The Plastic Face: Nation-Branding and Personal Branding in 21st Century South Korea

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This thesis explores the popularization of South Korea’s plastic surgery industry and the implication of an attractive facial appearance in work and social circles. In problematizing journalism that explains Korean plastic surgery as mimicry of the West, an alternative narrative is constructed to historicize the valuation of the face and rationalize Korea’s 21st century emphasis on physical attractiveness. Rapid economic, political, and social changes since the birth of the Korean nation in 1948 inform the current beauty ideal. Historically, the Korean face has represented political resistance during Japanese colonialism (1910-1945), national resilience after Korean war-induced destruction (1950-1953), and the arrival to modernity at the peak of economic developmental efforts (1963-1987). Compressed modernization campaigns beginning in the 1960s provided the necessary foundation for self-improvement discourse, and the 1990s technological boom aided in the socialization of appearance models. Traditional physiognomic philosophy and the positive value association of beauty explain the importance of the face over other body parts, and advertisements disseminated by plastic surgery hospitals drive the consumer base for surgical procedures. Korean women, made to feel incomplete and inharmonious, actively undergo plastic surgery to better their financial and relational circles in a continually advancing capitalist society. In a parallel to nation-branding efforts that rejuvenated the landscape of the Korean nation, Korean women use plastic surgery as a means to reconstruct the self to establish a new, improved image.


honors thesis: winner of ICS Distinguished Thesis award 2014




Smith, Ieshia (2014). The Plastic Face: Nation-Branding and Personal Branding in 21st Century South Korea. Honors thesis, Duke University. Retrieved from

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