K-Pop Girl Groups Promoting Plastic Surgery

Before & After
You can clearly see the alterations to jawline, nose, chin, and eyelids (common K-pop procedures)
Girls’ Generation is one of the most popular girl groups in South Korea

According to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, a staggering one in five South Korean women has had cosmetic work done. I was shocked to learn that in the US the statistic is only one in 20 women. This is largely due in part to the prevalence of K-pop culture (“Gangnam Style”) and its spread across East Asia and into the Asian community in the US. K-pop has created a new beauty aesthetic that many argue resembles certain Caucasian features yet does not completely replicate them. Double eyelids, slimmed jawline, nose and chin shaved down, lips injected – all common procedures and popular looks in K-pop culture. The K-pop stars, specifically the girls groups such as “Girls’ Generation” and “Wonder Girls” seem to be walking advertisements for plastic surgery (in fact many are spokeswomen for surgical companies). The popularity of the groups creates an extreme value placed on the surgery behind these stars and established South Korea as the go-to place for all things cosmetic surgery. In a recent ABC News article, one woman from the US discussed her decision to travel to South Korea for her own surgery, as they are simply “the best” for Asian cosmetic surgery. I found it particularly interesting when examining the girl groups, as I too was a young girl who idolized pop stars like The Spice Girls, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera. Although the stars do not directly admit to having work done, there are fan websites that are dedicated to guessing which star has had what procedure and which doctors performed them. Little girls look to these performers and want to be like them. These are there role models, who are impacting the way these children see themselves more than anyone else. Korea has the highest rate of smartphone usage and internet access in homes compared to every other country in the world. In this technology driven society, women are expected to not only succeed at being productive citizens but also adhere to the standards of beauty and femininity that are demanded of them. This connects to Cho Jo-Hyun’s concept of the gender practices women adopt as “technologies of self”. Women are able to use these beauty standards to create success in the brutal circumstances of the standards expected of them.

Mihija Sohn (Miss Korea 1960) and Sung-hye Lee (Miss Korea 2012)
Mihija Sohn (Miss Korea 1960) and Sung-hye Lee (Miss Korea 2012) You are able to see how the drastic change in Korean beauty standards over the past 50 years.

7 thoughts on “K-Pop Girl Groups Promoting Plastic Surgery

  1. Since I’m an East Asian Studies Major concentrating on China I thought it’d be interesting to talk a bit about the Chinese cosmetic surgery market as well. According to China’s Xinhua News Agency, Chinese cosmetic surgery consumers support a $2.5 billion-a-year industry in China that is increasing by 20 percent every year, making China one of the largest cosmetic surgery markets globally, surpassed only by the U.S. and Brazil (1). But it was not always this way. Thirty years ago it was practically nonexistent. China’s opening to foreign influence has greatly affected the development of China’s cosmetic surgery market and in accordance with the rapid growth of its economy China’s cosmetic surgery industry is flourishing. During the Maoist era – especially the Cultural Revolution – when the revolutionary goals of the nation were seen as more important than individual needs, research into plastic surgery in China had been haulted because it was viewed as promoting a “bourgeois attention to form over function”; however, with the ascension of Deng Xiaoping to power as leader of the People’s Republic of China in the late 1970s an interest in cosmetic surgery was rekindled, beginning with smaller procedures such as mole and freckle removal and skin whitening (2). With the increase of capital into China from foreign investors excited by China’s cheap manufacturing ability and unlimited human resources the Chinese economy saw a boom in the wealth of its people. Out of a predominantly poor Chinese population let down by Mao’s promises of socialist utopia a middle class that could afford capitalist luxuries such as cosmetic surgery quickly grew. Thus, as anthropologist and author of Buying Beauty: Cosmetic Surgery in China, Wen Hua, has observed, “Cosmetic surgery has become a form of consumer choice; it reflects in microcosm the transition of China from communism to consumerism with its own Chinese characteristics”(3). This specific historical context has produced a newly globalized, capitalist Chinese citizen and directly parallels the evolution of the Korean consumer we are studying.

    (1) Chiu, Joanna. “In China, ‘Leftover Women’ Get Plastic Surgery.” The Daily Beast. Newsweek/Daily Beast, 14 Aug. 2013. Web. 26 May 2014.
    (2) Wolff, Rachel. “The World of Chinese.” The World of Chinese. N.p., 2 Mar. 2013. Web. 26 May 2014.
    (3) Chiu, Joanna.


  2. In looking at the before-and-after plastic surgery photo, I didn’t really find so much that they were trying to strive towards a Caucasian perception of beauty. Instead, I found that the plastic surgery makeovers are more so aimed at an aesthetic influenced by thinness. I was shocked at how much longer and skinnier the woman’s face is after the procedure, even though she just has a face that is naturally wider with a stronger jawline—which I actually find to be a unique and attractive quality. This also makes sense though when looking up photos of Girls Generation and various other K-Pop girl groups. Not unlike the United States, these pop idols are so similar shape-wise, none of them even nearing a curvier figure.
    And yes, like in the United States, younger adolescent girls naturally look up to these stars and try to emulate them. However, the difference is that here, pop stars vehemently deny any plastic surgery rumors and purport that their beauty is all-natural. Meanwhile, in places like South Korea where plastic surgery is embraced and reappropriated, in a way, girls are able to access the standard of beauty without feeling ashamed for not already being born that way. I’m not trying to advocate an under-the-knife free-for-all, but I do think it’s healthier to at least be open about it.


  3. I think it will be interesting to see if and how the plastic surgery culture of K-pop influences Western countries’ relationships to plastic surgery (especially the United States) as K-pop’s popularity continues to grow. Obviously, K-pop is already enormously popular in here – just look at the sheer number of comments on Buzzfeed’s “Americans Try K-Pop Dance Moves” video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mVE96w_cl_w) raving about how amazing K-pop is or how excited they were to see their favorite group in the video (Shinee was especially popular among commenters) or at “Gangnam Style,” which just today broke the YouTube views counter after racking up over 2.15 billion views. In Seunghwa Madeline Han’s article “Korea’s Pop Music Explosion is Fueling a Plastic Surgery Boom,” she talks to 17 year old Hyunjin Kim, who says “‘in Korea, unlike the American view, surgery is kind of like makeup… Why do we put on makeup? It’s to become prettier. Why do we do cosmetic surgery? It’s just to become prettier.’” I think it will be interesting to watch whether or not the rise in K-pop’s popularity comes with an equal or greater rise in acceptance of plastic surgery in the U.S, given the vocalness of K-pop stars in regards to the procedure, or if it generates a further backlash.


    1. I definitely think that this point you bring up is really interesting. With the growing South Korean pop culture hegemony in East Asia, it’s inevitable that transnational groups like Girls Generation and Psy are making their way over to the American mainstream. I recently read that CL, the lead singer of an extremely popular K-Pop band, 2NE1, is coming to the United States under Scooter Braun’s management (who represents stars like Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande). I’m excited to see how her career pans out with an American audience because besides Psy (who is basically a one-hit US wonder) no Korean pop star has really been able to find a footing in the US market in a way that other foreign artists (from Canada, Sweden, Barbados, etc.) have been able to reinvent themselves–and it’s not a far stretch to attribute that to issues of xenophobia rooted in racism, but that’s another topic altogether. Basically what I’m saying is that CL is already seen as such a style icon throughout Asia and I’m interested to see if her ‘look’ will become something that Americans will ultimately strive for (that is of course if she is successful).


  4. When I look at the before and after photos, I immediately read them as “natural” and “created”. So much rhetoric around these surgeries is around a repudiation of natural beauty, and a desire for white/westernness. In this respect, being Korean and getting certain surgeries–double eyelid, nose, jaw–is parallel to being black and having good hair. For both, the idea of natural beauty (as the aesthetic that should be maintained) is just as created as the “unnatural” looks. In the hair unit, we discussed at length how having “good hair” and ascribing to western notions of beauty has huge payoffs, both in terms of economic and social capital. Choosing to alter one’s appearance towards that of a white, western woman does not necessarily mean that one wants to be white, or is unsatisfied with her own ethnicity, but that one wants the privileges that are attributed to those particular women. Geopolitics are what connects good hair and Korean plastic surgery; for both, beauty capital has become so valuable, largely due to Neoliberalism, that the benefits may outweigh the costs (harsh hair chemicals, botched surgeries). Viewing good hair and plastic surgery together also helps to mitigate the of exotification Korean surgeries– headlines about the “crazy trend” that “those people over there” practice seem absurd when we accept that they are most likely making a rational, cost/benefit informed decision.

    Also: I found this fantastic SNL Korea parody music video called “Plastic Face”. It is by Brown Eyed Girls, a popular K-pop group. Notably, the lyrics include “confidence…confidence is important… we are so confident…and satisfied”


  5. I may be a bit crazy for thinking of this. However, when considering considering the technologies of self I thought about Kim Kardashian. In particular , I thought about her recent spread in Paper magazine and the critique of it here: http://thegrio.com/2014/11/12/kim-kardashian-butt/. In the article it speaks of the historicized shaming and spectacle of the black female body and Kardashian’s potentially ignorant participation in the shaming and hypersexualization of the black female body.
    I thought of this because I feel as though Kardashian as augmented her body in pursuit of upward social mobility/fame, although some may argue that her body is “natural”.
    More importantly, I feel that extreme measures taken have significant consequences in some form. I feel as though there is at least a minute amount of ignorance when persons modify their bodies for success even though there may be hefty financial rewards at play. Obviously, these decisions have an impact on the influential public. I have to say that I feel the butt craze has gone mainstream e.g. Nicki Minaj’s inflated behind and Iggy Azalea’s pumped up buttocks and it encourages the hypersexualization of the feminine body. Quite honestly, I think that it is absurd. Call me crazy but I think of the carnival/circus when it comes to the buttock pumping.It as if the women have agreed to become a part of some sort of freak show in the name of upward social mobility and or visibility. So to me the technologies of self may lead to the demolishing of the self and the influential others; it is marring.


  6. I definitely agree that many women, especially those in the public eye, have cosmetic surgeries performed on them in order to boost their careers or ease public scrutiny of their appearance. EJ Johnson, for example, had weight loss surgery performed after getting tired of social media bullies harping on his large size: http://www.people.com/article/e-j-johnson-undergoes-weight-loss-surgery . In the comment sections of articles about EJ’s surgery, many are applauding him and commenting on how good he looks after slimming down. But what about other celebrities, such as Renee Zellwegger, who caused a stir several weeks ago for having a face that was deemed unrecognizable? It seems like whatever work she had done was less about the public’s demands and expectations and more about her personal happiness because she received massive amounts of criticism about her changes. In this article, http://www.people.com/article/renee-zellweger-speaks-out-different-look , Zellwegger states that she is happy people think she looks different, clearly dismissing any negativity towards the work she has undergone. So to me it seems that although some go under the knife to adhere to society’s standards of beauty, others do it for themselves, knowing that they may receive backlash and hate. Although many say that Zellwegger has gone too far with plastic surgery, she herself believes she is happier and healthier than ever.


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