Why Koreans Get So Much Plastic Surgery

It’s aiin’t no secret that Korea is number 1 in the world for plastic surgery, but why? Now I’m not an anthropologist or some culture professor anything, but after having lived in Korea for a while and growing up with Korean family, made me come to this 4 part theory! It’s probably wrong, but I mean… dude can guess right?

1. Korea is crazy image centric. It’s crazy how many mirrors there are so that people can make sure they’re looking good (elevators, subway stations, etc.). Girls put on make up when they go to the supermarket, and even some Korean dudes put on make up. It’s crazy. And what better image can you get than through plastic surgery?

2. Korea is super competitive. That’s why there’s so many hagwons: for kids to be better than / keep up with the other kids. Everyone works really hard and tries to be on top of the game. I’m from NYC and the competition gets hot there, but it’s a pressure cooker over here. I’m an outsider and I still feel it!

3. The attitude in Korea towards plastic surgery isn’t so crazy. The America I grew up in kind of tends to make a big deal regarding plastic surgery. “Oh yo, did you hear she got a boob job?!” It’s kind of considered cheating back in America. But here it’s just kind of a thing. Even some parents promise their kids in high school plastic surgery as graduation presents.

4. Shamanism (aka Musim, Mugyo, 무교) – Ok, so I know this is really academic and stuff. But I think it’s one of the reasons! Korea’s old school religion is really deeply rooted in Korean culture and society. And since it was a very materialistic religion, I think it kind of explains why Korea is really focused on things of this world. And isn’t plastic surgery (just for beauty purposes) kind of a “worldly” value? (As opposed to spiritual or something else?) Iunno, just a guess.

See the video:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bPhGAmfD-Q]

If you have your own theories, let me know in the comments!

29 thoughts on “Why Koreans Get So Much Plastic Surgery

  1. Are you sure the mirrors in their offices aren’t to keep people and startling them when their back is turned?
    Some women at my work do that – me, i”m smarter than that – my computer faces the door.
    Or maybe it is both – make sure they look perfect and keep people from scaring them.

  2. Jennifer says:

    After living here almost a year and a half, I do feel that a big part of it has to do with the competitiveness in getting a job. Just as testing is really big here, so is appearance and that can be a real deal breaker as to whether you can really make a living or not. Generally, I’ve felt there’s a great divide in material items here as well. It’s like you have big name brand or something really cheap with bad quality — it’s like there is no middle area, which I haven’t quite figured out why exactly.

    I have noticed that East Asian countries in general are big on making sure a person looks good. I suppose what I haven’t figured out is why Korea has such a higher plastic surgery rate than Japan or China, in that regard.

    I haven’t read too much into Shamanism other than just some basic concepts (and it is a religion that seems quite different between various countries) but that is a good point you mentioned how that could be an influence. I’ll have to look into that more.

    Thanks for posting! Good food for thought.

    • Nix says:

      Surgical tourism could be a factor in Kore’s high plastic surgery rate. People want to go to Korea for surgery- I’m sorry but the surgeons are just good.

  3. Hetreda Zefanya says:

    i gotta say i agree with reason #1..
    in my opinion,Korean appreciate beauty-ness sooo much..they would feel happy if they see pretty things in their daily lives..at least it was my first impression when i first came to Korea..i could see many beautiful bridges,amazing buildings..and i actually asked one of the people at the hotel why there are so many beautiful things (including beautiful people) in Korea,and he answered that most Korean live to be happy,so they build/create beautiful things for the sake of their happiness..probably Korean feel the happiness thru their visions first..
    so i guess it’s similar with plastic surgery..
    ooorr,i’ve read some extreme comments somewhere that most Korean are obssessed with caucasian looks..i don’t really get this reason actuallu.. :/

  4. Nate says:

    Great and insightful list I just wanted to add some facetious additions.

    # 5) “Hey Maslow! I’m Rich B!&%#!” – Korea’s rapid rags to riches success has created a huge middle class with people now relishing in modern and new luxury to fulfill higher level needs.

    This is something that is happening now in China and India as well. According to Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, once people’s basic needs are fulfilled: food, shelter & safety, they move up to needs like love, belonging and esteem, but since Korea achieved this fairly recently in the age of mass media, and every marketer is looking at these “new rich” people in developing markets. They are heavily targeted and manipulated to think that by doing X procedures and buying Y cosmetics will get these new higher needs fulfilled. These people didn’t even have enough time for their psyche to adjust and process this new evolution of wealth – kids born nowadays are growing up into thinking it’s the norm to behave this way.

    # 6) “Look at me now!” – I think this kind of stems from a bipolar inferiority and superiority disposition Koreans tend to bounce back and forth from. They were once stepped on by other powers (China, Japan, Mongolia, North Korea, USA), but not they are becoming a world power.

    The national Korean psyche has a constant competitive drive to prove itself or be better than others, and surgery is seen as form of empowerment because you are now above average in appearance.

    #7) “I want to be the 10th Member of Girls Generation” – Picture perfect faces, SK-II, Missha and any other type of cosmetic ad shows flawless KPOP beauty and it’s basically a constant and indirect way of making you feel self-conscious of your own flaws. It’s no secret that Koreans are taking pride in the global adornment of KPOP idols. But it’s back firing in the sense that many young Koreans feel the need to manufacturer their own bodies to mirror these idols and live up to this unique standard of “Korean” beauty that’s being pushed out, even if it’s not natural.

    #8) Everyone else is doing it. Korea is a “me too!” follow the leader culture. Your neighbor just bought a new samsung kimchi refrigerator, OK me too! Same goes when your friend just got a nose job.

  5. shoshlev says:

    I will be direct like Koreans [By the way it’s rude to be direct it offensive and arrogant] You do plastic surgery only if you need probably they are ugly and that the reason why they do if they were fine they did not have to do plastic surgery there are countries where the surgery most commonly the ass like Brazil for example, but in Korea first place in all areas of the body the problem of Korean 1.Wide nose 2.Small eyes, 3 Small bust or almost none at all, Koreans are low but in the last little bit less, in Korea all mad, measure people in the extreme and morbid, the certificate, money and beauty and least measured by nature, where measured by the shape of the pitcher and not by what’s inside, lucky I do not live in Korea, all sick
    All pathologically competitive, if you’re not pretty you it means you are not worth your soul has no value and that is the reason why Koreans really do plastic surgery and they are ranked first in the world and perhaps this is why Korean in the first in the world to commit suicide, a lot of pressure.
    I’ll give you an example in Korea congratulate each other, work hard and we welcome each other Do fun because the life is short and we should enjoy them ,of us after the army almost all young traveling in world and many families go once or twice a year to travel the world or in the country, we trying to live sanely and not in a morbid frenzy of competition.

  6. Contagion theories seek to explain networks as conduits for “infectious” attitudes and behavior. (Copy-paste) from a site… Hahaha I haven’t been in Korea. Makes me more curious why even high schoolers are going gaga over having a slit in their eyes.

    My friend shares her experience when she visited Korea; when you look around “No is ugly”.

    Nice site! My eyes hurt for the gray font color. 🙂

    • Stefanie says:

      When I went to Pyeongtaek with my husband for a job interview, he decided he couldn’t live in the city because it was “cursed” Why? He couldn’t find any pretty girls. I pointed out that in Seoul it is easier to get plastic surgery. He is still a firm believer Pyeongtaek is cursed! lol

      He also had his jaw shaved but only after it was broken in the military to even it up. His brother got jealous and had his jaw bones shaved as well.

  7. Sooo many things are so superficial in Korea, not only physical looks. Sometimes, what something looks like on the outside (whether it be a business deal or a personal relationship) is more important that what it is in actuality. It’s been one of the hardest aspects of the culture to adapt to since living here, as things are never really what they seem. You’ve thrown out some interesting theories. Had no idea about the materialistic foundations of shamanism!

  8. You have touched on some very interesting points. It seems that there are more “drastic” changes that are done in Korea as opposed to the “western” ideology of minor “enhancements” that give people “plausible deniability” – a big thing in the more conservative approach that I have heard in my 10 years of the industry.

    Plastic surgery/cosmetic services are getting more and more popular. I hope that the negativity that is associated with it goes away soon…

  9. terri c. says:

    I luv ur site~I wish I had read it when I was living in Korea. I would have experienced less culture shock as a Korean American. I think as a Korean living in America, there is some sense of pride in being asian and to go through plastic surgery to alter your physical appearance takes it away. Also there is less pressure placed on looks. Albeit I am from Los Angeles–capital of superficialism and materialism…most are down to earth and hard working who aren’t googly eyed or phased by Hollywood. Also…one thing I want to point out…there are Korean American girls who do get plastic surgerydone but from my experience..most get it because their mothers got plastic surgery too and they feel that plastic surgery is necessary in order to find a suitable 실랑 or future husband/fiance. Either that or the Korean American went to Korea and was tainted and succumbed to the pressures of lookimg beautiful. The thing I never got was..even if your chance of finding a suitable husband was higher with plastic, why would you want to marry someone who wants you for your altered appearance rather than the real you? I don’t think I will ever get plastic surgery unless I got third degree burns or some horrid accident that scarred my face. Although I am not the most beautiful, I think I can deal with whatever I was born with. I’d rather invest all that surgery money buying books or taking courses to improve myself intellectually and working on my personality. I don’t know what kinds of guys sone girls are wanting to attract but I’d rather attract guys who respect me because of my values, principlrs, intellect and personality. I can speak Korean so I met alot of Korean Koreans and many young women don’t seem to be interested in the things like politics or topics of concern in today’s society. The conversations were dry and superficial. I was a bit shocked bc are these the types of women that men want to be living with for the rest of their lives..just baby makers who cook and clean for their spouses. I don’t think I could live like that. I did meet a few intellectual women who were very cultured and loved discussing topics that many Koreans shy away from but they were far and few. Anyways…I felt like I had to get that off my chest. Sorry for going off on a tangent.

    studious or successful career women type. The ones that get plastic surgery are the southern belle types

  10. EW says:

    … saw this post and when the part you talked about the jaw line note – made me concious~ hey! thats like me.. hmm.. should i get mine sharpen up too… (narh i guess not) imperfections are beauty! =D

  11. Hey, to start nice blog – I just moved to Seoul 36 hours ago and this is the first site I’ve found that’s both informative and entertaining.

    As for the cosmetic surgery, I’ve made the same observation, but there’s another aspect that most people haven’t considered: braces.

    For most Americans, braces are the first, most common, and relatively affordable way of enhancing your appearances. I’d say for Koreans, the analogous starting point is eyelid surgery.

    The difference is, there’s much more of a “slippery slope” for Koreans: once you get eyelids, why not liposuction the thighs? Botox the cheeks? Inject the breasts?

    There’s a variety of substantive reasons that braces don’t as “plastic surgery”:
    – there’s no knife involved
    – it’s done by your dentist/orthodontist
    – it has genuine hygienic benefits

    But I think most of all, there’s the cultural aspect. Braces are painful and require careful maintenance, they take months/years to take effect, they make you UGLIER for the duration, and most of all, you usually get them while you’re an impressionable teenager.

    All of which amounts to the feeling that it’s a one-time-only rite of passage. Yeah you look better at the end, but only because you put in the time and effort. Americans don’t look down on plastic surgery because it’s a shortcut in general, it’s because it waters down all the crap they went through as a teenager.

    • Stefanie says:

      Koreans are adapting to braces much more these days. I have seen many people from elementary students to middle aged woman with braces. They didn’t use them as often before because they were expensive and they would rather send their children to hagwons. My very good friend begged her very wealthy father for braces but didn’t want to pay for the American ones and she wasn’t home often enough for them to be tightened regularly in Korea. One of the first things she did after getting a job was to get braces.

      They are slowly becoming more affordable and a norm for kids. Don’t forget, this is one of the first generations to have truly disposable income in the last 100 or so years. When you remember a time when you couldn’t afford to buy food for your children, using money for braces seem like a luxury you can’t afford. When you are paying $50/hr for English tutoring, you have money to throw around!

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  13. Stefanie says:

    I have had Koreans straight up tell me “You got fat!” or “You gained weight!” If I complain to a Korean that I have been really tired lately they point to any blemishes on my face and agree, they can see that. They consider that telling you these things shows that they care and have noticed something has changed. That is very sweet. However, it still makes me feel like crap!

    It is even worse when STRANGERS tell me I need to lose weight. I just started going to the gym (albeit rather lazily and ignore the cheesecake sitting next to me) and I only need to lose 20 pounds to be at target weight. That actually isn’t that much. However after my heel got caught on the stair and popped off, I took it to one of those little 구두수산 huts. He told me my heels would last longer if I lost weight! I thought I misunderstood and asked my friend to be sure. Yep. What a poopyhead! If I had been more confident in my Korean and not with my coteacher at the time, I would have told him he should be more polite to his costumers and walk off without paying.

    As for the states, there is a lot of gossiping about plastic surgery but among some households, the parents are also making deals with their kids. I know boob jobs are becoming popular as a graduation/18th birthday present.

    As for Koreans, I know that if their daughters are not very smart they are very worried about their futures. It seems that the mothers are either worried that their daughter isn’t smart or pretty enough but not at the same time. I have had some students that weren’t cute but they parents pushed them to be smarter. The pretty girls weren’t pushed as hard, sometimes not at all. When I pointed this out to my coteacher, she said it was because the pretty girls can get married even if they aren’t smart as long as the family background is good. The ugly girls need to be smart and sometimes need some extra help under the knife.

    Remember, women are judged on how well their children turned out. Their children getting married is a huge part of that. My old coteacher’s mother-in-law pushed their wedding up 6 months because she wanted her own daughter married the following spring (I think maybe she was living in sin?!). Her oldest son refused to get married and that caused a lot of drama in the family. They also should have been married in order which is why the younger sister couldn’t marry first even though she had been engaged for years.

    Nowadays it’s more acceptable for your daughter to be a career woman but she is still expected to marry and have children. If you do not have a lot of money or are not very smart/have a good job then you have to rely on your looks more.

    I also think they look at it more like a fashion choice/hair style. If you don’t like your hair, change it. Why not your eyelids or jaw bone? They don’t hear too much about the botched surgery stories so it seems like not such a big deal. I’ve seen girls that take some time off before college to get an entire new face! On top of everything else, it is still relatively cheap.

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  16. tran says:

    I think it is a very good thing that they care so much about there image because I love to surround my self with many beautiful things including myself of course, especially my body, face and style and I expect everything to be perfect even thu I know perfection is very rare to accomplish. i’m not korean but I love Korean culture, but didn’t get the chance to visit yet, the one thing I’m really curious about is how much does it cost to received surgery for a boob job and a nose job in korea? is it cheaper there? or more expensive then in comparison to America?

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