Sharon Heijin Lee is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University whose research agenda explores the imperial routes that culture and media travel. In addition to her book manuscript, The Geopolitics of Beauty, which maps the discursive formation of plastic surgery in South Korea, Asia, and Asian America, Lee is co-editing two anthologies. The first, From Bollywood to Hallyuwood: Mapping the Affect of Power and Pleasure Across Pop Empires, is forthcoming in 2016 from University of Hawai'i Press and examines the overlaps, similarities and disjunctures between Hollywood, Bollywood and Hallyuwood as global pop culture formations. The second anthology, The Global Circuits of Fashion and Beauty, tracks fashion and beauty coming from and through Asia as formations of new Asian modernities. Lee has been featured in The Atlantic, The Korea Times, and Southern California Public Radio discussing culture and politics in Korea and Asian America and has been published in Women and Performance: Journal of Feminist Theory and Frontiers: Journal of Women's Studies. The interview with Prof. Lee was conducted on Feb. 4, 2016, by Alexandra Cheng '18.
The plastic surgery rates in South Korea are now among the highest in the world. How do you explain the phenomenal growth of this industry over the past decade?
South Korea has the highest rate of plastic surgery per capita globally and this is really astonishing. To historically contextualize this trend, the first discourses on plastic surgery emerged during the Japanese colonial period. In elite Japanese newspapers, the Japanese themselves were discussing plastic surgery as one way to change their physical bodies, to overcome some of what they perceived to be their physical inferiority compared to Westerners. Within this historical context, Japan was trying to become a superpower in its own right—to become like or to surpass the Western superpowers.
Korea, because it was a colonial subject of Japan, was privy to these debates. The Korean elites were actually discussing similar topics, but were thinking about plastic surgery as a way for them to get out from under Japanese colonial rule. The Japanese were thinking about themselves and their physical bodies in comparison to Westerners while Koreans were thinking about their bodies in relation to the Japanese. This was how discourses on plastic surgery operated for both countries during that time.
However, plastic surgery was not available to the masses until the end of the Korean War. At the end of the Korean War, the U.S. military had occupied South Korea and it was making all kinds of humanitarian efforts to create relationships with the Koreans. They would give out candy and chocolate, and also performed reconstructive surgery on those injured during the war. One of these reconstructive surgeons then began performing cosmetic procedures on Koreans. This particular procedure, colloquially known as the “double eyelid surgery,” is not reconstructive in nature but purely cosmetic. The surgeon said that he was helping to alleviate Koreans of their “suspicious-looking eye.”
While Korea’s first plastic surgery clinic opened in the 1960s, the high rates of plastic surgery that we see today only began after the 1997 financial crisis. Unemployment rates jumped form 3 percent to 20 percent and the job market became immensely competitive. As such, people started searching for a competitive edge in any way possible. Plastic surgery became one of these ways because Korean resumes require photographs. People were doing anything that they could, and their looks became one way of getting a leg up on the competition.
Currently, such competition appears in multiple arenas. For instance, Koreans spend upward of 15 billion dollars on English academies for their children in order to help them be more competitive in the academic and job markets in the future. Furthermore, Korean students make up the third largest group of international students enrolled in U.S. colleges after India and China. You can see a lot of ways that Koreans spend money in order to get a leg up on the job market and the social arena. In a way, plastic surgery is considered a monetary investment made toward one’s future wellbeing or future advancement.
Your writings have linked cosmetic surgery to the concept of the Korean Dream, such that plastic surgery represents the promise of a better life. How does the industry promote itself as offering a new social identity and economic reality?
This is a really relevant question these days, particularly with the rise in the global popularity of Korean pop culture. The intersection between Korea’s plastic surgery industry and Korea’s pop culture industry is critical. The plastic surgery industry, or the beauty industry, doesn't need to do much advertising when one thinks of popular culture as advertising. The pop stars that we see in music videos and the actors and actresses that we see in the dramas embody this Korean look or this Korean modernity. It is perpetuated and portrayed in Korean dramas and films.
It is when these representations travel outside of Korea into different parts of Asia and when pop culture consumers are consuming these representations of Korea, that plastic surgery becomes a way of embodying these representations of living the South Korean lifestyle presented through the media. Even if you can't necessarily live that lifestyle or live in Korea, you can emulate that type of look, either by changing your body through plastic surgery or by consuming beauty products like cosmetics or skincare.
Your work covers the diversity of opinion about cosmetic surgery in South Korea. For example, you have written about two prominent cases of plastic surgery, Ok Joohyun, who was positively viewed for her makeover, and Han Hyegyung, who was widely criticized for excessive surgery. You have also described the divided opinions of the doctors represented in Before and After Plastic Surgery Clinic. Would you say that Korean society is strongly divided over the pervasiveness of plastic surgery?
What is important to think about with those examples is that with any cultural societal phenomenon, there become ways that these anxieties become regulated or normalized. There is this idea that there should be a way of measuring right or wrong, even if it is not on a conscious level. The “fan lady” Han Hyegyung is an example of too much plastic surgery—a lesson to consume with moderation. Then there is the desirable kind of consumption of plastic surgery exemplified by Ok Joohyun. In the Before and After Plastic Surgery Clinic, the disagreement between the doctors is a back and forth discussion of what is the appropriate way to consume plastic surgery; if Koreans are going to consume so much of it, what is the right way to do so?
By and large, the discourse on plastic surgery is that it is okay to consume as long as you're changing yourself for the better—that you're changing yourself one, in a way that brings your body closer to the accepted standard of beauty and two, that you do so because of self improvement. This norm has since become the moral of the story behind Before and After Plastic Surgery Clinic and other cultural productions.
In the film 200 Pounds of Beauty, the protagonist goes through a huge transformation but keeps it a secret from everyone. At the very end of the film, she confesses to the public and comes clean about her past plastic surgery procedure. It is the kind of tale where these visible transformations are accepted as long as the patient remains morally intact. By confessing, she has done the morally correct thing and all is forgiven.
These instances of controversy indicate society’s need for a set of rules about what the right and wrong kind of consumption within society is.
How effective have media campaigns, like those by Womenlink, been in changing norms of beauty? Do the national media give sufficient attention to anti-surgery campaigns?
The media has not changed all that much because of anti-plastic surgery campaigns and that that has a lot to do with the fact that these are multimillion-dollar industries that are all interconnected. The culture industry is funded by the federal government and the medical tourism industry is also funded by the federal government. Not only are these two industries connected and serve one another, but the federal government also has a vested interest in their success. It is difficult to regulate industries like that when, to put it bluntly, they're such moneymakers and there's so much profit to be made there. Campaigns such as Womenlink’s were really effective in raising awareness; they did a wonderful job of reaching out to the young women in particular. Yet, little has changed by way of formal regulations of either the media or the plastic surgery industry.
The Western media’s portrayal of plastic surgery in South Korea is often superficial. What do Western media accounts most commonly misunderstand about the pressures on Korean women to undergo cosmetic surgery?
The thing that is usually the most misconstrued is that Korean women undergo plastic surgery to look more Western, to have more Western features, or to look white—and this is a particularly American perspective because race is so important within U.S. society. This is not to say that race doesn't matter in Korea or that Koreans are not affected by racism or race—they certainly are. But they also live in Korea where different sets of societal forces exist.
First and foremost, if you were to ask a Korean man and woman about plastic surgery, they would never say that they are trying to look Western or white. That’s not really in their consciousness when they're speaking of beauty features or beauty standards. Many of them will talk about the competitive job market, the marriage market, and, if they were to talk about beauty standards now, they would talk about their own culture industry, that most of the stars, actors, and actresses have had some kind of work done.
Western journalists are missing the actual voice of Koreans. There is an assumption based on what the "look" looks like to them, through their perspective, but rarely do you hear from actual Koreans about these plastic surgeries. Moreover, this Western portrayal of plastic surgery culture is not contextualized—it is not contextualized within Korea’s economic, social, political history.
Often we think of beauty as the frivolous domain of the everyday. We think it is unimportant or considered fluff. What I’m trying to show with my work is that beauty practices are very much linked to the bigger social, political, and economic forces; we can actually talk about US imperialism and link it to Korean beauty practices; we can talk about Korean neoliberal economic policy and link it to Korean beauty practices. Such reporting that attempts to expose the complicated link between plastic surgery and the social, political, and economic factors often gets lost in Western or US journalistic accounts of Korean plastic surgery consumption.
Korea has now become a destination country for plastic surgery, with high rates of patients coming from China, Japan and Singapore. What are the most significant implications of South Korea becoming this plastic surgery hub?
The most significant implication of this phenomenon is that it is indicative of Korea’s place in the global stage at the moment. South Korea is definitely not the first place to have a medical tourism industry so having a medical tourism industry in and of itself is not that significant. However, the way in which Asians from other countries are looking to Korea, to Korean pop culture, and to Korean actors, actresses, and pop stars as models of beauty, indicates the kind of cultural hegemony or soft power that South Korea now has in Asia. And this cultural hegemony is undoubtedly linked to the economic power and political presence that South Korea has in that region.
The high rates of medical tourists, the influx of regular tourists who may be traveling to see the set of his or her favorite K-drama, and the increase in non-Korean Asians learning Korean right now are clear indicators of South Korea’s global political power, particularly within Asia.
There are other interesting, smaller implications of Korea’s medical tourism industry. For example, Chinese medical tourists, who account for the majority of medical tourists, have had to be issued certificates to prove that they had had plastic surgery because so many of them were getting detained at the airport for looking different from their passport photographs. There are these unforeseen hiccups that resulted in this altered exit process, which is just another type of wacky implication of Korea’s medical tourism industry.
Do you expect to see a growth in the domestic cosmetic surgery industries in other countries in the region, or is there something specific to Korea that has fostered the extraordinary growth of the industry?
I don't formally do research on other Asian countries, but I have heard through other people's research that rates of plastic surgery in other countries, particularly developing Asian countries, are growing. Moreover, consumption of beauty or skincare products is also on the rise, with Korean brands in particular being highly sought after.
Research by Kimberly Hoang, a sociologist who has studied Vietnam, shows that the Vietnamese plastic surgery clinics advertise via signboards or word of mouth that they have been trained by Korean plastic surgeons, claiming that, “We do Korean plastic surgery.” This is a huge indicator that plastic surgery isn't just big in Korea but is also growing in these other Asian countries. It is very much influenced by not only South Korean looks and representations of South Korean lifestyles, but also South Korea’s medical technology.