Korean Beauty Practices

Prior to studying plastic surgery in an academic environment, I had never realized how prevalent the industry was in Asia. I stumbled across a tumblr that is dedicated to showing before and after photos of Koreans who had undergone plastic surgery and it is initially striking that the results appear quite similar from person to person. Patients sought out eye widening, face slimming, nose bridge enhancement and two that struck me were head rounding surgeries and calf reduction surgeries. As discussed by Cho Joo-hyun, “concerns over the body in this era of culture” have sky rocketed after the IMF crisis and care services as well as beauty practices and consumerism became prevalent in Korean society among both men and women. Korean culture today deems that those who are in need of aesthetic improvements and do not seek out cosmetic surgeries or modern body care services are considered either “poor or negligent in her or her humane duties.”




Plastic surgery promotion in Korea is heavily concentrated in major city squares as noted on the blog, there are often 4-5 clinics in one area some of which are only 3 blocks apart, many of which are conveniently located next to fast food restaurants and shopping malls. Many of the posts on the blog are Korean patients defending plastic surgery and treating procedures like an “art form.” Some even refer to the blog as a medical tourism blog. Curing body problems has become a common theme among all citizens regardless of social class. As a result, the improvement of human capital seems to have a significant impact on society. Improved physical appearance seems to correlate highly to better jobs and better marriages. Neoliberal ideals, as mentioned by Cho Joo-hyun has created a culture that relies on self empowerment through things like sexual attractiveness, a healthy body and regular self care practices.


Business Insider claims in a recent article that all Koreans strive for the same look, “Light skin, tiny nose, wide eyes with double lids, and a small face with a V-shaped chin.” While this statement is an extreme assumption that all Koreans are obsessed with plastic surgery and this particular image, it is clear that beauty practices have heavily influenced what beauty means in Korean culture. Obsession in body changes are less of a fad in today’s Korean society and are likely to stay ingrained into the culture as a staple of power within the community. (Cho Joo-hyun)


Korean Entertainment and Beauty

Thai people or at least the people that I am surrounded by care very much about how they present themselves in public.  Often I will hear stories about girls who put in so much effort in perfecting the pictures they post on Instagram in ways I would never have imagined.  Yesterday I was talking to my friend when she told me how her friend caught another of their friend photoshopping her picture by cutting out her lips from another picture and paste it over her lips on the photo she just posted (because she preferred the lip shape she had on that other one over this one).  The society also thinks that it is okay to greet one another by commenting about each others weight.  Instead of asking about things you have been up to, the sentence that comes after “hello” is “have you gained/lost weight?” I feel like even though it is already bad in Thailand, Korea is on a new, even worse level.  Although people go very far to make themselves look great, altering the body has never been encouraged by the media in the same way that it is going on in Korea.

Cho Joo-Hyun engages concepts such as bipower and control to analyse women’s management of their bodies after the financial crisis in South Korea in 1997.  Cho  seems to suggest that thethe neoliberal system caused an increased interest in the body, inclusing diet, physical control, pastic surgery as well as body care in general.  She conceptualizes the adoption of gender practices by women over their own bodies as “technologies of the self”. In “The Politics of the body in Contempory Korea Kim Eun-Shil wrote “the “fit” body have all become part of the everyday lives of Koreans through diverse media”. Even now I cannot understand why the lyrics to some Korean k-pop songs are even the way they are but I think it sums up this week’s reading, helping us to understand the extent Koreans openly obsess over their appearance and how the society as a whole is very beauty oriented.

1) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CXXrOhdOCJU …. Im wearing a mini skirt for you

2) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_WiPDNlWs7Y…I’m going to cut my hair off so you notice me

Screen Shot 2014-12-01 at 10.58.29 PM

3) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vr_Ad4acSwA … I need to change in order to be loved

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wv3TjfZiIu4 …this is about a girl who loses weight and goes through plastic surgery in order to become successful star


Subjective Beauty: Cultural Perspectives, Gendered Expectations & Body Modifications

The screening of Liz Mermin’s The Beauty Academy of Kabul in class today was a clear example of the ways in which beauty standards travel imperialistically across borders in a sort of homogenizing beauty colonialism. The idea of beauty presented in the film was obviously that ingrained in the Western conscience as the “norm” and not particularly considerate of local conceptions of the beauty. This subjectivity of beauty got me thinking about body modifications and the way they are received across cultures. It is so ingrained in our beauty culture that piercings and tattooing the body is potentially detrimental to one’s success to the extent that many occupations require that applicants be free of visible piercings or tattoos in order to apply, as if the way someone looks affects their work ethic. In addition it’s interesting to considerthe way in which some piercings and tattoos seem to be gendered or in some way revealing of hidden characteristics about an individual’s identity.


(Photo by Patrick Arias)

Whenever I research new piercings I always seem to come across some blog posts where someone is asking the forum if a a certain piercing would be considered “gay” or “weird” if a guy got it. The one lobe piercing on men, for instance, was a practical way for gay men to identify one another before society became somewhat more open-minded. But what’s so curious is that asking a question like that to the public, especially over the Internet, invites so many subjectivities because people from difference cultures will have different opinions they can express side by side. It’s almost as if the person asking knows that their desired piercing is taboo but that want someone, anyone, to confirm that it is in fact going to marginalize them if they get it. I’m sure people in China wouldn’t think twice is they saw a guy with one ear pierced, or consider that that piece of metal hanging from his ear relates in any way to his sexual orientation. Nose rings are another example. In America they are viewed as something of a right of passage for coming-of-age hipsters and punks but in India they are a symbolic characteristic related to womanhood. Tramp stamps are yet another example. It’s commonly believed that women with tramp stamps are promiscuous and rebellious. Stretched earlobes are yet another. In America stretched earlobes are viewed as part of an alternative subculture but in many African tribes they are an essential practice of the culture. When is body modification culturally appropriative?

What really got me thinking about all this was meeting a beautiful woman named Maganda at a party at the Museum of Sex this weekend. She is absolutely stunning and happens to have a forehead tattoo, chest tattoo, and hand tattoos. There’s this stigma for women to be “natural”. Obviously this is just a standard set by men who want their women to be unique but not push boundaries too much. In what ways can body modification be considered self-care, and, especially for women, body reclamation?


(Photo by Ostin Torre)

The West and the Rest

I am intrigued by the attention burqas and niqabs have amassed in the western culture. France actually banned Muslim women from wearing burqas  and niqabs in public in April 2011. The French government feels that the ban will facilitate cultural integration. For some Muslim’s it is symbol of patriarchy, misogyny, sexism; a pre-Islamic cultural practice that has no place in the Quran. A pre-Islamic practice in which Aristocratic men forced the concealment of women. They regarded the women as personal property. When a young British woman was asked by a BBC correspondent covering the ban of the burqas and niqabs why she chose to cover up, she said that she did not really know why, then said that they were meant to cover up so that they do not appear to aspire toward Western standards. Burqas and niqabs, therefore, for some, serve as an opposition to westernized ways of displaying the feminine body.

What are you laughing at? Bill Maher holds an annual Burqa beauty contest on his show. He is a comedian so, of course, during the fashion show he is expected to tell jokes and poke fun at the women who wear burqas and the institution that forces them to wear them. During one of the fashion shows he says the burqa is “guaranteed to get your man so hot he’ll want to strike you with a stick”.  He also names fake designers such as Muslim Dior ( he was Christian Dior before he converted, so goes the joke) and Donna Quran to further marginalize the subjects of his jokes. It is the mix of barbaric metonyms and western names that signify civility, all that is not savage; standing in opposition to the other that should make them funny. Then we have the girls in Sex and the City 2 making comments based on western ideologies about the burqas and niqabs in the movie all for the sake of comedy.


This is an image of the execution of burqa clad woman by a Taliban official conducted inside a football stadium holding many spectators. It is not clear to me why she was executed. This stark contrast to Maher’s jokes, however, was needed.

George Bush used the “veil” (translate to women’s rights) as a reason to to war. All of these instances speak to western entitlement and insensitivity in my opinion in regards to the other. Moreover, Maher’s jokes are tragic in any instance, especially within the context of this text. When those types of jokes are articulated and laughed at, what is really being said?  It may be argued that all is fair game in comedy and the French government has a right to make decisions to enforce cultural harmony but to what degree? How much of one’s identity should be sacrificed, if at all, in an effort to conform to normative western standards? I know these topics can be debated on for an extensive period of time, but this brings me to Kabul Beauty School.

Bill Maher Fifth Annual Fundamentalist Fashion Show https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJFi3paZTtA

Sex and The City 2 clip https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pxjmaIqZY5M

You must take a look at this clip below before the discussion of the beauty school of Kabul begins in this text. This clip from Saira Shah’s Beneath the Veil-Women in Islam reveals some of the abhorrent conditions that women struggle against. Women resort to begging in order to survive as they are not allowed to work. One woman is seen feeding her seven children scraps of molded bread. There is also the lack of medical care. The gynecological hospitals are horrifying derelict spaces, that appear to be more of a place for leaving someone to die than a place for healthcare. It is important to juxtapose these matters to the makeover discourse to facilitate the thought process on whether or not makeovers ( ascribing to/learning Western beauty practices) are the answers to the sociopolitical dilemmas. Consider Bill Maher’s distasteful jokes and this quote, from The Biopower of Beauty, while watching “A commitment to beauty, through which she inhabits normative prescriptions for gender and sexuality as the realization of her human wholeness, becomes the guarantee of her dignity and substance of her claims to rights” (Nguyen, 276).

Watch from 6:24 mark.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PEcUtjhA6b8#t=381

So normative beauty practices guarantee the women internal and external beauty that put her dignity and her ability to grasp a hold of her human rights into place. She will be free and capable of living a better life. Beauty, then, is the answer to the problems highlighted in the above video. It is the absurd imperial western humanitarian answer to the lack of education, medical care, human rights, and poverty. Empowering the women economically via entrepreneurial endeavors in beauty is plausible but the idea that beauty is a core factor in success is abhorrent. Not only is it this ideology abhorrent, so is the west saving the rest discourse couched in the beauty rescuers’ goals. There are issues of mass poverty, violence, and other socio-political injustices that will not even begin to be solved by initiatives such as this one.

Beauty and Dis/ability

Nguyen mentions in passing that the name “Beauty Without Borders” “deliberately allud[es] to” Doctors Without Borders, the nonprofit that travels to countries in need and provides medical care for those without access. I found that this tied in quite well with our recent discussions of the medicalization of beauty. Even in countries experiencing extreme violence, poverty or suffering, the “absence” of or “inaccessability” of beauty is still seen to be a pressing issue that needs taking care of, perhaps before addressing the other aforementioned problems. In fact, Nguyen asserts that beauty “engender[s] a measure but also a medium of personhood and rights”. In other words, “beauty is a category through which (particularly, especially, feminine) bodies achieve humanness”. Beauty is associated with freedom, civilization, modernity, humanity, and, most importantly, with vitality – with valid vitality.

Conversely, then, we can surmise that ugliness (or what we perceive as ugliness) is associated with inhumanity, savagery, primitiveness, a lack of personhood, and even death or invalid existence. Nguyen cites the burqa as a common example of what “well-intentioned” Westerners see as ugliness, but she uses interesting language: the burqa “hobbles the feminine body”. Hobbling is a deliberate restriction of movement; the burqa is likened to something restrictive and potentially crippling. Wearing the burqa is, therefore, similar to having a medical disability. It prevents the body from being fully “healthy” – a word which is associated here with the “fully liberated” Western idea of beauty.

This further medicalizes beauty in this context, which brings us to an interesting junction: beauty, just like medicine, “becomes a human right through the traditional concept of dignity”. That is, the inhuman, undignified, crippled individual (who has clearly been crippled by The Evil Status Quo in her country/region/faith) has the right to reclaim her humanity through (Western) beautification. Much like the critically ill, these women must cling to their dignity; they must use beauty as medicine to restore their self-esteem – for, as we have already learned, low self-esteem is a critical ailment. To look and/or be Western is to be healthy, to be valid, to be real, and to love yourself. Ugliness and disability are the opposite of prettiness and ability.

Have you ever felt crippled for not subscribing to a Western beauty ideal, or abled by intentionally playing into it?

The Silent Veil

“Self-esteem in its gendered dimensions informs the will to empower through the transformative capacities of beauty for not only emotional well-being (feeling good) but also cultural competency (doing good).”

–Nguyen, page 370

While reading about the women of Afghanistan and the functions of Beauty without Borders, I was reminded of the “Smile Again” organization in neighboring Pakistan. In the city of Lahore, human rights activist and make up artist Musarrat Misbah founded the Salon Depilex Smile Again. Her goal is to give “new life” to women victimized by acid attacks. An acid attack occurs when acid or similarly corrosive substance is thrown onto an individual with the intent to main, disfigure or kill them.

Acid attacks occur throughout the world, for a variety of reasons. In South East Asia and The Middle East, acid attacks are occurring more and more frequently. In Pakistan, women are often attacked by their husbands for “dishonoring them”—sometimes for dressing inappropriately other times for marriage proposal rejections or being the victim of rape. If the victim survives the acid attack they are left on their own, cut off from their families and disfigured.

In 2012, Sharmeen Obiad-Chinoy won an Oscar for her film “Saving Face” which follows two acid attack survivors as they attempt to bring their attackers to justice and change the punishments for assailants. Also in 2012, the Pakistani Senate passed two bills imposing punishments on people who attack women with acid, but the laws do nothing to curb the violence, as it is difficult to implement these laws. In the absence of a true form of justice, Misbah is doing her part to help victims.

Her organization not only provides medical treatment and legal representation for the victims, it also provides a safe space for the women to coexist. Nguyen said “beauty becomes a human right through the traditional concept of dignity.” The women become trained cosmetologists, helping each other and non-victim Pakistani women improve their appearance. Smile Again also provides psycho social workshops for acid burn victims, where they get to know other vicitims, and improve their body image and self confidence.

I felt Nguyen’s article was placed a little too far outside the localities Beauty without Borders was trying to aid. There was a huge focus on humanitarianism and trying to “save” women in from the regressive and premodern cultural standards (i.e. the burqa). The divide between the west and“the “rest” was too clear. The case of acid attack victims is interesting because it brings up elements of the make-over culture (as they often need full reconstructive surgery), and Smile Again itself utilizes the beauty industry to help these women who have been stripped of their dignity. And importantly, it is the result of local women helping other local women as they rebuild their lives.

Taboo Beauty

The text The Biopower of Beauty: Humanitarian Imperialisms and Global Feminisms in an Age of Terror by Mimi Thi Nguyen explores the role that the burqa and beauty discourse play in the formation of geopolitics. The body is seen as the site for which women can restore their self-esteem and independence. Neoliberal ideals put the responsibility on the individual to work on their selves. Through the emphasis placed on the individual to fix their bodies, they conform to normative beauty standards and buy into the consumerist society. One of the central topics in the text is that beauty politics simply reinforce Western or Eurocentric beauty ideals. This clip from the second Sex and the City film exemplifies some of the arguments being made in the text. This compilation of Samantha’s moments from the film show the bias regarding the Middle East and the burqa. In the majority of the clips, Samantha’s sexuality is always on display. Her libido and sexual acts are compared to the supposedly prude Arabs.

The text reminded me of differing beauty standards and practices that are observable all over the world. Body modification is a growing subculture in today’s society. People all over the world are exploring their bodies and their limits. While at first people rebelled by getting piercings and tattoos, they are now pushing the boundaries and creating new methods in which to express their identity. However, this is not to say that people did not modify their bodies before this new wave of popularity hit in the 60’s, due in part to the modern primitive movement. Cultures have been practicing body modification for centuries. The majority of these practices began as ancient traditions and religious or sacrificial behaviors. This subculture has grown and expanded, from ancient to modern times, becoming an extremely controversial topic, and even taboo to some. The National Geographic program Taboo portrays how cultures beauty and body standards vary drastically. Beauty standards are culturally relative. Differing beauty standards greatly impact morality as well. Other communities view differing beauty practices as linked to immorality. In one episode of Taboo titled “Extreme Bodies”, modern beauty practices are highlighted, showing that these things happen not just in remote corners of the world, but also right here in the United States. One example of modern beauty practices that have taken on new meanings after reappropriating older cultural practices is scarification. African tribes have been using body modification in the form of decorative scarring for thousands of years as well, using this ritual to mark the start of adulthood. The scars also symbolized national and tribal identities. They acted as a mark of identity that would distinguish one tribe from another, as well as exemplify their beliefs and values. However, this practice has been appropriated by people in other developing countries, such as right in the United States. When tattoos became too mainstream, and piercings too routine or boring, people turned to scarification for a new way to make the body beautiful. This painful process, which some may view as mutilation or disgusting, is one of the ways in which beauty practices vary not only from culture to culture, but also from individual to individual. Other examples of extreme body modifications are tongue splitting, transdermal implants, and bagelheads. Bodybuilding is another type of body modification that is seen by some as beautiful, and by others as excessive and disgusting. To this day, the body modification subculture is influenced by ancient and tribal practices. People have adopted the ancient ritual of hanging by the flesh as a rite of passage and modified it, making it about an experience as well as the feeling it produces. Many tattoo parlors and piercing shops specialize in tribal prints and designs. Tattoo artists have adopted the designs and make them as authentic as possible, without actually reproducing the ritualistic experience for the customer. Customers come in asking for symbolic tattoos or piercings, dating back hundreds of years from native tribes all over the world. They say that their motivations are spiritual, or that they arise from tribal origins.

The cultural variations on beauty standards is evident in this clip from Taboo titled “Body Modification”. This clip explores other country’s cultural practices and how they are inextricably linked with socio-economic ideals. Beauty practices are never isolated from the environment in which they exist in. Body modification as a means of showing position and status can also be observed in the PaDaung women of Thailand who stretch their necks with metal rings. Girls start wearing these rings at the age of 5 or 6 and continue to have one ring added each day until they marry. The number of rings directly correlates to the status of the woman’s family. Another example of body modification that is linked with socio-political issues is the pressing down of female breasts in African tribes. For many, beauty practices are tied in with issues of status. Especially for women, there are certain provisions set in place that make it difficult for them to survive or thrive if they do not comply with these beauty standards. As Nguyen writes, “Beauty’s force can become a medium through which forms of power connect beauty with morality and biopolitics with geopolitics” (362).

Beauty practices is an act “othering” cultures. The burqa, as the author Nguyen points out, is seen by many as the “absolute negation of life”. The burqa is observed as a symbol of barbarism and the subjugation of women, as well as a violation of not only women’s rights, but human rights. The “other” in the form of fashion and beauty practices, positions those that are deemed foreign as ugly and different. European aesthetics are seen as beautiful, and others as barbaric. This represents a divide between the “West” and the “Rest”, as the text points out. One of the things that the burqa represents to the rest of the world is a denial of individuality. Beauty is seen as the path to give one individuality. Beauty practices are seen as restoring identity to the individual. However, these beauty practices are only from the perspective of the West, and thus the ideals of personhood are Western-centric. Other culture’s beauty ideals are seen as taking away from individuality and personhood instead of giving it. As Nguyen writes, “The cosmopolitan West is identified as the standard against which to measure cultural competence…the standard knowledge formations and aesthetic sensibilities that circumscribe some persons as particular sexualized and racialized selves” (379).