Surgery or Photoshop? What the Korean Beauty Controversy Says About Us

4 years ago

Have you seen the collage of Korean beauty pageant contestants that’s circulating around the web? Besides sparking a multitude of inane comments about all Asians looking alike, it’s also stirred up a lot of debate about whether plastic surgery – or even Photoshop – has gone too far.

Last week, a Japanese blog posted a composite of the headshots of women competing in a Korean local beauty pageant. That was reblogged on Reddit by a user named ShenTheWise, with the topic line “Korea's plastic surgery mayhem is finally converging on the same face. Here are the miss korea 2013 contestants” and the Internet exploded with over 3700 comments on that post alone, catching the attention of more mainstream news sites such as Jezebel, Buzzfeed, and the International Business Times, even the photography news site PetaPixel.

Image Credit: Kotaku

While the freakish collage was but a blip in our daily diet of news of the weird for the mainstream internet, the discussion continued to stir up debate among Asian American netizens.

As Gil Asakawa writes on Nikkei View:

But hairstyles and fashions are surface accoutrements. Shaving your jawbone to make a narrower cheek and chin, and slicing your eyes to add an epicanthic fold are serious manipulations of your natural body. That’s the kind of stuff that old vain women undergo to try and look young. It’s a shame that young people feel so bad about themselves that they’re going through the procedures before they even get to live life. What are these kids going to look like in 40 years?

South Korea has the highest per capita rates of cosmetic surgery (although in terms of sheer numbers of nips and tucks, the United States still leads), and there’s even a Tumblr decidated to documenting before and after pictures of Korean patients.

Then an article on the Gawker-run video game news site Kotaku, which often covers Asian pop culture, reported that it was not so much plastic surgery, but excessive use of Photoshop that caused these women to look like clones. Kotaku posted a gallery of photos showing the women, contestants in a local beauty pageant that feeds into the Miss Korean contest, behind the scenes – with and without hair and makeup.

While some people sighed relief that the cloning was done mostly with a Photoshop tool and not with a scalpel, I’m still disturbed. While it may be a personal decision to go under the knife, when it's so common and there’s such a uniformity of features that’s desired, at some point we have to consider this as a societal issue.

The message to young South Korean women (and you can extend that message to all Asian or Asian American women) is that they are not beautiful the way they were born. And even with extensive plastic surgery, they still aren’t considered beautiful? Whether or not the artist – or whoever commissioned him or her to do this editing—is even aware of it, this is a reflection of society’s obsession with such a narrow and unnatural ideal of beauty.

And this obsession with just one standard of beauty is not just a Korean, or Asian, phenomenon. I had was absentmindedly flipping through an American women’s magazine one time, when my then Kindergartener pointed to a model in an ad for some cosmetic or shampoo. “Isn’t that the same person as here?” he asked, flipping the pages back to another ad. Of course, they weren’t the same person, but I can see how he might think so.

Remember Seth and Eva Matlin's campaign in 2011 to get magazines to disclose their use of Photoshop? I don’t know if legislation can enforce what people do with digital manipulation, especially now that we have programs that make it so easy, but we don’t have to like it.

News and Politics Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs about raising an Asian mixed-race family at HapaMama.

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