[VIEWPOINT]Our ‘knife style’ brings us deep discontent

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[VIEWPOINT]Our ‘knife style’ brings us deep discontent

Seoul residents think they should have at least two billion won ($2.1 million) to be considered rich.
This is the result of a survey conducted by a research firm some time ago.
To most people, this is an amount of money they could never attain easily, so we live in a time wherein almost everyone suffers from a sense of relative poverty. This situation, in which the great majority of people are greatly dissatisfied, happens when a top group of people is considered the reference for making comparisons.
This fact is widespread in our everyday life.
According to a survey last fall of women from 10 Asian countries by a multi-national supplier of household commodities, a mere 1 percent of our country’s women said they think themselves beautiful, the lowest among the nations surveyed.
Naturally, the number of respondents who were considering having cosmetic surgery to improve their appearance ranked first.
This is the result of people raising the standard of beauty too high.
Believe it or not, not many countries across the world have more mirrors than Korea.
I don’t mean mirrors in bathrooms or in handbags.
Our country is truly unique in the sense that we can find mirrors easily in public places such as in transportation stations, in offices, restaurants, schools and on board local buses.
The long-held etiquette, that rules mirrors are supposed to be used only in private and their use in public is considered unmannered, seems to be going away in our country.
Since some time ago, our country has become more concerned about external appearance than internal substance and about comparing ourselves with others, rather than reflecting on ourselves.
According to data from the National Statistical Office, Korean households spent 5.7 times longer on hair styling or the purchase of accessories than on the purchase of books during the last year.
The so-called “body projects” caused by the syndrome of the “best face” or “best body,” have grown into a large-scale market with an annual sale of 10 trillion won in just a few years.
According to a survey conducted by a cosmetics company in the second half of last year, more than half of our country’s adult men and women under the age of 50 expressed their intention to have cosmetic surgery. Recently, the trend of acquiring a youthful face has gained explosive popularity among the aging and the aged. The quadruple increase in the number of cosmetic surgeons over the past 15 years did not come about by accident.
Of course, this trend is common worldwide. Regarding this trend, the sociologist S. Bordo said the spread of cosmetic surgery has changed a woman’s lifestyle to the “knife style.” Therefore, the key difference for people in this country seems now only a matter of degree.
Regardless of age or sex, Koreans have an unusually strong tendency to have or want to have surgery on their bodies.
As a result, our bodies and our hair have come to be controlled by the cosmetic surgery and beauty industries, instead of by genetics, as they used to be.
The fever to artificially reshape our bodies that now has our society in its grip goes beyond the desire to capitalize on looks, making our appearance a commodity.
We consider it a failed life if we cannot have 2 billion won and feel we can never become happy unless we make our bodies as beautiful as those of fashion models.
In other words, just as in the thesis of social polarization, the polarization of perceptions on appearance fosters endless insistence that we change our God-given reality, causing a profound discontent with ourselves.
In this day and age, we are beset with a national inferiority complex--a majority of our people regard themselves as stragglers, losers or victims in life ― while cherishing a dream that not everyone can easily realize.
And behind this complex hide the forces that capitalize on this universal sense of inferiority and deprivation aiming to manipulate the people according to their will.
Is it unreasonable to suspect that, in today’s “knife style” among Koreans, some kind of ideological and political conspiracy is at work?

* The writer is a professor of sociology at the Graduate School of Environmental Studies at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Jun Sang-in
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