By: Isabel Moon
South Korea is globally known for its rampant consumerism in all forms of pop culture, leading to the creation and popularization of new and incredibly profitable markets. Its most notable markets come from the beauty industry through skincare, makeup, and cosmetic procedures. Advertisements litter the streets and normalize cosmetic surgery – particularly double eyelid surgery – to the same extent as face creams or eyeliner. Although South Korea’s population is almost entirely made up of Koreans, the beauty standards that created those advertisements do not exist in a Korean vacuum. Korean beauty standards have been heavily influenced by Americans stationed in the country during World War II and the Korean War. Although many left when the war was over, their beauty standards remain. Due to South Korea’s largely homogeneous society and national desire to emulate America post-World War II, many who undergo double eyelid surgery are unaware that it was intended to distance recipients from their ethnic background and encourage them to conform to white beauty standards.
Early double eyelid surgeries, medically known as blepharoplasties, were originally performed by Asian doctors for Asian clients who wanted to better emulate the universal beauty standard of having bigger eyes. The origins of the surgery were written about by a correspondent for the New York Times in 1895, who described having monolids as a “curse”, and further details that the monolid trait will die out as more generations pass on their artificial double eyelid. People didn’t want to look more white, they just wanted to be a more attractive Asian person. It wasn’t until 1926 that the first record of the surgery was found in America, where a man named Shima Kito chose a blepharoplasty for the purpose of looking white. Many South Koreans agree that people who get plastic surgery are simply conforming to Korean beauty standards and that South Korean beauty distinguishes itself by valuing different traits not valued in America. However, the history of the blepharoplasty’s journey into mainstream consciousness and its subsequent popularity in both America and South Korea has a racially-charged background that simply cannot be ignored.
The origins of East Asian cosmetic eyelid surgery come from Japan, but its popularization by Dr. Ralph Millard during the Korean War launched an era of surgeries meant to Westernize the eyes of those who were socially pressured to go under the knife. Even though an estimated 50% of Asians have creased eyes, the preference for that crease is not random. It is a beauty standard that exists because of its similarity to a more occidental eye shape and its resemblance to a white eye shape. People born with monolids were willing to permanently change their features because white people chose it for Asians. Dr. Ralph Millard, Harvard Medical School graduate and apprentice of Harold Gillies, the father of modern plastic surgery, performed his first blepharoplasty on a translator who approached him with the concern that Americans would be unable to read his expressions and consequently profile him as dishonest. Though there were multiple publications about the surgery from Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea itself, he was unable to find any written English, so he recreated the look he wanted with his own techniques and published it himself. In reference to Asian eyes, he writes, “The slant of the oriental eye has charm and an intriguing quality that suggests mystery… the Oriental [people], however, striving for a more occidental appearance, turns to surgery.” Though Millard stipulates that he only performed the surgery on people who wanted it, his clearly racist tone is only overshadowed by the affects of his publications that rippled through the consciousnesses of Asian women after the fact.
Though Dr. Millard’s procedure was first performed on his male translator, the publication of his technique in America most drastically affected East Asian women. These women were either in the sex trade or were being brought to the country by American soldiers who wanted their new wives to assimilate to Western beauty standards and erase all visual cues of otherness. World War II and the Korean War brought about a culture of stark objectification of Asian women that perpetuates itself today through stereotyping. Millard, who was stationed in Korea on a public relations campaign to increase American goodwill overseas, spent his yearlong tour during the Korean War altering the faces of Korean women who sought him out to better seduce American GIs and attract more business. People still want blepharoplasties to increase their chances of being hired today. Sex workers in postwar South Korea used their faces to solicit more business, and in modern times, all prospective employees must submit a photo alongside their resumes for job applications, so many looking for a job are willing to receive surgery to get hired with the hope that the surgery will pay for itself when the recipient gets the job. Blepharoplasty was and is still used for both economic reasons and assimilation. America’s hostile political climate caused by World War II and the Korean War’s anti-Asian sentiments would have discouraged many war brides from immigrating if it weren’t for Dr. Millard’s procedure in conjunction with the War Brides Act of 1945. This Act allowed interracial marriage 22 years before it was legal throughout the rest of America. American society was much more accepting of women who distanced themselves from their own ethnicities, so why do Asian women today still feel the need to have plastic surgery?
South Korea is considered one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world due to its demographics, tumultuous history, and sociopolitical views about race. According to the CIA, South Korea is described as homogeneous, meaning that only one percent of the population is not ethnically Korean. This raises the following question: why do so many Korean women get surgeries to “look whiter” if there are barely any white people in the country they can compare themselves to? The history of blepharoplasty might be racially charged, but today, Koreans no longer get surgery to look white or assimilate in American culture. In fact, many don’t even plan to leave the country and instead remain in the homogenous society. Due to this lack of diversity within South Korea’s borders, no recipient of blepharoplasty associates the surgery with the American government or its racist inventor. Many who undergo blepharoplasty claim that they have no desire to look white, and as far as their knowledge goes, that is as truthful as it gets. They conform to Korean beauty standards by injecting fat under their eyes, slimming their jawlines, altering their nose shape, and getting the infamous blepharoplasty procedure without questioning where those beauty standards come from. Western interference in East Asian affairs brings a distinct Western lens on everything from consumerism to governmental structure to beauty standards.
American views of plastic surgery are based on assumptions about other people’s intentions. In a video from 2008, Tyra Banks criticized a Korean American woman who got double eyelid surgery, telling her that her eyelid surgery was her decision to get “one step closer” to looking white and being accepted by society as a whole, despite her fervent denial of Banks’s claims. While Banks comes from an uneducated point of view about the issue, she interviewed a plastic surgeon and an editor of an Asian pop culture magazine who both acknowledged that though the intention now is to increase beauty and not look white, those beauty standards came from somewhere. American culture knows only about the desired result of plastic surgery, not where the desire comes from. It is due to that lack of understanding or context that leads to the topic of plastic surgery becoming a taboo. Americans see blepharoplasty specifically as a taboo because it is difficult, if not impossible, to acknowledge the racial connotations of wanting to look white.
American involvement in South Korea has been so heavy in the postwar social climate that Korean beauty standards are no longer purely their own; rather, they were adopted from Americans and perpetuate themselves to this day. After South Korea survived World War II and Japanese occupation, their efforts to rebuild were heavily aided by the United States. As mentioned earlier, Dr. Millard’s work was done as part of a public relations campaign to focus American attention towards South Korea. South Korea adopted many Americanized ways of life, including their system of federal government and capitalist economic system. Today, both South Korea and America rely heavily on advertisements to promote a culture of consumerism that disproportionately targets young women by convincing them to spend money so they can conform to beauty standards engineered by capitalists to turn a profit. The exploitation of this specific consumer demographic is what allows South Korea to have the highest rate of cosmetic surgeries per capita in the world. Advertisements scattered throughout the cities from subways to billboards proudly display before and after pictures that make plastic surgery seem both accessible and necessary. Furthermore, the before and after images reinforce the idea that the before (monolid) is ugly and the after (double eyelid) is the ideal in society’s consciousness. Consumers feel not a want, but a need to have double eyelids by any means necessary.
Along with being one of the most homogeneous countries, South Korea is number one in the world for most plastic surgeries per capita. Plastic surgery is seen as more of a rite of passage than a purely elective procedure, as many Koreans get their surgeries when they are young so that they can enjoy the effects of their surgeries for longer. Peer pressure is also a common motivator; as the people around them get surgeries and consequently conform to beauty standards, individuals feel the need to bring their own looks up to par by surgically altering their features. Through their study, Young A Kim and Hyang-In Cho Chung were able to highlight the toxic mindsets of the women who underwent facial plastic surgery. Many of these women believed that surgery would improve their quality of life only to find that their quality of life and self-confidence had decreased after the procedure. Overall, the study was intended to help medical professionals care for patients who have undergone cosmetic surgery and shed light on the permanent and harmful effects of getting unnecessary cosmetic surgery. It did so with the hopes that it would prevent prospective patients from funneling money into one of the biggest industries in the world and destroying their mental health and self esteem in the process.
Cosmetic blepharoplasties make women feel beautiful at the expense of their natural features. Shaming women in relation to plastic surgery is a double edged sword – ugly if they don’t get the surgery, but vapid and shallow if they do. Condemning women without understanding their true motives for surgery is counterproductive if critics’ common goal is to reduce the amount of unnecessary surgeries.Criticism and action should instead turn to the society that fosters an environment which breeds self-loathing to the extent where both Korean and Korean-American women feel the need to permanently alter their faces. Society must condemn the greed of the people running advertisements that exploit people who have been fed toxic beauty standards since birth. To no fault of their own, it is up to Korean and Korean-American women alike to learn the history of the generations before them affected by the white-savior narrative and educate themselves about how to unlearn the subliminal messages encoded in mass media telling them to go under the knife.
Isabel Moon just graduated from Flintridge Prep and wrote this piece for her senior thesis project. She is Korean American and, though it took a while, she’s proud of it. In the fall, she’ll be studying theatre in Boston.