In the upscale district of Gangnam, situated south of the Han River, people walk on the streets wearing nose guards and facial bandages. High-rise buildings soar in the sky, with a cosmetic surgery clinic on every floor, and walls are plastered with advertisements that feature women with doll-like eyes, sharp chins and youthful skin — all with the message that you too, can look this way if you go to the right clinic (there are a reported 500 to choose from). Welcome to the Beverly Hills of Seoul, which attracts clients from across the nation as well as neighboring countries like China, Japan and Thailand.
South Korea has the highest per capita rate of cosmetic surgery in the world with close to 1 million procedures carried out every year. According to Gallup Korea, a research and management consultancy, about one in three South Korean women between the ages of 19 and 29 has gone under the knife, while other counts place this number even higher. But in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which has spread rapidly following the Weinstein scandal, with millions of women around the world sharing their own stories of sexual assault and harassment in the workplace, a growing number of Koreans have started to question and protest against the societal pressures heaped on women.
Dubbed the “corset-free” movement — its name coming from the idea of the societal oppression of women as akin to being bound in a corset — women have taken to social media in a backlash against the unrealistic beauty standards that require them to spend hours applying make-up and performing extensive skincare regimes, which notoriously involve ten steps or more. The movement, which first emerged on platforms such as Instagram and South Korea’s very own Naver, encourages people to look beyond the limited and conventional standards of beauty demanded by society. This includes going makeup-free, wearing glasses instead of contact lens, and wearing comfortable clothing and underwear. More recently, women have rallied by smashing their make-up compacts and lipsticks and posting pictures of it online accompanied by hashtags like #feminist (#페미니스트).
The move comes as record numbers of Koreans have taken to the streets to demand for greater equality, to protest the acquittal of former South Korean presidential contender Ahn Hee-jung— accused of raping his female aide, and to fight against an environment in which women constantly worry about tiny cameras hidden in bathrooms or being filmed from under their skirts at subway stations. It’s an interesting turn for Seoul’s patriarchal society, which actively promotes its prowess in cosmetic surgery. To understand South Korea’s beauty obsession, it’s important to understand that plastic surgery has never been perceived as negative, pretentious or artificial. On the contrary, it’s viewed as positive, an admirable attempt to better oneself. In the country’s hyper-competitive job market, it pays to be attractive.
Although, the country’s progressive new president, Moon Jae-in, has said he is working on getting rid of requirements for photos on resumes, they are still in place. So, if cosmetic surgery improves one’s social status and opportunities, then surely it’s not only justifiable but commendable.
“It has to do with the fierce competitiveness of Koreans as a society and their desire to get ahead of everyone else, whether it’s a better university degree, a highly salary, a bigger home or a more ‘beautiful’ appearance,” explained Jainnie Cho, editor of The New York Times’ T Brand Studio, who hails from Seoul. “Outer beauty in Korea goes beyond just prettiness— it’s your weapon in this ridiculous competitive society and shows your worth as an individual.”
“There is a saying in Korea that ‘your beauty is your ability’. The younger generation who have just graduated tend to get plastic surgery so that they can get a better job. Your beauty is a kind of CV,” said Celine Hong, a Korean photographer and videographer whose clients include Vogue Korea, Hypebeast, Linda Farrow and MM6 Maison Margiela. Indeed, Korea is one of the few places in the world where companies require photos on resumes — one of the biggest drivers of plastic surgery. According to Korean job portal Saramin, about 93 percent of 760 companies on the platform required a photo for job applications.
While every country has its own beauty ideals, South Korea’s strong conformist streak has led to millions striving to achieve the same look. For Hong, many of these values are driven by the country’s homogeneous society. “Normally, people do not want to be special or unique. Everyone wants to follow what others do and [as a result] they lose their own character.”
But change has been simmering. It began last November when the Seoul Metro, which runs the capital’s public bus and subway system, announced it would ban advertisements for plastic surgery at its stations. Complaints against the posters, which promote what some Koreans have said are distorted images of how women should look, first emerged in 2015, when people started to become more aware of gender issues. Then this summer, there was the airing of new popular K-drama My ID is Gangnam Beauty, which focuses on a woman who takes plastic surgery too far. (The term, ‘Gangnam Beauty,’ which is derogatory and refers to people who have become addicted to plastic surgery to the extent that they look unnatural, is a relatively new buzzword that has been popularized thanks to the show.) The show garnered praise among critics and viewers for asking important questions about the emphasis that society places on appearances and the true meaning of happiness and beauty.
Watch: South Korea's Billion Dollar Beauty Industry
YouTubers, who have traditionally shared beauty tips online, have also joined the movement. Bae Li-na, who only started posting videos last August, saw her views and subscriber count leap after uploading “I’m Not Pretty” in June, a satire that shows Bae putting on make-up only to be ridiculed by comments in the subtitles, because her face is “far from the beauty standards that society has.” She then wipes off all her make-up and says: “Don’t exploit yourself because of who others think you are,” with a big smile on her face. The video has since garnered over 5.1 million views and drew over a thousand comments, with many girls claiming they could relate. (However, Bae has recently switched off the comment functionality after experiencing a lot of “nasty name-calling,” she said.)
The impact of the movement, said Julia Kang, publisher at Hearst-Joongang, which backs titles like Elle Korea, InStyle Korea, Cosmopolitan Korea, Céci and Heren, has been positive. “Young women are starting to become more awake and are finding their voice.” Cho agrees, saying, “I do see a difference between the older generation and young millennials, who seem to have a more self-accepting attitude towards their appearance and are more vocal about political issues.”
However, it likely remains some time before plastic surgery goes out of style in the cosmetic capital. Because of existing agreements, the Metro says it doesn’t expect to phase out all of the subway’s gleaming plastic surgery promotions until 2022. And beauty remains big business for the Korean cosmetics brands selling slimming jaw bands, snail secretions and starfish extracts, exports of which have grown from $1 billion USD in 2012 to a staggering $2.64 billion USD in 2017, according to the Korea Customs Service.
Some online users have complained about the new movement, commenting that they like “looking pretty” and “putting on make-up”. Others argued that the core spirit of the movement is not to have all women remove make-up, but rather about how different types of women can exist in society. “I rarely saw supportive comments online, because most of the people cannot understand why some women are doing this ‘weird and useless thing,’” said Hong.
“I do not think all plastic surgery is a bad thing,” she admitted. “The most important thing is having confidence and being brave to speak your real voice. Be open-minded and respecting other characters.”
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.