Gloria Davies and Gil-Soo Han
Korean cosmetic surgery and
digital publicity: Beauty by Korean
This article examines the relationship between digital publicity and cosmetic surgery. While focused on South Korea, it also discusses China because of the conspicuous Chinese demand for Korean cosmetic surgery in recent years. In fact, China has become the largest export market for Korean cosmetic surgery. The analysis is based on the premise that there is a vital link between cosmetic surgery and digital technology in both these countries. We argue that the celebrity culture spawned by entertainment media has facilitated the normalisation of cosmetic surgery to the extent that it is commonly viewed, quite unproblematically, as a form of human physiological enhancement. The article examines the publicity surrounding cosmetic surgery (comprising media reports, advertisements and commentaries) to see how it is presented in the Korean media and on the internet. These findings are then considered in relation to the promotion of Korean cosmetic surgery in China. In the 2000s, Korean cosmetic surgery rose as a by-product of the massive cultural phenomenon known as Hallyu, or the ‘Korean wave’. Hallyu represents Korea’s media success: its entertainment products have generated enormous revenues since the first exports of Korean popular culture in the 1990s. In 2009, Hallyu revenues were estimated to have reached US$6 billion (cited in Oh, 2010). Cosmetic surgery was first promoted alongside the original Hallyu staples of film, TV and music, through the Korean celebrities featured in these products. By the late 2000s, cosmetic surgery had become a multi-million-dollar export industry in its own right (Sim, 2009).
This article examines the role of digital publicity in facilitating the enormous popularity of cosmetic surgery in South Korea (hereafter Korea). In examining this publicity (comprising media reports, advertisements and commentaries), we focus mainly on how Korean cosmetic surgery is presented in Korea. We then compare this with its promotion in China. We chose China for comparison because, even though Korean cosmetic surgery is popular throughout Asia, China has become its largest export market (Kim et al., 2009). This conspicuous Chinese demand for Korean cosmetic surgery attracted a range of media commentary within China from the mid-2000s onwards, with many noting that ‘artificial beauty’ was fast becoming a leading Korean export aggressively marketed via Chinese intermediaries (e.g. Chen and Song, 2005; Kai, 2008).
Our analysis is based on the premise that there is a vital link between cosmetic surgery and digital technology in Korea. We argue that the widespread use of technology in Korea has been a catalyst for Koreans to view cosmetic surgery positively as a form of human physiological enhancement. Hence we are interested to see how the publicity surrounding Media International Australia
Korean cosmetic surgery reflects this view. We then examine this view in the Chinese context, taking into account that nation’s rise in the use of digital communications. Cosmetic surgery can be described as an extreme example of commercialised medicine, one that actively negates the idea of the natural body as sacred. Zygmunt Bauman (in Bauman and Vecchi, 2004: 91) offers us the evocative image of a technologically empowered consumer society as ‘liquid modern life’. As he puts it: ‘We are all in and on the market, simultaneously customers and commodities.’ The sheer prevalence of cosmetic surgery in the Korean media presents us with an acute instance of this situation. In what follows, we begin by exploring the digital experience of everyday life in Korea and its influence on the normalisation of cosmetic surgery. We then discuss the ideal physical characteristics promoted in cosmetic surgery, contextualised against widespread acceptance of surgically enhanced beauty in the digital age. Finally, we...
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