What does the word, ‘beauty,’ mean to you?
The definition of ‘beauty,’ according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “the quality of being physically attractive” and may also pertain to certain features of a person “that give pleasure to the sense or the mind.” One can imagine that the dictionary will provide a clear understanding of the term, yet the definition of ‘beauty’ ends with a rather ambiguous and perplexing noun: “a beautiful woman.” Hence, this leads us back to our original state of confusion, “what does it mean to be beautiful?”
Our world is witnessing an increasingly rapid rate of globalization in the 21st century. Along with other major issues, the world is constantly molding the standards of ‘beauty’ in various ways based on the culture that prevails at the time, for example, our beauty standards have changed significantly since the Renaissance. The extreme thinness perpetuated by models, such as Kate Moss, today would have been frowned upon the people living in the 14th century because ideal Renaissance women were full-figured, like those commonly found in paintings during this era, which symbolized wealth and prosperity at the time.
‘Appropriation’ is a key word we need to be mindful of in order to better understand the fluctuating nature of beauty standards. The definition of ‘appropriate’ is “to take exclusive possession of” or “to take or make use of without authority or right.” In “The Jeaning of America,” John Fiske coins a term, ‘excorporation,’ that adds further connotations to the word ‘appropriation.’ He defines the word as “the process by which the subordinate make their own culture out of the resources and commodities provided by the dominant system” (Fiske 15). Fiske introduces the idea of jeans serving as a “blank canvas” and allowing people to attach their own meanings to their clothing. Jeans were originally associated with “the cowboy and the mythology of the Western” and the concept of “Americanness,” which made jean-wearers feel like a part of a larger group associated with their shared ideas of “contemporary America” (4). However, Fiske continues that jeans have a secondary function of serving as a method of distinguishing oneself from the masses as well. He claims that disfiguring the jeans, tie-dying, bleaching, or ripping, is a “gesture toward social resistance” (4). For example, ripped jeans can connote the rejection of consumerism. Like Fiske’s analysis on the meanings created by excorporation of jeans, let’s take a look at the appropriation of the standards of beauty by the practices of plastic surgery in modern day South Korea.
In the 21st century, plastic surgery has become undeniably ingrained in the Korean culture and is swiftly dispersing across Southeast Asian regions. In the past, Asian countries socially rejected the idea of plastic surgery because of their staunch cultural beliefs—that one must learn to appreciate their natural beauty—adopted by the people. However, with globalization spreading worldwide, cosmetic surgery has become more prevalent throughout Asian culture. According to figures released by the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, South Korea was ranked as the most cosmetically enhanced population in the world. South Korean’s obsession with plastic surgery displays problematic social issues with the exponentially growing demand, therefore increasing supply, of procedures in the country.
The increasing instances of the usage of plastic surgery and the changing perception of these phenomena label the practices of going under the knife as commodities. Plastic surgery is treated much like any other product people can purchase off the racks at a retail store, like blue jeans sold at Urban Outfitters. When such practices were thought of as a shameful and ignorant thing to do to one’s own body, people who have undergone such procedures were extremely secretive about their surgeries. However, nowadays, plastic surgery is viewed as a positive method of self-improvement. It is seen as a way for many people to gain confidence to succeed in the work places and as a way to increase their chances of meeting their “perfect” future spouses. Based on my observations, for students, plastic surgery has become a motivation to perform well in high school and to be accepted by reputable universities. Parents promise their children a double-eyelid surgery as a reward, once they make it into Seoul National University, one of South Korea’s top ranking university, or any other prestigious schools. Like how blue jeans accumulated a diverse set of cultural connotations over time, the growing number of surgeries has attempted to change the negative undertone of plastic surgeries and to shed a positive light onto the notion of plastic beauty.
In “Theory of the Leisure Class” by Thorstein Veblen, he discusses the highly integrated relationship between status and display. Veblen asserts that people are placed in their specific social statuses based on the wealth they possess. According to Veblen, wealth can be shown through material products, such as the latest designer handbags, and leisure time, such as getting a manicure at a spa. He introduces a term, ‘conspicuous consumption,’ as “a means of reputability to gentleman of leisure” (Veblen 47). He suggests that “a life of leisure is the readiest and most conclusive evidence of pecuniary strength, and therefore a superior force” and the people who practice in ‘conspicuous leisure’ are able to do so because of their “pecuniary ability to afford a life of idleness” (25-8). An interesting point he alludes to is that ‘conspicuous consumption and leisure’ are similar in that both deal with the notion of ‘conspicuous waste’:
“It is here called ‘waste’ because this expenditure does not serve human life or human well-being on the whole, not because it is waste or misdirection of effort or expenditure as viewed from the standpoint of the individual consumer who chooses it” (60).
People nowadays have started to view plastic surgery both as a ‘conspicuous consumption and leisure’. It has become a trend to go seek a doctor for facial consultation over summer break or walk out of the hospital after a surgery, hand in hand with a friend. As the growth in medical technology and industry in South Korea escalates, medical tourism industries are booming in Southeast Asia as well. People from China and Japan travel all the way to Seoul to receive their plastic surgeries and tour around the city during their spare times. People are no longer afraid of being seen in the streets with their bandages and masks on their faces. In fact, they’re proud of it. It means that they can afford to spend their money and time on an expensive Botox or rhinoplasty. The recovery time required to heal after a surgery ranges from a few weeks to several months. This ‘leisure time,’ of those who have received surgery, symbolizes a certain social status—it means they are capable of utilizing the time to stay home and rest for their wounds to heal instead of struggling to work at a factory in order to earn money to feed their families.
Plastic surgery was originally developed as means to treat those who were born with facial birth defects and for war veterans who have lost parts of their bodies during combat. However, the appropriation of the standard of beauty caused by social pressures and consumerism has changed people’s motives for receiving these surgeries and as a result, plastic surgery has become a ‘conspicuous waste.’ Although those who make the decision to go under the knife will disagree with their choices being a ‘waste,’ as Veblen would say, “an element of the standard of living which set out with being primarily wasteful, ends with becoming, in the apprehension of the consumer, a necessary of life” (61). Thus, spending money on beauty has become a necessary for these addicts to survive, just how food and water is imperative to living. Much like the disputed and conflicted mythologies of jeans, the concept of beauty is accumulating new meanings that are slowly drifting away from their original definitions.
The rise of the Korean Wave (‘Hallyu Fever’) in pop culture and media have strong influences on the popularization of the idea, ‘plastic makes perfect.’ Beauty has become a purchasable good. The majority of K-pop culture is reigned by the “Idols” in South Korea. These “Idols” refer to K-pop celebrities, mostly singers, that have passed through various stages of auditions and have been accepted by major talent agencies in Korea. “Idols,” such as Girls Generation, mainly target the interest of young teenagers and gain significant popularity through their portrayal of physical perfection. Many teenage girls and boys are turning to the knife or the needle in order to emulate the faces of their “Idols.”
The practices of plastic surgery lead to a change in the defining of beauty in Korea. When plastic surgeons advertise the double eyelid surgery or rhinoplasty, they use images of Western women as way of displaying and deceiving these women into getting the surgery that are promoted by their hospitals. These images of Western beauty implant the misconceptions into the minds of Asian women that Western facial features are the solution to achieving the ultimate beauty. As a result, Koreans believe true beauty comes from looking less “Asian” and more “American.” This delusion is the source of the hopeless desires of Asian teenagers wanting to abandon their traditional “Asian beauty” to look more caucasian—larger eyes an sharp-edged noses.
In “Anchoring the (Postmodern) Self?: Body modification, fashion and identity,” Paul Sweetman deems tattoos as “act[s] of ‘self-creation’ and through the modification of the body’s surface, helps to construct a viable sense of self-identity” (Sweetman 307). He believes that tattoos and piercings are unique experiences that cannot be simply purchased, like accessories, but requires the consumer’s involvement throughout the experience—from choosing the designs to enduring the physical pain of actually getting tattooed or pierced. One could see plastic surgery as a form of body modification, much similar to tattoos and piercings. Consumers make their own choices on which procedure they prefer to undergo, based on the ideas they have in mind for their “self-creation.” However, Sweetman points to a problem regarding the “permanence or ‘semi-permanence’” of body modifications, that people “attempt to reflexively revise one’s sense of self through re-attention to the body’s exterior” (309). Likewise, the societal pressures of Korean society have caused an unhealthy habit of thinking that the “permanence” of plastic surgery to one’s own body is the key to becoming a different person and living the ideal life they have dreamed of. If teenage girls and boys, at a very vulnerable age, are turning to knives and needles to change who they are through their outer appearances, hasn’t the appropriation of beauty in modern day society gone way too far?