“reFramed” is a feature showcasing fine art photography and vision-forward photojournalism. It is curated by Los Angeles Times staff photographer Barbara Davidson. twitter@photospice
Ji Yeo is an artist based in Brooklyn, NY. She received her MFA in photography from the Rhode Island School of Design, her BFA in Visual Communication from National University, Seoul, Korea, and a certificate in General Studies from the International Center of Photography. Select awards include RISD’s Presidential Scholarship and Henry Wolf Scholarship. Her work is held in the collections of The Smithsonian Museum of American History and the Museum at the Rhode Island School of Design. She has exhibited at venues such as the National Portrait Gallery in London, ClampArt in New York, and the International Center of Photography in New York. Her work has been featured in Dazed and Confused, Marie Claire Brazil, Esquire Russia, Blink magazine, Von magazine International, the Huffington Post, and Daily Mail UK, among other publications.
Ji’s photographic, performance, and time-based projects explore how women define beauty. Her work critiques a culture that is obsessed with appearances while showing the human side of it–the psychological undercurrents that propel women to re-shape their bodies and make daily sacrifices in order to feel beautiful, loved, and in control.
“Beauty Recovery Room is a series of photographs that were taken directly after subjects had undergone plastic surgery operations; showing the physical cost that many Korean women bear by adhering to social pressures of attaining beauty; specifically, a more Western look.
The latest raw data compiled from the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery in 2010, confirms that South Korea is indeed the country with the world’s highest per capita rate of cosmetic plastic surgery. It
is a culture where men are judged on their financial balance sheet and women by their beauty. The male-dominated media endlessly reinforces its model of the ideal woman. As a result of these cultural forces Korea has become a beauty oriented society where people are judged more for their appearance than their character. Korean women often fall into the trap of trying to live up to an ideal personified in the media. The combination of these factors has dramatically increased the burgeoning plastic surgery industry while creating another set of standards for women to adhere to. Enduring general anesthetic, cuts, bruises, and often intense scarring all for the sake of vanity is no longer considered risky or extravagant behavior; quite the reverse, it has become commonplace. “Beauty Recovery Room” shows the wounded faces and bodies of women who have recently undergone plastic surgery.”
Beauty Recovery Room. Seoul, South Korea, 2013.
Q: What inspired you to photograph the “Beauty Recovery Room”?
A: As I moved on to high school, plastic surgery had become extremely popular in South Korea. In the entertainment news section of the daily newspaper more than half of the stories were about those who had recently had plastic surgery, where they did it, how successful it was, et cetera. Surgery dominated conversations and many of my schoolmates were planning for theirs. “Right after I graduate, I’m having my thighs and my cheeks done,” they would say. But my dreams were much bigger. I was going to have a whole-body surgery. I was going to totally transform my looks, become someone else. I truly believed that if I transformed my appearance, my life would transform along with it and I would finally be able to earn people’s respect and admiration.
After high school, my incessant wishing became an obsession. I met 12 different surgeons, consulted with friends who had already gone under the knife, I compared the different looks that I might choose for my own. Did I want Angelina Jolie’s lips or Winona Ryder’s nose? Perhaps both? But after years of research, it dawned on me that if I really wanted plastic surgery, I would have already done it. Somehow there was always something holding me back. Even though I had always wished to change various details about my looks, when it came right down to it those were the very details that I was so hesitant to lose. The thought of losing them forever terrified me. I realized that in fact I didn’t need to change everything; rather I needed to change nothing. I needed to accept my whole self and the body that contained it. It was clear that the entire fantasy was built from an imagined outsider’s perspective. It was a societal fantasy of aesthetic perfection, and it didn’t really belong to me at all. Definitely did not bear living out.
Q: What would a typical experience be for a young girl shopping for the right plastic surgeon and actually going through with the surgery? How many are having plastic surgery?
A: From my personal experience, I began by researching on the Internet. On the Web, there are many forums dedicated to discussing plastic surgery. People openly share their personal experiences about everything from the doctor to the hospital. They discuss the quality of the care, a doctor’s behavior, as well as his or her trustworthiness. They post photographs of their progress, documenting their post-surgery condition, recovery and final results. There are thousands of reviews online. After reading the reviews, I was able to narrow down a selection of surgeons whose aesthetic style I appreciated — who favored a more natural and less extreme look.
In addition, another important information source is one’s friends. If a girl likes a friend’s look, they will ask their friends for recommendations. There are lots of walking models, representing the works of their doctors.
Q: Are there popular plastic surgery trends that women like to follow?
A: Yes, there are definitely trends. However, they constantly change. Innovation in technology plays a huge influence on these trends. A few years ago, stem cell research allowed doctors to perform certain procedures with fewer side effects. Doctors could take fat from one area of a woman and then inject it into another — for example, into their forehead, cheek, nose, or chin. This is an extremely popular procedure.
In terms of aesthetic, many women are reshaping their faces. They prefer softer features that make them look younger and more innocent — such as a rounder forehead or fuller cheeks.
A recent trend is for people to get a procedure called a “permanent smile,” which involves altering a person’s facial muscles. This follows a cultural trend towards a standard of beauty that favors a person that shows a slight smile.
Q: Do families support these young women who go under the knife at such a young age?
A: In the past, most parents had conservative attitudes towards plastic surgery. However now more and more parents are now open to the idea. There even some parents who encourage their children to get plastic surgery, especially their daughters.
Beauty Recovery Room. Seoul, South Korea, 2013.
Q: Why do you think South Korean culture equates success with physical beauty?
A: Korean culture measures success in many ways, one of which is beauty. The question of beauty is a complicated issue because there is no simple answer. However, in my opinion, Korea is a culture where men are judged on their financial balance sheet and women by their beauty. The male-dominated media endlessly reinforces its model of the ideal woman. As a result of these cultural forces Korea has become a beauty-oriented society where people are judged more for their appearance than their character. Korean women often fall into the trap of trying to live up to an ideal projected by the media. The combination of these factors has dramatically increased the burgeoning plastic surgery industry while creating another set of standards for women to adhere to.
Q: How do you gain access to photograph these women in such an intimate setting?
A: Gaining access was the most challenging aspect of this project. To reveal what lies behind the surgical recovery process meant to be kept secret. Most women who go through plastic surgery don’t want others to know. To reveal it is to admit imperfection. They want others to perceive them as naturally perfect as opposed to artificially enhanced. The idea of recording the moment when they look their worst: showing their bloodstained bandages, bruises, surgical guideline marks, and swollen body, is not part of the fantasy of transformation. It is the moment they hide from others by locking themselves in a hotel room near the clinic until most of the evidence of surgery has finally disappeared. The women in these photographs were willing to step in front of my camera not because they desired exposure but rather, because of the services I provided for them. They are the ones who had gone through surgery by themselves without any support from their family members or friends. I offered to be their driver, their maid and their confidant. I waited for them to be released after the surgery, gave them a ride to their hotel room or home, I bought the drugs they were prescribed from the pharmacy, cooked soups, and attended to their needs. The next morning after surgery, I came again and gave them a ride to the clinic for their post-op checkups. During my interactions with these women, I was shocked at how many seemed unafraid to go under anesthesia, lie on an operating table and ultimately permanently changing their physical form. I was shocked how casual plastic surgery was for them and how much it seemed to provide them pleasure and satisfaction. During the photo shoots, and even though they were in extreme pain, I could feel their excitement, the excitement of hopes realized. They seemed not to have the fears that I had. In fact, most of them were planning other surgeries in the near future.
Q: Do you think South Korea is becoming a medical tourism destination? If so, please explain.
A: Due to the popularity and volume of these procedures, plastic surgeons in Korea have gained tremendous expertise and experience in their field. There is a high level of professionalism. In addition, the costs are lower as well, relative to the States. These factors may attract people to come to Korea to perform these procedures.
Q: What inspired your performance piece “I want to be perfect. Draw on me. Where should I get plastic surgery?”
A: I wanted to put myself in a vulnerable situation — one in which I was being actively judged. I wanted to find out how other people see me. This was a huge challenge for me. I have always been fearful of people judging me. However, I wanted to confront this.
To do this, I went to the popular weekend flea market by Williamsburg Bridge on a busy Saturday. I turned my body into a blank canvas in front of hundreds of people and allowed anyone to draw and write messages on me. I allowed them to act like a plastic surgeon — drawing lines to illustrate where they thought I should be changed. And while some were drawing on me, most were watching.
Draw On Me – April 17th, 2011. East River State Park, Brooklyn, NY
Q: What differences have you discovered between Western and Eastern cultures toward plastic surgery?
A: Since moving to the U.S. I have been particularly struck by the distinction between the women I photographed in Korea and Westerners who seek surgery. Whereas in America, women often focus on altering their bodies (breast enlargements being the most popular), in Korea most women focus on facial adjustments such as: making their eyes bigger and wider, minimizing their cheekbones and jaw lines, and making their noses higher and narrower. Whereas sexiness is highly emphasized in Los Angeles, in Korea, notions of childlike femininity and innocence (tied to traditional Korean values of what it means to be a woman) reign supreme. Most of the plastic surgeries performed in Korea aim to minimize Asian characteristics and make Korean women appear more like Caucasian women. This difference illuminates the fact that women across cultures are altering their form in various ways to respond to a patriarchal media that perpetuates specific but distinct ideas of what a woman should be. It is this distinction that fascinates me and compels my work; that regardless of geography or body type women are willing to spend thousands of dollars and endure extreme procedures and subsequent scarring in order to achieve their culture’s ideal of beauty. Of course it is about skin and weight, bone structure and proportion, but more than anything, it is about how much women are willing to sacrifice in search of some measure of perfection. I am interested in the visual residue of that sacrifice, and in exploring the cultural differences and similarities made explicit in the process.
Links for Ji Yeo: Website