People say a first impression can leave a lasting imprint. And your eyes, more so than any other facial features, play a key role in securing that connection. After all, they are often the first thing we’re drawn to on another person. In South Korea especially, a perception-driven and hyper-competitive society where having an attractive appearance can be an economic asset, your ability to appeal to the masses is paramount to your success in life. That’s why many are trying to shift the odds to their favour by undergoing surgery.
Many South Koreans are born with small eyes, heavy drooping eyelids or monolids (without a crease), and culturally this has become seen as unattractive or giving an uninviting impression. Considering it’s widely accepted that bigger, western-looking eyes enhance attractiveness and serve to provide a better first impression, it’s not a surprise as to why so many people are keen to change them. As a result, many turn to plastic surgery to attempt to alter their fate -- it has in fact become a “thing” to get surgery to edge out in Korea’s extremely competitive job market and to advance one’s career. In fact, South Korea has the highest ratio of plastic surgeries per capita in the world, with about 1 million procedures being performed per year. At least one in three women have had some kind of plastic surgery. The most prevalent? Double eyelid surgery (or, to give it its formal name, blepharoplasty) which, in South Korea, has become almost like a rite of passage, an ordeal that many girls, and an increasing number of guys, undertake between high school graduation and starting college.
Being Korean-born, I would be lying if I said I hadn’t entertained the idea of going under the knife myself. In my prepubescent years, still oblivious to society’s westernised beauty standards, my distinct monolid eyes were my most cherished feature. But when I moved to the States at the age of 11, my perception shifted drastically. While insecurities are commonplace during teenage years, experiencing puberty as one of only a handful of Asian students in my entire school brought with it a whole separate set of challenges.
Perhaps I had unconsciously internalised the notions of western superiority embedded in the Korean cultural psyche, but my flat, round face, yellow-hued skin, petite body frame and my monolid eyes seemed glaringly pronounced in the most unglamorous way imaginable. I still remember staring at the reflections of my white classmates in the mirror of the girl’s toilets, admiring their translucent skin, Barbie Doll eyes, curled lashes and their curved bodies. Even their blonde and brunette locks seemed superior to my jet black hair.
The operation itself involves a doctor making either a full incision or using the suture method, which involves puncturing holes across the lid that are then stitched together to create a double fold on your upper eyelid. That might sound like a big deal to the uninitiated, but in the plastic surgery capital of the world, enlarging your eyes has become so ubiquitous, it’s not really even considered a serious operation anymore, but more like a mere cosmetic procedure, like Botox.
You can see why double eyelid surgery has risen in popularity: it has a fairly quick recovery period, is relatively inexpensive and isn’t too invasive — as far as plastic surgery goes — while guaranteeing a fairly dramatic transformation. In South Korea, where people are hyper-aware of others’ perceptions and opinions, your individual worth and social status are largely determined by the college you attend, your career and occupation, your partner and your wealth, and having a desirable appearance directly plays into this ecosystem. The surgery essentially makes the eyes look bigger, which people believe brightens up the overall complexion. And the homogeneous nature of Korean society can’t be ignored either. It has long led everyone to strive for one strict standard of beauty that for many, sits outside the natural features they were born with.
When you start to look at the stats, things get even more interesting. According to the Korean Statistical Information Service (KOSIS), 99% of the women who have undergone plastic surgery did so for cosmetic reasons, with 41% of them citing vanity as the primary motivation. For men, however when it came to primary motivation, it was split evenly across four categories: vanity, lack of confidence, personal satisfaction and to boost job prospects. In Seoul, before and after style plastic surgery ads are an inescapable part of your daily commute, and celebrities who have undergone plastic surgery like blepharoplasty are unanimously celebrated for their ‘beauty’, further normalising this transformation.
When you’re the product of a society that is obsessed with appearance, transforming your look to ‘solve’ your problems doesn’t feel that drastic. So I can certainly understand why many are drawn to the operation. Over the years I’ve met many Koreans and Korean-Americans who have undergone the surgery, with reasons that are wide-ranging. One friend thought her current look was restricting her from finding a boyfriend during her freshman year in college, while another friend who held out until her mid-twenties to take the plunge, as a gift to herself for getting into grad school, told me her long, narrow eyes had always been a huge complex for her. I also know girls who have had the surgery more than once to make their eyes look even bigger, because bigger equals prettier, apparently.
Had I never left Korea, maybe I too would have succumbed to the societal pressure to be more “attractive”, but I have never seriously considered getting my eyes done, even during those low teenage years. My face is inexorably linked to my identity — the idea of altering it to pander to societal beauty ideals has always seemed preposterous. In the same way I chose not to adopt an American name like many immigrants do in order to assimilate to their new country, changing this vital feature just didn’t appeal to me, nor did I want to further contribute to the homogeneity of Korean society.
On the positive side, it does look like change might be on the horizon. The recent rise of the women's rights movement and the breakout of #MeToo in South Korea has made way for ‘Escape the Corset’ (or #탈코르셋), the burgeoning uprising of women challenging Korea's unrealistic standards of beauty. They’re calling time on the idea you need to spend countless hours and tonnes of money on make-up and skincare just to try adhering to some unattainable ideal. Through viral posts of destroyed piles of cosmetics, videos of make-up removal and head shaving rituals, they’re undoubtedly disrupting the system, and I’m hopeful their work helps more people reconsider their surgery dependency too.
Of course you can wear make-up or get plastic surgery, and still call yourself a feminist, but empowerment only comes when everybody accepts there’s more than one definition of beauty.