I can’t stop thinking about other people who can’t stop looking at Korean women

Last week, Jezebel ran this story: “I Can’t Stop Looking at These South Korean Women Who’ve Had Plastic Surgery.” The subtitle: “UNNERVING PUSH TOWARDS UNIFORMITY.” (Emphasis original.) The piece discusses the penchant, among South Korean women, to elect for cosmetic surgery. One out of five women in Seoul, in fact. The writer looks at these pictures and finds them very disturbing.

One excerpt:

 What’s really unnerving is the push towards uniformity. Instead of celebrating quirks or camouflaging flaws, these photos show a burning desire 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. What would the average South Korean teen think about some so-called “unconventional” beauties: Frida Kahlo, Rossy de Palma, Grace Jones? If you have a limited ability to see beauty in someone who is not big-eyed and small-faced and straight-nosed, do you also have a limited ability to understand, empathize, sympathize and relate to that person, as well? Do you become intolerant of those who don’t meet your lookist standards?

I find this analysis very disturbing.

My primary issue is that under the pretense of highlighting the importance of individuality and character (Every human is a snowflake! Koreans would understand if only they just watched Elephant Man and Mask!) this type of story merely serves to exoticize and objectify women further—something that Asian women are subject to plenty without having Jezebel imply that a whole generation of Korean women are “cultish,” want to look like Disney princesses, are intolerant because of look-ism, have an inability to empathize with anybody that looks different than them, and aren’t considering their parents’ and grandparents’ feelings about their beauty choices? (Because Korean youth never feel pressure from their elders about their appearances and what weight they should be and how pale their skin should be and what kind of makeup to wear, noooooooooo, never.)

While I think the writer is expressing genuine shock, for me, the language in the piece is incendiary. “I can’t stop looking at these pictures”? Drawing attention to Tumblrs that lay out images of Asian women in order to dissect their different body parts? It’s treating these women like lab specimens or zoo animals and perpetuating the issue of Asian women as subjects for inspection and judgement, not as humans with identities. 

The reason that there isn’t more outcry over pieces like this is because in American culture it is still not yet as taboo in the mainstream media to exoticize Asian women as it is to exoticize women of other races and ethnicities. (Not that it’s exactly taboo to objectify women, period, but that’s another story.) It’s a problem of representation and voice. There isn’t a proliferation of Asians creating their own identity in the American media (where is the Asian Bey?); and there isn’t a vocal community of Asian journalists and media critics speaking out on the behalf of Asian representation in the media. In a million years, would a popular mainstream blog like Jezebel publicize Tumblrs evaluating black women and their weaves? Jewish women and their noses? And then use those as a launching point to assign value to those women’s cultures and their choices? No, because it would be absurd, racist, horrific, disgusting, and EVERYBODY KNOWS BETTER.

Yet objectifying and assigning value to Asian women is okay in the mainstream. Why? Because we are “helping them” by telling them what we think they should do with their bodies? Because Asian women are submissive and quiet and won’t speak out for themselves? “I Can’t Stop Looking at These South Korean Women” is a piece which is endemic to how American media looks at Asia, particularly Asian women, and even more particularly Asian women’s appearances.

It is pretty wild what women are electively doing to their bodies in South Korea. And it merits some serious discussion and research, which we’re not getting, because American media is too busy gawking, judging, and looking at Tumblrs of body parts. Here’s what I would have loved to see in a story discussing the extremely common occurrence of plastic surgery in Korea:

  • Musings on why conformity and uniformity is so important in Korean culture. I dunno, maybe Korea’s isolation for the millenia leading up to the Korean war contributes to their hyper-group-focused mentality and focus on conformity, trickling down to uniform beauty standards? Maybe cultural trends in Korea don’t always just have to do with K-pop?
  • Speaking of K-pop and K-drama, rather than just dropping names of stars in a piece and speculating on their plastic surgery status, how about discussing Korea’s total dominance when it comes to soft power in Asia and what that means for increasing levels of  conformity in beauty trends across the continent. And the US, for that matter — all those hot new BB creams from American brands took their cue from Korea. Is this even an Asian phenomenon, or a global celebrity worship issue?
  • An analysis of the fetishization of youth in Asia and the pressures on youth to conform in a highly patriarchal, Confucian societies. Maybe rather than criticizing Korea’s youth for wanting to be tall and fair and thin, we can discuss the power of media and colonization of ethnic beauty standards across the globe?
  • Maybe some mention of the fact that while the vast majority of elective surgery in Korea is cosmetic, some of it, such as tongue or mouth surgery, is done so that Koreans can better pronounce English and romance languages? How bout THAT for colonization?

I’m not saying any one writer should have, or could have, answered all of these questions in a single article. I dunno if anybody but a scholar could have. I certainly couldn’t. But asking these questions and raising the issues, rather than assigning character flaws to an entire generation of women — oh right, and reminding everyone that “True beauty is on the inside!” — would have at least pointed the discussion towards … well, towards a discussion. 

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