The History of Kpop, Chapter 8: The Double Standards of Surgery and Sexuality

Excerpts from
The History, Development, and Future of Kpop and the Korean Music Industry
By: Hannah Waitt

 

The History of K-pop” is back! We apologize for the column’s short absence – our team has been traveling all over the world in attempt to make moonROK bigger and better for you guys, and as a result this column got left by the wayside. But fear not! Your favorite informative and educational Kpop column is back for good.

When we last left off in Chapter 7, we discussed the idol training system; how idols in the making are recruited, and what is expected of them once they become trainees. Today we will continue that discussion and move into the double standards of idols receiving plastic surgery and the sexualization of idols.

As we have mentioned multiple times in this column, image is absolutely essential to being an idol. Last time, we talked about the various ways that idols are expected to sculpt their bodies, but left out one essential method: plastic surgery. For those who are unaware, South Korea is quite literally the plastic surgery capital of the world. More cosmetic surgeries are performed in Korea per capita than anywhere else on the planet. According to recent statistics, one out of every five women in South Korea has had some sort of plastic surgery. In fact, nose jobs and double eyelid procedures are so popular that high school students often receive them as graduation gifts from their parents.

It’s not just Koreans who are getting plastic surgery though; people come to Seoul from all over the globe specifically for the expertise of Korean cosmetic surgeons. In fact it is estimated that over 7.5 million people have traveled to Korea purely to receive cosmetic surgery. Heck, there are three girls at the hotel I’m staying at in Korea right now walking around with bruised and bandaged faces, laying low until their surgeries heal.

Kpop idols are no exception to the rest of the Korean population when it comes to plastic surgery. According to a most industry insiders, while it is true that there are indeed some stars who have not gone under the knife, the reality is that most have. Because image is so important in the Korean entertainment industry, if a talented trainee’s eyes aren’t quite wide enough or if their nose is a little too flat, they are “heavily encouraged” by their entertainment companies to receive cosmetic surgeries. However, it’s not like these 16-year-olds are being strapped down to an operating table against their will and forced to receive these surgeries. In reality, they’re probably excited to receive them – after all, it’s just like getting your high school graduation present a little early.

KARA member Hara defies the standard and admits to receiving plastic surgery

The question is: in a society that is so accepting of plastic surgery, why are idols persecuted for it? Kpop stars are constantly having to deny and conceal their surgeries, while ordinary Korean citizens find it perfectly inoffensive to say, “Wow, did you get your eyes done?? They look fantastic!” In fact, I have had Korean friends actually get mad at me for not noticing or failing to compliment the work that they got work done.

So why then are idols constantly having to defend themselves against never-ending surgery accusations by the media and netizens? While there is no definite answer, my theory is that if an idol admits to having plastic surgery, they surrender their superiority. A huge part of what makes an idol, as we have discussed so many times, is their sheer beauty. To admit that their beauty is artificially manufactured would be to admit that they are exactly they same as everyone else; to admit that they are no more talented, no more special, and no more deserving of your time, love, and money than the people standing next to you at the bus stop.

This issue with plastic surgery is not the only double standard that idols are forced to deal with. Korea’s rapid modernization caused the emergence of an interesting mix of tradtional Korean culture with global popular culture. Koreans for the most part still hold onto Confucian values such as filial piety, respect for hierarchy, and above all else, manners. Thus, while Michael Jackson was grabbing his crotch and Britney Spears was writhing around in a bedazzled nude one-piece suit overseas, Korean idols were faced with the challenge of taking all of that sexual energy and sanitizing it. Korea’s conservative consumers held idols to a paradoxical standard: they should be innocent and yet desirable at the same time.

Thus we see yet another reason that the physical image of an idol is so important: even though Korean idols were not singing about sex, sexuality could be suggested using their bodies. All male idols have to do to bring thousands of fangirls to tears is to wear a deep v-neck and do a few body rolls, and all of a sudden, a song with lyrics about “Hugs” or “Balloons” becomes the sexiest thing in the world.

Meanwhile, female idols are trained in expressions – how to laugh, smile, pose and reply to interview questions with playful and witty banter. In other words, they are educated on how to act truly innocent while seeming naturally sexy. For example, in 2011 on an episode of “Strong Heart,” Yoona of Girls’ Generation was asked about her ideal type of man. She answered that she likes it when guys playfully ruffle her hair, but revealed not much else. Later on in the episode, the host of the show, Lee Seunggi (who eventually became Yoona’s boyfriend for a short time), playfully ruffled her hair and the audience went nuts with girlish squeals. It was an act of innocence and playfulness, but it was executed perfectly in that it remained within the appropriate confines of social expectations, all while exciting the audience at the prospect of a potential romance between the two.

Lee Seunggi pats Yoona’s head and the audience goes wild

Furthermore, no matter how sexual onstage performances might be, as soon as the idols step off the stage, they are expected to be innocent, virtuous, and respectful. Unlike in the West where artists like Rihanna and Justin Bieber whose real life personalities and behavior often match their onstage performances, in Korea, your performance on stage should be just that: a performance, and not a reflection of your real life behavior. When an idol goes to an interview or appears on a variety show, they are not expected to be cool or chic or sexy – they are expected to be humble, polite, and approachable. Even G-Dragon – the sultan of swag and the chief of chic – isn’t too cool for school when it comes to interviews. In fact, GD is an expert at taking his stories to the edge as far as alluding to nudity and other sexual references, but then pulling back the reigns before it goes too far, making himself seem both sexy and alluring, while remaining respectful of social expectations.

GD talks about nudity with other Big Bang members

 

All this talk of image is not to say that these idols groups are not talented because that is certainly not the case. Now that we have covered the importance of image pretty sufficiently, next week we will move into how members of idol groups are chosen, and what the reasoning behind those choices is, so make sure to come back next Sunday for the next installment of “The History of Kpop.”

 

 

 

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