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.
In Weber’s chapter on Makeover Nation, she stresses the critical role that the idealized conception of celebrity plays in the makeover’s construction of image and selfhood. The celebrity image is often one that is aspired to and deemed as the ultimate for upward mobility. Hollywood glamour becomes a product that can practically be bottled up given the right prescription – product, treatment, or surgery. This made me wonder about the celebrity makeover. Plastic surgery and procedures of celebs are constantly displayed on magazine covers, but the one that most recently made headlines was Renee Zellwegger. At a premiere last month, Renee was almost unrecognizable when she debuted her new look.
Renee’s new look opened the floodgate of conversation filled with judgment and scrutiny. Every feature of her face became subject for discussion. Many of the responses to this celebrity makeover were assumptions that because Renee changed her look she “does not like herself” and is sending a message that “encourages an impossible standard of youthful beauty”. The outrage is pretty shocking considering over 11 million surgical and non-surgical cosmetic procedures were performed in the US alone last year. And according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, the trend will only continue to rise as it has since the recession when people began “investing in themselves once again”. This idea of people “investing in themselves” is problematic and one that is often echoed on television. Weber explains that living life to its full potential becomes a sort of currency that justifies the pain and expense of beauty work.
Weber uses Makeover Nation to describe, “one’s selfhood is intelligible through and on the body or it’s various symbolic stand-ins and functions as a critical element of both belonging to and participating in a democracy” (38). The makeover creates a celebrated selfhood that connotes a broader sense of value, visibility, and charisma. Weber also describes the After-body to have associations of financial success and upward mobility. But in the world of Hollywood aren’t these values standard? Does plastic surgery really mean that even a movie star like Renee Zelwegger is still reaching for this type of success? Is it possible to ever achieve such status? Or is that the cycle of makeover nation, to keep its citizens as active and constant participants of consumer culture.
Many women connect to Renee for her portrayal of Bridget Jones, a character that was humanized and relateable for her clumsiness and imperfections. Some suggest that the outrage behind Zellweggers altering of appearance was due to fear. For those who may relate to Zelwegger or the characters that she has played may wonder, “what was wrong with her to begin with? is there something wrong with me?” The commentary ranged from snarky to supportive as many expressed a sense of empathy towards her decision and demonstrated solidarity. If anything, I think Renee’s alterations to her appearance clearly show that the pressure to attain upward mobility and this type of “currency” that exists in Makeover Nation is heavily present even in the world of Hollywood…maybe even more so. If celebrities are really setting the standards, what does that mean for us? Zellwegger’s transformation calls us to question our own role in makeover nation and how we choose to participate or work against it every day.