgery clinics with only Caucasians on their websites. Until a few years ago, almost never seeing a Korean lingerie model.
With parents, hakwon-owners, and recruiters demanding only Caucasian English teachers too, you can hardly be blamed for assuming that the corollary of White privilege is Caucasian beauty ideals. Add the large numbers of Korean women who get surgery for double-eyelids or more prominent nose-bridges, features widely perceived as much more common among Caucasians than Koreans, then who hasn’t once thought that Korean women go under the knife because they want to look White?
Of course, actually talk to Korean cosmetic surgery patients, and most take great offense to that notion. And they would surely know their own motivations—much better than any outsiders or newbies to Korea, who may not realize what intellectual baggage and racial stereotypes they’re bringing with them. Also, light skins have been associated with non-farming elites for millennia; Caucasians may be used on cosmetic surgery websites more in an Occidentalist sense to signify class and lifestyle than specific body features; and Caucasians were really only used in lingerie modelling because moonlighting pornography actors tainted it for Korean models. Even double-eyelids may not be as Caucasian as thought, as it is commonly claimed that possibly as many as 50% of Koreans have them (although in my experience, little to no evidence is ever provided for any figure—even by academics).
That said, I think commentators can sometimes come across as a little smug and superior as they point out the mistakes of “expats-turned-anthropologists“; after all, expats are just strangers in a strange land, trying to make sense of the place. What’s more, they don’t form their opinions in a vacuum, they’re not all simply racist, and I hardly countered all their observations with that last paragraph. So it would be incredibly myopic and defensive to just dismiss their opinions, and/or to pretend that current Korean beauty ideals haven’t been at all influenced by the “the very real presence of white people” in Korea in the last 60 years.
In short, Korean beauty ideals are complicated. And sure: perhaps by all those “expats,” I’m really just talking about myself not so long ago (that’s complicated too). Either way, over the years I’ve been reading about body image in Korea, I’ve often been taken aback by the number of academics who didn’t acknowledge how convoluted the subject is. Some just seemed to take Caucasian body ideals as a given. Why? Were they just being lazy? Were they simply parroting the narratives about Korean cosmetic surgery that dominate the English-language media? Hadn’t they ever—damnit—actually talked to Koreans, who would have vehemently denied wanting to look White?
Apologies though, for not taking note of exactly who said what at the time, but then I’m not here to attack any convenient strawmen. Instead, I want to pass on an alternative explanation that I’ve just come across:
- First, that because different body features, types, and weights have different positive or negative associations (e.g., fat people are lazy), however unfairly and irrationally (jumping ahead, flat noses and eyelids without a crease have negative connotations in the US).
- Next, that because these associations are legitimated—indeed, perpetuated—by the seeming scientific rationality and objectivity of cosmetic surgeons
- That consequently, Korean cosmetic surgery patients tend to choose from a limited number of (positively-associated) procedures that tend to make them look more Caucasian (or, more accurately, a heavily Caucasian-influenced, Westernized, increasingly global ideal) than Asian, rather than the other way round (with the proviso that “Caucasian” and “Asian” are largely social constructs).
In other words, they can still retain Caucasian beauty ideals despite not wanting to look Caucasian personally.
Caveats abound. One of the most obvious of which is that it sounds like I’m saying any empowerment patients feel—and most do feel empowered—is really a sense of false consciousness, their choice of positively-associated procedures really being heavily circumscribed by society, their surgeons, and themselves. I’m very wary of any notion of consumers as dupes though, so I was glad to stumble across the work of Kathy Davis for an opposing viewpoint, as described in Body Image: Understanding body dissatisfaction in men, women, and children by Sarah Grogan (2nd ed., 2007). Yet she too acknowledges empowerment still occurs within the context of culturally-limited options (page 70, my emphases):
The question of why women are willing to undergo unnecessary surgery to make their bodies conform more closely to accepted norms may help us to understand the nature of body dissatisfaction in women. Kathy Davis (1995) in Reshaping the Female Body: The Dilemma of Cosmetic Surgery looks at cosmetic surgery from a broadly feminist viewpoint. She argues that understanding why women engage in a practice which is painful and dangerous must take women’s explanations as a starting point. She attempts to explore cosmetic surgery as one of the most negative aspects of Western beauty culture without seeing the women who opt for the “surgical fix” as what she calls “cultural dopes”(i.e., by taking seriously their reasons for having cosmetic surgery).
Women she interviewed [in the Netherlands] reported that they experienced the decision to have cosmetic surgery as a way of taking control of their lives, and that cosmetic surgery was something that they had decided upon for themselves, rather than under pressure from partners or knife-happy surgeons. They were clear that they had made informed choices, based on weighing up the risks and possible benefits of surgery. Davis takes the position that cosmetic surgery may be an informed choice, but it is always made in the context of culturally limited options. She argues fiercely against the idea expressed by many authors, including Kathryn Morgan (1991), that women who opt for cosmetic surgery are victims of male lovers, husbands, or surgeons. She also disagrees that women who opt for cosmetic surgery are the dupes of ideologies that confuse and mystify with the rhetoric of individual choice.
Davis (1995) sees women as active and knowledgeable agents who make decisions based on a limited range of available options. She argues that women see through the conditions of oppression even as they comply with them. The women she interviewed reported that they had made free choices, although these “choices” were limited by cultural definitions of beauty and by the availability of particular surgical techniques. The “choices” need to be placed within a framework that sees women’s bodies as commodities.
But the journal article which inspired this post is “Medicalization of Racial Features: Asian-American Women and Cosmetic Surgery“, Medical Anthropology Quarterly 7(1), pp. 74-89, March 1993 by Eugenia Kaw, which I read on pages 167-183 of The Politics of Women’s Bodies: Sexuality, Appearance, and Behavior, ed.by Rose Weitz (1st edition, 1998; source, above-right). Originally, I intended to summarize it for you here, but since I’ve started writing I’ve found a PDF of the article, so frankly I see no need—interested readers can just download it and read it for themselves. Instead, let me provide some copy and pastes here to give the gist for any much-too-busy-but-still-quite-interested readers.
First, from page 79, on the negative associations of “Asian” features:
From page 81 on the how the medical industry legitimizes and perpetuates those negative associations:
Finally, from pages 85-86, on the clear patterns that emerge despite patients making “truly individual choices” (alas, Kaw too is guilty of casually throwing in that 50% figure!):
Again, caveats abound. Not only is Kaw’s article quite dated, but there are dangers in extrapolating studies based on Bay Area surgeons and patients to Koreans (to be clear, Kaw herself never does so). As Ruth Holliday and Jo Elfving Hwang explain in “Gender, Globalization and Aesthetic Surgery in South Korea”, Body & Society, June 2012 18: 58-81 (page 7 at this downloadable link):
In researching cosmetic surgery in Korea, a further problem of ‘ethnic’ cosmetic surgery studies which focus on Asian-Americans is that their results have been generalized to apply to ‘countries of origin’; that is, Koreans in Korea. Accordingly, what are seen as ‘whitening’ practices in the West are also presented as ‘Westernizing’ practices in the East without much consideration of localized discourses that intersect with more globalized practices of cosmetic surgery. Explanation of Korean cosmetic surgery only in terms of Westernization seems unlikely given Korea’s strong sense of nationalism, as well as its national relationship with other regional powers, for example, Japan.
Indeed, their article is a real eye-opener in its own right (no pun intended!), and made me realize how Korean cosmetic surgery is even more complicated than I imagined, and how much more I have to learn. For example, from page 13 (source, below-right):
Blepharoplasty [eyelid surgery] in particular has often been explained in terms of ‘Westernization’. However, it is worth remembering that whilst many Koreans already have a double eyelid, many Westerners undergo blepharoplasties too. Wider eyes signal youth, energy and alertness. Korean women have used temporary eyelid tapes and glues for decades, most usually justified as easing the application of make-up. Eye surgery is seen as a more convenient permanent fix (the surgery takes ten to twenty minutes depending on technique) which saves time and allows greater participation in sports and swimming, for example. Blepharoplasties (like breast augmentations) appear to have originated in Japan (the first performed by a surgeon named Mikamo in 1896) and were originally used to treat children born with one single and one double eyelid (Miller, 2006). East Asians tend to have more adipose fat in the eyelid than Caucasians and importantly men and women who have too much fat removed are seen negatively as artificially western. Wider eyes may be desirable, but they must be wider Korean eyes, not Western ones. The most important aim of cosmetic surgery is to create a natural look that ‘enhances’ the body without losing the ‘Koreanness’ of the subject who undergoes surgery.
Like most epiphanies then, this is really a starting point for me rather than the final word, and I realize it may already be familiar to the many readers who’ve done more research into cosmetic surgery than myself (thank you for indulging me!). Nevertheless, I do think that the Korean public and cosmetic surgeons and patients will share many of the same associations as their Bay Area counterparts. And, even if I’m mistaken about that, investigating public associations of and (especially) medical discourses surrounding certain body features promises to be a fruitful new line of investigation for understanding body image in Korea. I’d be very interested and grateful to hear your thoughts on that, and your own observations.
Update: It wasn’t really relevant to the making of this post, but Joanna Elfving-Hwang’s “Cosmetic Surgery and Embodying the Moral Self in South Korean Popular Makeover Culture” in The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 24, No. 2, June 17, 2013, focusing on the Korean show Let Me In, would be an excellent starting point for more on those medical discourses.
Update 2: I’ve been blogging for so long, sometimes I forget what’s already been posted! Please see here for one of my most-heavily commented posts, in which a reader discusses how those negative associations of monolids came about.