SNL 코리아 Satirizes Korea’s Cosmetic Surgery Craze (Translation)

SNL Korea Plastic Face 1(Source)

And, crucially, it doesn’t just poke fun at the obvious negatives, but also at the public discourses surrounding the industry. Namely, the hypocrisy of the men who loudly criticize women who get operations, yet shamelessly admire the results.

In addressing such a gendered contradiction, it strongly reminds of the messages in Miss A‘s (미쓰에이) Bad Girl, Good Girl (배드걸 굿걸). It also happens to be hilarious too, one of several skits by the Brown Eyed Girls (브라운아이드걸스) on the show last week.

In this one, the main character is Narsha (나르샤), joined by co-member JeA (제아) and Miryo (미료) (Ga-in /가인 is absent). None of the other actors are familiar, but I can find out who they are if anyone is interested:

Here’s my translation. Apologies in advance for any mistakes, but frankly there were some very new words that even my wife didn’t know (let alone be in my smartphone dictionary), and of course the swear words especially are open to interpretation!

너쌍꺼풀 수술했지?

너 코도 했지?


난 자연 미인이 좋아

You got double-eyelid surgery, right?

A nose-job too, yes?


I [only] like natural beauties.

SNL Korea Plastic Face 2(Source)

아무리 예뻐도 성형하면 싫어

웃겨 니들 사실 알아보지도 못해 (병X들)

니들이 좋아하는 얘네도 다 한 거야

X같은 것들이 항상 성괴라고 욕해

However pretty we become, you hate it when we get cosmetic surgery

That’s funny…you guys don’t actually recognize us (jerks!)

The girls you like, got everything done

Guys like that always swear at [criticize?] women who become “plastic surgery monsters”

SNL Korea Plastic Face 3(Source)

오오 오오오~

고경표 신동엽 강진도 헀을걸?


눈했어 코 했어 그래 싹 다 바꿨어 턱했어

(압구정역 4번 출구)

맞았어 넣었어 그래 싹 다 갈았어 다헀어

(강남역 10번 출구)

프프프플라스틱 페이스 (x4)

Probably Go-gyeong Pyo, Shin Dong-yeob, and Gang-jin all got it done


[People] get their eyes done, their noses done…they change everything…they get their jaws done

(Apgujeong Station Exit #4)

That’s right, they put [botox? silicone?] in…Really, they change everything

(Gangnam Station, Exit #10)

Plastic Face (x4)

SNL Korea Plastic Face 4(Source)

네 여자친구 성형 안했을 거 같지

했어도 눈코 정도 했을 겉 같지 (x밥들)

들어 봤니 눈코 입돌려 깎기 양약

너 환장하는 그 가슴은 물방울 코젤

오오 오오오~

너보다 훨 알럽 의느님

You think your girlfriend didn’t get anything done?

And even if you think she did, you think she just got her eyes and nose done? (You fucking dickheads)

Have you heard of maxillofacial surgery, which involves breaking the upper and lower jaw?

The breasts you’re crazy about are just saline implants

Oh oh, oh oh oh ~

She will probably love her Doctor God more than you

SNL Korea Plastic Face 5(Source)

똑같아 똑깥아

니얼굴 내얼굴 다 똑같아

압구정동에서 했니

프프프플라스틱 페이스 (x4)

또또또 똑같아 모두다 같아

They’re the same, they’re the same

Their faces are all the same

Did they all get them done in Apgujeong?

Plastic Face (x4)

They’re all the same, they’re all the same

SNL Korea Plastic Face 6(Source)

우릴 욕할 때가 아냐 거울 좀봐

눈코 입은 요좀 헐값

명품가방 살돈으로

눈코 입을 달아

세트로 하면 디씨돼

친구랑 가면

더 디씨

부끄럽게 생각 마

자신감이 중요해

It’s not time to swear at us, look at yourself in the mirror

Nose, eye, and mouth-jobs are so cheap

With the money for a brand name bag

You can get a new face

If you get them all done as a set you can get a discount

If you get them done with your friends at the same time, you can get even more of a discount

Don’t be embarrassed

Confidence is important

SNL Korea Plastic Face 8(Sources: above, below)

당당해 당당해 우린 너무 당당해


(과거 사진 X까라해)

꺼내봐 꺼내봐

네 얼굴에 가려진 매력들

(넌시X 존X 매력있어)

프프프플라스틱 페이스 (x2)


당당해 우린

프프프플라스틱 페이스 (x2)SNL Korea Plastic Face 7

Bold, Confident, We are all so bold and confident

We are satisfied

(Don’t you ever fucking show old photos)

Bring out those changes to your face that you hid

(You’re fucking hot now)

Plastic Face

Bold, Confident

Plastic Face

(Hat tip to dogdyedblack)

Update: Naturally, a translation from earlier today popped up shortly after I finished this post. But which I couldn’t find at all when I decided to write it!

Swallowing my pride (and several hours’ worth of effort), I have to admit that it’s much better than mine (although—*sniff*—I still disagree with a few lines here and there):

Perfect Upper Bodies, But “Healthy” Legs: Update


Do you think Arirang should have removed its Twist in Figures video from YouTube?

Shocked and outraged at something that castigated healthy, attractive women for not having legs like the manhwa figure above, then my initial reaction was to insist on it. Preferably, the original film burned and the ashes buried too.

However, reading the reaction from the Korea Studies community at the Korea Studies Discussion List later, now I think that actually it may have been more useful had it remained up. Certainly, the issues raised by the video are far more complex than they may at first appear.

Here’s some selected comments from the discussion thread that make that clear. First, from Stephen Epstein:

I don’t usually send out links to the list, but the below piece from Arirang is one of the most absolutely reprehensible items of journalism that I ever seen and deserves wide circulation, as it offers an opportunity to combat the attitudes it reflects. The piece takes examples of female pop stars in Korea with “healthy” legs (yes, “healthy” is their word) but tries to suggest that “healthy” (i.e. anything but very nalsshinhada) is, in fact, bad. The promotion of extremely unhealthy body images and eating disorders is the logical outcome here.

The piece is getting hammered on YouTube (it’s only been up a day so far and running 15 to 1 dislike to like, maybe more, a ratio I’ve never seen, and the comments have all been appropriately scathing.). In any case, for those of you who ever have to teach anything about body image or plastic surgery in Korea, this will be eye-opening for students; you may want to download it as I suspect it will be taken down soon. Hopefully this piece will get wide attention (my own aim in sending this out) and Arirang will be forced into issuing a high-profile apology.


A surprising and disappointing reaction from Don Kirk:

Thank you for posting this piece back on you-tube. It’s quite an amusing commentary, actually, on Korean fashion, “girl groups,” models and society. There’s no reason to carry on a crusade about it. Arirang has a right to run such a feature. It seems extremely odd that academics, the first to defend freedom of speech and democratic rights, should attempt, in the name of political correctness, to want to suppress a simple feature piece that has colorful, fun, appealing images, pleasant and interesting commentary and actually something to say about current fashions and thinking.

There are views other than those of like-minded academics, who are not necessarily correct in all their political correctness. Shame on you, in the name of PC, for this disgraceful effort at suppression of free speech, free idea and free reporting.

A reply from Stephen:

I am willing to accept that suppressing the video is perhaps not the right tactic, and may infringe on expression of free speech.  In fact, in retrospect, it probably would be better for the original to be up on the Arirang channel to allow it to take the scathing criticism it deserves and to encourage debate and draw attention to a serious problem in Korean society. I hardly wish to be part of a PC censorship brigade.

I also accept that the piece says something about current fashion and thinking. But it clearly crosses the line into promoting and not just reflecting that thinking. If you or anyone else really believes that this is a ” simple feature piece that has colorful, fun, appealing images, pleasant and interesting commentary”, without real world consequences, then I merely ask that you read some of the comments from YouTube users, hardly “politically correct academics”, on the original post from Arirang (I made sure to save them before the video might be taken down) and reconsider (source, below):

• Since when was being “healthy” a flaw? Healthy legs are not a good thing to have? tons of women would kill to have the women on that list’s legs!! This is disgusting: the girls you mentioned have fantastic figures. Note also that Suzy and Sulli are not even 18 yet! :|

Again, I am highly disappointed in the way Arirang is encouraging UNHEALTHY body images. These girls have nice legs, with well-developed muscles. Why is that so wrong? Are girls supposed to project a helpless, useless image so that men will like them, is that it?

Shame on you, Arirang, for all of these stories. Help promote healthy, positive images for women in Korea and the rest of the world and stop telling them that “healthy” or “sturdy” or “muscular” is a bad thing.

This is dumb. You’re promoting a ridiculous body image that will only make millions of girls insecure. These female celebs are perfect as they are. They don’t need a stick thin legs to support their upper bodies. As a broadcast station that goes international to promote South Korea and its culture, this only shows how ridiculous the standard of beauty and body image in Korea. Please re-evaluate the content of your programs and scripts before airing it. Avoid offensive contents like this.

This is an awful message. Arirang you are promoting body shaming and purporting that healthy body images (actually all of the ladies in this video are probably TOO skinny) are wrong or unfashionable.

As someone who has had to deal with body issues and faced extreme pain over it, I hope you know that this video harms those in it and those watching it. Suzy is only turning 17 this year. As a teenage girl, Arirang, you have disgusted me with your lack of respect to the celebrities and ignorance.

Do you realize how disgusting and twisted and WRONG it is for you to describe what you call imperfections in their lower bodies as “healthy.” If they are healthy, that means that don’t need to improve because they’re already perfect the way they are! The fact that you describe their supposedly imperfect legs as “healthy” implies that if they were to make the improvements you suggest, they would then become unhealthy. It’s this logic that pushes already beautiful women into eating disorders.

(Source: @ornamentity)

Later, another point from Lauren Deutsch:

Thanks, guys, for taking the conversation public. Is it being debated likewise in Korea? Therein lies the clue to why the video and its free-wheeling commodification of women’s bodies are considered enough of a norm to be created and aired at all. It’s easier to study the culture (and others like it) from afar, but to willfully live in country gives this feminist pause for concern about a quality of life.

Then from Michelle Cho:

I agree that it’s important to think about the cultural norms that this video reflects, rather than isolating Arirang as the source of the problem (though I agree that the media should be held responsible for their integral role in circulating these sorts of images and “reports”). Many of the commenters on the Arirang youtube channel reserved their ire for Arirang and its tone-deafness, without mentioning the public’s appetite for the manufacture of celebrity bodies whose “perfection” is precisely not “healthy” because, in many ways, it’s not supposed to be human.

And this seems a good point to mention that, in fact, Arirang gave a very good report on excessively high rates of cosmetic surgery in Korea back in April 2010, as I wrote about (but forgot) here. Stressing how some women wanted cosmetic surgery for a slimmer figure, despite already being slimmer than average, it’s both a pity and genuinely strange that Arirang would post a report with such a radically different message less than a year later:

Continuing with Michelle Cho’s comment:

As a bilingual researcher, I found [the original video] especially illuminating for the sense of estrangement it elicited in me, precisely because the report was delivered *in English*. This makes me wonder whether Arirang international simply translated and rerecorded the narration for an entertainment story that ran in Korean. (I don’t know much about the English language Arirang channel and whether it produces its own content). Stories like this are not uncommon on Korean language television; it’s likely that “healthy” was a poor translation (I can think of a couple words that can connote both “stocky” and “healthy” in Korean). But the main point I’m trying to make here is that the politics of language are certainly at play here and shouldn’t be minimized.

Update: With thanks to commenter dogdeyedblack for finding it, it was indeed originally from a Korean entertainment program, which can be seen (with a Korean transcript) here.

Finally, another aspect of the report that I found quite interesting had to do with the latent discourse of proportionality and phenotype, which came through in one of the “expert commentators” analysis of one of the celebrities’ decision to wear ankle boots with a mini-dress. The commentator explains that it is difficult for East Asian women to pull off this fashion, because of their proportions, so the stakes of the standardization of correct proportions could also be read as an expression of anxiety regarding Western beauty ideals, at the same time that it signifies a desire to erase “East Asian” characteristics. (I hope I won’t be misunderstood here–I’m not suggesting that any of these putatively ethnic characteristics be given any legitimacy, I’m just pointing out the way the discourse seems to be operating).

Echoing Lauren, my thanks for bringing this discussion to the list. I believe it’s far more complex than it may seem at first glance, and I hope we can take this beyond criticisms of Arirang (though I think that was a good place to start.)

(Source: @ornamentity)

From Henny Savenij:

I posted the video on Facebook and the Koreans liked it while the foreigners abhorred it, I guess that says enough.

Finally, from  Tommy Vorst:

Obviously, the piece is offensive to many.  But that’s not a crime.  And it’s certainly not out of step with the entire fashion-celebrity industry, in any country.  I can’t think of one that *doesn’t* consistently send out misogynist, unhealthy messages.  The idea that any of these women were “in need of improvement” is ludicrous, of course. But they have chosen a profession in which such scrutiny is understood, expected and even appreciated.  As a feminist, I cannot suggest that they are unwilling victims of such media criticism: they play the game voluntarily.

Arirang is no different from any other media outlet in its reporting: one need only look at any supermarket magazine rack or entertainment reporting programme to see that.  What is surprising is the (IMO disingenuous) shock some are expressing.  There is nothing shocking about such reports.  Arirang may be the self-appointed face of Korea outside Korea (though I dispute this), but looking at popular Hollywood websites suggests Arirang is more in-step with their western counterparts than it is likely to be ‘an embarrassment:’

This discussion is a valuable one.  One of our duties as academics is to shine the light on the cockroaches.  But let’s not pretend this is anything out of the ordinary: this is an example of endemic sexism, not a shocking outlier.  It’s appalling because of its normalcy.


What do you think? Was it indeed disingenuous to be shocked by the report, as Vorst suggests? Or, does the video clearly cross a line into promoting and not just reflecting on a current fashion trend, and a pernicious one at that?

Meanwhile, in the event that YouTube does remove the video again (but with thanks to Roald Maliangkay for reuploading it), please note that it can be downloaded here.


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.

Korean Sociological Image #28: Cosmetic Surgery Advertisements Featuring Caucasians


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

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

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

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

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

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

(Source: unknown)

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

So why?

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

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

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

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

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

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