Plastic Surgery – A Cultural Reflection in South Korea

by Chau Nguyen

Gangnam district

According to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS), the U.S, Brazil, and South Korea are the top three countries with the highest cosmetic surgical procedures in 2014. South Korea, although was ranked in third place, is actually the plastic surgery capital of the world. No exact number could be found online, but you can calculate the number of surgical procedures for every 1000 citizens by taking the total number of procedures, dividing it by their total population in 2014 (which can be found here), then time 1000. It is true that South Korea has he highest number with 9 procedures for every 1000 citizens.

Plastic surgery is a controversial topic not only in South Korea but in any country that people can have access to this service. To make plastic surgery become such a high demand industry, Korean media must have played a big part. What interests me the most is not their marketing strategy, but the mindset of Korean people on this topic. What makes it be widely accepted and spread across Korean generations (and probably among other Asian countries as well)? After doing some research, I have found that the Korean entertainment industry often sets beauty trends and standards that are followed by their citizens. These admired beauty standards combining with the social beliefs in South Korea has made plastic surgery a necessity, to the point where it can improve someone’s chance to get a job.

So, what are Korean beauty standards? Let’s take a look at this music video, Lion Heart, by Girls’ Generation, one of the most popular Korean idol groups.

The female singers in this video all have something very similar to each other: small V-line face shape, round fore head, double eyelids, tall nose bridge, beautiful smile/teeth, fair skin, thin body, bright and youthful makeup, colored hair, colored contact lenses and a cute yet sexy look. These characteristics are considered the modern beauty standards in South Korea. And thanks the booming entertainment industry, Korean people not only idolize these celebrities’ look but they are also obsessed with them. In the article, The K-pop Plastic Surgery Obsession, written by Zara Stone for The Atlantic magazine in 2013, the author mentioned about James Turnbull, a writer, lecturer in Korea on feminism and pop culture, who is also the owner of the popular blog The Grand Narrative. Turnbull noted that the main idea of producing idol groups is for the audience to like the stars’ appearance and to want to look like them.

In this plastic surgery advertisement, the after-surgery picture shows the model with the similar features: double eyelids, small V-line (or “contoured” face shape), tall nose bridge, and fair skin. Her before picture depicts her looking dull and unhappy, while the after picture is the opposite. To most of us, she looks beautiful in the before picture, but according to Korean beauty standards, her look could be improved. Notice the texts in the ad: “facial contouring that makes you Beautiful like flowers”,“make over Beautiful Face”,  “Contour your face to find your hidden beauty”, “TL Plastic Surgery Where you can find your true beauty.” These words constantly remind the audience how their natural born features could be  undesirable, that doing a facial contouring procedure will help them find their “true beauty”. Beauty is no longer a product of nature, it is now a product plastic surgery clinics and the K-pop industry.

But has this kind of beauty standard always existed in South Korea? I don’t think so. If you look at the picture of Miss Korea  in 1960 and Miss Korea in 2012. The Korean beauty standards in the 1960 still reflected what a normal Korean person would look like (slanted eyes, round face, flatter nose).

Mihija Sohn, Miss Korea 1960, and Sung-hye Lee Miss Korea 2012. (The Atlantic)

Mihija Sohn, Miss Korea 1960, and Sung-hye Lee Miss Korea 2012. (The Atlantic)

After the Korean War, Dr. David Ralph Millard, the chief plastic surgeon for the U.S Marine Corps at that time, went to South Korea in 1954 to help treat Korean accident and burn victims. He later perform the first recorded double eyelid surgery with his reason being to help Asian women minimize the sleepy, unemotional look from their slanted eyes .Despite the fact that his first clientele wasn’t Korean celebrities but prostitutes who wanted to attract American soldiers with their new look, once the first plastic surgery clinic opened in 1961, the number of double eyelid surgery procedures kept multiplying (Stone, 2013). However, not until the entertainment industry flourished that plastic surgery has become such a popular phenomenon in South Korea.

In the early 90s, Lee Soo Man founded one of the first and biggest entertainment agency, S.M Entertainment. The company created many legendary Kpop groups including H.O.T, S.E.S. It now owns Exo, Super Junior and Girls’ Generation. Along with other agencies, J.Y.P and Y.G, S.M has been recruiting young talented boys and girls in their early teenage years. They then have to go through a strict training and not all trainees are guaranteed to be able to make a debut. The group members often have plastic surgery done prior to their debut to make sure they look aesthetically pleasant and suit the Korean beauty standards. When they get famous, they automatically become the trend-setters and many young children will try to copy everything that they do.

In the article, About Face written by Patricia Marx for The New Yorker magazine, Eugene Yun, a private-equity fund manager, told Marx that in Korean language, instead of saying my husband, wives say “our husband”. This, in fact, is a form of antithesis individualism. When Korean people go to restaurant, they often order the same thing. When they go shopping, they want to buy the most popular item. If you have a chance to improve yourself, to look better, you should because everyone else is doing it, so why shouldn’t you?! Hailey Kim, a Korean-American 17 year-old girl, explained to Zara Stone the reason she had a nose job and double eyelid surgery was because she thought her face didn’t look right before (slanted eyes and flat nose). Her mom, aunts and cousins all had surgery done in Korea and gave her full support to follow their footstep.

South Korea is a very competitive society where people compete with each other on materials, money, social status, health and physical appearance. They want to try their best to do everything in their life. That could be measured by surpassing your friends, family, neighbors on whatever they do or have in life. Eunkook Suh, a psychology professor at Yonsei University, in Seoul, stated “In Korea, we don’t care what you think about yourself. Other people’s evaluations of you matter more.” It is because Korean people’s mindset is heavily influenced by Confucianism. He also said that a lot of Korean people believe in an increment theory rather than an entity theory when evaluating someone’s potentials. In another word, practice makes perfect. Maybe you weren’t born with a certain talent, but if you keep practicing that skill set, you will eventually be good at it. And If you weren’t born looking like a K-pop star, or having one of their features, you can now do so with plastic surgery.

Nowadays, having a higher education, good work ethics or talents is not enough for the young Korean people to get a good job, especially women. Kang Nayeon, a high school student from Gumi, a small city outside of Seoul, said that some companies didn’t like to hire people that had had nose job and eyelid surgery, but they still preferred hiring pretty people. And that is why parents allow and sometimes encourage their children to have plastic surgery done when they are younger so when they grow older, it will look more natural on them. An eyelid surgery as a high school graduation gift is very common thing in South Korea.

In conclusion, plastic surgery has become a necessity for Korean people to improve not only their look and self-esteem, but also their chance to get a good job. If someone abuse it, by having too many procedures, they might get frown upon, but having some subtle changes like double eyelid surgery, a nose job, botox or filler would be considered normal. Korean beauty standards in this case is a reflection of their popular culture and social beliefs. Regardless of what the rest of the world think, Korean people will still pursue their beauty standards by one way or another. I think everyone should have the freedom to define their own beauty and decide on how to look their best. However, people should raise concerns about the safety and regulation issues within the plastic surgery industry in Korea to decrease the number of incidents and illegal practices.

Learning moments

This class has sparked my interested in writing and although I don’t have the best writing skills, I can see my improvement throughout the term by reading my own writing and going through the thought process. I think being able to write about a topic that interests me is the biggest help, along with all the required readings and online resources.

My favorite blog post was about analyzing advertisements, I think everyone’s posts were very interesting and diverse. Writing peer review letters was another good learning moment for me because I got to apply what I learned and interpret it in form of suggestions. It also helped me remember different concepts and methods when writing an essay.


Giunta, Stephen Xavier. “ISAPS International Survey on Aesthetic/Cosmetic-Procedures Performed in 2014.” Stem Cells in Aesthetic Procedures(2014): n. pag. IASP. 2014. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. <;.

“Lion Heart – Girls’ Generation.” YouTube. SMTOWN, 17 Aug. 2015. Web. 3 Nov. 2015. <;.

Marx, Patricia. “About Face.” The New Yorker. N.p., 23 Mar. 2015. Web. 10 Nov. 2015. <;.

Stone, Zara. “The K-Pop Plastic Surgery Obsession.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 24 May 2013. Web. 10 Nov. 2015. <;.

“TL PLASTIC SURGERY Facial Contouring.” YouTube. TPL Plastic Surgery, 1 Jan. 2015. Web. 3 Nov. 2015. <;.









16 thoughts on “Plastic Surgery – A Cultural Reflection in South Korea

  1. ChauN-

    Your essay was very enlightening! I had no idea that plastic surgery was popular in South Korea, let alone the norm. It is interesting how influential the K Pop industry is to women, but what I found most fascinating is how South Korea’s pop culture has affected the job industry and can determine whether or not a women gets a job, whether or not her appearance is up to society’s standards.
    It definitely gives me a new perspective on the pressure the Asian women are under to look the “right” way.

    • Hi Maddy,
      Thank you. I find this topic fascinating as well. I know that Asian women in general prefer double eyelids and tall nose bridge, I also am aware that South Korean people (both men and women, but mostly women) prefer to have these features as they constantly reflect through the Korean actors and actresses I’ve seen on TV over the years. Not one of them have a natural look or can proudly say that they had nothing done on their face. What I didn’t know is how much pressure it is for women to have these beauty standards in Korean society. I have Vietnamese friends that got the eyelid surgery and nose job done, but that didn’t make me feel pressured to do the same thing. That is not the case in South Korea. I have watched a few documentaries on Youtube about this topic and I can’t imagine being born and raised up there. I think I would be very depressed and have low self-esteem. Being Vietnamese, I’ve been told by friends and family how chubby I am and that I should lose weight. Asian people are not shy when it come to judging others. They believe that it’s good and caring. I agree, but only to an extend.

  2. Hello ChauN,

    I did not know plastic surgery was so common in South Korea, though as a casual fan of K-Pop I can see the commonality among style and facial traits you describe. I think the videos you included do a good job of showing this as well. It seems so strange to me to live in a culture that normalizes getting plastic surgery as a graduation present. I once watched a Korean movie called, “200 Pounds Beauty” (in which a girl gets a complete makeover through plastic surgery) and I feel like I have a new understanding of what the protagonist was going through now. I can totally see how this would affect job hunting for women, but I didn’t even think about it until I read this.

    • Hi yedithb,
      Thank you. I haven’t watched that movie “200 Pound Beauty”, I thought she lost weight instead of having plastic surgery. I didn’t think much about this topic until after doing my research. I think it is ironic how I feel it must be hard to live as a Korean woman, yet I like their beauty trends, some of the plastic surgery look on certain actors and actresses. I can’t imagine what I would do if I was born and raised there. I might end up getting a nose job and the eyelid surgery.

      • She did both; lost weight and got plastic surgery. I like the trends too, but it would be difficult living under that sort of social pressure, I think.

  3. Hi

    I love your post so much! I saw so many familiar things in your post, especially the vides which name is Lion Heart, I was a big fan of girls’ generation..(It was five years ago), Everything I know about plastic surgery is something about Korean.. I heard about it happened a lot in that country. Some of people from China will fly to Korea to do the plastic surgery. They think it’s a really popular thing and everybody wants to be good looking persons. That’s the point..

  4. Hi ChauN,

    I am big fan of Korean dramas, entertainment shows and I am a VIP and a Blackjack because I love Bigbang and 2NE1. I’m pretty sure you know who they are. I have been watching Korean stuff since I was a kid and I definitely agree with you that Korean culture puts a lot of pressure on women to look “pretty”. I recommend you to watch the movie called “200 pounds of beauty”, and 2 dramas called “Miss Korea” and “Birth of a beauty”. These movies and dramas show exactly what you talk about in this post. Korean women’s future and career are largely depended on their look. They show how much pain they have to go through to achieve this look and how much successful they get after they change their face and body completely. The reason why I only like one Korean girl group, 2NE1, is because I feel like the rest of them are the same, they all look the same and they do the same type of music. I used to look at all the before and after pictures of Korean women who went through plastic surgery. They look like whole new different people. Sometimes I just want to meet and ask them if they feel like they are losing their identities because of these trends and pressure.

  5. Hi ChauN,

    I really like your topic, and l like Korean music very much. Plastic surgery could be a hot topic recently. I only heard the plastic surgery happened to some actress before. However, this is general now. The plastic surgery is welcomed by people. There are some entertainment news that talks about the female star cosmetic incident. Some of my friends are willing to have a plastic surgery, but I don’ t like it.

    Thanks for your posting.

  6. Hi ChauN,
    I’ve heard from friends that plastic surgery in South Korea is popular and common but I had no idea that it affected korean women from getting a good job.

  7. Hi! I remember reading your blog in our group discussion and really enjoyed reading it again. I think you did a great job and picked a great subject. It is pretty surprising to me how big plastic surgery is in South Korea. I always thought the US had a lot of plastic surgeries especially among famous women but never realized how big it was in other countries. Its surprising to me that South Korea is one of those countries!
    Good Job 🙂

  8. This essay was fasicnating to me. I was unaware of the popularity of plastic surgery in South Korea. Its amazing that we feel we need to take such risks in order to change our appearance in order to be able to succeed in life. What does this say about us? Your essay opened my eyes and I’m interested in learning more about why we resort to such drastic measures to pelase others and ourselves. Thansks for sharing this. Best, Greg

  9. Hello ChauN,
    I am really like your topic about Plastic Surgery in South Korea. Plastic Surgery is also a very hot topic for Chinese young girls. Especially, South Korea’s plastic surgery. Many young Chinese girls choose to go South Korea plastic surgery,they are more inclined to the face of the Korean star. furthermore, I agree with your point that having a higher education, good work ethics or talents is not enough for the young Korean people to get a good job, especially women. Because I know some Korean culture, they are relatively high in the face.


  10. Great work on this post. This was quite an informative read. I have read up and researched this topic before on my own, so it was cool to see someone else giving their findings on the situation. It is definitely interesting to look into just how large an impact the media in South Korea has on the daily lives of the people living there. I find this to be a truly interesting topic, and am glad to see other people share an interest in it. Very well written and researched! Good job 🙂

  11. Hi Chau, I never expected to find an informative and interesting post about Plastic Surgery in South Korea. I’ve read some news about how much of an impact that beauty can be in Korea, but I learn even more from your post. It’s just very upsetting to know that being talented is not as good as being pretty. Moreover, there are risks that people have to take in order to succeed and be accepted. I find it very scary because the sequence of getting plastic surgeries will never end in that country. Thanks a lot for sharing!

  12. Hey Chau, I found your post super interesting. It definitely made me think and realize how different cultures reflect on one another. I definitely agree that plastic surgery is becoming more and more popular, and even a cultural norm. Not just in South Korea, but even across the world. I mean the Kardashians make getting lip injections seem like an everyday thing that’s perfectly normal. Unfortunately, the increasing normality of plastic surgery reflects how little girls growing up in these types of materialistically inclined cultures is harmful to the girl’s self image concept. I love how passionate you are about this topic and I think this definitely made your essay much easier to read than just bunch of facts and statistics.

    Thanks for sharing,


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