Plastic Surgery and Contemporary Beauty Standards in South Korea

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24th Apr 2019 Sociology Reference this


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South Korea: a bustling, highly developed country known for its technological advanced innovations, eccentric pop artists, and its highly-motivated people that have shifted the atmosphere and economy of their homeland from one of poverty and agriculture to the economic powerhouse it is today. It seems to stand, however, that a combination of all three factors have led to something else–the rise of the plastic surgery industry.

New technologies in facial reconstruction has given medical professionals the ability to alter one’s physical characteristics in cheaper, more efficient ways. The rise of social media has led to a consumerist culture in which fans worship the hundreds of celebrities who have successfully infiltrated the entertainment industry, in part because of their idealistic physical appearances. And competition to rise above one’s peers to compete for the same jobs and standing in society means that a perfect resume is no longer enough.

Since when did the standard of beauty in Korea become so high, and how has the rise of the plastic surgery industry led to even higher beauty standards in this positive feedback loop?


Physical appearance is a crucial aspect of social life in South Korean society. But what are some of the most prevalent and most desirable beauty standards? While some may be shared by many Westernized cultures, such as a slim body, outsiders might find certain traits unusually specific. These include pale skin, a V-line face shape, round eyes, the presence of double-eyelids (or epicanthic folds), a high nose bridge, small lips, a small face, and aegyo sal, which are bags of fat under the eyes that supposedly add to a more youthful appearance. A combination of these attributes may mean that one is labeled with the unique neologism of momjjang (perfect body) or ulzzang (perfect face), lest be considered to be a part of the miyong hawui kyegup (“a cosmetic underclass”) and ruin your chances of success in the future (Gelezeau 2015).

While such characteristics might be assumed originally to be those attributed to female, Korean men are subjected to similar or the same standards of beauty; thus, this increase in aesthetic surgery rates is also applied to Korean men (Holiday, Elfving-Hwang 2012). There is even a popular term for these so-called “beautiful” men: “kkot-minam,” which literally translates to “beautiful flower boys”. While in other Westernized cultures such “beauty” and even the notion of cosmetic surgery might be attributed to femininity and, in turn, “carry connotations of gay sexuality” (Holiday, Elfving-Hwang 2012), this is not the case in South Korea—as a result, “Korean men in their twenties and thirties are more predisposed to cosmetic surgery than Western men” (Holiday, Elfving-Hwang 2012).

There is a procedure for nearly all the “components of beauty” mentioned previously, and plastic surgery continues to become more normalized in South Korean society. The most popular surgeries are, respectively, (1) blepharoplasty (double eyelids), (2) rhinoplasties (nose), and (3) jaw reshaping (Holiday, Elfving-Hwang 2012, 60). As “public attitudes towards aesthetic surgery in Korea become increasingly positive” (Holiday, Elfving-Hwang 2012, 60), children as young as middle school and high school are undergoing procedures to physically alter their appearances. The statistics are telling: the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery reports that “South Korea has the highest rates of plastic surgery procedures per capita” (Park 2018), and the New Yorker “estimates that between one-fifth and one-third of women in Seoul have gone under the knife” (Marx 2015).


The structuralist perspective of society is “the view that there are social structures that shape how individuals think and act” (Lecture #1, 8/7/18). It is considered a “top-down view” in which society exists outside the mind of the individual, who is a passive entity dictated by the social structure in which he/she lives in. Social control enforces both written (such as laws and contracts) and unwritten rules (also known as social norms, such as etiquette), maintaining order and the current social structure. In South Korea, where an individual’s image is an overwhelmingly important aspect of the public and private spheres, one of the most pervasive and impactful methods of social control are those such as “persuasion, ridicule, gossip, opprobrium, and ostracism” (Berger 1963, pg. 73) though it can be argued that economic pressures are closely linked to physical appearance, considering the consideration of one’s appearance when applying for prospective jobs.

Social norms in South Korea revolving around appearance also add to a beauty-obsessed society. Whereas in America the phrase “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything nice at all” continues to be an important theme of polite mannerisms, Koreans often comment on each other’s facial and physical “deficiencies”. One journalist writes, “Remarks from relatives, such as ‘You would be a lot prettier if you just had your jaw tapered,’ are considered no more insulting than ‘You’d get a lot more for your apartment if you redid the kitchen’” (Marx 2015). Professor Valerie Gelezeau of EHASS in Paris observes that this action is “not considered impolite; on the contrary, it is a duty that must be performed to help the friend in question to do something to improve his/her physical appearance” (Gelezeau 2015).


South Korea is known for its highly rigorous educational standards, with students in high school studying for an average of 13 hours per day in hopes of scoring well on the CSAT, a nationally standardized exam administered once-a-year that could land you admission into one of the prestigious SKY (Seoul University, Korea University, Yonsei University) universities. Competition between students in school is especially intensive due to an education system along with cultural norms that promotes a ranking system, and students consequently growing up comparing themselves to their peers.

How does this culture of competition within the education system relate to South Korea’s obsession for beauty?

This rigorous and cut-throat system has led to a society that boasts a 98% high school graduation rate and “the highest percentage of 25-34-year-olds with tertiary education at 70%” (OECD 2018). With so many motivated college graduates seeking for a limited number of college degree-level jobs, how can individuals gain a competitive edge over their peers? The answer seems to be in physical appearance. In Korea, applicants to jobs are required to attach photos of themselves to their resumes—which is then scrutinized and used to assess each candidate. Holiday and Elfving-Hwang cites recruitment agency JobKorea, who “found that 80 percent of recruitment executives considered the physical appearance of a candidate ‘important’, and a 2006 study found that there was a perception among high school students that appearance would often be considered of greater importance than abilities and skills in hiring decisions” (Holiday, Elfving-Hwang, 2012).

The plastic surgery obsession ties in with traditional Confucianist values that are still very relevant in many Asian societies. Psychology Professor Eunkook Suh of Yonsei University writes that “a lot of people hold an incremental theory versus an entity theory about a person’s potential” (Marx 2015). According to these values, anything can be improved if you work hard enough. In the same vein, because physical beauty is something that can be attained, not having certain characteristics of the ideal beauty such as perfect skin and a slim body become associated with laziness—a trait that diverges from the hard-working society that transformed itself from poverty to riches within the last half-century, and therefore, not looked favorably upon by those looking to hire employees. It seems, therefore, that beauty is just one more thing for individuals to invest in in order to thrive in the competitive culture that is integrated into so many facets of Korean society.

Furthermore, with the rise of the Korean entertainment industry and the widespread use of social media, beauty is constantly emphasized. Where most Western artists and entertainers are celebrated for their musical talents or ability to perfectly capture a character on the screen, beauty is an absolute standard that needs to be attained in order to be successful. Author Keith Howard observes in his 2006 commentary on the subject, “in the Korean pop music scene, music itself was of minute importance compared with the style and image of the singers” (p.106). For the flashy mainstream KPOP idols that have only recently started to gain attention in Western media, it is difficult to succeed in the with only musical talent—many are pressured to undergo plastic surgery before debut in order to fit what is deemed attractive, lest suffer at the hands of unforgiving Korean netizens (aka “internet citizens”).

The booming plastic surgery industry has led to the establishing of thousands of clinics throughout the country, all claiming that they hold the power to transform one’s physical appearance into that of their favorite celebrity. The competition between the plastic surgery clinics themselves to gain more customers for this growing industry propels the development of advanced techniques at affordable prices that has attracted people all over the world; in this way, capitalism plays a large role.


South Korea’s obsession for perfection has led to an obsession with physical appearance—and with that plastic surgery has become the main means of attaining what was previously unattainable. As writer put it, “plastic surgery is integrated into daily life”—a fact that becomes apparent as one walks down the subway lines with advertisements for clinics lining the walls, or observes parents “gifting their children some form of surgery after they finish their national college entrance or watches shows like “Let Me In” that “capitalize[s] on the pain and angst of everyday patients to showcase the wonders of plastic surgery” (Ho 2018).


  • Berger, P. L. (2013). Invitation to sociology: A humanistic perspective.
  • Ho, K. J. (2018, January 10). Why is Plastic Surgery so Popular in South Korea? Retrieved from
  • Holliday, R., & Elfving-Hwang, J. (2012). Gender, Globalization and Aesthetic Surgery in South Korea. Body & Society18(2), 58-81. doi:10.1177/1357034×12440828
  • Howard, K. (2006). Korean pop music: Riding the wave. Folkestone, OH: Global Oriental.
  • Marx, P. (2015, March 23). The World Capital of Plastic Surgery. Retrieved from
  • OECD (2018), “Korea”, in Education at a Glance 2018: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris,
  • Park, C. E. (2018, February 8). For many South Koreans, beauty standards represent a cultural struggle. Retrieved from
  • Speer, I. (2018). Sociology 101 lecture 1 – What is Sociology?
  • Valérie Gelézeau. The body, cosmetics and aesthetics in South Korea the emergence of a field of research. 2015. <halshs-01211686>

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