The U.S.’s Biased Gaze on Foreign Plastic Surgery

When reading about South Korean plastic surgery, I can’t help but think about Brazil, a nation where there is such astounding numbers and support of plastic surgery that it is considered a public right. In the AlterNet article, Han quotes a doctor in saying, “liposuction, breast augmentation and facelift, which are the most popular plastic surgery procedures in Western countries, are not so popular in Korea.” In Brazil, the most popular plastic surgeries are breast implants and liposuction, along with the U.S. where the most common procedure is breast augmentation.

We saw the incredible “Price of Beauty” video in class, where Jessica Simpson went to Brazil, condescendingly criticized their plastic surgery practices, and then danced Samba with her co-stars. But something that constantly came up in the episode was how proud Brazilians are about their plastic surgery procedures, and how it didn’t carry the same shame there that it does here in the United States. There is more of a stigma in this country attached to elective cosmetic surgery, and I think this stigma affects how we view plastic surgery in countries like South Korea and Brazil.

Coincidentally, this morning on the train ride to work, I took this picture:


And it got me thinking, this is one of maybe two advertisements I’ve seen for plastic surgery, the other I remember being for a nose job. I didn’t even notice it at first, the lady across the car from me brought my attention to it after she looked up and laughed out loud. She obviously found this amusing, probably because of how rare these images are here, but if we look at the picture we saw in class today, according to Professor Lee, most of these ads are for cosmetic surgery clinics all in the area in South Korea.


The shock that we express at things like that would be pretty out of place there. I think that this example speaks to the stigma we have attached to plastic surgery in this country, and how we’ve let our prejudices color our gaze on these countries. We talk about the so-called “extreme” plastic surgeries in Brazil and South Korea, and then we turn around and televise and watch shows like “Extreme Makeover,” and “Bridalplasty” where the contestants get an outstanding amount of plastic surgery done. I think it’s definitely easy to point at those countries and say, “well we would never be that extreme” the same way we turn and watch these exaggerated shows as a way to separate ourselves from that behavior, but truth is, the majority of the population indulges in beauty practices and, since there is an argument to be made for seeing plastic surgery as a a slightly more drastic form of self-care, maybe we as a country are in no position to be criticizing others choice of beauty practices.


9 thoughts on “The U.S.’s Biased Gaze on Foreign Plastic Surgery

  1. Karla, I’m so happy you brought up that subway ad – I’ve seen it so much recently and in all honesty, I initially had the same exact reaction as the woman you speak of. It’s such a perfect example to compare to the openness we’ve seen regarding plastic surgery in Brazil and South Korea. In areas like science and technology, there’s been this constant notion that Asia is far more advanced than the United States. In many ways, I really feel as though this sense of advancement trickles down into culture and specifically the ways that science and technology have been used for beauty practices. To go back a few weeks and quote Susan Douglas’s “Narcissism as Liberation”, “Science and technology were the most effective agents of luxurious narcissism…women’s servants…through which women could remake themselves, conquer time and conquer nature by overcoming their genetic nature” (253). It seems to make perfect linear sense that with advancements in technology come advancements in beauty practices meaning more affordable surgeries, meaning more surgeries and finally: exposures to such surgeries. If we see something enough, it begins to become the norm. Currently, at least in my life, plastic surgery (or at least plastic surgery that is publicized) is something reserved for specific types or classes of people (aging celebrities and Orange County housewives or “bimbos” – to name the most prevalent). Cases that reside outside of these are rarely spoken of. We don’t want others to know that we’ve fixed a crooked nose, got our ears pinned back, and such. We’ve emphasized this notion of natural beauty – really the direct opposite of South Korea. I think it’s quite shocking that the U.S. has yet to reach a point where we can openly and non-judgmentally speak of work we want done on ourselves or have done. This seems to be in line with the great point you ended on, we reach for the outrageous makeover show for pleasure, as a way of separating ourselves from the notion that we all want to change a bit, fix that one thing we think is a little off. These makeover shows are so outlandish that we can convince ourselves the women are simply absurd. I’m not exactly saying that I wholeheartedly agree with the rampant cases of plastic surgery in South Korea. But I can say that there is some merit in acknowledging this desire for change or betterment. Of course, the forces that have ignited that intense of a desire for change and the use of science and technology for medical purposes such as there are ideas up for questioning.


  2. I agree with you when you say “how proud Brazilians are about their plastic surgery procedures, and how it didn’t carry the same shame there that it does here in the United States”. this link also portrays the difference in attitude people seem to have towards plastic surgery in Korea. First of all, these plastic surgery clinics have youtube sites videoing their patients, something that we will not see in america apart on reality tv shows. The patients seem to already are practicing a degree of self care: well dressed, groomed eye brows and healthy, well looked after hair.

    However, although plastic surgery may actually be more accessible in Korea, you cannot try to prove your point by comparing the price of an eyelid surgery with a breast augmentation because they are different procedures. Breast augmentation has to be more expensive than eye lids anyway regardless because eye lids are less complicated.


  3. I could not help but think of the television show Botched that airs on E when reading your post. You may watch a clip here :. It got me to thinking about the shame attached to cosmetic surgery in our culture, on one hand cosmetic surgery is at the forefront and on the other it is a reason for shaming; enough so that there is makeover show about bad plastic surgery: Botched.
    In this particular clip the surgeons/miracle workers initially laugh at a drag queen impersonator that wants to look like Madonna. I mean it is quite appropriate for surgeons to laugh at patients – right? One of the surgeons says I have never seen a drag queen that wants to look like Madonna before. In addition, when the patient was asked about wanting/ receiving a boob job he responded by saying I am a queen but still a man. I mention that because I feel that the question was relevant in terms of the doctor patient dynamic but also because it was a part of shaming as they started off the clip by laughing at him.
    The potential patient wants a nose job to look more like Madonna and admits/confesses that the money started rolling in after the surgeries. He goes on to say that he uses eyeshadow to make it nose appear to be more notched and in the end the surgeons decide that he has a “perfect” nose and no surgery is needed. However, that is all after shaming him and the patient’s confessional. On one hand, the show’s existence it is the admittance of cosmetic surgery at the forefront and on the other hand the show is a practice of the idiotic spectacle that is good for television/shaming. I said all this to say that I agree that there is a process of shaming that goes along with plastic surgery in this country, but then there is this whole spectacle of shame on you and we will fix you and laugh at you and hey viewers TUNE IN.


  4. I’ve seen that subway ad as well! And most people who I’ve been with when the advertisement was present tend to scoff at the idea of plastic surgery. It sort of amazes me that the United States, which is often lauded for its progressiveness and openness – cue eyeroll – often places so much shame on those who opt for elective or cosmetic surgeries. We live in a country and a culture that expects individuals, particularly women, to adhere to a specific conceptualization of beauty but on the other hand, individuals who change or alter parts of themselves to fit this conceptualization are viewed as deceptive, fake, and unnatural. It’s a double standard that makes it hard for someone to win. If they buy into beauty culture, they are seen as fake. If they do not, they are seen as lazy and drab. This doesn’t even begin at more extreme versions of modification like plastic surgery. Even makeups and cosmetics have a complicated perception in our society. Take this BuzzFeed article, for example: . It shows side by side pictures of the Kardashian girls with and without makeup, presumably to show how stunning they look with makeup and then to incite shock and horror at how different they appear without it. What purpose does this article serve? To me it seems to be shaming the women for hiding their true appearance with cosmetics yet at the same time suggesting that their true appearance is unappealing. How do we navigate such a hypocritical, convoluted set of expectations? Even the Kardashians with all of their status, glamour, and money are not exempt.


  5. Whenever I see these subway ads, I admit, I do always find myself looking at them with a judging eye. Not because I would judge the people for getting plastic surgery, but because the ads are so straightforward. This judgment in me comes from a society that has made me think that we should keep cosmetic plastic surgery hush-hush. The point is to make it look like one never had any work done, right? (As mentioned by Perry in today’s class about what her plastic surgeon uncle said).
    The more and more I read about plastic surgery, especially the mentalities of Brazilians and Koreans towards it, I start to wonder why the majority of American society cannot be proud of their nose jobs or breast implants, and be proud of their attempt to become the person they would like to become. (Of course, there are some cases in which the desire for plastic surgery is indeed a larger psychological issue).
    I think one of the many factors in our society’s embarrassment yet obsession with plastic surgery is that we are also a society which is obsessed yet embarrassed by psychological abnormalities and conditions. We live in an over-diagnosing era in this country where every child who, in the 70s or 80s would have just been diagnosed as a healthy hyper child, is now diagnosed with ADHD and being medicated for it. We overdiagnose and ask to be “fixed” yet are embarrassed to speak about these “fixings”.
    I’m not sure where my rant is taking me, so I shall stop here.



  6. Well, I’m going to go ahead and give an unpopular opinion! I understand the impulse to frame our study of plastic surgery as non-judgmental. In essence, the thinking is: choices that women make in the context of patriarchy exist under great constraints. These are not “free” choices. As such, beauty practices/ cosmetic surgery must be conceptualized as negotiations of power, wherein women exercise their agency to create a body that will be best received in a racist, ableist, fatphobic, etc, world. I agree with all of this. We must take the economic and social rewards of getting certain plastic surgeries done as very real incentives, a.k.a women are not dupes, they are just grabbing onto power where they see it. Here is my problem. I am starting to think that a discussion of plastic surgery that is PRIMARILY non-judgmental becomes non-CRITICAL. What I’m saying is, yes U.S. notions of secrecy and shame around pursuing plastic surgery are hypocritical and misogynist. But this discussion has become so much about getting rid of shame and instead celebrating the work individuals have done to “become the people they want to be.” Is this really the direction we want to go in? Like is that really a critical, interesting end goal? It makes no difference to me if a celebrity is proud over their plastic surgery. I don’t think they should have to hide it or be criticized.. but still, what is the difference when Brazilian women are proud and open about their plastic surgeries and American women are secretive when they’re both still getting these surgeries done in droves and both countries are producing, perpetuating, even mandating the prototype of a sanitized, plastic, smoothed out, frozen-at-25 female body?


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  7. We have all seen this ad on the subway, but I wonder how many of you saw the one that came before it? Incredibly similar but slightly more distasteful, the ad featured the same woman but only from the neck down; her extremely large, tanned cleavage spanning the length of the subway advertisement. Locks of falsely blonde hair fall beside her enormous boobs. The text of the ad, “Made in New York” printed across the anonymous woman’s chest. Extremely objectifying and deemed inappropriate by many vocal New York parents, the breast augmentation company replaced the advertisements with the slightly less obnoxious ad you photographed. Although I was relieved when I first learned that the originals would be taken down, since I found myself fuming every time I was caught in the same car as these augmented breasts, I was less relieved when I read into the reasons behind it. Parents complained, “It’s inappropriate for kids.” Women argued, “That’s too much exposure, her breast is out. It’s exposed. As a female, I don’t like it. I think it’s terrible. Kids can see that.” Since when are children offended by breasts? No one commented on the unrealistic and objectifying manner the ads portrayed women it. No one found distaste in the hyper-sexualized depiction of the idealized female body. Or, if they did, the media decided not to quote them on it (more likely the case). The medias portrayal of the subway ads only further propagated the idea that women’s bodies, especially when sexualized, are inappropriate, and something to be ashamed of. Similarly to the way the Buzzfeed article mocks the Kardashian sisters without makeup; a group of women who are idolized as long as their ‘flaws’ remain hidden behind closed doors.


    1. China is rather similar to Korea in terms of the popularization of certain cosmetic surgeries over others. It’s also important to consider the way in which socioeconomic class plays into this industry. For instance, despite the growing popularity of cosmetic surgery in China, many of the most common procedures are still relatively expensive and unattainable to a large population of Chinese. According to Dr. Luo Jinchao, a surgeon at a hospital well know for its cosmetic procedures in Beijing:

      The three procedures often requested by patients are lipoplasty, also known as double eyelid surgery, rhinoplasty, also known as nose surgery, and mammoplasty, or breast augmentation procedure […] He added that a lipoplasty costs between 5,000 to 10,000 yuan; a rhinoplasty, between 10,000 to 50,000 yuan; and a breast augmentation procedure, between 20,000 to 100,000 yuan, depending on the material and brand used (1).

      In the lipoplasty procedure, “[c]osting around $2000 and requiring a recovery period of up to four weeks, the double-eye lift involves slicing the eyelid and removing a pad of fat from above the eye, revealing a crease uncommon in people of Japanese, Korean and Chinese heritage” (2). In order to achieve a more three-dimensional, more slender nose doctors “insert a piece of cartilage into the bridge of their nose” in the popular rhinoplasty procedure. According to journalist Johanna Chiu, who visited one of China’s most prominent cosmetic surgery hospitals, located in the manufacturing hub of Shenzhen:

      A nose job costs around $2,900 […] a bargain compared to the average cost of rhinoplasty in the U.S. of $4,500 […] But when the average yearly income for urban residents in China is just $7,000 and the average monthly pay for a migrant worker a measly $40, a nose job would take years for most people to save up for. (3)

      Thus, even cosmetic procedures such as those listed above which lie on the relatively cheaper end of the spectrum are luxury services indicative of class status and physical evidence of the increasingly widening wealth gap in modern China. However, although it is economic growth within China that is responsible for China’s cosmetic surgery market, these aesthetics that many Chinese strive to emulate – bigger eyes, a pointier nose, etc. – are largely imported.

      (1) Sidibe, Nana. “China’s Plastic Explosion.” – N.p., n.d. Web.
      (2) Harris, Amy. “Asian women are turning to plastic surgery to look more caucasian.” The Sunday Telegraph. The Daily Telegraph, 30 Nov 2013. Web.
      (3) Chiu, Joanna. “In China, ‘Leftover Women’ Get Plastic Surgery.” The Daily Beast. Newsweek/Daily Beast, 14 Aug. 2013. Web.


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