As the 2013 Miss Korea contestant photos made way through the Internet, my immersion into the Korean culture had also just begun.

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Korea is quickly earning global repute for a sense of superficiality, not to mention its rank as the country with the highest per capita rate of plastic surgery. It makes sense that a booming economy, growing cities, and our globalized world would spawn more westernization, but this doesn’t explain the uniqueness of South Korea’s plastic surgery habits.

During my first months living in South Korea, it has been difficult not to notice the phenomenon. Girls (and guys) walk down the street, sit in coffee shops and restaurants, while looking in mirrors, combing dyed blonde hairstyles, and re-applying makeup. “Before & After” photographs litter business entrance ways, and it is apparent that actors, news casters, teachers, and cellphone salesmen are sporting new eyelids.

To shed light on this issue, I spoke with Dr. Anne Hilty, a cultural health psychologist who has been living and working in South Korea for 8 years. She practiced psychology in New York prior to her move across the globe. One of her research areas is women’s empowerment. What I learned from her about Korea, is also one of the reasons she decided to move her life and work here. Korea is unique, and its uniqueness holds a special significance for the mental health status of Korean people. Dr. Hilty suggests that the preoccupation with beauty in South Korea has various roots, most notably in Korea’s long history of war and trauma.

Prior to 1400, Korean society was egalitarian. Afterward, in the 500-year long Joseon period and with the re-introduction of Confucianism, the belief system redefined gender roles, undermining the status of women. This historical rendering of women as “second class” citizens provided the impetus for the country’s traumatic history to affect women to a greater extent than men. 

After the fall of the Joseon dynasty in 1897, Japan occupied the country, during which time Koreans were made to conform to Japanese traditions, speak Japanese, and take Japanese names, a form of cultural violence.

Under a United States interim government set up after WWII, one tenth of the Korean population was massacred, in the name of fighting against communism, as the United States and Russia positioned themselves for control of the country.

In the years after the Korean War, President Park Chung-hee, father of the current president, Park Geun-hye, began the New Village Movement or Saemaul Undong, as a way to reestablish the economy. Saemaul Undong consolidated rural villages into large cities, emphasized modernization, and forced the population to change their customs. Tradition was labeled superstition. Dr. Hilty explained that too swift an economic development is also a type of cultural trauma, and that “Korea’s economic miracle is astounding. Their rate of development within a 30-year period was unprecedented in all the world. No one has developed from where they were to where they became within such a short period of time.”

By the 1970s the sense of economic stability allowed for a popular movement toward democracy. In response, the Korean government launched various massacres against its own people in the 1980s, including taking up arms against a student led protest, killing about 200 individuals, in my current city, Gwangju.

Dr. Hilty explained that it takes a society about 5 generations to fully recover from the trauma of major conflicts, and Korea has had “an entire century of multi-layered trauma.”

Dr. Hilty cited a recent survey that reported 70% of the workforce in South Korea having some version of depression. Additionally, Korea has the highest suicide rate in the world and increasing divorce rates. An Asia Society report on the status of women found that quality of life, education, and health rank very highly for South Korean women; however, the status of women in business and politics is relatively low. When nations develop, usually all four of the categories improve simultaneously, but there is a disparity in Korea based on its distinct culture and history.

Dr. Hilty confirms that there is an “emphasis on appearance (in Korea), and often it’s appearance over substance.” She explained that “part of that would be true of traumatized people…because if you go more deeply that’s where the pain lies…it’s a lot easier to stay on the surface and make the surface look pretty…you can pretend that the pain isn’t there”.

However, the preoccupation with beauty is compounded in South Korea. People were starving 40 years ago and now, Korea is generally wealthy. Dr. Hilty said “new money doesn’t bring with it the reassurance that it will stay.” People subconsciously “flash it around.”  The lack of a peace treaty with the North additionally removes confidence that peace and economic stability will last.

Finally, an important consideration is Korea’s 1600-year tradition of Confucianism. Confucius said, “the outer appearance reflects the state of the inner person”, a statement not meant in a superficial way, but might be translating into society that way today.

korean stars makeup and cosmetic wonder 07
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All is not lost! Dr. Hilty explains that in the last six months a trend in marketing for various South Korean products has shifted from an emphasis on “well-being,” which “assumes a baseline of health,” to an emphasis on “healing,” which “implies something needs to be fixed.” She suggests that this is a subconscious change in ideology, a realization of pain has occurred, and that the healing process is beginning.

We can’t forget that what Dr. Hilty is describing is a population level and cultural effect of trauma. We know that this explanation does not hold for everyone. Most importantly, we need to recognize the opinion of the South Korean women who do get plastic surgery. It is a modern trend that is not viewed as shameful in Korea, and not necessarily used to look western. Many of the women say they want to enhance themselves because they can.

I hope understanding Korea’s past can help eradicate negative views about Korean women. Korea should be known for its resiliency, and the very many strong women who do characterize the country. Part II will explain the various ways Korean Women have and continue to empower themselves!

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7 Responses

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  2. The biggest misconception about plastic surgery by westerners is that they are doing it to look more Western, which I agree, is totally wrong. But your assertion that it is not viewed as shameful is not wholly correct. It is widely advertised as a public reality, yet it is juxtaposed by many women who get plastic surgery not discussing their surgeries openly and finger pointing by individuals to identify surgeries people have done.

    I feel that a larger driving force in plastic surgery is the hyper-competitive forces that are instilled at a young age, starting with schools/hagwon. The narrative that it is a component of healing a trauma and that the threat from the DPRK has a meaningful role in the cultural subconsciousness of cosmetic surgery is simply that, a narrative. The most recent generations of South Koreans (20-30 somethings) think very little about the DPRK. They don’t want reunification.

    I’m reminded of my recent trip to South Korea where non Koreans had to be asked to stop talking about the DPRK– they could not stop incessantly talking about them and asking about them and questions about their threats, despite it being a topic that no one was interested in/thought about/worried about. It’s a cultural tragedy, that, but 50 years and multiple generations separate will do that.

    1. Thank you for your informed comment and for reading! Yes, I completely agree that the very competitive nature of South Koreans is closely related to the plastic surgery trend. I would argue that that same competitiveness has roots in the layers of trauma and the economic recovery experienced by the country. I thought the narrative was interesting and important to share because as a foreigner living in South Korea it has helped me understand the atmosphere I am living in. A very real sense of a loss of culture here was explained through understanding the New Villages Movement. Loss of culture and loss of individual identity go hand in hand. The distinct trauma experienced by South Korea is important for anyone to note who is interested in Korean economy, culture, women’s rights and arguably mental health- that is why I wrote this piece. As you read, the Korean mental health statistics are devastating, and must be explained through various social determinants and individual dispositions, not one avenue.

      Dr. Hilty, the psychologist I interviewed regarding this topic has entrenched herself in researching and alleviating the poor mental health status of Koreans. She whole-heartedly believes and has seen first hand that the historical trauma is an important piece to the mental health status of individuals in the country and secondarily the plastic surgery trend. I do not think that this generation of Koreans fears North Korea, but the lack of a peace treaty and constant threats is fairly significant part of stability even if it is more subconscious. Additionally, the more recent massacres on the population by their own government are still very real and in the consciousness of the young generation, especially since the daughter of the president responsible for them is now in power.

      There are of course personal and societal forces pushing individual decisions, but there is also a psychological aspect to altering your own body, risking your health, and losing some individualism, as a way to fit the standard. This concept is universal. I think being aware of this information is helpful for healing. I sincerely thank you for challenging the ideas of this post and adding to the dialogue about the topic!

      1. I definitely agree with you on the part of the recent rule and tragedies surrounding current president Park Geun-Hye’s father’s rule having an impact on the South Korean subconscious. There are so many psychosocial factors impacting South Korean culture and mental health that it’s hard to know where to start.

        South Korea’s economic successes are starkly contrasted by disparities in equality, where female graduates have very low employment rates, and of those who attain employment, are subject to the highest gender pay gap amongst the industrialized nations. I applaud you for highlighting the strength of South Korean women and the struggles they face. I can only hope that with time, public discourse, particularly within South Korea itself, can lead to further empowerment of South Korean women and create a more open atmosphere towards the discussion of mental health issues.

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