K-Pop as Mass Media: Establishing Beauty Standards and Normalizing Behavior Across East Asia

            A quick Internet search shows that cosmetic surgery has become widely popular among women in Korean and across East Asian. In the recent years, U.S. media has become highly aware of the East Asian cosmetic surgery phenomenon. In 2013 news blog Jezebel published an article, “I Can’t Stop Looking at These South Korean Women Who’ve Had Plastic Surgery”, with before-and-after photos of Korean cosmetic surgery’s “push toward [physical] uniformity” (Stewart 2013). A 2015 New Yorker article added that facial modification has spread beyond South Korea, as Chinese and other East Asian “surgery tourists” are travelling to Seoul, “the world’s plastic surgery capital”, for procedures (Marx 2015). In 2013, Buzzfeed challenged East Asian cosmetic surgery as “racial transformation” and “Westernization” (Stokel-Walker 2013).

            Artificial physical modification is a recent phenomenon worth studying because of its role in shaping East Asian popular culture. The above online articles make the same observations about women in East Asia leaving the surgery room with double eyelids, higher nose bridges, and smooth, pale skin. They also note non-surgical methods of modification: eyelid tape, hair bleaching, and skin lightening products. The women’s efforts to achieve the same look indicate that female beauty standards in East Asian societies have evolved to prefer more defined, relatively Eurocentric features, and thus made artificial physical modification normative.

            As more East Asian women adopt these behaviors to achieve a new standard of beauty, their decisions shock Western journalists, such Stokel-Walker, who questions the morality of valuing Eurocentric features over those indigenous to East Asian ethnicities. Based on these articles by Stewart, Marx, and Stokel-Walker, I gathered that contemporary East Asian mass media might play a significant role in publicizing artificial physical modification. I have seen a few K-Pop music videos, and observed that the female artists’ faces and hairstyles have been modified to adhere to the same Eurocentric look described in the above articles. Korean popular music (K-Pop) has grown to dominate Korea’s music scene over the past decade, and is an easily accessible form of mass media. This led me to think that East Asian women are not only exposed to more K-Pop music videos now, but also internalizing the artists’ artificially modified, Eurocentric looks as beautiful. I conducted research to understand: How does exposure to female K-Pop groups’ music videos affect female East Asian NYU students’ attitudes toward artificial physical modification, and the Eurocentric look it achieves?

Literature Review

            In her article, “Beauty Between Empires: Global Feminism, Plastic Surgery, and the Trouble with Self-Esteem”, Sharon Heijin Lee explains how K-Pop, as a form of mass media, has drawn the attention of both East Asian and Western audiences to the Korean plastic surgery phenomenon. She explores why more East Asian women now consider “‘Western’ or white” features beautiful on Asian women, yet Western journalists tend to challenge the new Asian beauty standard as anti-feminist (Lee 2016). She argues that the two groups have opposing attitudes towards the beauty standard because of their different experiences with K-Pop; East Asian women are more likely to be exposed to K-Pop, and be influenced by its culture, while Western activists are relatively unfamiliar with K-Pop, and therefore approach it critically. Lee analyzed linguistic choices in Stewart’s Jezebel article and white women’s comments on the article. She found language of disgust for the East Asian plastic surgery phenomenon, such as Stewart’s claim that many Korean women are becoming “intolerant of those who don’t meet [their] lookist standards” and devaluing “distinctive features” (Lee 2016: 8, 11). Because East Asian students at NYU are immersed in both East Asian and American popular culture, I expect a relatively equal distribution of K-Pop exposure in my data. Lee’s findings lead me to expect students with more K-Pop exposure to be more likely to admire the Eurocentric features exemplified by her favorite K-Pop artists. Conversely, I infer that students less exposed to K-Pop to be more exposed to U.S. media. I expect these students to be more likely to have a negative reaction to the modified, Eurocentric features, and prefer features indigenous to East Asian ethnicities (e.g. darker hair, monolid).

            In her article, “The Dubious Enhancement: Making South Korea a Plastic Surgery Nation”, So Yeon Leem argues that since the 1990s, Korean mass media has effectively marketed cosmetic surgery as an aesthetic “means to improve one’s social and economic status” (Leem 2016). She presents statistics on the exponential increase in Korean magazine advertisements for cosmetic surgery from the late 1990s to 2009. She argues that positive messages about cosmetic surgery in mass media have led Korean society to be highly aware of the modified, Eurocentric look as a form of prestige. Leem adds that while Korea’s manufacturing industries declined in the 2000s, its digital entertainment industry grew rapidly. Korean digital entertainment, namely K-Pop, further popularized cosmetic surgery across East Asia, and created a cultural movement called the Korean Wave (Han-Ryu). The Korean government now recognizes cosmetic surgery and K-Pop as its dominant economic and cultural exports to East Asia. Based on Leem’s statistical and historical evidence of Korean media’s promotion of cosmetic surgery, I expect my data to show that most of the Korean and Korean Americans in the sample are exposed to K-Pop and have knowledge of physical modification methods. Because Leem reports that the Korean Wave has spread to other East Asian countries in past decade, I expect a greater mix in K-Pop exposure and knowledge of modification methods among non-Koreans in my sample.

            In her book, Buying Beauty: Cosmetic Surgery in China, Wen Hua presents her ethnography of Chinese women who undergo cosmetic surgery to achieve more defined facial features. Her interviews show that Chinese mass media endorses the same Eurocentric features as K-Pop. In Chapter 5, “The Commodification of the Body”, Hua analyzes articles from Chinese women’s magazines, and notes language that legitimizes and promotes cosmetic surgery as “not only a means to embrace beauty, but also as a way to happiness” (Hua 2013). Hua also excerpts articles containing interviews in which Chinese movie stars share their own experiences with cosmetic surgery and skin lightening creams. From interviewing women in surgery clinics, Hua found that they seek to emulate the double eyelids, high nose bridges, and pale skin presented in magazines. In Chapter 3, “Being Good-Looking is Capital”, Hua makes a similar argument as Leem. She argues that young Chinese women now widely consider the look achieved by surgery and creams as “beauty capital”, an important asset for educational and professional success (Hua 2013). Hua found that many Chinese parents feel a need to “put investment into their daughters’ appearance” to “make [them] happier and more competitive” in college, and many young women undergo surgery to “stand out” in the job market (Hua 2013). Hua’s findings suggest that some Chinese and Chinese American NYU students may be aware of the concept of “beauty capital”. Although my data cannot prove this directly, I expect it to show that among Chinese and Chinese American NYU students with less K-Pop exposure, many still view Eurocentric features positively, and have experience with reshaping their eyelids and lightening their skin and hair. I expect those rates to increase among Chinese and Chinese American students with more K-Pop exposure, because they are more likely exposed to two forms of mass media (K-Pop and Chinese magazines) that endorse physical modification.

            In 2010, Park and Cho surveyed 298 U.S. college students, mostly female and white, on psychological and sociocultural factors that affect intention to have cosmetic surgery. Park and Cho found that exposure to advertisements for cosmetic surgery, having friends and family with cosmetic surgery, and awareness of society’s beauty standards all increase intention for cosmetic surgery. They discuss that while some U.S. media portrays cosmetic surgery positively, much of it criticizes it (like Stewarts’ and Stokel-Walker’s articles) or stresses its physical risks. Thus exposure to “media”, broadly speaking, can have either a positive or negative effect on intention for cosmetic surgery. I infer that my sample might have exposure to U.S. media that criticizes or portrays risks of cosmetic surgery. Because of this, I limit my independent variable to one type of media, K-Pop, which portrays cosmetic surgery positively. Therefore I expect exposure to K-Pop to have a positive effect on attitudes toward artificial physical modification. Lee, Leem, and Hua all argue that Eurocentric facial features has become the beauty standard for women in East Asia, and undergoing procedures to achieve the look is becoming more acceptable. Based on their research, I infer that many East Asians at NYU know of other East Asians who have had cosmetic surgery, and are aware of the beauty standard promoted by K-Pop artists. Park and Cho found that seeing successful surgery results on friends and family reduces perceived risks, and increases intention for surgery. So I expect that even if some East Asian students have not had cosmetic surgery, they have considered it, or are comfortable with less extreme methods of modification (e.g. eyelid tape, hair bleaching, skin lightening products).  

Research Design

Participants

            I recruited participants of East Asian ethnicities, because I learned from my literature review that K-Pop has the strongest influence in East Asia. I asked East Asian cultural clubs at NYU to email my survey to its female members. The clubs are: Asian Fusion Dance; AKDPhi; Asian Cultural Union; Chinese Student Society; Global China Connection; Hong Kong Student Association; Korean Students Association; Korean International Students Organization; Taiwanese American Student Society.

            51 female students responded to my survey. 23 were Korean or Korean American, 18 were Chinese or Chinese American, 6 were of other East Asian ethnicities, and 4 were East Asian and multiracial. I grouped the 6 other East Asians and 4 multiracial participants together to simplify data analysis.

Method and Design

            Participants completed a multiple-choice survey I made in Google Forms (see p. 14-16). I designed the survey so that all participants would fit my demographic. I titled the survey “Survey – Female East Asian/East Asian American students at NYU” to discourage male and non-Asian club members from participating.

            First the participants chose their ethnicity or race from a list: Chinese/Chinese American (including Hong Kong); Korean/Korean American; Taiwanese/Taiwanese American; other East Asian/East Asian American; East Asian and other race(s). Then they indicated whether they have high, medium, or low exposure to female K-Pop artists’ music videos. Then they answered a series of questions regarding their attitudes toward the Eurocentric features promoted by K-Pop artists, and their personal experience with using artificial physical modification to achieve those features. For attitudes toward Eurocentric features, they saw photos of Korean and Chinese celebrities with different hair colors (black or bleached), skin shades (tan, medium, pale), and eyelid shapes (monolid or treated by double eyelid surgery), and indicated which features they thought looked more beautiful. For experience with modification, they indicated whether they have used skin lightening products, lightened their hair, or used eyelid tape or surgery for double eyelids. If they have not, then they indicated whether they have considered doing so. Participants also saw a photo of a pack of eyelid tape, and indicated whether they knew what the item was.

Data Measurement

            Because of the high number of questions in the survey, I created a 0-2 point score system to organize the responses to each question regarding my independent and dependent variables (Table 1). For my X variable, I assigned higher points to higher K-Pop exposure. Based on my literature review, I expected high K-Pop exposure to correlate with internalization of the Eurocentric beauty standard in East Asia, knowledge of modification methods, and positive attitude towards modification. So for the questions regarding my Y variable, I assigned higher points to responses that indicate these traits. The maximum total score for the Y variable is 11.

Research Findings

Independent (X) Variable

            My data shows a relatively balanced distribution of exposure to K-Pop. Among the 51 participants, 18 indicated high exposure to female K-Pop artists’ music videos, 21 indicated medium, and 12 indicated low (Table 2).

            Korean and Korean American participants had the highest rate of K-Pop exposure among the East Asian groups, followed by Chinese and Chinese Americans (Table 3). Among the 23 Koreans and Korean Americans, 15 had high exposure, 7 had medium, and 1 had low. Among the 18 Chinese and Chinese Americans, 3 had high exposure, 9 had medium, and 6 had low. Among the 10 other and multiracial Asians, 0 had high exposure, 5 had medium, and 5 had low.

Dependent (Y) Variable

            Overall, there is a positive relationship between K-Pop exposure and average number of points for the Y variable (Table 4). Participants with high K-Pop exposure had an average total Y score of 7.11/11 points, those with medium exposure had 5.38/11, and those with low exposure had 4.58/11. This means that there is a higher rate of preference for modified, Eurocentric features (bleached hair, pale skin, double eyelid) among participants with high K-Pop exposure than among participants with medium and low K-Pop exposure. This is also true for rates of knowledge of eyelid tape and personal experience with modification.

            The average total Y score by ethnicity/race is consistent with the level of K-Pop exposure by ethnicity/race (Table 5). Koreans and Korean Americans, the group with highest K-Pop exposure, had an average total Y score of 6.34/11. Chinese and Chinese Americans had 5.34/11. Lastly, other and multiracial Asians had 5.10/11.

Conclusion

            My research demonstrates the power that mass media has in promoting trends, normalizing behavior, and shaping popular culture. The Korean Wave has not only come to promote the modified, Eurocentric look to women in East Asia, but also to East Asian and East Asian American women in the U.S. My data shows that the more K-Pop videos a female East Asian NYU student watches, the more likely she is to admire the artists’ modified, Eurocentric features, learn about modification methods, and seek to modify her own features.

            Based on Park and Cho’s study, I hypothesized a positive relationship between K-Pop exposure and positive attitudes toward artificial physical modification. The data in the “Experience with modification” column in Table 4 supports this hypothesis. Participants with high K-Pop exposure were more likely to answer “Yes” or “No, but I’ve thought about it” to whether they have modified their features, indicating acceptance of the beauty standard publicized by K-Pop artists. The average Y scores for experience with skin-lightening products and hair dye were higher than that for eyelid surgery or tape, regardless of K-Pop exposure. This supports my hypothesis that participants are more comfortable with less extreme methods of physical modification. Out of the participants who have not modified their features, more indicated a positive attitude toward modification than negative. I inferred from Park and Cho’s study that some participants would have less K-Pop exposure, but still have positive attitudes toward modification, because they likely know other East Asian women who have had cosmetic surgery. My data shows that the group with low K-Pop exposure still accepts modification to an extent, but it cannot explain whether interpersonal relationships are a significant reason for this. In order to understand this I would revise my survey and ask participants if they know other East Asians who have modified their features.

            The data in Table 4 also supports the hypothesis I made based on Lee’s research: students who watch more K-Pop videos are more likely to admire the beauty standard achieved by modification. However, I could revise my survey to directly address the inferences I made based on Lee’s and Park and Cho’s research. I could ask participants to indicate their level of exposure to Western media that covers the East Asian plastic surgery phenomenon. This is because Lee, Park and Cho argue that Western media typically portrays modification negatively; U.S. media challenges modification in East Asian as “racial transformation”, and shows cosmetic surgery’s physical risks (Stokel-Walker). I stated in my literature review that since my participants are NYU students, they are likely exposed to both K-Pop and U.S. media. Since I did not control for their exposure to U.S. media, I could have underestimated the strength of the relationship between K-Pop exposure and internalization of modification. I predict that if I sampled female students from colleges in East Asia, there would be a stronger relationship between the independent and dependent variables. Unless I change my research design, my data can only speak for the female students at NYU.

            Based on Hua’s ethnography, I predicted that many Chinese students with less K-Pop exposure would still have experience with, knowledge of, and positive attitudes toward the same methods of modification promoted by Korean artists. Table 6 supports this. 44% of Chinese and Chinese American participants indicated no experience with modification, yet some of the 44% still indicated that they have considered it. 78% of Chinese participants recognized eyelid tape.

            Leem explained that over the past decade, K-Pop has spread the Korean beauty standard for modified, Eurocentric features across East Asia. My data shows a mix of K-Pop exposure and internalization of the Korean beauty standard among non-Korean participants. It is consistent with the fact that the Korean Wave has influenced Chinese popular culture to promote the same beauty standard as K-Pop. It shows that K-Pop encourages East Asian women to adopt behaviors of modification to enhance their looks. But I want to push this further. My survey was only designed to measure participants’ ideas about beauty. I could revise it to ask participants about their motives for modifying their own features. Hua argues that in East Asia, women modify their features not only to become more beautiful, but also to gain “beauty capital”. As the women in my sample are more exposed to K-Pop, do they only consider an artificially modified, Eurocentric look to be more beautiful? Or do they also believe that modifying their own features has a positive effect on their social networks and academic and professional competitiveness?

            As some scholars suggest, artificial physical modification in East Asia is becoming more than a beauty standard. Future research should address how K-Pop exposure can escalate from encouraging East Asian women to enhance their beauty to pressuring them to change their appearance to improve their life chances. No matter if modification has real or perceived effects on their life chances, it could have harmful consequences for East Asian women’s self-esteem.

            It is also significant that K-Pop and other East Asian mass media celebrate physical features so different from those indigenous to East Asian ethnicities. However, as Leem suggests, the Korean Wave is making its way outside East Asia, and spreading popular culture that counters Western media’s criticism of modification. As non-Asians become more exposed to K-Pop videos, will their ideas of female East Asian beauty change to prefer the modified, Eurocentric features as well?  


APPENDIX

 Table 1. 0-2 Point Score System to Measure Values for Independent and Dependent Variables

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Table 2. Overall Exposure to K-Pop

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Table 3. Ethnicity/Race and Exposure to K-Pop

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Table 4. Score for Values for Dependent Variable, by Level of Exposure to K-Pop

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Table 5. Score for Values for Dependent Variable, by Ethnicity/Race

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Table 6. Rate of experience and knowledge of modification, by ethnicity/raceScreen Shot 2017-07-20 at 3.12.25 AM

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Literature

Hua, Wen. 2013. “Being Good-Looking is Capital.” Pp. 75–98 in Buying Beauty: Cosmetic Surgery in China. Hong Kong, China: Hong Kong University Press.

Hua, Wen. 2013. “From Barbie Doll to the Korean Wave.” Pp. 167–186 in Buying Beauty: Cosmetic Surgery in China. Hong Kong, China: Hong Kong University Press.

Lee, Sharon H. 2016. “Beauty between Empires: Global Feminism, Plastic Surgery, and the Trouble with Self-Esteem.” Frontiers 37(1):1-31.

Leem, So Yeon. 2016. “The Dubious Enhancement: Making South Korea a Plastic Surgery Nation.” East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal 10:51-

Marx, Patricia. 2015. “About Face.” The New Yorker. Retrieved November 15, 2016.

Park, Jin S. and Chang-Hoan Cho. 2011. “Factors Explaining College Students’ Intention to Receive Cosmetic Surgery in the Future: A Structural Equation Modeling Approach.” Journal of Medical Marketing 11(2):127-143.

Stewart, Dodai. 2013. “I Can’t Stop Looking at These South Korean Women Who’ve Had Plastic Surgery.” Jezebel. Retrieved November 15, 2016.

Stokel-Walker, Chris. 2013. “When Does Plastic Surgery Become Racial Transformation?” BuzzFeed. Retrieved November 15, 2016.

Online Survey Images

Hair color:

Anon. 2015. “Yuri Profile – KPop Music.” KPop Music. Retrieved November 25, 2016 (http://www.kpopmusic.com/artist/yuri-profile).

Anon. n.d. “SNSD’s Pretty Yuri for ‘Urban Decay’.” SNSD’s pretty Yuri for ‘Urban Decay’ Wonderful Generation ~ All About SNSD, Wonder Girls, and f(x). Retrieved November 25, 2016 (http://www.wgsnsdfx.com/2015/09/snsd-pretty-yuri-for-urban-decay.html).

Skin shade:

Anon. n.d. “Fashion Faceoff: Roberto Cavalli Dress | Gong Li Roberto Cavalli Dress 02 Photo.” Just Jared. Retrieved November 25, 2016 (http://www.justjared.com/photo-gallery/426181/gong-li-roberto-cavalli-dress-02/).

Anon. n.d. “Li Bingbing Quotes.” Li Bingbing Quotes. QuotesGram. Retrieved November 25, 2016 (http://quotesgram.com/li-bingbing-quotes/).

Anon. 2009. “Great Color Choices for Hair!” Theavestylist’s Blog. Retrieved November 25, 2016 (https://theavestylist.wordpress.com/2009/11/09/great-color-choices-for-hair/).

Eyes:

Anon. n.d. “Liu Wen.” Wiki Drama. Retrieved November 25, 2016 (http://es.drama.wikia.com/wiki/Liu_Wen).

Anon. n.d. “Gucci – Li Bing Bing 2014.” REM – Ruini e Mariotti. Retrieved November 25, 2016 (http://www.ruiniemariotti.com/gucci-li-bing-bing-2014/).