South Korea is a land of great physical beauty. If you aren’t born with it, you are meant to create it. Presentation matters here. Photos are part of job applications. “You have lost/gained weight!” is a standard greeting. According to Project Implicit data, South Koreans have the highest explicit fat-stigma on the globe.
I am typing this from the terrace of a hotel overlooking Myeong-dong in the very early morning. The world’s skin-product mecca, by lunchtime the 100’s of stores promising ‘beauty in a bottle’ in this delightful Seoul district will be completely crowded. Exploring last week, we were handed a size conversion chart: apparently, I have jumped from an M to an XL. And people understand this need for extreme thinness as a very Korean phenomenon. At lunch the other day I was complimented: “You are very trim — for an American.”
It isn’t just about thinness. One of four Korean women goes under the knife, such as to widen the eyes or create a “v” shaped chin. An ethnography done in clinics in Seoul explains how surgeons are deeply anxious to meet patient expectations of complete transformation. And it isn’t just the South Koreans getting in on the surgical self-beautification. Cosmetic tourism to South Korea is way up, something like 1/4 of the global aesthetic surgery market. Chinese visitors are apparently confusing passport control on their way home with their completely reworked faces. So important are looks to social integration in South Korea that the top cosmetic surgeons in high-end Gangnam are providing their services pro bono to help North Korean defectors so they can fit in when they disrobe in the popular public spas (jjimjilbang). But one cynical explanation includes that plastic surgeons themselves are sensitive to their own growing stigma as parasites on South Korea’s beauty obsession, and suggests this is designed to counter that public perception.
I am in Seoul with ASU sociologist Seung-Yong (Sean) Han (born and raised here) and socio-linguist Cindi SturtzSreetharan. Very little research has been done in South Korea (or Asia more generally) on the social and emotional implications of these extreme body norms. Cindi is collecting examples of “fat-talk“, considered psychologically damaging and common among women in the US. Korean colleagues agree it is an important aspect of everyday conversation here too. Sean and I are using national-level data to assess if body concerns translate into depression for people who feel they can’t meet them. Our preliminary analyses suggest it does. Work by Dr Dong-Sik Kim from the Korean Women’s Development Institute (where we gave talks the other day) indicates that body despair may even be a major driver for adolescent suicide. While our research here is in the early stages, we leave Korea with the sense that we are in the right place to understand how extreme body norms (mis)shape people’s emotional lives and health.