Seoul needs corrective surgeryJust this morning, something interesting came up on my Facebook feed. Obviously that rules out “selfies” or yet more “inspirational” quotes from Paulo Coelho. It was a photo taken of an advertisement for plastic surgery on a Seoul bus.
Plastic surgery ads aren’t unusual, especially if you travel on public transport around Gangnam. Seoul Metro Line No. 3 offers particularly egregious quantities. But this particular ad shocked me. Next to a Taegeuk design was the slogan “Finding a job in Korea,” written in massive letters. Underneath were the usual before and after shots of a woman’s nose and eyes. And next to those were pictures of a woman’s midriff and buttocks, also before and after.
A quick question: What good can possibly come from this ad? What does such an ad say about society and women’s place in it? And what does it say about the plastic surgeon’s respect for his own country?
The ad is, in a way, a simple reflection of the times. I worked for a few Korean companies (small and large), and in all of them, job applicants were to some extent judged on their looks. Especially female applicants. I’m sure this is true in any country of the world, though it seems the tendency is particularly strong here.
But such an ad also reinforces and legitimizes such judgment. The ad is telling you, matter-of-fact, that this is what you need to do to get a job. And if you’re in the happy position of the recruiter, it tells you that it is perfectly acceptable to take not just a woman’s face, but even the shapeliness of her bum into account when deciding whether to give her a job.
For a young person, making one’s way in present-day Korea is already too psychologically difficult. Such advertising can only make matters worse. But from an economic perspective as well, surely it makes more sense to try to create a world in which ability is rewarded. Instead, we’re creating a world that values more highly the creepy smile on the recruiter’s face as a female candidate turns and walks away.
From the perspective of the plastic surgeon, placing the ad would be a commercial no-brainer because fear is a powerful motivator. Young women are under great pressure to look as attractive as possible. You want to get a job? You’d better look good. You want to find a husband who isn’t a so-called “loser”? You’d better look good. And, as an aside, if you’re just an average young man, you’re also one of those “losers.” Your TOEIC score isn’t good enough, you didn’t go to a good enough university and you’ll not be good enough to meet a good woman. And as we already know from all those ads on Line No. 3, the main criterion for a good woman is her appearance. All of these fears that young people have are being exploited, amplified and re-exploited to sell surgery, educational products and many other things besides. Then when you’re completely stressed out and miserable, you can spend your last remaining pennies on “healing.” Isn’t life grand?
Now, I’m a little bit of a capitalist myself. I recently invested in a company that sells beer. And, as I said, I understand why the plastic surgeon placed the ad (although I don’t like it). But we ought to have standards for such advertising. We need to acknowledge that it would be enormously beneficial for society - economically and psychologically - to not make young women think that their prime value is in how sexy men think they are. Even if you’re a man who enjoys treating women in this way, your actions will hurt you in the long run because you’ll be subjected to the man-must-be-rich, woman-must-be-pretty equation. And it is easier to become pretty than become rich.
Seoul Bus and Seoul Metro are not private businesses. They are ultimately owned and run by the city. Though they are subject to some commercial considerations, ultimately their role is to provide a beneficial service to the people of Seoul. By and large, they do that extremely well. But am I wrong in thinking that they are letting young people down by allowing so many aggressive, exploitative plastic surgery ads on their system? Is it not time for Seoul City to do a little corrective surgery of its own?
*The author is the former Seoul correspondent for The Economist.
By Daniel Tudor