- Beauty Between EmpiresGlobal Feminism, Plastic Surgery, and the Trouble with Self-Esteem
Since 2012, when Korean rapper PSY’s “Gangnam Style” dominated US airwaves, television, and computer screens, the popularity of K-pop has created renewed interest among American media outlets and netizens in the topic of South Korean (hereafter Korea or Korean) plastic surgery consumption. The Atlantic featured a story on “The K-Pop Plastic Surgery Connection,” while Bloomberg News published on medical tourism in Korea: “Gangnam Style Nip and Tuck Draws Tourists to the Beauty Belt.”1 Buzzfeed’s story was more provocative, if strangely Eurocentric, asking “When Does Plastic Surgery Become Racial Transformation?”2 And most recently the New Yorker’s piece asks, “Why Is Seoul the World’s Plastic-Surgery Capital?”3 Other much more sensationalized reporting has produced images such as the “Miss Korea gif,” which went viral in less than forty-eight hours, appearing first on a Japanese blog, then Reddit, and then in national and international newspapers in April 2013. The gif, which compresses several still jpegs into moving images such that the beauty contestants’ faces morph one into the next at rapid speed, was meant to illustrate visually what Jezebel’s headline summed up as “Plastic Surgery Means Many Beauty Queens but Only One Kind of Face.”4
The gif—posted and reposted on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit and reported upon by countless outlets—signified “Korea’s plastic surgery mayhem,”5 as one Reddit user described it. Such characterizations pathologize Korean cosmetic surgery consumption as a push toward racialized uniformity defined by a singular national beauty aesthetic across diverse Korean women’s faces.6 For US feminists, however, the gif took on particular salience. Mainstream feminist sites such as Jezebel offered the gif as evidence of a bizarre form of racialized patriarchal oppression happening abroad, making it distinct from, and exotic in relation to, forms of heteropatriarchal violence in the United States. As such, Jezebel reported on the Miss Korea gif, and Korean plastic surgery consumption more generally, at least four times in the spring [End Page 1] and summer months of 2013, in articles such as “I Can’t Stop Looking at These Korean Women Who’ve Had Plastic Surgery.” As it turned out, however, the individual images making up the viral gif were photoshopped.7 What was issued as objective visual evidence of Korean women’s fanatic obsession with plastic surgery instead reveals a fanatic obsession on the part of Americans for producing and consuming Korean women as such.
Just a couple of months after the Miss Korea gif went viral in the United States, a Korean feminist nonprofit organization, Yŏsŏng Minuhoe (한국여성 민우회), known in English as Korean Womenlink (hereafter Womenlink), widely publicized a forum called “Apkujeong Station Exit #4: Let’s Talk about It.” A follow-up to their 2003 nationwide “Love Your Body” campaign, which sought to curb dieting and plastic surgery consumption among women, the forum’s title references the fact that nearly half of Seoul’s plastic surgery clinics are located in the Gangnam district (made world famous in PSY’s viral hit song), many of which can be accessed through the Apkujeong subway station and, more specifically, via the #4 exit from that stop.8 The forum was held in Seoul’s congressional building and sought public policy alternatives to curb a problem that the group asserts “has only gotten worse” since 2003.9 Besides Womenlink activists, the event featured a panel including a doctor, professor, television director, and lawyer, with a congressional representative giving closing remarks.10 The specialists provided insights into what they saw as the major factors fueling the cosmetic surgery industry as well as possible solutions to the problem. For Womenlink activists, it was a time to reflect on the ten years since their “Love Your Body” campaign.
That Korean plastic surgery consumption would occupy the minds of Jezebel writers, editors, and millions of readers as well as Womenlink’s members, panelists, and forum attendees at roughly the same time—feminists from opposite ends of the world, so to speak—illuminates several key issues. First, such interest attests to the...