“Seoulites are the world’s best-dressed hikers,” claims Lonely Planet. This sense of fashion is not just confined to hiking. It is rare to spot a lady without high heels or a fancy bag. Koreans are obsessed with how they look and they spend a lot of time, money, and effort in order to look perfect. This is because in this part of the world, looking good takes you a long way towards achieving what you want. In a country with very little natural resources, human capital is the most prized asset. Ruthless competition has made it so that ability alone can no longer guarantee success. It is becoming increasingly important to look good in order to ride an ascending success curve – for one’s professional or personal life. In the 21st century, the rules that determine success are the same as those from the time of dinosaurs – the Darwinian principle of ‘Survival of the Fittest’, only the definition of ‘fittest’ has changed with time.
With the emergence of the ‘Metrosexual’ man, men are increasingly trespassing on what was traditionally considered the territory of women. Men are no longer staying away from wearing pink, manicuring fingernails, sporting fancy handbags or wearing makeup. Thanks to a hyperactive media that makes Korea the ‘most connected’ country in the world, new trends spread like wildfire. The media and the business establishment are only too happy to bring the latest fashion to an ever-increasing consumer base. However, it is with the involvement of medical science, that this obsession to look good has reached new heights. Korea is widely considered the cosmetic surgery capital of the world. People choose to go under a cosmetic surgeon’s scalpel believing that good looks can achieve things - a career boost, an increase in confidence, success in love, and perhaps even ‘happiness’. In the fight for survival and success, ‘fitness’ is just a surgery away and everybody – from the common man to the political elite - is eager to boost one’s beauty.
Some people might be bewildered that, in a society based on Confucian principles, people can distort their bodies through artificial means to gain a competitive edge. However, moreso than the past, change is what drives the wheel of civilization forward. In this mercilessly competitive world, going an extra mile to prove one’s superiority is perfectly understandable. A deeper understanding of Oriental history reveals that obsession with appearance might actually have been embedded in the Korean psyche for hundreds of years, and is simply finding new ways of expressing itself in the 21st century. Confucian principles emphasize appearance, etiquette and achieving harmony. Having a beautiful, well-balanced and harmonious face is in accordance with the principles of ancient Korean culture. It is worth mentioning that throughout history, social and cultural conditions have often dictated the deliberate modification of body parts. The example closest to home is the ancient Chinese practice of creating ‘Lotus feet’ in which the growth of girls’ feet was restricted by forceful binding. In parts of the world as diverse as Russia, Peru, Egypt and Central America, growth of children’s heads were modified to give it an elongated look. In medieval Europe, corsets were used to achieve the perfect hourglass figure. All of these practices were painful to the person concerned but considered necessary to earn the respect of society and to differentiate between social hierarchies. When viewed as one in a series of historical trends in which society dictates the acceptable appearance of individuals, the current obsession with appearance amongst Koreans begins to make sense.
Fashion is a big industry. Without the urge to dress well, the busy streets on Myong Dong or Sinchon would be deserted! Korea has also joined the league of countries like Singapore, Thailand and India, as a prime destination for medical tourism. The perception of a cosmetic surgeon’s scalpel as the ultimate tool for achieving beauty has become no longer confined to Korea.
Enhancing looks gives an obvious advantage to a person in his/her daily life and career. But it remains to be seen just how much it can deliver. Are people willing to forego opportunities to improve real abilities for the sake of appearance? Are people truly happy with newfound confidence from an advancement in appearance? The answer, to quote Dylan, “my friend, is blowin’ in the wind, the answer is blowin’ in the wind!”
written by: Subhojit Chakladar