This was a final paper I wrote for my “Emotions and Irrationality in Economic Behavior” module as part of my Masters in Economic and Consumer Psychology at Leiden University. I thought I’d share it rather than just having it sit on my laptop forever. Enjoy!
South Korea is currently experiencing a booming phenomenon of people undergoing cosmetic surgeries, with 980,000 recorded operations in 2014 alone – making it the nation with the most plastic surgeries per capita in the world (ISAPS, 2014). In fact, these figures are likely to be much higher because a significant number of surgeries go unrecorded (Holliday & Elfving-Hwang, 2012). This plastic surgery boom in South Korea is a consumer culture phenomena that began in 2009 (ISAPS, 2014) alongside the rapid economic boom experienced by the nation.
The biggest factor that contributes to the cosmetic surgery phenomena in South Korea is the normalizing and homogenizing of beauty standards (Kim, Seo, & Baek, 2014). While interest in physical appearance has deep roots in the history of South Korean beliefs (as will be explain in later in this passage), the homogenizing of ideal beauty standards is mainly glorified through media, particularly popular culture – such as through actors and actresses of Korean Drama and ‘idols’ of Korean Pop-groups (Kim, 2003).
The role that the media and technology partakes in homogenizing an ideal standard of beauty that in turn catalyzes the positive view of plastic surgery is not surprising (Davies & Han, 2011). This is because South Korea has been stated to also be the worlds’ most wired society with a rate 97% rate of national broadband penetration (Davies and Han, 2011). Of all the South Korean citizens, it is the youth under 30 that makes up the majority of internet use, with a usage rate of 99% (NIA, 2008), demonstrating media and technology as an inseparable element of youth culture.
It is also not surprising then, that the primary consumer of plastic surgery is youth, namely adolescents and young adults, with studies showing that 70% of people undergoing plastic surgery as being high school students (Davies and Han, 2011). The cosmetic surgery is so prominent to the extent that it has become a common gift from parents upon high school graduation. It also must be noted that while both men and women are interested in plastic surgery, it is mostly women who eventually go through the procedure. Kim (2003) explains that this is ultimately because beauty is seen to be compulsory for women, while for men it is not necessarily so.
While media and technology had pre-existingly been explained by numerous articles to be the ultimate cause of plastic surgery boom in South Korea (Hargreaves & Tiggemann, 2004), the underlying cognitive and emotional process of consumer’s interest and eventual decision has yet to be specified. This essay intends to fill this void and put forward some existing arguments as to what is driving this phenomenon and the psychological process to how consumers decide on cosmetic surgery.
2. Theoritical background
This essay will analyze the South Korean plastic surgery phenomenon in two aspects, the motivational aspect and persuasion effect, which are actually intercorellated and often overlap, but own its theoretical inference.
The motivational aspect elaborates how idealized standard beauty portrayed in the media form body image, and in turn affects the emotional state of Korean women – particularly the youth. It is important to note that the term “body image” refers to the perception a person has towards their physical appearance, along with feelings regarding this perception (Dropkin, 1981). The body image is also considered as a social expression and a way to exist amidst society (Cohen et al., 1998). Because of this, one become’s sensitive as to how society not only view their body image, but also the what the ideal body image in the society might be.
As we will quickly find out later in the passage, one of the most influential influencers as to the definition of ideal body image, is the media. When one perceives that they do not meet the standards of ideal body image portrayed in the media, they will experience dissatisfaction with their body. Dissatisfaction itself is defined as a negative emotion of distress where the person experiences feelings of unfulfillment, thoughts of ‘what they are missing out on’ and having the emotional goal of finding a way to act upon the situation (Bougie, Pieters and Zeelenberg, 2003). In other words, feelings of dissatisfaction play an important role in motivating people to do something to close the cognitive dissonance and relieve their negative emotions.
The second part of this essay opt to explain how undergoing plastic surgery have been proven to be an appealing consumption choice to regulate negative emotions. Here, we use Emotion Regulation Consumption coined by Kemp and Kopp (2011), which proposes that one may consume a service for the purposes of alleviating, repairing, or managing an emotion in the short term. Of course, this choice of consumption does not come automatically. Plastic surgery company has taken the homogenizing of ideal beauty to massively advertise their services through advertisements that induce hope. We will see how hope plays an important role in the final decision of plastic surgery.
3. Idealized Standard Of Beauty and Negative Body Image
South Korea’s interest in physical appearance has been around long before modern times. Holliday and Elfving-Hwang (2012) suggest that it roots back to the traditional belief of physiognomy – in which facial features determine a person’s character and fate. In example, women with round eyes are seen to be sexually attractive and a moon-like face is related to fertility (though it must be noted that preferences for round faces no longer holds this day). However two things must be noted about the physical appearance in traditional South Korea. Firstly, while round eyes and moon-like faces are considered a beauty, they are not the typical genetic features of South Koreans, as the common South Koreans have smaller eyes, flatter nose, rather square face. Secondly, physiognomy is treated more like astrology – it infers luck and fate but do not determine social status or treating people based on their looks (Holliday and Elfving-Hwang, 2012).
This deep rooted interest in physical appearance (that does determine social acceptance both in mundane social life as well as work life), only became a homogenized ideal beauty in the general public after the spread of Hallyu (Korean Pop Culture) through the media in 2009, particularly through the significant influence of celebrities staring in Korean Drama or Korean Pop-groups (Kim, 2009). Simply put, the media, along with the actors that are portrayed in it, do not glorify the general South Korean genetic features: smaller eyes, flatter nose, and rather square face. Korean celebrities seen in these media emulate rather distinctive facial features instead: high nose, narrow faces, and “double-eye-lids” (Holliday and Elfving-Hwang, 2012). For example in Figure 1, which is a profile of Miss Daegu (regional contest as a preliminary for Miss Korea) contestants 2013, we see how beauty is defined by these specific characteristics.
Figure 1. A Profile of Miss Daegu Korea 2013 Contestants (source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/25/miss-korea-contestants-2013-photos_n_3157026.html)
This homogenized ideal beauty portrayed in the media has led many South Koreans, especially adolescents (who are vulnerable to social comparison), to develop negative body image. This is not a peculiar phenomenon, as past research has justified the role of media, particularly Television and Magazines, as the strongest factor that influence body image perception in adolescents all over the world (Hargreaves &Tiggerman, 2004). This homogenized ideal of beauty transmitted by the media leads to self-evaluation and realization that their selves do not fit in this category of beauty, leading to a feeling of dissatisfaction with the body image (Hargreaves &Tiggerman, 2004).
As in most places around the globe, dissatisfaction of body image has been seen to be more prominent in girls and women than in boys and men (Wiseman, Sunday, Becker, 2005). This is especially the case in South Korea where women are dictated as having to be beautiful (Kim, 2009), and is continually fostered by the collective nature that nudges social conformity (Kim, Kasser & Lee, 2003). In regards to youth as the target group of plastic surgery, this negative body image formation and body shaming is also magnified by the influence of peer pressure and peer evaluation, especially if this influence takes the form of teasing/bullying (Markey & Markey, 2009).
Hargreaves & Tiggemann (2004) explains that media influence body dissatisfaction in girls through 3 things: Firstly, body dissatisfaction increases following repeated exposure of idealized female images, particularly idealized facial features in the South Korean plastic surgery phenomena. Secondly, body dissatisfaction is created through perceived pressure from media (Thompson et al., 1999). Last but most importantly, body dissatisfaction is contributed by and can only happen if, a person internalizes the body ideal (Thompson et al., 1999).
As previously discussed in the theoritical background, dissatisfaction itself is defined as a negative emotion of distress, where the person experiences feelings of unfulfillment and being undecided, thoughts of ‘what they are missing out on’ and having the emotional goal of finding a way to act upon the situation (Bougie, Pieters and Zeelenberg, 2003), in other words negative body image reinforce the person to find a solution to close the gap of cognitive dissonance as well as relieve the dissatisfaction. In the following section, it is explained how plastic surgery becomes available in the cognitive scheme and hence a popular way to close this cognitive dissonance.
4. Appeal of Plastic Surgery
The cosmetic surgery clinics in South Korea have strategically taken keenness in the idealized standard of beauty created by the media, to an advantage. This is done by proliferation of advertising in public spheres where most of their targeted consumers will see as they commute – such as in subways, subway stations, terminals, billboards, etc. (Ee, 2015; Bloomberg News, 2013). Evidently, the idea of these advertisements is to plant the idea of plastic surgery in the cognitive scheme through repetitive/continuous exposure to advertisements.
Most cosmetic surgery advertisements in South Korea show before and after of cosmetic surgery, as exemplified by Figure 2. and Figure 3. Holliday & Elving-Hwang (2012) suggest that these before-after visuals try to induce potential customers of thoughts of what is and what could be (Holliday & Elfving-Hwang, 2012), which in turn elicits an emotion of hope. In other words, from the advertisement, consumers are able to infer that an ideal physical feature is attainable, regardless of how far the current state is from that ideal. Indeed, past research has proven that inducing hope through advertisements is an effective strategy to draw consumer’s attention to the advertisment (Plutchik & Kellerman, 1980). Additionally, consumers are strongly motivated by the experience of hope, increasing readiness for change (Van der Pligt & Pliegt, 2016). We can thus conclude that the plastic surgery companies’ strategy to induce hope is perfect in a sense that it corresponds to the dissatisfaction of body image as discussed earlier.
Figure 2. A Plastic Surgery Advertising in a Subway Station In Gangnam-Seoul (source: http://www.weonthecusp.com/pain-is-beauty-plastic-surgery-in-south-korea/)
Figure 3. Another Plastic Surgery Advertising in a Subway Station In Gangnam-S
eoul (source: http://www.abc.net.au/correspondents/content/2014/s4129279.htm)
Hope, along with other factors of attainability (i.e. affordability), as well as social comparison (i.e. repetitive exposure to ideal beauty images on TV) and social pressure factors (i.e. friends also undergoing surgery), become a strong motivator to undegro plastic surgery and override the pain as well as take the risk of adverse effects of physical injury and nerve damage (Rountree & Davis, 2011).
Refering back to the theoritical background, it can be seen that the decision to undergo plastic surgery based on dissatisfaction of body image is considered Emotion Regulation Consumption, or the attempt to alleviate and repair an emotion (Kemp & Kopp, 2011). Moreover, the fact that people are even more encouraged to undergo plastic surgery because of social pressure is what Sivanathan and Petitt (2011) states as a consumption to protect the self to look a way the society dictates. In the following section, it will be explained whether this attempt of emotion regulation is succesful, and what further effect it brings to the society.
5. Psychological & Societal Implications
As been described earlier, consumers of plastic surgery in South Korea began this journey with a feeling of dissatisfaction with their body image due to media and societal factors. Then the relevant question would be: had this consumption brought positive psychological effect after the surgery?
Generally, the answer is, yes. In her article “The Real Me”, Huss-Ashmore (2000) elaborates that people who had plastic surgery describes it as a “healing experience”, in which they become better people by simply look better. This finding is not new, as plastic surgery around the world has been proven to provide significant improvement of body image and self-esteem (Klassen, Jenkinson, Fitzpatrick, Goodcare, 1996), and a general boost in quality of life (Honigman & Castle, 2004).
Additionally, a psychological implication unique to South Korea is also found. In a series of interviews, Huss-Ashmore (2000) found that people who undergo the knife perceive that they are more accepted in the society – sensing that people treat them differently after their beauty enhancement. The finding of Huss-Ashmore (2000) is different to that of the Western world of plastic surgery, where it is stated that in to most plastic surgery patients in the West, the utmost importance of plastic surgery lies not in the “objective beauty of visible results”, but in the consumers personal feelings towards their change (McGrath & Mukerji, 2000). Again, here we not only see the powerful role of Korean social and collective nature in determining lives of most individuals, but also the important social stigma of beauty in Korean society.
Of course, plastic surgery also comes with negative outcomes. Honigman and Castle (2004) that those who had unrealistic expectations to begin with or have a past of and depression will often be dissatisfied by the results and lead to repeated procedures, if not, social adjustment problems (e.g., isolation or family problems), self-destructive behavior and depression. Moving forward, it becomes important for medical providers to understand the existence of such type of people and anticipate these post-surgery reactions, so they can contribute in the well-being of patients beyond physical satisfaction.
As a booming phenomenon, plastic surgery boom not only has implications on individual level but also collective level. One of the most prominent implications is the normalizing of “plastic surgery as graduation gift”. Parents not only giving consent but to the extent of gifting plastic surgery procedure to their child upon graduation. With this parents hope a beauty enhancement will light their children’s way to success.
This is not without reason, as beauty has been an important factor not only in mundane everyday social interaction, but also in job application process. A study by JobKorea, a recruitment agency, found that 80% of recruitment executives considered physical appearance an important factor in the hiring process (Holliday & Elfving-Hwang, 2012). This is demonstrated by obligating candidates to attach a photograph of themselves on their applications indicating that beauty is compulsory. The creeping role beauty (and more indirectly, plastic surgery) plays in structural and formal occasions in the collective society of South Korea make the phenomena a catch-22: continuous circle, reinforcing more people – especially youth – to undergo the procedure.
The South Korean plastic surgery boom is mainly attributed to the homogenizing ideal beauty brought by the media. Constant exposure of this standard ideal has lead many to experience dissatisfaction of their body and form negative body image. This dissatisfaction thus lead one to experience the urge regulate this negative emotion. Plastic surgery is an appealing solution as in South Korea, advertising from plastic company deliberately induces a sense of hope by showing people before and after plastic surgery. Hope itself is a strong emotion that motivates people to act according to the information source (in this case to undergo plastic surgery as in the advertisement). Along with societal factors (emphasis on beuaty for women in South Korea) and attainability factors, hope eventually leads many to conduct plastic surgery.
Most people who undergo plastic surgery are satisfied by results, and leads to heightened self-esteem and a positive body image, though there are chances that some may be dissatisfied and experience anxiety and depression. Finally, the plastic surgery boom not only implicates those on a personal level – but more structurally as homogenizing of ideal standard of beauty infiltrates formal institutions’ standard of hiring – consequently forming a catch-22 where interest of plastic surgery seems to ever grow.
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