The Cost of Beauty: The Economics of Plastic Surgery in South Korea

by Taylor Babaian

I was forty years old when I decided to return to school to earn my undergraduate degree. The learning curve was steeper than I had expected because I had not anticipated the social nuances of college. For one, I was unaware that it was rare for a Korean woman to not have a degree. I made the connection when I found myself needing to repeatedly explain that I was not a graduate student.

“You’re a graduate student, right?”

“No, undergraduate.”

“You mean graduate, right?”

As an Anthropology major, I became interested in what markers I conveyed that created such expectations. Was it race? Age? The combination? My long career as a beauty expert only escalated my curiosity. Prior to returning to school, I had written three beauty books that taught women the tricks and tips that I had offered so many celebrities for their biggest moments.  My job choice is only interesting because I grew up as a husky “tomboy.” I learned about makeup almost as a survival mechanism because being unattractive was unacceptable to my mother. Since age seven, I had been told that I needed to have plastic surgery when I got older. In the mean-time, I was continuously subjected to radical haircuts and tight perms, results of her poor attempts to make me beautiful.

I grew up with a deep desire to be pretty, having observed that others were nicer to good looking people. This was an objective reality for me.  I was teased often and told, “don’t eat” and “clean the house,” while my sister was given gifts and treats. I even had rocks thrown at me. During my teens, I was elated when my mother told me that she had scheduled my eye-lid surgery; I was finally going to be beautiful. Fortunately, I was living with a dear friend at the time, who asked me, “does this mean that one day, you are going to make your daughter have surgery?” The question forced me to look at the procedure in a completely different way. I cancelled my surgery and decided to take my appearance into my own hands.

I spent much of my life believing that my mother thought I was so unattractive that the only recourse was plastic surgery. I dedicated my first publication to helping other Asian women find an alternative to undergoing cosmetic procedures. Many years later, I realized that my mother had, herself, undergone multiple procedures, and that when I declined my appointment my younger sister took my place. I began to understand that it was not just about me. My mother wholly believed that plastic surgery correlated with success, and I wanted to understand why.

My time at UCLA has taught me to look beyond what is in front of you and think critically of the structures that motivate behavior. As a junior, I applied to the Lemelson Anthropological Honors Program, one of the rare programs in the U.S. that offers two years of guidance for undergraduate students who want to conduct their own research studies. My senior thesis proposal, now entitled, “The Cost of Beauty: The Economics of Plastics Surgery in South Korea” was accepted, and I spent the following summer in the economic epicenter of Korea. In the field, I hoped to understand the reason for the dichotomy between discourse, which often describes the phenomena of cosmetic surgery in the region as motivated by Western beauty ideologies, and what I hear personally from Korean women, many of whom disagree with such theories. Furthermore, I wanted to understand how the nation came to have the highest rate per capita of women who undergo plastic surgery in the world. Where was everyone getting the money from?

Prior to arriving in Seoul, I believed that my beauty history and my identity as a Korean-American woman would help me relate to the challenges that Korean citizens face. I now realize that, until my field experience, I had not really understood the discipline of Anthropology. Every moment of my research was a learning lesson. It started on my flight to South Korea, which had a connection in Shanghai where a crew change took place. The flight attendant spoke to the women next to me in Korean and immediately code-switched to Chinese when she addressed me. I was curious what indicators I conveyed that made her believe that I was not Korean. The answer came to me while shopping in the Gangnam district. After hearing me speak, a store clerk said, “you must not be from here.” When I asked how she could tell, she responded with, “Your accent is a little different and the way you look is wrong (tullyah).” I must have made a face because she quickly added “I mean different (dalluh). I admit, as a Korean woman I was insulted by the comment. However, as a UCLA researcher, I was grateful for the honesty.

The remark was invaluable. There was in fact a “right” look, and it was very different from my thin arched brows, smoky eyes, and contoured skin. One of the benefits of being a makeup artist is that I can recognize what beauty products a person uses.  I learned very quickly that Korean women did not wear cosmetics in the same style or colors, I did—not even one.  In fact, my makeup look was antithetical to the local values. Women had full and straight eyebrows with no raised arches, as lifting your brows is considered offensive. One participant received Botox injections because her mother said that the expression was disrespectful. Despite the heavy pollution in the area, skin was flawless, which marked affluence. Physiognomy, the belief that your appearance indicates your abilities, was pervasive in the region. Most significantly, the way you look reflects on your family, your company, and your friendships. Even for myself, who had little need for social or economic capital from locals, the pressure was palpable.

Understanding Korean history was critical to my understanding of cultural ideologies and helped me to appreciate how amelioration became embodied. The taxi driver who picked me up  from the airport explained that he used to pick rice prior to his current job of 40 years, evidence of the agriculture history of the country and its exponential growth. His comment brought back faint memories of my childhood home, namely of an outhouse. He had lived through the economic boom and was now being impacted heavily by globalization. Economic competition in the country is fierce. Multiples of the same types of stores next to one another are pervasive.  I saw two 7-11 convenience stores across the street from one another and wondered if this would be acceptable in the United States.

My seven weeks in Seoul illuminated how motivations for practices could be very different in one field than another. I learned that local ideologies towards plastic surgery were very different from my Korean American beliefs. Multiple participants informed me that “cosmetic surgery” and “surgery” are not the same as cosmetic surgery is normalized: “eyelid surgery is standard.” Ultimately, I learned that South Korea has the highest rate of plastic surgery in the world because it is economically and socially supported. Family is expected to pay for the procedures of progeny to increase their likelihood of success. I hypothesized that the medical industry was driving plastic surgery but found that it is actually cultural ideologies that drive demand. The resulting high number of cosmetic surgery clinics creates intra competition, which reduces the costs of surgeries to a fraction of the prices paid in the West. Ads offering the possibility to be “beautiful” are ubiquitous in the region, lining subway and train walls.

I found that the cycle of practices resulting from social pressure combined with increasing technological possibilities are impacting both women and men. Symmetrical features, whether achieved through plastic surgery or injection methods is changing beauty standards. I learned that many of my participants believe that looking your best is critical to maintaining social or economic status. Fear of judgment is also a highly motivating factor. It would be wrong to say that everyone participates in plastic surgery or chases beauty standards. There is resistance and I did witness publications like Allure Korea promoting natural beauty and featuring curvy women. Nonetheless, as more citizens participate in altering their features, asymmetries that were once common traits become more noticeable and perceived as flaws. Resistance will become more challenging and participation in beauty practices less of a choice.

The practices in South Korea provide insight into how competition, globalization, and advancements in technology are impacting beauty standards. My research project in South Korea was a healing process for me. I began my study feeling alone and disconnected. Over time, I received overwhelming support. The country embraced me and taught me just how far I have come. On my flight home, the plane offered the local paper. In the beauty and style section was a picture of me and a full-page feature about my life and career. I could not have dreamt of a better college experience.

Taylor Babaian graduated Magna cum Laude from the UCLA Anthropology Department in 2018, with College Honors and Departmental Honors. She is now an MBA Candidate at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. In 2017-2018, she received the Renaissance Award Recognition from the UCLA Center for the Study of Women.

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