Standards of Beauty Under The Knife

Pic: Sarang (PD)

Pic: Sarang (PD)

By now, you have probably heard some of the outsider outrage, confusion and consternation. “Everyone in Korea wants the same face!”

It seems, pardon the pun, cut and dry, but as you’ll see it is anything but. Any cultural slant might be laid bare through similar scrutiny, so beware: those publications that seem to want to the headline to read “Dumb Asians All Want to Look The Same” are incapable of seeing their own cultural bias. We are all, in a sense, blind to ourselves.

Let’s try to open our eyes a little. I want to look at this, leading off with one of the better articles I’ve found on this phenomenon,

“There’s a real problem when you make generalizations about a whole country full of women, that they’re all culturally duped,” Hejiin Lee said in an interview. “There are certain economic situations happening in Korea and America that might impel different choices. We — Americans — might not see plastic surgery on the same level here that we see in Korea. But we do see people looking to the consumer market for help in their personal lives. Weigh that through an economic framework, and it’s what you’re seeing in Korea today.” (Atlantic)

The racist stereotype of looking the same may have little bearing in this case — rather it seems more a matter of shooting for the same standard of beauty. But why should so many people in a culture feel there is something wrong with them to begin with? Is this some kind of nascent, cultural illness?

We are want to react against that. I know my first reaction was to think how sad it is that perfectly beautiful, “normal” people look at themselves like the elephant man and want to get fairly intrusive surgery to meet the ideal in their head.

But hold on a second. Those feelings shift quite a bit when they are applied to those who feel their sex doesn’t match the gender in their head. Rightfully so, I think, a recent author on Reality Sandwich who didn’t feel there was any difference had been called out for her ignorance. 

Yet there is a single thing she may have been correct about: they are nearly the same. Someone feels that their physical self does not match their internal self, and they want to take what measures are available to right that. The issue is the moralizing. The judging from the outside. Someone that isn’t trans, isn’t even close to those issues, wants to tell people who are that they’re wrong? What gives her the right.

Isn’t that what we’re doing when I, neither Korean nor female, want to say such desires are sick?

Well. Now we aren’t quite so fixed in our surety, at least for those of us that are unwilling to throw the Trans- community under the bus as well. Perhaps we can glean un-generalization, albeit unproven, from this tangle: while Westerners oftentimes want to stand out from the crowd, there may be a cultural pressure in Asian cultures to be at one with the crowd. To be the crowd. I can’t say for sure, but I think there might be something to that. (Not that either perspective is “right” or “wrong,” those labels hardly apply. They are simply different reactions to the problems that face us in the course of being human. As all culture is.)

One thing seems for certain: we have no right to call it wrong. Is it lest our own cultural peculiarities get similar judgement? No. It is because if there is one thing we should all support, it is the intrinsic freedom of an individual to make such decisions for themselves, as we as outsiders cannot, will not ever know their internal experience.

But yet again we must hold off on such certainty. There is a deeper side to this issue — which I can’t hope to truly explore in a short post, though damnit I’ll try anyway — an issue that complicates the idea of personal freedom. You might get an inkling of what I mean from the following quotation,

“A global ideal doesn’t stop at the face, says dental surgeon Jung Hak. Dr Jung says he’s been fighting a trend. Korean mothers who have been bringing in their toddlers to have the muscle under the tongue that connects it to the bottom of the mouth surgically snipped.

The belief, explains Dr Jung, is that it will help a Korean speak English more clearly. People from the Asia Pacific region have difficulty in pronouncing the “L” sound, says Dr Jung. But he calls the surgery, if it’s only for pronunciation, misguided, and caused by the hyper-competitive drive in Korea.”

In other words, where is the line between a person’s freedom to choose, and the cultural pressures that influence that decision? And where does it lie when we’re talking about performing such surgery on children too young to decide for themselves, cultural pressure aside?

Such questions are essential to get a grips on the topic; but in a practical sense, there is little hope for legislation to single-handedly correct the way many Koreans are socially pressured to be “white,” in the sense that white does not so much refer to a historic or actual people but rather to the myth of whiteness which represents beauty, wealth, and all that is desirable. (After all many Irish have historically know how possible it is for their whiteness to actually confer none of these supposed privileges of whiteness.)

In any event, legislation aimed at correcting our behavior by making us act in our own best interest almost always damaged what it seeks to most aid: our increased freedom and well-being.

For if we ourselves cannot say what that is, no one can.

This article first appeared on Modern Mythology.

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