How We're Getting Caught Up in the Competition to Be Beautiful
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How We're Getting Caught Up in the Competition to Be Beautiful
  • Kim Park Yeonhoo
  • 승인 2024.04.01 10:00
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Noonsong took the subway to meet her friend in Gangnam and got off at Gangnam Station. Exiting the station, she saw several advertisements for plastic surgery clinics around, most of which featured women as models and promoted beauty. As she waited for her friend outside, she saw numerous plastic surgery clinics and advertisements on the streets of Gangnam, too. Although she hadn't thought about getting plastic surgery before, she somehow felt like she should have done so after noticing the advertisements.
 

PHOTO FROM THE FINANCIAL NEWS
A view of a crowded area of plastic surgery in Gangnam-gu, Seoul

 

Voices that force one to be "pretty"

The constant demand in the fashion and beauty industry shows that people are interested in enhancing their appearance. People talk about their appearance daily and, even more so, they constantly compare each other's bodies and looks. Moreover, being persistently exposed to celebrities who are praised for their looks on social media makes people compare themselves to those on the Internet. When this goes beyond simple comparison and turns into obsession and compulsion, it can lead to 'appearance obsession,' a depressive state in which a person feels unable to be happy unless their body image concerns are addressed. This is also known as Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) and is characterized by a person's belief that their appearance is abnormal even if they have a normal body shape, or by obsessing over small physical characteristics that others may not notice. These thoughts can lead to social isolation by avoiding relationships with other people because they don't want to show themselves and in extreme cases, even to suicidal thoughts. This phenomenon is more prevalent among women. According to the Korean Women's Development Institute's Gender and Health Inequalities in Korean Society: Focusing on Appearance Obsession and Plastic Surgery study in January 2020, women were 16 percent more likely than men to internalize appearance stereotypes, leading to self-consciousness and weight concerns. Young women were the most likely, followed by middle-aged and older women. This shows that women struggle with internal conflicts and difficulties about their appearance throughout their lives. As such, appearance obsession is something that women in Korean society share.
Stereotypes about women's appearance are affecting women to develop appearance obsession more. Media, such as Social Network Service (SNS) and advertisements, is contributing to setting the standard for what women should look like. This is proven by the pervading scrutinization of celebrities' faces and body shapes in society, as well as advertisements for diet pills and plastic surgery. In one enzyme advertisement, two women leave a restaurant and have a conversation about whether they've eaten too much. The image of one of the women immediately changes to that of an older man, but after taking the enzyme product, she regains her original appearance. This was criticized as stipulating that women should be beautiful and remain unchanged even before and after eating. These idealized images have the potential to make women doubt their own appearance and body shape and make those who don't have the desired look feel like they have failed. In addition, appearance obsession often begins with evaluations by others. One woman in her 20s said, "Growing up, my mother kept saying, 'Girls should be pretty and thin.' So I thought I had to be thin to be considered beautiful by others, including my mother."1) This implies that older generations were also led to believe that women should have an ideal appearance due to the media such as advertising and the social climate, which they naturally passed on to their children. This leads to a vicious cycle in which the idea that women should have an ideal appearance is instilled from a young age. The influence of the media seems to further reinforce women's obsession with appearance.

 

SCREENSHOT OF YOUTUBE
Enzyme advertising encourages women's appearance obsession

 

Looking through a distorted mirror

The obsession with having a desirable appearance imposed by society has enabled more plastic surgery. In the media, celebrities have been disclosing their plastic surgery experience, and people have been responding favorably to them, regarding it as confident or cool to do so. Unlike in the past when people wanted to hide their plastic surgery, this changed perception of it has made it more accessible. According to the Gender and Health Inequalities in Korean Society: Focusing on Appearance Obsession and Plastic Surgery study, 52.7 percent of women said they often see advertisements for beauty treatments and plastic surgery. In addition, 39.2 percent of women said they wanted to get plastic surgery after seeing such advertisements. This suggests that women actually often face advertisements for plastic surgery in their lives, which makes them interested in getting some. When this changed perception is combined with pervasive appearance obsession, it leads to another problem: plastic surgery addiction. This refers to a compulsion to believe that one's appearance is wrong, leading to a loss of self-control and repeated plastic surgeries. It's also dangerous in that repeated plastic surgery can lead to adverse cosmetic side effects and medical errors. Online communities for victims of disfigurement are full of people who have regretted their plastic surgery and the accompanying side effects. As a result of repeated plastic surgeries, one person wrote, "After having my eyes done twice, I developed depression and panic disorder as side effects and woke up in the morning wanting to die. I wish I could turn back time and go back to the way I was before the surgery."2) This suggests that cosmetic surgery is a vicious cycle that leads to addiction, which in turn leads to negative physical and mental consequences. It needs to be understood that plastic surgery from appearance obsession can lead to bigger problems, such as depression, public avoidance, and suicidal thoughts.
In addition to this, women's appearance obsession tends to focus on body size too. In the media, society often presents an excessively thin body as the perfect standard of beauty. This preference for thinness has increased on social media, with people envying thin female celebrities. This sociocultural preference for thinness can lead young women to become overly aware of their body shape. According to Weight Loss Attempt Rate and Related Factors by Body Mass Index Classification in Korean Adults by the Korean Center for Disease Control and Prevention from January 8, 15.1 percent of women aged 19 to 29 were underweight, with a body mass index of less than 18.5, in 2021. Despite being underweight, 16.2 percent had attempted to lose weight, and 53.9 percent of women of normal weight had also tried dieting to lose weight, suggesting that the social climate is influencing women to diet unnecessarily. This not only leads to physical illnesses such as malnutrition and anemia but also to mental illnesses such as eating disorders. Eating disorders are defined as difficulties with the act of eating due to abnormal weight control or extreme dieting. From here, the term 'pro-ana' has been coined to describe a person who advocates for anorexia and has led to the rise of extreme dieters who aspire to be bone-thin and refuse food to lose weight. The phenomenon has been spreading on social media among women especially in their teens and 20s, which has led them to admire pro-ana practices, inspiring to poor dietary habits that cause them to lose weight through fasting and extreme purging, i.e. bulimia, and the practice of chewing and spitting food out without swallowing. A high school girl who heard about the pro-ana lifestyle on X (SNS) said, "First of all, I lost weight and had a skinny body, so I was loved by people that I could hardly compare to before. After losing weight, I made friends and dated for the first time. I think I can't get out of it because the happiness I gained through this is much greater than the pain when I was starving."3) This shows that misguided social standards cause people to aspire to extreme thinness and become obsessed with their body size. The societal tendency to promote thinness from an early age and on a daily basis is what underlies eating disorders. This obsession with appearance is affecting women values and identity formation about their appearance.

 

PHOTO FROM THE HANKOOK ILBO
'Proana' spreds through sns

 

Breaking out of the appearance trappings

There is a movement to help women to break away from this appearance obsession. In 2017, a body positivity movement emerged in the United States, which proclaims, "You are beautiful no matter what size you are, regardless of the stereotypical body image that society defines," instead of adhering to a uniform aesthetic standard, and it has spread worldwide. It aims to encourage people to love and care for their bodies the way they are. In line with this movement, products that reflect this are also gaining popularity in the Korean fashion industry. Recently, in most shopping applications, bralettes and sports bras that are comfortable to wear without wires or pads have been ranked among the top searches in the women's underwear category. An e-commerce industry insider said, "The body-positive movement has already become a trend in the U.S. and overseas. Not only in the domestic fashion industry but also in the e-commerce industry, a variety of sizes and products are being released, expanding consumers' options."4) This indicates that society is changing to embrace diversity beyond the widespread standards of beauty. As part of the body positivity movement, female workout YouTubers who are breaking away from the 'pretty body first' focus of society are emerging. Until now, women's workouts have tended to focus on losing weight and getting skinny, rather than being about getting healthy and strong. However, YouTuber "SharkCoach" shows women working out for the 'real me' and not the person they want others to see. Through her athletic content, she communicates that many want to reclaim it with agency and pride by the combination of women and exercise. The idea is that women should be able to exercise freely and comfortably in a liberated state of mind and body. This body-positive movement shows that obsession with one's own body due to an ideal standard is no longer an individual issue but has evolved into a social discussion and movements are emerging to address it.

As a society, there is a debate on the issue of appearance obsession, but there is also a need for institutional solutions. In other countries, there are institutional foundations for body diversity. Following Israel, Spain, and Italy, France has passed legislation that prohibits the hiring of models with a Body Mass Index (BMI) below a certain threshold. They also require companies to display warnings on their adverts and other images if they are manipulated, such as over-calibrating a woman's body or face through Photoshop. Failure to comply will result in a fine of at least 537.98 million won or 30 percent of the cost of the ad. This provides transparency for consumers and helps them feel less pressured about their appearance. In addition, with the emergence of plus-size models overseas, an attempt was made to break away from the trend of presenting skinny women as ideal beauty. As a result, there are more appearances of plus-size models in Korea too along with events to select plus-size models. Consequently, Korea's first plus-size model Kim Ji-yang appeared, but there have been numerous malicious comments and unfounded slander against her appearance. Under these circumstances, Yoon Seo-won, a psychological counselor, said, "We need to show and educate people through the media so that we can respect each other and our diversity as individuals, not external conditions."5) It seems that social efforts to break away from appearance supremacy have not been established. As such, there is a need for institutional changes to create a culture where diversity of appearance is respected.

 

Erase the idealized image

There is a growing number of women who suffer from appearance obsession, stemming from the idealized image of women in society. As a result, they are in pain physically and mentally from excessive plastic surgery and dieting. There have been efforts to address this on an individual level through the body positivity movement. In addition, the international community is approaching this from the societal level. There is a need for South Korea to make institutional improvements with reference to other countries.

 

1) Lee Ha-nee, Lee Bo-ra, "#I'mPretty#Complementing#Body_Talk#Rejecting", The Kyunghyang Shinmun, April 6, 2020

2) Lee Sae-eun, ""I Just Wanted to Be Pretty"...'the Plastic Surgery Swamp' That Can't Get Out Of", Daily GOOD NEWS, March 25, 2022

3) Kim Na-hyun, "Meet 'Ida' in the First Year of Proana", Le Monde Diplomatique, December 30, 2021

4) Park Si-jin, "Madonna, Rihanna Join 'Body Positivity'…E-commerce Industry Hooked", The Seoul Economic Daily, February 20, 2023

5) See Footnote 1


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