Gwynn Guilford reports over at Quartz that the latest trend to hit South Korea is surgery for a smile:
Cosmetic tweaks like Botox have long minimized furrowed brows and frown lines. But a new technique called “Smile Lipt” carves a permanent smile into an otherwise angry face. The procedure, whose name combines “lip” with “lift”—get it?—turns up the corners of the mouth using a technique that’s a milder version of what Scottish hoodlums might call the “Glasgow grin.”
While it has been long said that it takes fewer muscles (or at least less effort) to smile than to frown, it appears that many South Koreans just want to cut to the chase. The procedure is “increasingly popular among men and women in their 20s and 30s—especially flight attendants, consultants and others in industries aiming to offer service with a smile.”
The most concerning thing about this trend, however, comes at the end of Guilford’s piece: “as with the popularity of other cosmetic procedures in South Korea, which have made it hard for the natural of face to compete for jobs, permanent smiles may too become the norm.”
She links to a New York Times report from a couple of years back that documented how a plastic surgery culture has boomed in South Korea.
In traditional Korea, tampering with the body bestowed by one’s parents was a violation of Confucian precepts that also discouraged cremation and, later, organ and blood donations. But in recent decades, cosmetic surgery has become a weapon in Koreans’ efforts to impress others, “like buying an expensive handbag,” said Whang Sang-min, a psychologist at Yonsei University.
According to one makeup artist preparing to go under the knife, “‘You must endure pain to be beautiful,’ she said, adding that an eye job is so routine these days ‘it’s not even considered surgery.'” One market survey indicated that “one of every five women in Seoul between the ages of 19 and 49 said they had undergone plastic surgery.” The surgeons themselves report that “their main patients are young women entering the marriage and job markets. ‘As it gets harder to find jobs, they’ve come to believe they must look good to survive,’ said Choi Set-byol, a sociologist at Ewha Woman’s University.”
Such a boom has led to a situation now where “‘Koreans agree on what constitutes a pretty face,’ he said. ‘The consensus, now, is a smaller, more sharply defined youthful face — a more or less Westernized look. That makes 90 percent of Koreans potential patients because they’re not born with that kind of face.'” The trend towards facial uniformity has been so widespread that “The film director Im Kwon-taek says it has become all but impossible to find an actress who still has a traditional Korean face.”
If one stays agnostic on the medical ethics of cosmetic surgery, the procedures become a matter of free choice and open markets, where patients and doctors have the freedom to arrange an operation, as long as there is no coercion.
But the South Korean example is a very effective demonstration of the ultimate limits of a libertarian paradigm revolving around atomistic free actors. Individuals “with photos of starlets whose face they want to copy,” aggregate to create new norms, because they are part of a social order. And social order inescapably comes with the soft coercive power of conformity.
A girl satisfied with her traditional Korean face, as all 90 percent of that country’s women should be, is disadvantaged in a competitive culture for maintaining her natural body. As we gain ever greater powers over our own bodies, the implications reach beyond Seoul’s matchmaking markets to raise a cautionary note about our biotechnological future.