Feminist academic S. Heijin Lee grew up in Southern California, which is home to a large population of Korean Americans. While attending university in the late 1990s and early 2000s, she noticed a plethora of articles in the English-language media about Koreans undergoing plastic surgery. Moreover, western journalists suggested that so many Koreans were doing this so that they could look “white”.
“That sparked my interest because being from a Korean family and in my Korean community, I had never heard any Korean person say, ‘Well, I want to look white so I’m getting plastic surgery.’ ” Lee tells Pancouver over Zoom.
To Lee, now an assistant professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, there was a huge dissonance between these media reports and her lived experience as a member of a diasporic community. It led her on a 20-year journey, researching links between Koreans’ desire for cosmetic surgery and geopolitics.
Since she was studying for a master’s degree in the early 2000s, South Korean K-pop has emerged as a cultural powerhouse, influencing beauty standards in many countries. It’s reached the point where residents of other Asian countries—including Japan, Vietnam, and Thailand—are undergoing cosmetic surgery so that they can look more “Korean”.
“I could not have known at that point that in 20 years, the landscape would change so vastly and drastically,” Lee says.
Lee will discuss this topic in a free Vancouver Art Gallery online lecture at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday (January 24). Titled Conceptions of Whiteness and Geopolitics of Korean Beauty, it will refer to the VAG’S ongoing Conceptions of White exhibition.
Lee reveals origins of plastic surgery in South Korea
Through her research, Lee illuminates how personal tastes are deeply embedded to larger geopolitical formations. In her lecture, she plans to discuss the history of cosmetic surgery in South Korea, linking it to U.S. occupation during the Korean War.
“So, taking into consideration that long arc, what does it mean about conceptions of whiteness? Or how we understand whiteness travels and mutates in meaning, and how it kind of attaches to different bodies over time?” Lee asks. “That’s how I think of the geopolitics of beauty—trying to think of beauty as something not just personal, but deeply political.”
Lee explained the origins of plastic surgery in South Korea in an essay in Stronger than Bone, published by the Gwangju Biennale Foundation and Archive Books in 2021.
“With their continued occupation of South Korea, the US military launched a massive humanitarian effort in order to ingratiate themselves with locals, which included passing out chocolate, soda, and SPAM,” Lee wrote. “As part of their outreach efforts, US military doctors performed reconstructive surgery on Korean War victims.”
She noted that American plastic surgeon Ralph Millard “began a crusade to emancipate Koreans from what he described as their ‘expressionless’ eyes”. He did this performing double eyelid surgery on a large scale.
“Millard saw these procedures as his ‘deorientalizing’ project through the erasure of what was then, and continues to be, the primary signifier of Asianness—the monolid,” Lee wrote in the essay.
Lee tells Pancouver that cosmetic surgery around the eyes continues to be the most popular procedure in South Korea. Far from being linked to the Korean War, eyelid surgery is now viewed as Korean within the country.
“What whiteness symbolizes can exist without a white body or a white person,” Lee observes.
Essays challenge conventional views
Lee co-edited a collection of essays, Fashion and Beauty in the Time of Asia (NYU Press), which was published in 2019. In her piece, “Beauty Between Empires: Global Feminisms, Plastic Surgery, and the Trouble with Self-Esteem”, she pointed out that western discourses “characterize Korean plastic surgery as a desire to appear more ‘Western’ or white”.
But she suggests that it’s far more complicated than that. For instance, up until recently, photos were required on résumés in South Korea, according to Lee. It meant that job applicants were judged on their looks as well as their qualifications and how they performed in an interview.
In addition, there have been other socioeconomic drivers.
Following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the International Monetary Fund required South Korea to make structural adjustments. As a result, unemployment shot up from around three to as high as 20 percent.
Her essay posits that the rise of neoliberalism in South Korea following IMF reforms spawned “new gender norms and shifting social realities”.
“While marriage has been considered most important to women’s success, in the last decade job security has begun to displace marriage in its salience, with marriage becoming optional,” Lee wrote. “At the same time divorce rates have increased and on average, women stay unmarried for far longer than in the past.”
That led to a boom in plastic surgery in South Korea, which also occurred following the global financial meltdown in 2008.
“You’re really talking about a fiercely competitive environment, so people are trying to get as many advantages as they can,” Lee tells Pancouver.
Lee sees other impacts of neoliberalism
All of this has resulted in South Korea having sky-high rates of plastic surgery. It’s also become an export industry. One of the prime marketing tools, according to Lee, has been the rise of K-pop with its emphasis on high beauty standards.
Citing scholar Jin-Kyung Lee, Lee writes in “Beauty Between Empires” that South Korea “has emerged as a capitalist sub-empire in its own right, demonstrated in part by its exploitation of cheap labor from Southeast Asia and Mexico”.
That leads to a thought-provoking conclusion in her essay. Here, Lee ties together U.S. anxieties about an increasingly powerful South Korea to “hollow appeals to morality to discipline Korean women in proper modes of consumption and beauty”. In addition, the scholar highlights “ways in which neoliberal sentiments of self-possession, self-esteem, and empowerment have become part and parcel of feminist forms of resistance”.
Lee also sees parallels between Koreans’ propensity for undergoing plastic surgery and the national demand for English-language education.
“Koreans spend $15 billion a year on English academies,” Lee tells Pancouver. “Korean people send their kids to study in Canada, the U.S., or anywhere that they can so that their kids can learn English. I see cosmetic surgery as akin to that.
“It’s a highly competitive market where you’re judged for all of these factors,” she continues. “And the answer seems to be: ‘If I can spend money, I can somehow secure my future, whether it’s English or, you know, double eyelids.’”
The Vancouver Art Gallery will present a free lecture by S. Heijin Lee’s free lecture, Conceptions of Whiteness and the Geopolitics of Korean Beauty, at 6:30 p.m. Pacific Standard Time on January 24. Register on Zoom. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.