Sitting on the floor of my uncle’s house in Seoul, I watched with a mixture of horror and fascination as a young woman came out on the television screen. She had undergone extensive plastic surgery on the South Korean show, 렛미인 (Let 美人), a reality program where regular people (usually women) receive free plastic surgery by agreeing to have their lives featured on TV.
I was watching the climax of the show, the big reveal where the participant came out and shocked viewers with her dramatic makeover. This girl had almost every plastic surgery procedure possible done on herself: a nose job, double-eyelid surgery, a forehead implant, jaw reduction surgery, etc. When her family members came out to see her, they couldn’t recognize her at all.
“Her mother and brother can’t even tell who she is anymore. Why would she change herself so much?” I exclaimed, in Korean.
“Isn’t it worth it, being beautiful?” replied my uncle.
At this, I had no response because as a woman, of course I could sympathize with the girl I saw on the screen, crying tears of joy over her new appearance. I myself put on makeup and try to dress nicely every day because I also want to be seen as beautiful and care about others’ perceptions of me. But looking at this young woman’s before and after pictures, I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable and even a little sad because while her former appearance was not like that of a model or a celebrity, she was not ugly or deformed like how others seemed to make her out to be.
I found myself unable to smile and clap for her like the audience members in the show were doing. She had undergone intense cosmetic surgery and major facial reconstruction, despite the fact that she had no real physical abnormalities and despite potential risks like facial paralysis, infection, lifelong pain, or worse, death.
And for what? All to be considered beautiful.
In South Korea, a lot of women and men don’t hesitate to go to extreme lengths to change their looks (like this girl on the show) because in a society where your appearance determines how others treat you, whether or not you get that high-paying job, or who you end up marrying, beauty becomes a sort of social power. Due to the strength of this social power in the country, South Korea has the highest rate of plastic surgery per capita in the world.
But Koreans aren’t using plastic surgery to pursue unique, individualistic appearances; rather, they attain the same ideal look: a small face with big eyes, a slim jawline, and a thin, high-set nose, all features that are more common amongst “white” Americans and Europeans but less common amongst Koreans.
If everyone pursues the same standards of beauty, their appearances inevitably become the same as well. Who could forget the uproar that Miss Korea (a South Korean beauty pageant) contestants created this year as their strikingly similar profile pictures went viral on the internet? There’s even a .GIF, highlighting how each woman’s face looks like the one before her.
With the popularity of plastic surgery, Seoul has become a city of cookie-cutter faces, since everyone goes under the knife to achieve exactly the same look. Gangnam (yes, of “Gangnam Style” fame), one of Seoul’s most affluent neighborhoods, is crammed with plastic surgery clinics, so much so that Koreans jokingly say that in Gangnam, everyone’s faces are identical.
If this “same face” epidemic continues, the statement “Asians all look alike” may very well transition from an ill-founded stereotype to a valid observation.