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A recent Reddit post of Miss Korea contestants titled “Korea’s plastic surgery mayhem is finally converging on the same face” led to a gif that has been meming its way around the net and provoking some heated discussion:
(These are actually Miss Daegu contestants, not Miss Korea finalists as netizens claimed – I will spare you my rant on the need for fact-checking in social media.)
After the pics went viral, Korean beauty practices yet again fell under the digital spotlight. Many commenters, including the original poster, blamed plastic surgery for the uniformity in their looks. Their opinion is not unwarranted, considering the current stats on plastic surgery. (The US is home to the most procedures, but South Korea has the most procedures per 1000 people.)
Others showed that the girls don’t look that similar without make-up and Photoshop. Digital retouching is used extensively here – and not just in the media. Guest English Teachers have often been shocked at finding highly retouched images of themselves in school yearbooks. After picking up some ID photos at my local shopping mall, I found that I too had been photoshopped to fabulousness. I wasn’t surprised, considering the photographer gave me posing tips and combed my hair before taking at least five shots of me. Image and reputation is paramount in Korea, and it seems that no aspect of social life is untouched by this concern.
Jezebel was quick to point out that many American beauty queens look alike too. Pageant contestants around the world are looking to conform to the judges’ beauty standards and I doubt there are any exceptions. Another of Jezabel’s articles raises concerns over the “unnerving push towards uniformity” that plastic surgery enables. Nowhere is this push toward uniformity more evident than in South Korea. In general, it’s a culturally homogenous country and, as I’ve said before, the definition of beauty in Korea is extremely narrow. The Miss Daegu 2013 contestants provide evidence for the necessary criteria: light skin, a double-eyelid, a narrow jaw, high-bridged nose and a “small” face.
Although homogenous, Korean culture is also highly chameleonic. A traumatic history of conflict and subsequent breakneck industrialisation has laid the foundation for some rapid cultural changes in the last 50 years. With this in mind, I thought it might be interesting to look at historical photographs of Miss Korea contestants, to see if they might serve as a litmus test for such changes.
Let’s start with some pics from 1975:
As proof that no country escaped big hair in the 80s, here are the contestants for 1985:
Even as recently as 2000, contestants display individual beauty styles:
Skin whitening creams have become common practice by 2011:
What you’ll notice is that facial features aren’t the only thing that has changed over time. Conventions in hair styling, make-up and photography have all contributed to the trends evident in each decade. The use of retouching software and high rate of plastic surgery I mention above have clearly contributed to the contemporary image of the ideal Korean woman.
In South Korea’s highly competitive society, it’s no surprise that Korean women would modify their bodies to compete in a beauty contest. Image is considered a determining factor for success (the requirement of photographs in job applications is evidence for this), and Miss Korea is simply a literal manifestation of the country’s competitive drive to have a flawless appearance.
 James Turnbull of The Grand Narrative looked at this briefly in 2012.
 The most recent Miss Korea (2012) was dubbed Miss Plastic by the Korean public, and slated for going under the knife. This isn’t the first time that women have been criticised for getting cosmetic surgery and yet simultaneously berated for not living up to social beauty standards.
This article by Deva Lee first appeared on The Culture Muncher and is republished with permission.