Under the Knife: Appearance and Wealth

Miss Bum Bum 2015 contest

Contestants in Brazil’s 2015 Miss Bum Bum competition. Photo credit: Splash News.

Looks aren’t everything—unless you live in Brazil or South Korea. Appearance-wise, the two nations’ citizens are polar opposites, yet both populations strive for a similar physical archetype. South Koreans undergo elective surgery to diverge from perceived Asian homogeneity and attain elements of Western beauty. Conversely, as a result of Brazil’s long, painful history of slavery, the country has an extremely diverse population. Between 1501 and 1866, an estimated 4.9 million slaves were imported to Brazil from Africa, which is a staggering 40 percent of the total slaves brought to the Americas. Despite this diversity, many Brazilians are determined to look white, regardless of how many procedures they might have to endure. Appearance and wealth are closely linked in Brazil and South Korea, and for many, cosmetic surgery is a small hurdle to jump in the race toward prosperity.

Though Americans often schedule post-op vacations as a way to conceal the healing process after a procedure, Brazilians are not ashamed of cosmetic work. Breast implants and butt lifts are regarded as investments in Brazil and are accordingly flaunted as status symbols. In a country focused on aesthetics, cosmetic surgery offers the promise of upward mobility. Women are pressured to conform to Brazilian society’s ideal physique—tall and white with straight, blond hair; large breasts; and a round bottom—regardless of the reality of said society’s racial demographics. According to the 2010 census, 47.73 percent of the population identified as white, while 43.13 percent considered themselves multiracial, or Pardo (brown-skinned). Though nearly half of the population has brown skin, it is understood that Brazilian women with Caucasian genotypes are more likely to be professionally and romantically successful. For this reason, women risk their health by undergoing multiple surgeries and subjecting their hair to formaldehyde-infused Brazilian Blowouts to achieve a whiter appearance.

Cosmetic surgery, South Korea

An ad for cosmetic surgery in South Korea. Photo credit: Business Insider.

Likewise, many South Koreans endeavor to obtain Western features by going under the knife. Blepharoplasty, known as double-eyelid surgery, is the most common cosmetic work done in South Korea. This procedure transforms the Epicanthic fold responsible for creating a monolid into an eyelid with a crease. Overall, cosmetic surgeries are used to distinguish trendy South Koreans, with the schoolgirl look serving as the current inspiration. Along these lines lies another popular surgery, the aegyo sal (eye smiles), which involves injecting fat under the eyes to mimic the convexity that appears when one smiles. The purpose is to permanently emphasize a pleasant, youthful appearance. It is important for South Koreans to uphold a specific look, as companies frequently require job applicants to provide photographs with their résumés.

In South Korea and Brazil, there exists an explicit corollary between appearance and wealth. Surgeries are more than the norm—they’re expected of those who wish to succeed. Cost also plays a seminal role in the prevalence of cosmetic surgery in these two nations. Brazilian and South Korean patients often pay as little as a third of what American patients might be charged for similar cosmetic procedures due to supply and demand. In short, there is such an abundance of plastic surgeons that prices must be competitive to create a profit.

Woman going under the knife

Brazil has 5,500 certified cosmetic surgeons, as well as an additional 12,000 doctors performing procedures without requisite training. Photo credit: Voice of Mia.

Despite a dearth of medical doctors, wherein 10,000 general practitioners have been imported from Cuba, Brazil has more cosmetic surgeons per capita than any other country in the world. According to Brazil’s Federal Council of Medicine, the country has 5,500 certified cosmetic surgeons, as well as an additional 12,000 doctors performing procedures without requisite training.

Brazil surpassed the United States in 2014, briefly becoming the cosmetic-surgery capital of the world. In 2013, 1.5 million cosmetic surgeries were completed in Brazil, according to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. However, South Korea recently surpassed Brazil in nips and tucks, and now reigns as the cosmetic-surgery world capital. It is difficult to adequately estimate the percentage of South Koreans that have gone under the knife, though some reports speculate as much as half the population. As the cosmetic surgery industry is not regulated in South Korea, there is no requirement for official records to be kept.


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