Is there no aspect of South Korean society, post-1997, where superficiality belies a deeper, darker truth? She’s not the same face, but in a sense all these women look “ugly”.
Honestly, I’ll admit to having “yellow fever” – but then I like dark hair. I think all these young women are beautiful – well, I’ve never talked to them, so I really don’t know if that beauty is more than skin deep.
Having cosmetic surgery to enhance what nature gave you (or to keep her at bay) is increasingly common. In 2010 over 3.3m procedures were done in America, more than anywhere else, according to a report from the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. These were split roughly evenly between “non-invasive” treatments, such as botox or facial peels, and “invasive” surgery. Chin implants (“chinplants”) alone rose by 71% on the previous year. But when population is accounted for, South Korea tops the list. A 2009 survey by Trend Monitor, a market-research firm, suggested that one in five women in Seoul had gone under the knife. Beauty is beheld differently in different countries, and this is reflected in the demands made on surgeons’ scalpels.
Instead of seeing these ambitious women as victims of scalpel-wielding hacks or a South Korean society that debases women by requiring that perfect nose or chin, I blame capitalism. These contestants are the face of the ugliness that South Korea experienced post-1997 IMF Crisis. As The Korean has argued, “The Korean remembers the East Asian Financial Crisis to be the moment when suddenly, everything in Korea became a lot more vulgar.”
Personally to the Korean, the most interesting aspect in the fallout from the East Asian Financial Crisis is the psychic influence in Korean minds. By the beginning of 1990s, Korean society was already engaged in a self-reflection about what it was losing by driving itself so hard in order to achieve its miraculous economic growth. The title of the one of the best selling movies in 1989 declared, “Happiness is not in the order of [school] grades.” [행복은 성적순이 아니잖아요.] The lyrics of a hit song “Anti-Green Life” [敵 녹색인생] in 1992 pointed out, “In the apathy and selfishness that we threw away, we can no longer breathe clean air.” After all, a generation had passed from the war and poverty of the 1960s. Was it so necessary to study so hard in school, work till death in the offices, chasing money over happiness?
Just as a substantial fraction of Korea was ready to say “No” to that question, the tempest of East Asian Financial Crisis swept the nation and crushed the budding idea. It seemed that, after all, it was too early for Koreans to relax and rest on their achievements. All the wealth that Koreans have built could be instantly destroyed by currency speculators, and then the IMF — a foreign body over which Koreans had no say — could swoop in and demand Korea to essentially cut of its limbs and reduce millions of people into the same poverty that they just escaped. The bad memories of the dire poverty came rushing back. Anxiety set in the minds of Koreans. The survivalist drive, which appeared to be finally subsiding, came back with a vengeance.
A survey conducted in April 1998 is very interesting for the purpose of getting a glimpse at this anxiety. The survey gave a series of statements to young people between the ages of 16 and 20, who would reply with 5 for “Very much so” and with 1 for “Not at all.” Here are some of the results:
– “I am concerned about how I will make a living after graduation” (received 3.91).
– “It is difficult to find a full time job.” (4.1)
– “It is difficult to find a part time job.” (3.92)
– “Only the talented will get a job.” (3.93)
– “Stability is an important factor for a good job” (3.84) versus “Prestige is an important factor for a good job.” (2.85)
– “To be promoted, you have to have a good resume.” (3.71)
– “High positions go to those who went to good colleges.” (3.45)
– “Most people who lost the job are middle class people who have worked diligently.” (3.63)
– “To live a life, there is nothing more important than money.” (3.59)
– “There is nothing that can’t be done with money.” (3.38)
– “One needs money to live like a person.” (4.37)
– “People work diligently in order to earn money.” (3.38)
– “Parents want their children to attend good colleges in order to get a job that pays well.” (3.64)
– “Dating a rich person entails an expectation for monetary help.” (3.47)
– “Wealth is an important consideration for selecting a spouse.” (3.53)
These young people have seen their parents swiftly driven into ruin, which resulted in the trends easily identifiable here — fear of the collapsing economic life, anxiety over the possibility of earning a living, the perceived necessity to survive in a competitive economy with more education, and most importantly, a rise of vulgar materialism. It has been a little over a decade since the East Asian Economic Crisis, which means this generation of young Koreans are now in their late 20s to early 30s, forming the mainstream culture of Korean society — which means the fear and anxiety formed in their formative years now constitute a strain within contemporary Korean culture.
This “vulgarity” has contributed to a hyper-competitive education culture based on standardized testing and an uncomfortable work environment. I see the prevalence of plastic surgery generally, and in this context specifically, as another example of South Koreans have adjusted to a more precarious economic and social environment. These young women have made a decision to undergo an operation for the future economic benefits they think they will receive, regardless of whether they win the contest or not. Even my wife can rattle off a list of desirable traits she believes men or women should possess, such as white-hued or tight-stretched skin. Skills are not just in play during uncertain times, this scandal shows, but also a human being’s own skin.