The (Geo)Politics of Korean Cosmetic Surgery


A review of The (Geo)Politics of Beauty: Race, Transnationalism, and Neoliberalism in South Korean Beauty Culture, by Sharon Heijin Lee.

This dissertation takes an interdisciplinary and transnational Asian/American feminist approach to examine the popularity of cosmetic surgery in South Korea (hereafter Korea). Rather than “ask[ing] why Korean women undergo procedures at the highest rates per capita globally and pathologiz[ing] them for doing so, [the] dissertation … maps the discursive formation of plastic surgery by asking how it has become normalized as economically necessary … examin[ing] the competing discourses that shape a regime of truth that posits cosmetic surgery as a viable mode of economic investment” (5).

As Lee notes, much of the academic literature on cosmetic surgery tends to assume a moral stance that reproduces an either/or binary in which female consumers are seen either as passive victims of patriarchy or empowered agents who choose to manipulate the patriarchy to their advantage (28-29). In both cases, the decision to go under the knife is always linked to issues of identity and personhood. This is intensified when issues of race and ethnicity enter the picture. Nonwhite cosmetic surgery consumers, particularly Asian and Asian diasporic women, are often represented not only as gender victims but also racial ones who have internalized Eurocentric aesthetic values, undertaking certain procedures—especially the double eyelid surgery (and increasingly those that reshape the nose and jaw)—in order to look like “white” women (22-23).

In a refreshing move, Lee takes an alternate route, looking instead at how Korean cosmetic surgery as an emerging cultural formation is being promoted, critiqued, and negotiated in Korea and the US. Through close, contextualized readings of different kinds of discourse on Korean cosmetic surgery—from news media and mediated fiction to government policy and social activism—she demonstrates how this practice exemplifies inherent contradictions of South Korean modernity, which has been shaped by Japanese colonization and US economic, military, and cultural imperialism. Ultimately Lee argues that the normalization of cosmetic surgery among Korean women is not as freakishly exceptional as currently depicted outside Korea and especially in the West, but rather stems from increasingly universal notions of the “model neoliberal citizen [who] … calculates her choices within multiple spheres—economic, political, social—rather than attempting to alter these spheres” (27).

Much like anthropologists Alexander Edmonds and Laura Miller, who have written on beauty practices and cosmetic surgery in Brazil and Japan respectively (Alexander Edmonds, Pretty Modern: Beauty, Sex, and Plastic Surgery in Brazil. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010; Laura Miller, Beauty Up: Exploring Contemporary Japanese Body Aesthetics), Lee extends the scope of the predominantly Western scholarship on cosmetic surgery by focusing on the effects of neoliberalism on the aspiring middle-class consumption practices of beauty and body work in Korea (Debra Gimlin, Body Work: Beauty and Self-Image in American Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002; Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Commodifying Bodies. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2003, 1-8; Kathy Davis, Reshaping the Female Body: The Dilemma of Cosmetic Surgery. London: Routledge, 1994). In doing so, she makes significant interventions in Body Studies, Korean and Asian Feminist Studies (Chungmoo Choi and Elaine Kim, eds., Dangerous Women: Gender and Korean Nationalism. New York: Routledge, 1998; Seungsook Moon, Militarized Modernity and Gendered Citizenship in South Korea. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005; Chang Pilwha and Kim Eun Shil, eds., Women’s Experiences and Feminist Practices in South Korea, Seoul: Ewha Womans University Press, 2005) and the ever-growing scholarship on the regional and global circulation of Korean popular culture (Chi-Yun Shin and Julian Stringer, eds., New Korean Cinema. New York: New York University Press, 2005; Chua Beng Huat and Koichi Iwabuchi, eds., East Asian Popular Culture: Analysing the Korean Wave. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2008; Do Kyun Kim and Min-Sun Kim, Hallyu: Influence of Korean Popular Culture in Asia and Beyond. Seoul: Seoul National University Press, 2011).

At the same time, Lee makes a crucial intervention in American Studies as well. She demonstrates how cosmetic surgical procedures in Asia and among Asian Americans in the US initially were linked to a kind of colonization of consciousness as the desire to look (and thereby become) “modern” was equated with westernization in the greater part of the 20th century (Eugenia Kaw, “Medicalization of Racial Features: Asian American Women and Cosmetic Surgery.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 7, no. 1 (March 1993): 74-89; David Palumbo-Liu, Asian/America: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997, 81-115). However, through her study of the evolution of cosmetic surgery in Korea since the mid-1990s, it becomes apparent that as ideas of what constitute the modern have shifted in the 21st century, notions of Asian (and indeed “ethnic”) cosmetic surgery cannot be reduced—if they ever could have been—solely to the desire for racial and cultural assimilation.

Lee’s comparative approach yields the insight that “[w]hile Asian American studies scholarship on plastic surgery focuses on the salience of race in the self-identity fashioning of South Korean women, South Korean scholarship sees cosmetic surgery as a symbol of the excesses of late capitalism” (7). In unpacking this binary throughout the dissertation, Lee effectively decenters the dominance of whiteness in the popular and scholarly discourse on Asian cosmetic surgery. In the process, she opens up space to consider how the ideology of capitalist aspiration in the concept of the American Dream has become part of the narrative of South Korean identity and reworked as a “Korean Dream,” expressed aesthetically through images of beautiful, cosmopolitan bodies in Korean TV dramas, which are consumed—and sometimes literally embodied—by local and regional viewers.

By reading Korean texts alongside US ones and considering diasporic flows of ideas and bodies between the US and South Korea, Lee answers calls to transnationalize Asian American Studies (Kandice Chuh and Karen Shimakawa, eds., Orientations: Mapping Studies in the Asian Diaspora. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001, 1-24). And by looking at cosmetic surgery as a particular form of gendered geopolitics—a “mode of regulation in which discourses of territoriality, space and nationalism produce forms of subjectivity” (6), she makes an important contribution to transnational feminist cultural scholarship (Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan, eds., Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994). Last but certainly not least, Lee complements this interdisciplinary work with an impressive mixed methodology, combining situated ethnographies in two sites—LA and Seoul—and rigorous close readings of media texts and policy documents. What emerges is a rich and nuanced account of Korean cosmetic surgery as a symptom of Korean modernity.

Chapter 1, “Lessons from ‘Around the World with Oprah’: Neoliberalism, Race and the Geopolitics of Beauty,” opens with a highly visible example of the ways in which Korean—and by extension Asian—women who opt for cosmetic surgery are represented in US media. Lee considers how Oprah echoes dominant US discourses by limiting the decisions of Korean and Korean American women patients to the either/or binary mentioned earlier, as empowering or oppressive, as wanting to look “Asian” or “white.” Lee points out the ways in which this framing of South Korean is based on (neo)liberal notions of choice that structure second wave feminism, eliding not only Korean women’s agency but just as, if not more importantly, the larger economic and social issues that would prompt them to get certain procedures.

She suggests that Oprah’s framing of this phenomenon, like much US coverage, is neo-colonialist in its obsession with certain procedures like the ssangkkŏp’ul or double eyelid surgery, which becomes read as a symptom of Korean women’s racial oppression in stark contrast to the “liberated” conditions in which Euro-American women make “choices” to modify their bodies. This is done through the mediating roles that Oprah and Chinese American journalist Lisa Ling play as American women of color, “ironically … flatten[ing] their crucial differences [with women of color] but fail[ing] to connect South Korean and American women vis-à-vis their neoliberal justifications for engaging in plastic surgery” (70). The chapter ends with a brief discussion of a documentary film, good for her, by Korean American filmmaker Elizabeth Lee, which provides the voices of Korean women erased in the Oprah episode. Lee notes that even as it focuses on the agency of these women, the film, like the Oprah episode, does not question the social ethos of neoliberalism that structures how agency is articulated.

Chapter 2, “Consuming Commodities: Body Work, Gender, and Modernity in South Korean Film,” interrogates the relationship between South Korea and the US further by posing connections between two dominant western stereotypes of Korean women—the surgery consumer and the yangkongju, or “western princess,” a pejorative term for Korean US military sex workers. While disparate with regard to class and time—the surgery consumer is contemporary and middle-class, the yangkongju, a reminder of the Korean War and poor or working-class—the two representations are linked, as forms of gendered “body work” that function as “sites upon which notions of tradition and modernity are enacted, preformed and constructed” (85). Lee teases out these connections in her readings of cosmetic surgery as a trope for colonialism and neoliberalism in three South Korean films, Address Unknown (2001) and Time (2006) directed by Kim Ki-duk and Cinderella (2006) directed by Bong Man-dae. In contrast to the documentary media of the previous chapter, these films depict female protagonists’ choices to surgically alter their bodies and the individual and social consequences that they must as a result. Lee fleshes out the complicated ways in which the directors tie cosmetic surgery to questions of modernity and national identity—whether it is a schoolgirl’s acceptance then violent rejection of eye correction surgery from her Anglo-American military boyfriend in Address Unknown or a woman’s desire to test the authenticity of her romantic relationship by changing her face in Time or a mother’s guilt for transplanting the face of a poor orphan onto her daughter in Cinderella. In each narrative, cosmetic surgery calls forth hopes, fears, and anxieties underlying the ongoing process of modernization.

Chapter 3, “Entertaining Beauty: Hallyu, Cosmetic Surgery and South Korea’s Burgeoning Medical Tourism Industry,” picks up on the introduction to Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, provided in Chapter 2, discussing how its “multiple forms—film, television serials, and music—serve not only as cultural products in their own right but also as international advertisements for South Korea’s plastic surgery clinics” (92). Referring to (usually mediated) cultural products from South Korea, Hallyu has grown in popularity in Asia and around the world since the mid-’90s, when the Korean government began to develop the cultural export industry as a response to the 1997 IMF crisis and as part of its globalization plan, or segyehwa. In this chapter, Lee draws on data from government policy documents and interviews conducted with Korea Tourism Organization representatives to consider the ways in which dominant discourses of neoliberal consumer subjects in Korean TV dramas and the growing medical tourism industry are “mutually constitutive” (42).

Lee looks at depictions of cosmetic surgery in three highly successful TV dramas, Before and After: Plastic Surgery Clinic (2008), My Lovely Samsoon (2005), and Boys Over Flowers (2009), showing how they “construct a fantasy space for viewers that, depending on their geopolitical location, enacts either nostalgic or aspirational ‘Korean Dreams’” (42-43). Comparing the appeal of TV dramas for older Japanese female fans with their younger Chinese counterparts, Lee suggests that the “Korean Dream” involves a projection of viewers’ desires for change based on their own national and economic positioning. Many of these viewers visit Korea as tourists to consume the sets and locations of their favorite dramas, and in some cases, attempt to embody literally their fantasy of the “Korean Dream” by engaging in beauty and surgical procedures branded as Korean. Accordingly, her analyses take into account these paratexts, showing how the affluent, cosmopolitan identities and lifestyles displayed in TV dramas become sites of fantasy for Asian viewers—and how these fantasies help fuel national economic growth through tourism.

Chapter 4, “’Love Your Body’: Lookism, Feminist Organizing, and Dangerous Corporations,” diverges from previous chapters by centering on local modes of resistance to cosmetic surgery as normalized practice. Here the dissertation comes full circle, supplying the Korean feminist voices missing in the Orientalist coverage of Korean cosmetic surgery in Chapter 1. In 2003, the South Korean feminist non-profit organization Yŏsŏng Minuhoe, known as Womenlink in English, launched a nationwide campaign called “Love Your Body” that encouraged girls and women to critique the increasingly normalized culture of “lookism.” Lee gives a case study of this campaign, suggesting that it “offers a critical counterpoint to Western discourses on South Korean cosmetic surgery consumption that overdetermine the salience of race” (193). It did so by “organizing around the politics of the everyday,” pointing out the collusion between the media and the medical industry and the interpellation of their beauty norms by women in Korea. Womenlink “sponsored health-oriented outreach programs, launched a monitoring campaign of television shows, women’s magazines and daily newspapers … issued legal complaints against cosmetic surgery clinics and diet food companies and produced a satiric, mockumentary style educational video called Knifestyle …” which Lee examines closely in the second part of the chapter (203).

Lee draws on primary sources in Korea, interviews with Womenlink members and the ordinary Korean women the campaign addressed, and self-reflections based on a year of ethnographic work in Seoul as a Korean American woman who experiences, firsthand, the pervasive power of the disciplinary regimes of beauty in which she begins to feel imbricated. What distinguishes Womenlink from the kind of US feminism discussed in Chapter 1 is its emphasis on collective organizing rather than advocating for the agency and power of individuals. Instead of reproducing the neoliberal terms that dictate the ways in which certain (often painful and impossible) standards of beauty have become normalized in Korea, the campaign sought to redirect the burden of transformation to the media and clinics that perpetuate these standards for profit.

As should already be apparent, this dissertation is incredibly original and groundbreaking—not only with respect to the timely topic that it examines, but also with respect to the truly interdisciplinary and transnational approach that Lee uses to dissect the multiple conflicting discourses around Korean cosmetic surgery and its relationship to the global emergence of Korean popular culture—itself constituting and promoting a makeover narrative of the nation that is produced for local and international consumption. I have no doubt that once this study is published as a book it will have significant impact in a number of fields including Body Studies, Korean, Asian and Asian American Studies, Media Studies and Gender and Cultural Studies.

Jane Chi Hyun Park
Department of Gender and Cultural Studies
University of Sydney

Primary Sources

Around the World with Oprah (2004)
Time (Kim Ki-duk, 2006)
Cinderella (Bong Man-dae, 2006)
Before and After: Plastic Surgery Clinic (2008)
Boys Over Flowers (2009)

Dissertation Information

The University of Michigan. 2012. 256pp. Primary Advisors: Nadine C. Naber and Maria S. See

Image: Woman Introducing Machine. Wikimedia.

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