The Beauty Complex and the Cosmetic Surgery Industry
(Vol.44. No.2 Summer, 2004 pp.52~82)
Woo Keong Ja
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This paper examines the process of how the combination of an appearance-oriented ideology and cosmetic surgery technology re-institutionalizes the importance of women's appearances.
Patriarchal ideology, which controls every aspect of life in Korea, defines women's appearances as an ability that only women can possess. Also, cosmetic surgery technology promises women power, pleasure, and freedom, but within the boundaries set by their appearance.
The willing submission of women to a violent transformation of their bodies is done with the intention of experiencing an empowerment, pleasure, and freedom from appearance. Furthermore, technology capital admits and even absorbs women's dissatisfaction and resistance to the importance placed on their appearance. As a result, women's bodies become an object of consumption, not subject to their own identity. Also, women's desires become dependent on each other, and their appearances become unified.
In conclusion, women's behavior as reflected by cosmetic surgery stems from the political conversation among patriarchal, consumptive capitalism, and medical technology capitalism.
Keywords: cosmetic surgery, technology capital, patriarchal femininity, women's beauty, consumptive capitalism, unequal discipline
Types: Articles
Subject: Sociology , Anthropology
About the author(s) Woo Keong Ja (U, Gyeong-ja) is a lecturer of Department of Sociology at Yonsei University. She obtained her Ph.D. from Yonsei University in 2002 with a dissertation entitled "Yeoseong-ui oemo juui-wa seonghyeong uiryo saneop" (Women's Obsession with Appearance and the Cosmetic Surgery Industry). E-mail: woo48"



 The Beauty Complex and the Cosmetic Surgery Industry



Woo Keong Ja






This paper examines the process of how the combination of an appearance-oriented ideology and cosmetic surgery technology re-institutionalizes the importance of women's appearances.

Patriarchal ideology, which controls every aspect of life in Korea, defines women's appearances as an ability that only women can possess. Also, cosmetic surgery technology promises women power, pleasure, and freedom, but within the boundaries set by their appearance.

The willing submission of women to a violent transformation of their bodies is done with the intention of experiencing an empowerment, pleasure, and freedom from appearance. Furthermore, technology capital admits and even absorbs women's dissatisfaction and resistance to the importance placed on their appearance. As a result, women's bodies become an object of consumption, not subject to their own identity. Also, women's desires become dependent on each other, and their appearances become unified.

In conclusion, women's behavior as reflected by cosmetic surgery stems from the political conversation among patriarchal, consumptive capitalism, and medical technology capitalism.

Keywords: cosmetic surgery, technology capital, patriarchal femininity, women's beauty, consumptive capitalism, unequal discipline



Woo Keong Ja (U, Gyeong-ja) is a lecturer of Department of Sociology at Yonsei University. She obtained her Ph.D. from Yonsei University in 2002 with a dissertation entitled "Yeoseong-ui oemo juui-wa seonghyeong uiryo saneop" (Women's Obsession with Appearance and the Cosmetic Surgery Industry). E-mail:  woo48"




Cosmetic surgery, once considered a branch of general medical services in Korea, has recently experienced a sudden expansion in market scale, valued in hundreds and thousands of dollars, and is undergoing a process of industrialization. Specialists note that cosmetic surgery sales increased by roughly 17 percent from 1999 to 2000, reaching almost 170 billion won (144 million dollars). If procedures in non-specialist plastic surgery clinics (such as skin clinics, etc.), where cosmetic surgery often takes place without being officially reported, are included in this calculation, the overall scale of surgery can be estimated at about 2-3 times that number. Taking all these figures into consideration, specialists assess that the cosmetic surgery market in Korea stands at one trillion won (847 million dollars) (Chosun Ilbo, 30 July 2001). In parallel, the market for products related to the cosmetic surgery industry has experienced a boom in sales.1 And the main consumers of this increase in the beauty market in Korea are women.

These statistics raise a number of questions: what are the benefits that women can expect to reap through good looks? And on the other hand, what are the losses women expect to suffer if they are not considered good-looking? Furthermore, what are the benefits that society gains through women's beauty complex? What is the beauty/coarseness standard against which women -- as opposed to men -- are judged and where does this standard come from? And how can the phenomenon that women are just as obsessed with their appearance as in the past, or even more so, be explained in light of the diversification and advancement in women's higher and professional education that is taking place alongside an overall drive for equality of the genders today? Cosmetic surgery seems to have a strong appeal to modern women who are dissatisfied with their looks. If it is

the case that cosmetic surgery grants any woman the chance to approach a desired ideal of beauty, then the question is, does surgery indeed release women from the pain caused by their appearance? Or does cosmetic surgery merely impose another form of repression on women?

Cosmetic surgery is not a medical procedure that treats and maintains general health. Rather, it is an ideological domain in which women's obsession with appearance (a combination of social dictates and personal pleasure) and the framework of the sociocultural ideas regarding obsession with appearance become intricately engaged. This domain includes a system that has created a particular logic through which technology capital penetrates sociocultural norms, which helps to further its interests. Women become active and engaged participants in this domain. In this way, the beauty complex becomes organized into a system unto itself. This paper attempts to trace the today's re-institutionalization of women's obsession with appearance. By analyzing the essence of the social power granted to a pretty face and figure, along with its concomitant political, economic, and ideological backgrounds, by looking at how the "beauty myth" brought on by the potential realization of equality of the beautiful exterior that was enabled by cosmetic surgery technology is constantly revived and how the cosmetic surgery industry actively intervenes in women's lives, and by examining the attitudes of women standing in the midst of these forces, I will attempt to analytically engage with the complexity of modern Korean women's obsession with appearance.



Structure Driving Dependence on Cosmetic Surgery


Women adopt a discipline of self-grooming from the moment they are born. Unlike men, the interest in their looks and physical cultivation is natural for women, and they believe that this is what is expected of them. Even adults who have taken charge of the subjectivity over their own bodies are often unable to escape from these sociocultural norms, and in many cases these norms are internalized to the extent that women are unaware of the motivations behind their actions.

On the surface, it seems that the motivation behind most Korean women's decision to undergo surgery lies in feelings of inferiority regarding their appearance. A closer look, however, reveals that several other factors are at play. These include the ideological norms applied to women, the dictates of a profit-guaranteeing economic logic, a sphere of consumption that both encompasses and creates human desire, and the development and commercialization of the seemingly all-powerful and widely expanding frontiers of medical technology.


Imposed Femininity: The Appearance Obsession as Patriarchal Ideology


What are the origins of women's appearance obsession? According to Naomi Wolf, the beauty myth has nothing to do with women and everything to do with the masculine institution and institutional power (Wolf 1991, 13). Concepts such as "motherhood" and "chastity," which once were of central value, have now been replaced by "good looks." The beauty myth is neither an age-old system of admiration of women, nor was it one adopted by women. It is no more than a myth, an expression of the power relationships against which women must struggle while fighting for the resources which men have taken sole possession of. Beauty is neither universal nor constant (Wolf 1991, 11). Sara Halprin points out that the "empowerment of appearance" and the "dual nature of women" are apparatuses that limit resistance to the beauty myth. "Under the masculine capitalist system, we can see an inevitable expression of female duality by women today: paradoxically, while resenting the premiums offered to those women with 'superior' looks, women secretly envy those looks and place extreme importance on the body" (Halprin 1996, 11, translator's preface). Moreover, external appearances have come to be regarded as the index measuring women's personalities. The concept of beauty has come to function as a metaphor for youth, power, virtue, vice, innocence, and experience (Halprin 1996, 143). Women follow along in subconscious yearning for good looks and what good looks stand for. Today, it has become basic mental health knowledge that women who show indifference to their appearance exhibit early symptoms of mental illness (Halprin 1996, 152). It is precisely this approach that puts pressure on women who resist the definition of external femininity. There is no place for aging women in the "beauty myth." In the past, older women held significant power and position both in the home and in society, but in today's modern world, sexual power is irreplaceable. In her book The Fountain of Age, Betty Friedan notes that older women's coarse image in society today stems from men's fear of women's potential power. This emphasis on a limited age range and a certain definition of beauty obstructs a comprehensive understanding of women's lives, and creates an invisible wall of hostility and enmity among women (Jo 2001, 23).

This phenomenon is connected to the unequal educational process and internalization of the values rising from this process. Bartky notes that through the unequal discipline that classifies and differentiates masculinity from femininity, women voluntarily submit themselves to power, and internalize, assimilate, and align themselves with these values (Bartky 1988, 75-81). Women's submission to the patriarchal system is expressed in their incessant staring at their reflection in the mirror, censorship of what they eat, and heightened self-consciousness. Despite feminists' untiring exposure of the falsehood of obsession with appearance, the popularity of cosmetic surgery seems to be increasing by the day. Is there no way that women can liberate themselves from the yoke of the beauty myth?


The Domains of Production and Labor


The patriarchal norms of beauty control not only women's daily lives but their social awareness as well, so that women's productive activities cannot escape the power of these beauty norms. The patriarchal labor structure discriminates against women based on their appearance, plunging women into a vicious cycle that makes them even more dependent on their looks. The limitations placed on women's appearance as a condition of employment, as well as the emphasis on looks imposed by the service sector, are both major variables that limit opportunities for women to display their abilities and achieve economic independence. These factors contribute to the reproduction of unequal sexual power relations.

The diversification of occupations and occupational positions in modern society has not contributed to the expansion of the middle class with a guaranteed stable income. Rather, it has contributed to workers' submission to wage work, and has become the capital strategy that causes many to inevitably accept the discriminatory structure of wages. The discriminatory structure of labor is manifest in the case of female laborers, who are bestowed with the status of members of the industrial reserve force. At this stage, the most crucial elements are femininity and the norm of feminine beauty. For example, in 1994, women's associations and the Korean Teachers and Educational Workers' Union protested the requests of 44 companies to recommend women graduates of vocational high schools of specific height and weight for employment (Seo 2000). Following this case, the regulations regarding appearances as conditions of employment disappeared, but in practice appearances continued to be counted as an essential element in the employment process. As a result, teachers preparing their students for the job market in vocational high schools have come to focus first and foremost on grooming their students' appearances rather than concentrating on academic directions, grades, or abilities. The students have found themselves most easily employed in simpler assistant positions (Yi 1994, 35-37).

The quantitative increase and diversification in the service sector are closely related to women's obsession with appearance. As the types of occupation demanding a specific physique as part of official employment requirements continue to increase, such as doumi and narrator models,2 women are being evaluated not according to their accumulated skills and experience but according to their physical appearance. Accordingly, the older the women get, the shorter their period of labor and the more negligible their value becomes. One study that examines the importance of physical appearance in the employment of flight attendants clearly demonstrates how the consolidation of the patriarchal employment system takes place by making physical appearance account for the most important part in the labor of women working in the service sector (Hong 1999). Even in the non-service sector, physical appearance is considered the foundation of women's potential and is considered a crucial tool that contributes to a company's profit making and productivity.

The shifts in the labor market and patriarchal labor structure have created a one-dimensional definition of women according to which women are actors in constant pursuit of superficial values. In order to achieve higher and more profitable positions in the labor market, women have no choice but to adjust their bodies to the standard concept of femininity. This is where cosmetic surgery enters the picture. It offers the possibility of bringing the body closer to the fixed beauty standard more quickly, conveniently, and in a more natural manner. The capitalist system aims at creating division within the labor market, fostering the growth of the service sector to effectively increase profits within a gendered social order, while at the same time effectively serving to splinter women's groups.


The Domains of Consumption and Desire


The meeting between the patriarchal standard of beauty and consumer capitalism results in a phenomenon that locates women's bodies at the summit of consumerism. From the point of view of consumer capitalism, women's physical appearance is presented as the signifier of desire and is consumed as an item of exchange value. Women's pursuit of good looks is based on pleasure rather than force, and women throw themselves willfully and enthusiastically into the beauty market. As the most beautiful object of consumerism, the body is viewed as an asset, as well as a signifier of social status (Baudrillard 1991, 193). The body, beauty, and eroticism are conducive to increasing sales. This fact decisively directs the historical process of the "liberation of the body" -- the "commodification" of the body.

The agency that makes consumptive objectification of the body possible is the ceaseless comparison with others and the generation of feelings of inferiority. Any discussion of beautiful bodies inevitably revolves around female models and beauty contestants (Yun 2000, 39). In today's society, where patriarchal ideology meets consumer capitalism, voguish consumerism continuously promotes a comparative physical imperfection complex, which serves as a most efficient tool for psychological and emotional control over women (Yi 1997, 25). Yi notes, "In the history of the patriarchal system, women's bodies, which were colonized and stripped of any right to self-determination, have come to face the reality of more competitive and public enslavement at the hands of the consumer market" (Yi 1997, 26-27).

The inferiority complex experienced by women over their bodies in the consumer market is more intense now than ever before. No longer is it about women simply feeling compelled to merely adorn  themselves with decorations; women now desire to be perfect products. They want to cure themselves from the anxiety and inferiority that remains even after the superficial, compensatory function that makeup or fashion provide. Women today seek to consume the beautiful body that is manufactured through cosmetic surgery. That kind of beauty comes with a seal of approval by different media, and is one women once dreamed of attaining through the application of makeup or the following of fashion trends. Women expect that cosmetic surgery will make their ideal a reality. The capital that creates profit through women's bodies is now invested in the very cosmetic technologies that manufacture women's bodies. Through cosmetic surgery, women's bodies re-create the beauty standard more efficiently and productively. The discourses concerning cosmetic surgery contribute to an intensification of women's inferior feelings towards their bodies and stimulate interest in pursuing a transformation of their features. They promise to transform the ideals of a pretty face and attractive body into reality, and emphasize that this is a pleasure that can be possessed only by women.


Cosmetic Surgery in Korea


Cosmetic surgery in Korea began with its import from the West. As a result, the Western image of ideal beauty came to replace the existing Korean ideal of beauty, and the industry in Korea became dependent on medical techniques and surgical operations that were originally created with Western women in mind. As a non-white race, Korean women's bodies were branded as inferior and flawed, and the images of white women as conveyed through mass media in such forums as the Miss Universe competitions and Hollywood movies presented a beauty ideal that Korean women felt obliged to pursue. The changes that took place in the image of the ideal Asian beauty in the 1960s and 1970s concurred with the change in the overall roles of women, from a limited motherly role to that of a pleasure-seeking and socially active feminine one. Against this background, cosmetic surgery surfaced as a powerful tool that was able to transform the single-dimensional Korean body into a three-dimensional white one.3

In this way, the growing cosmetic surgery industry was able to take advantage of the existing beauty industry, bringing many doctors into contact with profit-seeking activities as a mode of survival. Economic logic entered the picture when making the decision as to whether or not surgery is necessary.4 Note the increase in the number of plastic surgeons and cosmetic surgery clinics in Korea. According to statistics from the Korean Medical Association, the number of certified plastic surgeons increased from 398 in 1992 to 926 in 2000, marking an increase of 528 doctors over a period of ten years. Plastic surgery clinics increased from 141 to 411, an increase of 270 clinics. Between April 2000 and April 2001, the overall percentage of medical clinics increased by 3.7 percent, of which the increase in plastic surgery clinics alone was 13.6 percent (from 411 to 467). If one includes plastic surgery clinics at university hospitals and clinics not registered with the Korean Medical Association, the number of clinics in 2001 reached 913, 412 of which are located in Seoul. In particular, the concentration of clinics in economically strategic neighborhoods such as Gangnam reflects the extent to which the plastic surgery industry has become commercialized. Out of 467 clinics in Seoul, almost half or 227 clinics are located in Seoul, and of these, 199 clinics, or 25 percent, can be found in Gangnam.5 Such an increase in plastic surgeons and plastic surgery clinics, the expansion of the industry's capital, as well as their concentration in the Gangnam area, all signify that market logic thoroughly applies to plastic surgery. Out of 100 new plastic surgeons entering the market every year, nearly nine doctors lacking survival skills are weeded out due to intense competition and excessive operations, and brokers are employed. This shows the extent of the commercial nature of cosmetic surgery.

Basing themselves on the commercial nature of plastic surgery that appeals to women's obsession with appearances, plastic surgeons emphasize surgery as the means to help women overcome pathological feelings of inferiority. Women legitimize their dependency on plastic surgery in the system of illusions guaranteed by the cosmetic industry. They combine the idea that women must be beautiful with the more modernized version that beautiful appearance is another kind of competitive power, and arrive at the conclusion that all means are legitimate in the aspiration towards beauty. From this perspective, plastic surgery simply becomes modern women's determined approach to self-management. With the commercial introduction of plastic surgery, once normal female bodies become diseased and are skillfully dismantled such that the ideal feminine beauty can be quantitatively evaluated. A monopolistic empowerment of surgery and a technical notion of beauty is established through the incessant adoption of new techniques. In this way, women actually contribute to the immense growth of the plastic surgery industry and inevitably become increasingly dependent on it.



The Benefits of Beauty and Women's Choice


Empowerment of the Body


Because society endows physical appearance with great power, women attempt to acquire it through plastic surgery. This kind of power is much more advantageous in employment or marriage, and is permitted because it poses no competitive threat to men. The crisis in the marriage and employment markets fostered by inequalities in appearances is the main reason many women are driven into the arena of competition through appearance.

Patriarchal society asks women, "Why is it that you waste all your energy on your face, body, and clothes? It's no wonder women lag behind in skill. You should invest all that energy in studying!" Easily said, but the reality of the situation is that good looks -- not skill -- make women more competitive in the job market (An 2001, 212). In our male-dominated society, many women accept the male perspective in a calculated and realistic way, internalize it, and find themselves wrapped within a self-tightening bridle. In relationships between the sexes as well, women are evaluated according to their physical appearance, as a woman's value is determined by her body. The male gaze can decide whether a woman's body is worthy or not of being loved. Because only "beautiful" women receive better treatment in society, they are compelled to both resist the discourse of aesthetic empowerment and surrender to it at the same time. 

    I have to get prettier. I have to, if I want a better life. Appearances seem to be the most important thing in this country. And that's why I'm determined to get a plastic surgery (woman in her twenties, discussing double-eyelid surgery). 

The article has thus far covered the power of appearances in its narrow meaning: the power and ability to obtain the desired commodities and resources. For women, the power of appearance as defined within the social standard of beauty appears in both the workplace and the marriage market. The power of appearance, a power widely recognized by women who want to undergo plastic surgery, is strengthened once women who have surgery experience a real increase in power. As one 27-year-old company employee attests, after having surgery on her chin and nose, followed up a year later with liposuction on her cheeks, she keenly realized that a beautiful appearance meant a real increase in social power. After her surgery, she explained, her life completely changed, and she met a man and got a job. She noted that had she not undergone plastic surgery, she doubted that she would have had a chance to display her hard-earned academic skills. This is exactly the empowerment of appearance felt by women most keenly in the job and marriage market.

At this point, however, it is essential to expand further on the conception of the power that women acquire through plastic surgery. The transformation of women's appearances brings with it not only officially recognized beauty but encourages active and animated behavior. The power that ensues from this change must include not only control over people and objects but also control over daily life. More particularly, the process of restoring initiative, which occurs in women's encounter with the world through their bodies, provides women with the experience of a liberated subjectivity in accordance with the following scheme: satisfaction with appearance M self-respect M change in relationship with the world. From this perspective, it is possible to understand the high rate of plastic surgery even among housewives, who are free from the burden of marriage or employment. Even though for them men no longer exercise absolute power over romantic relationships and employment, the beauty complex, which influences housewives' psychological state, forces women to examine and censor themselves. Because of the psychology that causes women to compete over appearances with both men and women, women's appearances become a kind of power that is exercised not only in the job or marriage market but also in other domains of society. This is the strength that can lead to the restoration of the joy of life, and which functions as the primary factor that strengthens women's empowerment over their appearances.


Beautiful Appearance as a Source of Pleasure


By transforming women's appearance, plastic surgery brings women an enjoyment of the consumption of appearance and invigorates their lives. The cultivating, decorating, and transforming of women's appearance is considered a pleasure, as well as a right. Upon examination of successful cases of plastic surgery, we find that not only do women look positively on plastic surgery, but they experience an intensification of interest in their appearance. They spend more time looking in the mirror, start experimenting with makeup, and investing in clothes. They carefully observe, survey, and regulate their behavior, facial expressions, and body language. For example, women whose ultimate desire was to undergo double-eyelid surgery in order to be released from having to spend too much energy on covering up their eyes, find more time to concentrate on other, previously unnoticed parts of their bodies after surgery. But it is no longer mass media, family members, or work colleagues that are the active motivators for plastic surgery. The motivating force is women's active determination to control their appearance. For this reason, women question whether their behavior might be described as "plastic surgery addiction."

    This addiction . . . seems to happen to those of us that are well off . . . once you fix one part successfully, you want to hurry up and fix another, and then another. And it's all up to you. That's the way it is for me; once I fix my waist, I'm thinking of getting work done on other parts of my body. But if it doesn't work out, I won't even think of setting foot [in another clinic] again (company worker, 23).  

What is described above is happiness and pleasure. For women who are determined at any cost to correct parts of their bodies with which they are unhappy as a means of obtaining a sense of ease in their everyday lives, their corrected bodies now bring them more than power -- they bring the experience of pleasure.  

    I spend lots of time in front of the mirror these days. I hated doing that before I had surgery. . . . It's so exciting! People I meet that haven't seen me in a while all say to me, "Wow, you look great! What's changed?" Applying makeup is much more fun, too. I try on all the latest colors. Even when I'm not being looked at, I feel great. I love shopping for makeup, even though it costs so much (university student, 21). 

This pleasure is precisely the key that gives monopolizing power to the plastic surgery industry. Women predict that despite the fear, pain, and harshness of the surgical procedure, if it is successful, all that suffering will disappear. In this way, women thirsting for an aesthetic transformation of their appearance become completely dependant on plastic surgery and readily subject themselves to it, thus becoming the prime factor conducive to the constitution of the plastic surgery industry's power. But in the end, the pleasure that is derived from plastic surgery begs the question of how much closer plastic surgery has brought women's bodies to the social standard of beauty, which is founded entirely on women's internalization of society's gaze. And yet, most women think that pleasure comes from fulfilling a general, universal standard of beauty, not the one generated by a Korean male gaze. And this understanding contributes to yet more active consent to surgery.


Release from the Pain Caused by Appearance


The process of socializing appearance results in the creations of feelings of inferiority about appearance and an identity crisis. Women internalize the gaze that compares their bodies to an ideal, unrealistic standard. They therefore nurture feelings of inferiority about their own bodies in direct proportion to a subjective distance from this standard. Women who turn to plastic surgery explain that they are motivated to undergo the procedure by a desire to overcome feelings of inferiority and to recover self-esteem. Clearly, appearance is one of the important factors that constitute women's identity in Korea.

Women's inferiority complex is not limited to appearance, but extends to doubt about their personality and resentment towards their environment, and further results in a pessimistic life view that affects their family and parents. The appearance problem affects women, their families, and society in general through the sharing of similar experiences. These individual feelings of inferiority about their bodies are based on a more general, sociocultural ideology, which is enforced from the smallest units of society up, and constitutes a much larger, problematic social structure.

Even beyond the inferiority complex, some women view their bodies in a pathological way. They associate their bodies with feelings of unbearable pain, describing their bodies as "faulty," "repulsive," "awful to look at," and "abnormal." When analyzing their bodies on a gendered basis rather than an aesthetic one, women often try to discriminate between their own surgery and the cosmetic procedures of others. Women explain that they seek to become normal by fixing their physical faults. Cosmetic surgery, then, is simply a modern convenience, which, by shaping and thus correcting women's bodies, can guarantee them a normal life.

The following is the account of a woman who underwent breast enlargement surgery: 

    Flat-chested women get laughed at, treated like they're handicapped. . . . If I'd stayed this way, I was sure that I'd never find a husband. It wasn't about being pretty -- I just wanted to become a woman (university student, 23). 

In this statement, "wanting to become a woman" is associated with a normal life that women can enjoy by attaching themselves to the sociocultural category of "femininity." As seen above, the equation

of a flat chest with a handicap is further evidence of how social approval and prejudice encroach upon women's subjective world. The bodies of women existing outside these qualifying terms become objects of disease or in need of repair. The important questions to be asked are who is passing judgment on "normality" and "abnormality" in women, and what is the standard according to which this judgment is being made. In an attempt to possess a "normal" feminine body, women are beholden to a standard created by society. They come to associate their bodies with negativity and inferiority, thus consenting to and submitting to the logic of gender homogeneity. The peace of mind that is achieved this way gathers women's voluntary consent and contributes to the institutionalization of appearance obsession and dependence on technology.


Women's Active Choices and Subordination to Technology


Thus far, we have exposed the important aspects that draw women's voluntary participation in plastic surgery: empowerment through appearance, the experience of pleasure, and liberation from suffering over appearance. While remaining unaware of the basic links between these aspects, women utilize means that will be most beneficial to them. Women are organized not as a group but as individuals, making it impossible to challenge the system. This is because they suffer losses individually. Does the yielding to the realistic benefits of surgery prove the absence of female subjectivity?

Women who desire plastic surgery make their decision to undergo the procedure only at the end of long deliberation. They make their decisions after a level-headed evaluation of reality and their social position. Feelings of inferiority about their appearance signify for women an imminent "weeding-out" from society, and their decision to undergo surgery is one that comes in defense of the disadvantages in society that are accrued as a result of their perceived inferior appearance. While men only have to develop their abilities or skills, women have to put in many times that effort in order to realize the two ideals of good appearance and professional skills. Women are aware of this situation, and turn to cosmetic surgery for a solution. They believe that by undergoing surgery, they will be liberated from the obsession with self-grooming. But rather than achieving this end, women find themselves sucked even deeper into the obsession, and it is within this vicious cycle that they become more and more dependant on technology. While the institutionalization of appearance obsession and dependence on technology presents women with realistic benefits and thus encourages the voluntary choice to have surgery, the end result is that women become more and more subordinated to plastic surgery capital. Women's liberation from repressive ideology and capitalist technology has become more and more distant, and women's freedom and happiness have naturally become more and more limited.



Institutionalization of Resistance


The institutionalization of the appearance obsession and dependence on technology is established not only through the mutual consent between power, pleasure, and liberation, but through a strategy that absorbs the elements of dissatisfaction into the establishment existing order. First, the physical pain and side effects that are the result of violent mutilation of perfectly healthy bodies -- pain undergone in order to obtain the body promised by technology -- are synthesized into a system of dependence on technology by the simple lack of choice imposed by society. In addition, even though satisfaction with the result of plastic surgery decreases as women get older, this very dissatisfaction deepens the dependence on plastic surgery. As women accept their position as consumers of plastic surgery, they believe that they check and control the commercial tyranny of this industry, but this belief results in women's voluntary strengthening of the system of appearance obsession and dependence on technology.

Let us first examine the way in which the pain and side effects of plastic surgery are resolved within the system. From the moment they lie down on the operating table until their recovery, women undergoing plastic surgery go through an array of feelings, including doubt, anxiety, and even sadness. These feelings are indeed a complex mixture of fear of the pain that awaits them, concern over the result of the procedure, and worry over potential side effects. Also, these feelings might stem from the individual motivations for choosing the dangerous path of surgery, the social discourse behind the decision, resentment of the very existence of plastic surgery as an institution, the pressure that they have to endure as women, and envy of those women who are born with natural good looks. From these considerations, a general sense of unfairness about plastic surgery can develop.

If these women become satisfied with the results of their surgery, the entire process that led up to their surgery comes to be seen as having been a positive experience. On the other hand, if results are unsuccessful, the above-mentioned feelings turn into a sense of betrayal and despair. It is at this point when the ideology of dependence on technology is exposed and can potentially collapse. But in the face of the failure of their procedure, such disappointed women in fact blame themselves and the doctors in charge of their procedure. Indeed, for women who have experienced a failure of surgical procedure, the public criticism and personal reproach are louder, rather than any communal consolation, and the woman's motivation to undergo surgery is seen more in a personal context rather than a social one. This is caused by one aspect of technology, which puts women into a framework of uniform mass production while simultaneously individualizing them. In the end, women who vie for in-creased social status using this homogeneous aesthetic gauge, following the values of the homogeneous look, are not organized into a single group but are isolated, atomized individuals. Under such circumstances, the problems and damage arising from plastic surgery cannot but be individualized. Nonetheless women who experience failed surgical procedures have no choice but to become even more dependent on surgery, and continue to resignedly undergo plastic surgery again and again. These women actually consider themselves lucky to be able to continuously undergo plastic surgery. Rather than feeling doubtful about the process, women who have undergone complicated surgical procedures end up appreciating the superiority of medical technology and their doctors, and become even more wrapped up in their looks. Through this process, women are synthesized into the system of appearance obsession and dependence on technology.

Next, let us examine the problem of the time limit of plastic beauty. Even once women have undergone successful surgery and have obtained both power and pleasure through their new appearance, their power and pleasure is short-lived. Humans naturally go through an aging process, and physical power goes hand in hand with youth. With or without cosmetic surgery, aging is a crucial issue for women. Many women familiarize themselves with information regarding the slowing down of the aging process, displaying the extent to which aging both pushes them to the sidelines and brings about a significant loss of power.

A 27-year-old company employee attests to the fact that after undergoing plastic surgery four years ago, she was able to enjoy greater social benefits. However, with time she began to feel victimized by the continual influx of new, younger employees, and started to notice that some of her other female colleagues were making an effort to improve their skills rather than their looks. This is an interesting revelation, because it signals the introduction of a new concept. Doubt about the belief that a pretty face awards a woman with success opens the door to the concept that women can also possess highly developed skills. But even the women who go this route find their way back to the operating table. This is a result of both the deeply felt power of transformation that surgery is able to grant in the first place, and a situation of limited choice that does not permit any other course of action on the other. This is how the private lives of women who have undergone cosmetic surgery are stymied and destroyed by the false promise offered by a highly developed cosmetic surgery industry, delivered through the conflicting messages appearing intermittently but clearly at all levels of society.

Finally, let us examine the effect of structural synthesis, which brings about an active consumer consciousness in women. Women today look upon the cosmetic surgery industry from a market perspective and situate themselves as consumers in relation to it. They approach the industry rationally, and invest time in visiting different clinics before they make their decision, much as they would when shopping for other commodities. Their greatest source of information is the Internet, which facilitates the real-time exchange of opinions, and obviates the physical limitations of space. Cosmetic surgery sites6 are filled with discussions and information by past and future patients, who touch upon an array of issues including women's concerns about their appearance, the different types of procedures, the time they take, their expense, as well as the ensuing pain, fear, and side effects. Coming not from the supply but from the demand sector, these women, thirsting for precise information, register in these sites to exercise their power as consumers. While consumer rights over medical technology are not guaranteed, they choose one of the three following choices. First, they acquire quasi-professional knowledge of operating techniques and surgical materials. Second, they engage in an active comparison of the degree of skill of different hospital doctors, operating styles, preferred methods, price, service, and side-effect care. Lastly, they make an inventory of the problematic hospitals and exclude them from the market. Women interested in plastic surgery, or who have undergone surgical procedures in the past, take these actions as strategies to interfere with the monopoly of cosmetic surgery and counter the tyranny of cosmetic surgery technology. They believe that in this way they can disrupt the cosmetic industry inciting women to undergo surgery. However, these strategies are far from expressions of doubt regarding the industry itself -- indeed, they serve to deepen women's dependence on plastic surgery. In reality, the belief that the cosmetic industry will develop in an appropriate direction under the control and observation of women consumers actually serves to hide the subordination of women to the industry and provides a means for its even wider circulation.



 The Collusion between the Appearance Obsession and Cosmetic Surgery


What interest does the cosmetic surgery industry have in women's bodies? Is it simply a question of the maintenance of patriarchal order, or do its intentions lie with transforming women's bodies in order to make them easier to handle? Today, women's bodies are subject to the engaging and competing powers of the masculine gaze, the consumption of appearance, and scientific technology. And women's voluntary and active power of decision lies in the center of this competition. Only that which is no longer repressive, satisfies desire and pleasure, and offers new prospects for the future can exercise power.  Women's bodies then internalize these imperatives. What, then, is the significance and effect of the institutionalization of the appearance obsession and dependence on technology that is written on women's bodies?



Women's Bodies as Targets of Consumption


When faced with a decision regarding cosmetic surgery, women are most concerned with side effects, pain, and price. Yet many women still participate in the cosmetic surgery market. They agree to undergo physical violence against their otherwise normally functioning, healthy bodies. And once they have had a taste of the hints of pleasure that are obtained after the violent transformation of their bodies, they repeatedly seek out more of the same. The offensiveness of the cosmetic surgery industry through mass media is conducted in such a way that it continuously presents a constructed, constantly changing, and ever-elusive ideal image that is always beyond women's reach. For women who wish to undergo plastic surgery, their sense of self-satisfaction never lasts long, and is constantly transformed into self-hatred. As carriers of both self-satisfaction and self-hatred, women's bodies are exploited and degraded to the level of object. The excessive interference and attention given to the body in modern society creates the ironic situation in which the body is more easily controlled and colonized.

In the meeting between women and their cosmetic surgeons, women become even further objects of examination rather than

subjects with an intrinsic essence. Doctors are in the position of

rearranging women's bodies as an aesthetic signifier of the ideal woman. When surgeons -- who are, for the most part, male -- fragment and pathologize women's healthy bodies, and when a woman internalizes a fragmented body image and accepts its "flawed" identity, cosmetic surgery is no longer a mere transformation of the body but the inscription of cultural symbol and a form of cultural signification standards of beauty (Balsamo 1996, 13-58). As long as women turn an attentive ear to the demands of society and censor their bodies through the social gaze instead of concentrating on the needs of their respective selves, the cosmetic surgery industry will continue to re-produce cultural images and adhere to the visual tradition, and this will be the matrix guaranteeing continued accumulation of profit.


The Homogenization of Desire, Standardization of Appearance


Women's bodies, which can become targets of transformation at will, can never escape gendered femininity. Our society, which is epitomized by profit-seeking capital, demands a standard of conformity under the guise of diversity, and a homogenized genderization provides a central sociocultural structure in this process of conformity. For this reason, the discourse concerning cosmetic surgery presently serves to strengthen this kind of genderization.

The homogenization of gender is spontaneously initiated through enforcement and mutual surveillance of women's femininity, as dictated by the structure of ideas in the patriarchal establishment. As opposed to masculinity, which is recognized and acknowledged as an inborn trait, femininity is set up as something that must be decorated, cultivated, and hidden, and women learn that they must feel ashamed to show their natural, inborn bodies.

No industry benefits from the normalization of the body as much as the cosmetic surgery industry, but at the same time helps institutionalize this normalization. Surgery applies textbook-like concepts of equilibrium and order to women's bodies, and through them, works to further the normalization of a single beauty standard. Thus, any woman can be beautiful; but that beauty is defined commensurately  with developments in plastic surgery and produces bodies that are increasingly foreign and beyond women's reach. In contrast to women's hopes, unified procedures across different categories of cosmetic surgery -- even taking into account the difference between surgeons' individual skills -- effect the mass production of bodies in a unified way. The beauty industry's taking advantage of women' obsession with appearance, which in turn constitutes a ground for the plastic surgery industry, has manifested itself as a system of production of "a body that is gazed at." It eliminates individual differences between one woman and another, and maximizes the effectiveness of plastic surgery that pursues homogeneity, thus socializing the normative system of gender homogeneity.


Establishment of Technological Omnipotence


As the number of patients seeking to undergo plastic surgery rapidly increases, so does the number of surgery clinics. This phenomenon is linked to the expectation that plastic surgery technology can satisfy people's desires through the power of technology as expressed through women's bodies. One might suppose a future reality in which, enabled by technology, women would be able to achieve the look they want with the help of small, quick adjustments, eliminating the beauty complex. All facets of human beings -- not only external features, but internal organs, intelligence, and sensibility -- would become the target of change. The development of genetic engineering today is planting the belief that imagination can be turned into reality. This scenario is based on the diffusion of values that presuppose the omnipotence of technology. It preaches that technology will be highly advanced, with minimized side effects, and in response to the popularization of surgery, even prices will come down. This domain was once the realm of only a select group of movie and television stars, but today double-eyelid surgery has come to be seen as natural as the application of makeup, while demands for more extensive procedures, such as breast enlargement and liposuction, are greatly increasing.

Thanks to the confidence in technology, a popular base capable of accommodating any and all demands from technological capital has been formed. It is precisely the increase of the general population's submission to the power of technology that forms the cornerstone of what Neil Postman calls a "technopoly."7 The sudden surge of cosmetic surgery clinics is closely related to the rise in consumer capital, developed against the background of diverse cosmetic industries. These clinics want women to be frustrated about their appearance. And they do not stop there; they also incite a self-hatred for the body and desire for correction of the body of men, children, and even the elderly. The popularization of plastic surgery and the remarkable increase in the cosmetic surgery market attest to the fact that women's frustration with their bodies has been aggravated and consequently  their dependence on medical technology has been dependened.

Technological capital does not work to specifically maintain the patriarchal aesthetic standard, but merely takes advantage of it. Indeed, technological capital is interested mainly in the acquisition and creation of profit. Its aim to guarantee control over the human body, beginning with those of women, is backed by the logic of capital concerning the creation and expansion of market interests -- like selling shoes to a monkey by creating a situation such that it cannot walk without them.



Points of Fissure


Even in the institutionalized paradigm of appearance obsession and dependence on technology, points of fissure can be detected. First, one might note the confusion caused by duplicity in the aesthetic standard. The traditional structure gives power to beautiful women, thus promoting an obsession with appearance, limiting women's empowerment. However, the popularization of cosmetic surgery has brought the a potential to mass-produce artificially manufactured beauty, and the rise of this beauty threatens to deteriorate into a situation in which women will no longer be divided along the line of a single beauty ideal.

This loss of control over women again brings about the situation in which distinctions are made between appearances that are plastic versus natural. The plastic beauty standard is suppressed, and women's appearance obsession and desire for plastic surgery are disparaged. The very effort to accommodate the patriarchal standard of beauty is resolutely punished. Within this discourse, women have come to feel ashamed and self-accusatory regarding their desire to undergo plastic surgery, and as a result, are secretive about their operations. So what is the strategic value of openly admitting to having had plastic surgery? Open admission frequently results not in acquisition of self-respect, but in a depreciation of self-value. How-ever, if the decision to undergo surgery is inevitable, the attempt to form and circulate a collective discourse among women with similar experiences can become a strategic attack on the industry. This type of "coming out" can call upon the repressed experiences of women and become the precondition for the creation of such a discourse. Specifically, experiences such as surgery, failed dieting, the revival of inferiority complexes with time even after successful surgery, and other problems arising relating to the appearance obsession (for example, the anxiety created by worrying about keeping the secret of having had plastic surgery, or identity crises that arise from their undiscovered talents) can be taken out of the domain of the individual and be collectivized and organized as a discourse of resistance, thus offering the first opportunity to form a discourse of resistance. But while this kind of discourse offers a resistance to the divisiveness of patriarchy, it is always in danger of falling into the capitalist logic of the interests of medical technology.

The second point of fissure can be found is the less obvious question of economic inequality. While plastic surgery offers the prospect of eliminating physical differences and inequalities, it cannot escape the much-related question of economic inequality and capital. More specifically, the development and popularization of plastic surgery technology does not guarantee that the road leading to beauty will be open to everyone. But the logic of the homogenization of gendered desire, which serves to eliminate class differences between women, creates a situation in which women unhesitatingly embrace the standardized logic of medical technology, thus bolstering the popular conviction that technological development goes hand in hand with an advanced civilization blurs the acute discord between classes. This is based on the belief that advanced technology brings with it high efficiency, which in turn carries with it high costs, and this again associated with technological progress and superiority.

The development of the cosmetic surgery industry encourages the belief in the aesthetic openness and aesthetic equality that would ensure that everyone has the right to enjoy the benefits of the industry. Reality, however, does not permit equal access to beauty. The more the linked issues of appearance obsession and dependence on technology is institutionalized, the more precise and defined becomes the logic of capital, thus bringing the more inconspicuous problem of economic inequality to the fore. Even if the discipline of technological capital is internalized, realistic economic limitations form a boundary that is impossible to overcome. In this way, the homogeneity created by class desire for plastic surgery deepens class alienation. The fact is that in order to enjoy the benefits of technological capital -- whether in terms of plastic surgery, genetic engineering, or otherwise -- one must possess the economic capability to do so. This defines the most significant point of fissure in the system of internalization of capitalist logic.





This paper has examined the process in which the combination of the appearance obsession and the technology of cosmetic surgery re-institutionalizes the obsession with appearance in a modern sense. Patriarchal ideology, which permeates not only daily life, but also the processes of production, labor, and consumption, teaches women that the single attribute defining their worth is physical appearance. It then promises women power, pleasure, and liberation through this domain. Within this paradigm, the development of the technology of cosmetic surgery promises millions of frustrated women to make their potential a reality and claims that it can deliver equal beauty to all. As a result, many women come to believe that, through surgery, or through the simple existence of the possibility of surgery, they too can achieve the idealistic standard of beauty at any time they please, and thus eagerly and actively enter the beauty industry market. At the same time, however, these women come to helplessly accept the logic of technological capital that makes women consistently examine their bodies in a negative and pathological light, thus causing them to become victims to feelings of inferiority and becoming as a result all the more dependant upon the technology of cosmetic surgery.

In this way, the (re-)institutionalization of the appearance obsession and dependence on technology today takes place with women's active consent, and absorbs women's disapproval or resistance into the system. Thus, women's bodies become perfectly adjusted to the interests of technological capital. Women learn to hate their bodies, and in this emotional state are easily convinced about what to buy and do. But fissures can be found even in the system that relies on women's consent. The decision of individual women to undergo plastic surgery can become a protest against the patriarchal dichotomies of beautiful/coarse or natural/artificial and the attempt to limit women's strength to their inborn appearance. At the same time, they come to realize the reality of patriarchal beauty standard that cannot be overcome even by undergoing plastic surgery and the fact that they are even more subordinated to that standard. Not only that, but the re-appearance of economic inequality created by the commercialization of the medical industry endangers the myth of equal beauty for all put forth by technology.

In conclusion, women's cosmetic surgery issue is not an individual problem. Rather, this issue comes from a political conspiracy between patriarchal consumer capitalism that promotes an inferiority complex in women and the interests of medical technology capital that claim to offer a resolution to the inferiority complex. Despite all this, women are highly aware of the reality they live in and willingly choose cosmetic surgery as the best possible choice. Paradoxically, this voluntariness has led women to accept the kind of submissive body that is encouraged by technological capital and has become the primary factor in the institutionalization of the appearance obsession and dependence on technology.








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1. Botox, the wrinkle-eliminating serum, is a case in point; it is sold exclusively by Daewoong Pharmaceutical Company, and its sales increased from roughly a half billion won in 1998 to 8 billion won in 2001, and is expected to reach a record of 13-15 billion won in 2002 (Chosun Ilbo, 12 June 2001). In addition, the material used in breast and nose surgery has also noted a rise in market sales of over 10 billion won.

2. Doumi and narrator models are women in their twenties who are hired to help sell particular products. They are usually dressed in provocative clothing, stand  strategically near the products they are selling, and dance in the middle of the street. 

3. As opposed to surgery in the West, which concentrates mostly on wrinkles, breast enlargement, and liposuction (Davis 1995), surgery in Korea is comprehensively conducted on all parts of women's bodies, including the eyes and nose, to say nothing of breast enlargement and liposuction. This fact is closely related to the desire for the imported ideal body. Korean cosmetic surgery has created a new image through the union between the concept of femininity that was traditionally aestheticized based on Western tradition and the discourse on physiognomy. Even in today's reality, where the consumerist images of women's appearance are packaged as sexual, provocative, and pleasurable, Korean women express a preference for the type of face and body that seems obedient and is expected to bring good fortune to their husbands and children.  

4. Balsamo calls this the "economics of medical diagnoses" (Balsamo 1996, 65). 

5. See Korean Medical Association (2001). 

6. Examples of some sites are: (the largest of such sites, whose members numbered at 25,500) (accessed October 2001); http://home. (with 595 members, accessed October 2001); and (accessed October 2001; site now discontinued). 

7. Neil Postman, formerly the chair of the Department of Culture and Communication at New York University's School of Education, defines "technopoly" as a new kind of totalitarian society born of the monopoly of technology.