Nickeled & Dimed

Penny for your thoughts?

We are accepting articles on our new email:

, ,

Forced Beauty: Plastic Surgery and the Korean Compulsion

By: Aadya Chaturvedi

Abstract: This article deeply delves into South Korea, the world’s plastic surgery capital. It explores how unrealistic beauty standards affect women’s self-image and compel them to pursue plastic surgery to access basic professional and social opportunities. It further analyses the cultural and historical background of South Korea and why women have been subjected to the minute and unrelenting scrutiny of their external appearance. With booming rates of women opting for these surgical procedures, it becomes important to investigate the nexus between these women’s insecurities, how they are perpetuated, and how the plastic surgery industry benefits from the same.

South Korea has been in global news for more than a decade now, for its pioneering skincare products, for its healthy yet flavourful food, and the newest, strongest, most prevalent soft-power phenomenon: the K-Pop industry. However, there is another, slightly unusual industry that the nation is known for. South Korea is also known as the plastic surgery capital of the world, where around one million plastic surgery procedures take place in a year. Estimates suggest that a staggering 1 in 3 South Korean women between the ages of 19 to 29 have had plastic surgery. Not just Korean nationals, the industry commands global fidelity with leading technology, uber-skilled doctors, and competitive prices. However, such remarkable rates of reliance on cosmetic alterations are skewed along gendered lines. While men also form part of the consumer group, as per a 2020 survey, only 2% of the men aged 19-29 had undergone plastic surgery. Moreover, qualitative studies suggest that South Korea has traditionally placed a higher amount of pressure on its women to adhere to a certain standard of beauty, with substantive repercussions on their social and professional lives if they fail to do so. 

There are various cultural, historical, and patriarchal reasons for this phenomenon. This article seeks to dissect the ways in which the South Korean beauty and plastic surgery industry benefits from unattainable standards of beauty and the socio-cultural pressure on women to conform to the same. Without going into value judgements on whether it is empowering or deplorable for so many women to depend on cosmetic surgery, the article merely explores the roots of the cultural acceptance of plastic surgery and the patriarchal elements that create an illusion of choice, misrepresenting women as agents who willingly opt for surgery instead of being pressured into it. 

Artificial Beauty Standards

In the South Korean context, women contribute immensely to the growth of the plastic surgery industry, and in turn, the surgical procedures they get enhance their access, ability, and power to obtain their desired commodities and resources. This is a part of the rising culture of lookism, known in Korean as “외모지상주의 (oe-mo-ji-sang-ju-ui),” wherein one’s external appearance greatly influences their personal and professional prospects. With reference to career growth, it is well established in South Korea that those who are conventionally attractive have a higher chance of getting recruited, succeeding in interviews, or thriving in the workplace. There exists, however, a glaring double standard in the degree of importance accorded to looks between male and female employees. Studies have shown that while the criteria for male interviewees usually include their personality and presentation, attractiveness and beauty are the foremost considerations for women. As a result of this disparity, women are compelled to change their physical appearance in a drastic manner to even get a chance to show their skills and professional talent. In fact, surveys have revealed that one of the primary reasons why people undergo plastic surgery is because it improves chances of securing lucrative employment and rising up the economic ladder subsequently. 

It is important to note that in the above surveys, all participants including men have admitted that the pressure to look ‘attractive’ has and does remain disproportionately higher on women. While men may get away with being ‘overweight and unattractive,’ if women do the same, several negative connotations are attached to their external appearance. For example, some stereotypes associated with external unattractiveness are that the person is lazy, gives up easily, is anti-social and incompetent. Naturally, these stereotypes, if deeply entrenched, would affect the prospects of a potential employee. Still, it is alarming to note that they are attached to characteristics as immutable as facial features or body structure. In this environment, women must go through invasive and highly painful cosmetic procedures just to be able to display the intellectual and academic skills they strive to earn. 

Surgery does not remain limited to an individual choice, as parental influence is also a major reported reason for plastic surgery among young adults. However, it is predictably higher for women than for men, at 21% and 15%, respectively. This means that parents not only accept but also encourage or force their daughters to get surgery. In fact, it is a practice in South Korea for female high school students to get blepharoplasty or double eyelid surgery, which is the most common cosmetic procedure in the country, as ‘graduation gifts’ from their parents and these girls form approximately 70% of all plastic surgery patients. 

How it all Began

The above discussion begs the following questions: What is the origin of this beauty standard that South Korean women must adhere to? What is the root of the perceived flaws and imperfections that society compels these women to see in their external appearance? What impact does plastic surgery have on the concerned demographic when all women aspire to one singular standard and go under the knife to accomplish it?

Kim (2003) writes about Korea’s Neo-Confucian culture, which was followed for 500 years and required women to remain as ‘subjectless’ bodies or mere vessels for reproduction. Their only worth was in their corporeal form, which meant that their bodies were subjected to strict and absolute control. All women wore the same, heavily layered clothing so that their bodies and figures were completely concealed, and they were relegated to the innermost corners of the house, never to be seen in public. Kim argues that the strict, militant adherence to the Korean beauty standard in a consumer society is a perpetuation of the internalised lack of subjecthood and collectivism stemming from a Neo-Confucian ideology. The culture of conformity is a manifestation of the ideal of ‘subjectlessness’ which makes beauty a compulsion. This beauty must remain uniform across all women; it creates the pressure to harmonize and allows no expression of individuality. Women have no option but to undergo plastic surgery in such an atmosphere. This creates a homogenising effect wherein conformity to one beauty standard destroys the subjectivity in women’s external appearances, much like in Neo-Confucian times. 

In contrast, writers like Woo (2004) argue that plastic surgery procedures in South Korea only serve to give women more Western or European-looking features. Blepharoplasty is a procedure that transforms a monolid into a double eyelid, a feature possessed by only about 50% of East Asian people but commonly by most Caucasians. Skin whitening and breast enlargement are other procedures that are claimed to be undergone by women with the objective of looking Western. However, this argument has been debunked in two ways by authors. Firstly, a lighter or paler skin tone has traditionally been associated with affluence in Korea since it signifies little to no hard agricultural labour in the sun and bigger eyes merely create a younger look. These are not features pointing to a Westernising tendency. The second argument has to do with the colonial history of South Korea. After several decades of Japanese rule, in a bid to rid itself of all Japanese influence in a sort of ‘anti-other’ movement, Korean women began to opt for plastic surgery to give them features that were borrowed from the West but still moulded to fit the Korean face. Thus, South Korea employed plastic surgery to channel the West and oust the traditional East Asian face that was reminiscent of their Japanese oppressors. The resultant beauty standard was, however, uniquely Korean.

Lastly, physiognomy is another reason for the massive emphasis on external appearances in South Korea. Physiognomy is the belief that a person’s physical features determine their personality, characteristics, and future. This belief was reinforced when a former Korean president’s mother smashed her teeth in with a rock after a monk told her that her son would be successful only if her teeth were not so protruding. As a result, Koreans place great importance on ‘auspicious’ features. This importance intensifies when it comes to women as they are under a disproportionate amount of pressure to perform well both in the marriage and employment markets. Conventionally beautiful women have a higher chance of finding suitable, financially stable men to marry and several South Korean women report having enjoyed a spike in male attention after getting plastic surgery. 


The above background is necessary to understand the cultural acceptance of plastic surgery in South Korea and why the Western criticism based on individual expression and freedom of choice might not be enough to deal with the complexities of the issue. Regardless of its background and justifications, the industry still benefits from vulnerable young women and their insecurities. Media and the cutthroat beauty industry of South Korea peddle an unattainable and unrealistic beauty standard, such as a small face, sharply pointed nose, and a V-shaped jaw, all of which go against natural and traditional East-Asian or Korean features. As Woo Keung-Ja (2004) has termed it, the plastic surgery industry of South Korea operates on a profitable economic logic that perpetuates a beauty complex and obsession with external appearance among women. Her interviews include many testimonies in which women who did not fall into the ‘conventionally attractive’ category expressed disillusionment with the social structure of the country as a whole, stating that they simply ‘had to become pretty’ as appearances were the only thing that seemed to matter in South Korea. 

On the other hand, it can also be viewed as a positive change that women are assuming agency in their own lives and taking necessary measures to eradicate the source of their insecurities. They engage in active pleasure-seeking behaviours by changing those aspects of their appearance that make them unhappy. However, when the root of these insecurities is examined, it can be seen that the deep-rooted beauty standard and its promotion and reinforcement by the media and celebrities cause women to view their perfectly healthy bodies as flawed. On the surface, it does seem that South Korean women exercise their choice and voluntarily opt for plastic surgery, but delving deeper into the excessive normalisation of lookism and the dire lack of opportunities for those who do not conform to the standard renders this choice a mere illusion. 

Author’s Bio: Aadya Chaturvedi is a student at Jindal Global Law School, pursuing B.A.L.L.B. (Hons.) in the batch of 2020-25. Her areas of interest are feminist economics, gender studies, Human Rights law, and child rights.

Image Source: New Beauty

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: