If you know anything about South Korea's increasingly global entertainment industry, you may know that it is inextricably linked with the country's booming plastic surgery industry. Referred to as the plastic surgery capital of the world, cosmetic surgery is far more normal in South Korea than it is in the U.S., with one survey finding that 60% of South Korean women in their late 20s and 40% in their early 20s had undergone a procedure.
Normally, South Korean celebrities have a degree of denial about whether or not they've gone under the knife. But in a very unusual move, Six Bomb, a K-pop girl group, has quite formally addressed their plastic surgeries through not one, but two music videos.
The first video, titled “Becoming Prettier (Before),” was released back in February and shows the four women singing in the studio, getting their hair done, working on their choreography, and—last but not least—consulting with a plastic surgeon about the kind of work they want to get done, pointing to their eyelids, their noses, and their cheeks.
A rough translation of some of the lyrics reads:
Do not be alarmed. Do not laugh at me.
Pretty, I’ll be different.
Later on in the song, the lyrics discuss “lifting smooth skin” (which could refer to surgery or using general non-surgery anti-aging products) as well as “a faint cat eye,” referring to a quick double eye-lid procedure.
They also released a promo photo featuring themselves wrapped in gauze. Then, a teaser released this past Tuesday showed the members practicing their choreography, their faces still wrapped up.
Finally, on Wednesday, Six Bomb dropped “Becoming Prettier (After)” in which the women reveal their new faces, and perform some choreography, some of which takes place in an operating room.
The lead singer told AFP:
“We all wanted to get some surgeries done to look prettier… and thought, 'Why not perform a song about it instead of trying to conceal it?”
”People will notice it anyway… so we wanted to be open about this reality where many women want to look pretty."
So what are we to make of this? On the one hand, embracing the reality of beauty and plastic surgery and not trying to conceal or deny any kind of work is a bold move. Six Bomb broke out of the ‘did they or didn’t they’-fueled news engine and in the process managed to get more recognition from western outlets than plenty of other K-pop groups. They also gave a rare but tiny glimpse into what life is like for K-pop stars behind the scenes, which is something for the notoriously secretive industry.
But the flip side of this is that it’s a continued glorification of narrow beauty standards and the plastic surgery industry. Yes, plastic surgery is not that big a deal in South Korea, and women should have the agency to do what they want to their bodies. But there is something deeply concerning about the expectation that women must inevitably change themselves to find success, romantic, professional, or otherwise, particularly in an industry known for its exploitation of its female performers.
This may have something to do with the fact that South Korea is a pretty misogynist country. As of 2016, only 57% of women join the workforce. Women are paid 64% of what men make if they do join the workforce. They have just 2.1% of the seats on company boards.
These "Becoming Pretty" music videos may visually confront the reality of being a K-pop star (non-Korean speakers won't understand that the lyrics intend to promote this type of transformation, so it's just a jarring and disconcerting series of videos of women getting plastic surgery and dancing). But just remember, this isn't fun for fun's sake. This is essentially a contractual obligation. It's still just a cog in the ultra-capitalist machine that is the Korean pop culture and beauty industries, and it's far from empowering.