The Plastic Surgery Phenomenon: How I See It From A Korean-American Perspective

by Sandra Song

Growing up, my heroes mostly advocated for the brand of feminist theory that burned bras, banished blush and rejected the idea of primping to become more marketable “commodities.”

As such, I grew up surrounded by inspirational, powerful women who proudly embraced the au natural and nippy nipple syndrome. I was taught to not care about what anyone else said or thought because I was supposed to be proud.

One woman I really look up to is my grandmother, who plowed through a sexist society that was dead-set against her becoming a successful pharmacist.

She’s an inspiration I’ve crafted too many elementary school projects around. She still runs the pharmacy, pays for a good portion of my tuition and somehow, can still fit in a hundred crunches during her lunch break.

I was taken aback when my mother told me that my grandmother offered to pay for elective eyelid surgery for my impending visit to Seoul.

I understand that it’s considered to be a rite of passage for many Koreans, but it also forced me to ask myself, “Do I really count as one?”

Maybe externally, but I’ve never really considered myself to be Korean. I don’t speak the language, my food knowledge is limited to the most basic of bibimbaps, and the only time I listen to K-pop is if it’s part of a James Brooks-assembled mixed tape.

I understood the offer as a gesture of love and for that, I was incredibly grateful. But, another part of me couldn’t help but feel insecure by the suggestion that I should alter myself to be more appealing “wifey material.”

Was my mug not cute enough to send around on Christmas cards and proudly show off on wallet-sized photographs?

My inner feminist, bred on a Bay-Area brand of barefaced beauty, didn’t know how to react. What did this mean for me — a Korean-American who was born and raised in a predominantly white, upper-middle-class suburb — as a woman? How would my decision to do it or not do it affect my self-perception?

For a good month, cheesy, inane questions like, “Which identity do I choose?” rambled through my head and I spent way too much time Googling before and after pictures, cringing at swollen lids and purple shadows. I stalked my university’s Korean-American Student Association group to see how obvious surgery was -- whether or not people would be able to tell.

Plastic surgery is inescapable in South Korea. Many girls get nose jobs and jaw augmentations as graduation presents, meaning many button noses and moon-shaped faces disappear in favor of a very distinct look.

It’s a look that adheres more to the standard set of aesthetic principles that my mentors battled for decades. Deep down, what girl doesn’t want to be considered pretty?

Why couldn’t I adhere to the third-wave theory and draw power from the subconscious confidence obtained from being attractive? Maybe it was all just further proof of my deep insecurities (cue years of deep-seeded image issues and self-doubt).

I’m more comfortable in my appearance now than when I was younger, but I still grapple with my image and with the idea of what a feminist is.

I continue to hide under layers of my signature cat-like eyeliner and reserve my bare face for my closest confidantes. At the same time, however, I subscribe to the belief that whatever makes you feel powerful and unstoppable — whether it’s blood-red lipstick or fishnet tights — can also be proud parts of one’s identity.

While I still don’t have real answers to my musings, I have come to the concrete decision to never surgically alter my eyes.

I’d be lying if I said I was completely confident about the extra layer of adipose that covers my lids, but I think I’m a catch in other ways, unrelated to the way my eyes squint and my eyelashes don’t curl upwards.

I shouldn’t feel the need to be defined by who finds me attractive and who doesn’t, but realistically, who doesn’t occasionally let that thought slip into mind?

It’s the kind of deep-rooted, biological anxiety that always slinks in the back of any social interaction, and while it may be an uneasy compromise, it does seem to be working for now.

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