The Hardest Thing About Being Beautiful in Asia


While the recent economic boom in South Korea has made the region more familiar to American consumers in terms of K-pop and fashion, the country's plastic surgery industry has come under fire from foreign and local critics. The most common criticism is that Korean women are going under the knife to get "V-line surgery" in order to obtain more "western" features like big, round eyes, double-fold eyelids, small noses, and narrow jaws.

Interestingly, this phenomenon is occurring at a time that models of East Asian descent, such as Korean model Ji-Hye Park, are being chosen for their "traditional" features. They are increasingly gracing the pages of fashion magazines and advertising campaigns in non-Asian countries. The suggestion that Korean women desire more "western" looks clashes with western notion of exotic beauty. When examining the contrasting perspectives on "Asian beauty" — westernized vs. traditional — one can conclude there is no ideal beauty type. Accordingly, popular culture should encourage women to embrace the various forms and subjectivity of beauty.

In South Korea, beauty is a necessity. Being beautiful has become a cutthroat competition for many areas of life, from securing a job to finding a husband. While this exists in many cultures, in South Korea, teenagers are promised plastic surgery as high-school graduation presents. Teenage girls look to western women as role models and in one all-girls' high school, an American teacher with blond hair and big blue eyes is seen by her students as the epitome of beauty. Beauty is linked to future success in life.

The perception that Korean women desire to look "western" oversimplifies this complex plastic surgery craze. Many believe that these women are inspired by the looks of K-pop idols such as Girls Generation. They are not asking their plastic surgeons to make them look like western celebrities, but rather to resemble Korean idols. And yet, the facial features that these entertainers possess, regardless of whether they've had plastic surgery, are traits common amongst Caucasians including bigger eyes and narrow jaws. Perhaps the image of beauty that arises is more of a fusion between some Korean and the western qualities.

More ironic is that ethnic women with "traditional" features are prized for being "exotic" in the west. CNN published an article three years ago positing that ethnic beauty was the new "it" factor, claiming Caucasian women turn to black, Latino, and Asian celebrities to gain inspiration for achieving a more "exotic" look.

Asian women in America are likely to be familiar with the derogatory phrase "Asian fetish," which describes white men who pursue Asian women solely because their ethnicity makes them "exotic."

However, only recently has the fashion world begun to use Asian models in runway shows and magazine spreads. Television producer Curtis Davis said that whereas models with big eyes and "western" features are preferred by casting agents in China, "American agents are drawn to a more classically Chinese look." Chinese model Liu Wen, known for being the first Asian model to walk in the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show, is a prime example.

As popular culture becomes globalized, images of what the east perceives as the west and vice versa are constantly in fluctuation as the definition of "beautiful" changes with the times. The same features that women in the east seek to rectify through plastic surgery are celebrated as being exotic in the west. Instead of encouraging women to appreciate the many forms in which beauty exists, popular culture has churned out simplified "ideals," which upon crossing cultural lines, become "lost in translation."