Wow, what happened to her nose? And why does he have a bandage around his ears? Maybe they were in a car accident. I looked down at the designer sweater, gasped at the price, and another accident victim walked by — this woman was wearing high heels and a sling around her head. As I left the store and stepped out into Gangnam -the high-rise, high heels, high society of Seoul – I gave my friend a perplexed look, and thought about the Bangkok beggars with their bandaged limbs. I’d heard that some of their injuries were inflicted so that they would earn more sympathy and money on the streets. These men and women of Gangnam were not beggars, and their bandages only temporary, but they knew that a ‘prettier’ face would likely give them an advantage, more earning potential. This was plastic surgery Gangnam style.
My Korean friend told me, “I’m the only one that hasn’t had plastic surgery among my group of friends. My mom thinks I should get my eyes done. My sister thinks I should do something with my nose. I don’t know. I think I’d like bigger eyes.” She told me this as if she was thinking about painting her nails, and wasn’t sure about the colour. I had many similar conversations with Korean co-workers and friends during my year in South Korea. Most of them had had some kind of surgery, and their friends and family had been big supporters. In fact, some of their parents had bought them surgery as a graduation gift.
A graduation gift? While North American parents are buying cars for their kids and putting money in a college fund, Korean parents are buying new faces for their kids, and paying for college. They’re investing in their children’s future. My Korean students are always telling me about the tough competition back home. When they graduate, often with no work experience, it’s their looks and TOIEC score (English language ability) that will give them an edge, and in many cases, get them an interview, and land them a job. Sometimes I wonder how my students, all females, feel about this. I imagine, even the ones that have had some surgery, feel frustrated that so much of their worth in the job market is based on their appearance.
Even when I was in Korea, I felt pressure to be more attractive in the workplace. One of my students had me in tears after a particularly hard week. It was the last class of the day on a Friday, and she told me, with her sass reserved for foreign teachers, “You’re disgusting.” I looked at her in disbelief, and then she said, “You’re ugly.” The class ended 5 minutes later, and I calmly retreated to my desk, muffling my tears in a textbook. On Monday, my boss called me into his office, and apologized on the student’s behalf, adding that my big eyes, tall nose (for the record, I have a button nose), and brown hair made me beautiful, but that maybe I should ‘fashion-up’. This was his way of telling me to wear heels and dresses. He never once mentioned anything about my teaching ability. And I realized how easy it was to fall to that pressure — I did start fashioning up. Maybe that is how it is with plastic surgery — everyone is doing it, so you think, why not? Perhaps, if I look different, I’ll get that job, that promotion, and my future will be brighter.