Korea’s Cosmetic Surgery Addiction: Self-Loathing, With Scalpels

In this excellent piece at Cracked.com — a classic humor site that also posts true-life adventures such as this one — MJ Stacey, an American currently teaching high school in Korea, details “the 6 strangest things nobody tells you about life in Korea.” What’s #1? An obsession with personal appearance, fueled by self-loathing, which drives what sounds like the nation’s entire female population to seek cosmetic surgery.

Stacey writes:

If you visit South Korea, there’s a really good chance the first thing somebody says to you will be a comment on your appearance. Sometimes it’s just to call you handsome or beautiful (how sweet!); other times they’ll remark to you, a complete stranger, about how tired you look, or how your hair looks like shit, or how you could probably stand to do a few thousand extra situps each morning. Slightly less sweet.

They don’t mean to be rude — it’s just that, to South Koreans, a perfect appearance is everything, so if you don’t look perfect, something might be wrong with you. This goes a long way toward explaining why everybody’s so damn vain over here. My high school boys are constantly fixing their hair in handheld mirrors. Even my male colleagues will randomly stand up in class and go to the mirror to fix their hair. The hallway outside of the teachers’ office has a mirror on every pillar so you never have to go a moment without scrutinizing your appearance, which many don’t. I don’t have co-workers or students — I have Zoolanders. …

My friend teaches at a girls’ middle school. She’ll ask them, “Hey, what did you guys do over vacation?” and they’ll proudly respond, “Mommy bought me eyelid surgery.” They don’t want some trite platitude like “But sweetie, you’ve always been pretty.” They want confirmation that their procedure brought them one step closer to the ultimate South Korean beauty ideal. A big part of that is the vaunted “double eyelid” look.

This and other plastic surgery procedures make up Seoul’s #1 graduation gift year in and year out.

So what exactly do these girls hate about themselves (besides everything)? Well, they think their faces are too big and round, so they undergo jaw reduction surgery and cheekbone shaving to achieve the V-shaped face that brings all the boys to the yard. They believe that their eyes are too small, so they double lid it, get a blepharoplasty (further work on the eyelid to make it squeaky-clean), and widen their eyes by cutting the inner corners with an epicanthoplasty. And of course, they want the ideal “S-line” figure, so they undergo rib removal. In short, the worst parts of an Eli Roth torture-porn are just business as usual for young South Korean women.

Beyond pure culturally imposed vanity, there’s another reason so many Koreans spend top dollar to recreate the Clone Wars. There is enormous pressure to compete here in every way. You need to submit personal photos along with every single resume (even for jobs where that shouldn’t matter), and those precious, scarce jobs often go to the “prettier” party. To many, plastic surgery isn’t done just to look like the Hollywood ideal — it’s considered a sound career move.

GNC Ads Mock the Self-Esteem Movement

A great new ad campaign designed by Carmichael Lynch for GNC Holdings — the huge health-products retailer — takes aim at the grotesque self-esteem movement that has, since the 1980s, made narcissism the new normal.

We at the low end of the self-esteem spectrum tend to be baffled by all this unmerited self-adoration and by a culture in which every player gets a trophy just for being there — while we refuse to accept even the smallest compliments, much less take credit for our own achievements. Were one of us to singlehandedly end world hunger, we’d look around blankly when offered a Nobel Prize and say, “No way.”

Addressing an audience that is huge but is definitely not us, this ad campaign — titled “Beat Average,” based on the notion that in a narcissistic society, average is the new good — makes hilarious fun of those on the sky-high end of the self-esteem spectrum whose self-adoration makes them lazily complacent: in this case, about their health. Various scenes depict people making excuses for not having made healthy lifestyle choices: One drop of rain sends a woman racing off the sports field, for instance.

“Average has memory issues,” the narrator says mockingly as people in cars and in workplaces smack themselves on the forehead and say, “Oops! I forgot to work out!”

We with low self-esteem don’t need to worry about this particular mindgame. But it’s funny to see an expensive ad campaign aimed at those self-lovers who do.

My Interview With The Atlantic

An intense interview with me is now online at The Atlantic! Judith Ohikuare did a fantastic job of asking insightful, probing questions. Here’s an excerpt:

JO: How does self-loathing affect people’s relationships, whether familial, or romantic, or professional?

AR: The way I see it, we who have low self-esteem make ourselves hard to love. There’s a certain negative narcissism aspect to having low self-esteem. People who totally adore themselves are hard to love because they only see themselves and it’s hard for them to care about you. But people who hate themselves are also hard to love because they, too, are so self-absorbed that their own needs and miseries obstruct their view of another person. You can’t see into someone else’s heart if you are so wrapped up in yourself. If you’re sitting there, sobbing on the bed and there’s someone beside you saying, “But I love you,” and you reply, “No! I’m so worthless!” you’re basically saying ‘screw you’ to that person. If we can have compassion for ourselves, then we are inviting ourselves to have compassion for others, which makes relationships fairer and more equal.

I’ve seen how difficult it is for people that are in relationships with a person who hates [himself]. They feel that they are not being listened to, and that their care and concern for the self-loathing person is being rejected. And sometimes they say, “I’ve been reassuring you for 20 years. I’ve got no more for you.” So we’re at risk of doing that and, thus, at risk of being alone—which is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Let It Go” and Other Self-Esteem Songs: Do You Feel Better Yet?

I saw Idina Menzel sing “Let It Go” during the Oscars show, and I saw Majesty Rose sing it last night on “American Idol.” Composed by Kristin Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez for the Disney film Frozen — in which a princess sings it after realizing that she no longer needs to keep her amazing ice-creating powers a secret and can now be her authentic self — this song won an Academy Award.

Someday I might see the film and put this song in context and thus not sound like an ignorant whiner, but for now I’ll just say that hearing this song’s lyrics twice made me depressed in the way that modern song lyrics — especially those ostensibly aimed at girls and women — often do. Its message boils down to: I’m great! I’m powerful! I’m no longer oppressed by others! I’m fabulous and free! Look at me!”

Which, psychologically, OK. Who wants to be trapped inside a tiny box crafted by others, based on their expectations of whom we should be? As a person with low self-esteem, I should welcome such songs, which now comprise an ever-larger genre all their own. But self-esteem songs just make me squirm. They’re affirmations, set to soaring music. They’re love songs, sure — but love songs sung to the self, with overly obvious, tedious, shallow, pandering lyrics that mark them as having been authored by people with high self-esteem for people with low self-esteem. Credibility fail. Academy Award aside, artistry fail. Your mileage may vary.

De Niro at Oscars: Writers Are Consumed by Self-Loathing

Last night during the Oscars show, Robert De Niro gave a (scripted, of course) introduction to the best-screenplay nominees:

The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing. Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination and consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.

Ha ha! But yes, self-loathing and soul-crushing inadequacy are remarkably common among writers. Is it because we tend to be paid mere peanuts compared to our friends and former classmates who chose other professions (wait, am I actually worth one-twentieth as much as my lawyer and professor pals? yes, I am)? Or is it because writing lends itself to perfectionism, because we can always tweak every line a bit more … and again … and — hold on, wait — again? Thus, for us, better and better is still never best. Or do so many writers have low self-esteem because writing — no matter the topic — is such a personal act? Thus every hour of work is another hour of self-examination?

I don’t know. And I wonder whether winning or being nominated for a best-screenplay Oscar alleviated the nominees’ self-loathing — and, if so, for how long and how much?

Do You Go Around Announcing That You’re Unlovable?

Has anyone ever told you they loved you and your first response to that miraculous, brave statement was “No, you don’t” or “No, you can’t”? … And then you started rambling off a list of reasons why he or she could not possibly love you, because you believed that this innocent, ignorant, well-meaning but extremely naïve person hadn’t yet seen the real you?

We’ve all been there.

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Being an Obedient Member of Society Raises Self-Esteem, Study Says

Self-esteem may or may not be a “cultural construct,” as they say in academia — but how good a person feels about him- or herself is largely based on how adeptly he or she complies with the social norms of whatever culture he or she happens to inhabit, according to a new study.

Headed by social psychology professor Vivian Vignoles, researchers from the UK’s University of Sussex interviewed more than 5,000 young participants in Europe, the Middle East, South America, Africa and Asia.



Participants filled out questionnaires based on the main question, “Who are you?” which sought to determine which aspects of themselves spurred the most positive self-regard.

As reported at MedicalXpress:

The results showed that participants derived the most self-esteem from aspects of their identities that best fulfilled the values of their surrounding culture. For example, participants in cultural contexts where people most emphasized values such as self-direction and having a stimulating life (e.g., the UK, Western Europe, and some parts of South America) were more likely to derive self-esteem from controlling their own lives, whereas those in cultures where there was relatively more emphasis on values such as conformity, tradition, and security (e.g., parts of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia) were relatively more likely to derive self-esteem from doing their duty.

Dr Vignoles comments: “Popular psychology and self-help books often seem to imply that people can build self-esteem on their own. These findings should remind us that no-one is an island. Building self-esteem is mostly a collaborative enterprise.

“Our research suggests that the self-esteem system is an important way in which individuals internalise the values of their culture on an implicit level, even if they do not profess to believe in these values when they are asked explicitly. These subtle processes may encourage people to act in ways that are desirable in their society, and thus help to maintain social solidarity.”

Whoah, great. So if we are obedient little exemplars of the French way or the Balinese way or the Peruvian way — and we are French, Balinese, or Peruvian, or have set up longtime residence in those cultures — we probably won’t hate ourselves. But the introverted, unfashionable Italian or the feminist Yemeni, say, are more susceptible to self-loathing?


Dr Vignoles explains: “We can all think of different things that make us see ourselves positively, whether it is succeeding at work or school, our relationships with friends and family, behaving morally towards others, or having the right possessions—as well as other aspects of ourselves that we may feel less good about. But what gives these things their importance?

“An intuitive answer would be that every individual bases their self-esteem on living up to the values that they personally see as most important—and this has been the dominant view in psychology for over 100 years. But firm evidence for this idea has been surprisingly elusive.

“Our new findings paint a very different picture, suggesting that it is the value priorities of others in the surrounding context, not the individual’s own value priorities, that predict which aspects of ourselves will give us the greatest sense of self-worth.”

“Tiger Mother” Amy Chua: High Self-Esteem Isn’t Magic

In a recent interview, controversial “Tiger Mother” Amy Chua called herself “a critic of the self-esteem movement. There are studies that we talk about at length in our book that show that self-esteem – it’s not that it just doesn’t – it actually doesn’t make people feel that much better about themselves. A lot of people who are just told, “You are fine however you are, you don’t need to strive,” actually end up with a lot of anxiety and depression. If I just knew that I could say to my children, “You are perfect as you are,” and that would make them happier and lead happier lives, I would do it in a second, but the evidence suggests the contrary.”

How Can We Stop Talking Ourselves Out of Everything?

Someone asked me at another website why it is that some of us habitually talk ourselves out of great opportunities and activities that might be enriching, engaging or fun — and how can we break this habit?

I think we acquired this habit because somewhere back there we learned to be ashamed of ourselves, to so dislike various aspects of ourselves that we did not dare reveal them to the outside world, which we were sure would mock or punish us.

We became our own worst critics, mocking and punishing ourselves for our own desires and qualities in valiant attempts to beat the outside world to the punch. As in: Yeah, yeah, I know you hate me. But guess what! I hate myself too! So I will talk myself out of opportunities and potential fun.

As for what to do about it, I think the first step is to unplug some of our harshest self-judgments. We call ourselves boring dullards or shrinking violets or weird freaks or unfashionable geeks. But what really defines any of those terms? What is “boring,” really, and to whom? I’m sure many of Emily Dickinson’s contemporaries thought she was extremely boring. And did Albert Schweitzer need to be fashionable?

Maybe we can talk ourselves into taking chances and “just doing it” by telling ourselves: It’s not that I’m incompetent, it’s not that I’m dull and unacceptable — but rather it’s that I can see a lot more of what’s really going on in most situations than nearly everyone else can. Low self-esteem has a way of making us hyper-perceptive. And being hyper-perceptive can make what’s easy for others extremely difficult for us, because we are the ones who keep asking: What if, what if, what if, and what could possibly go wrong?

I know firsthand how hard it is to “just do it.” One strategy I have developed to overcome talking myself out of stuff is to ask myself silently: What law is there against whatever quality of mine I’m internally criticizing? What law demands that I have certain specific qualities and that, if I have other qualities instead, these qualities of mine are all that bad, shameful, or mockable? If I’m down in the depths thinking No no no I can’t do XYZ or go to ABC because I’m too ugly, stupid, boring or whatever, I try to tell myself, “Hey, at least I’m not a burglar or a murderer.” You’d be surprised how well that works.