South Korea, in my personal experience, is a rather unified country. Some may accuse me of throwing out such a sweeping statement – that I lack enough experience and understanding of the Korean culture from having left the country so early in my life, that I stand with an incomplete perception. Having moved out of the country when only six years old, how could I possibly know enough about Korea to say anything intelligent about it? But I’d like to argue the opposite – that born in Korea and raised in America, I’m neither fully Korean nor Korean American with one foot in each of the two cultures both to which I am subject to incessant exposure. I may actually be able to present a quite unbiased, fairly accurate depiction and representation of Korean society and its ideals.
The word “unified” has many different meanings both good and bad. I say and mean it here in the context of individuals – their personalities and appearances – and, therefore, with a negative connotation. Korea is unified in the sense that the general public is not really open to ideas or people of ideas different from the “norm” – a common response is often outright rejection. Many times, even those naturally marked by or expressing individuality give into such discouragement, losing confidence and becoming dispirited about being something of an eccentric – being themselves. There exists this unnerving tendency and strive of everyone to blend in with each other and their surroundings when they should be more concerned with truly expressing themselves. The social standard of accepting differences and respecting the individualities of others ever so present in the United States, especially in the state of California in which I currently live, is yet to be in South Korea.
Such uniformity seems to be forcing members of the Korean community into molds set collectively by society. Korea is a very competitive society with people pushed closely together, both physically and metaphorically. This sort of constraint conflicts with a person's growth into becoming someone who they can be proud of – someone with a definite, distinguished personal philosophy – and causes unnecessary stress because it puts a constant pressure on people who do not meet the “standards”.
One form of such standard is of beauty. It is causing South Korea to suffer from the highest per capita rate of plastic surgery in the world. One in five women living in the high-status neighborhood of Gangnam – the heart of Seoul – have undergone some kind of procedure, with the infamous eyelid surgery being the most popular and more extreme procedures of restructuring – shaving and chiseling down – the jawbone not at all uncommon either.
Small face. Big eyes. Straight, narrow nose. White skin. Thin and tall figure. V-shaped jawline.
It is plainly evident that there is this one specific set of criteria, rooted in an idealization of the Western beauty, that makes one “beautiful” in Korean society. An average person expends too much time, money and effort striving for what he or she was not born to be – such a senseless struggle.
Further, people who look better are widely accepted to be at an advantage in the Korean job market with photos of applicants required to be showcased on the front page of resumes and applications. In this way, beauty in Korea even factors into being a trait affecting one’s success in the concept of “Survival of the fittest” in the Darwinian theory of evolution. How one looks – which is what he or she is inherently born into and should be something uncontrollable – is somehow part of one’s ability or aptitude for affluence. So when one does not meet this standard of beauty, he or she "adapts" by forcing it onto oneself through plastic surgery.
This push towards uniformity is awfully daunting. All the rage and obsession of plastic surgery in South Korea point to the burning desires of individuals to fit inside a very narrow scope of what's seen as beautiful. It's not about what's inside – it's not about character. It's about an artificial ideal. No such thing as an "unconventional" beauty exists. If you have a limited ability to see beauty in someone who does not convey the conventional characteristics of beauty, you may also have a limited ability to understand or relate to that person with complexity or profundity of thought.
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