Ji Yeo spent her teenage years in Gangnam, a district in Seoul epitomized by Psy’s Gangnam Style. Her own experiences in and out of plastic surgery consultations inspired her recent work, the Beauty Recovering Room series. Acting as a nurse, Ji Yeo gained access to women recovering from plastic surgery and photographed them fresh from going under the knife. Equal parts documentary and art, Ji Yeo’s work aims to interrupt the usual before-and-after plastic surgery narrative by showing the cost of adhering to social pressure in Korea.
Dazed Digital: Were you always fascinated by beauty?
Ji Yeo: When I went back to Korea after going to elementary school in the U.S. I was shocked when teachers commented about their students’ appearance and about their bodies – it was insane. The kids in my school always talked about how tall or skinny they were. If you were pretty you were extremely popular. If not, you were excluded from the group so from an early age everything was centered around appearances.
DD: So where does plastic surgery come in?
Ji Yeo: I definitely think it’s because everyone wants to look more like Western or Caucasian—like having a higher nose and bigger eyes. Even though there is a difference between what Western women want and what Korean women want, I think that is the ultimate goal.
DD: I've seen crazy surgeries like total facial reconstruction. How do you feel about the extreme plastic surgery culture?
Ji Yeo: I started off being very critical. The reason I started this project was because I had my own self esteem issues. In high school my only goal was to become pretty. I was doing a lot of part-time jobs against my parents’ wishes in order to save up for plastic surgery. My goal was to have surgery on my whole body as soon as I graduated from high school. I went to more than a dozen surgeons getting consultations before realizing it wasn’t for me. I thought I’d have a better life if I enhanced my look.
DD: Did your friends do it too?
Ji Yeo: Oh, definitely. I only have two friends in Korea who didn’t do any surgery. I realized this wasn’t what I wanted for myself though because it sounded really scary. I thought it would be quick and easy because I never actually saw anybody during the transformation process – just before and after shots.
DD: Do you think some girl will see Beauty Recovery Room and have a wake up call?
Ji Yeo: I hope so, but I'm not sure it will work in Korea. Korean women are so immune to all kinds of surgery so it doesn't come as much of a shock to them.
I was doing a lot of part-time jobs against my parents’ wishes in order to save up for plastic surgery. My goal was to have surgery on my whole body as soon as I graduated from high school
DD: Was it hard finding willing subjects?
Ji Yeo: That was the toughest part. There was a huge blog in Korea where people shared all kinds of plastic surgery information and photos in a kind of review for each surgeon. I posted an ad on the blog explaining my project. If they agreed to be in front of my camera I pretty much agreed to be their servant. I waited for them to get out of surgery, drove them to their home or hotel room, cooked for them, bought them pills and then met them for their post-op appointment the next day. My models didn't really want to be in front of the camera but they kind of needed my service. They were completely alone. The majority of people go through these surgeries by themselves. They don't want to tell their friends or parents since its supposed to be a secret.
DD: What was their reaction to the photos?
Ji Yeo: They don't even want to look at the photos. I kept in touch with them for several months but after a point they would rather not keep in touch with me because I’m a reminder of the past.
DD: You did a performance piece in which you invited strangers to draw on your body, as if marking it for plastic surgery. What was that like to open yourself up to judgement?
Ji Yeo: I was really nervous. When I'm in Korea I always hear negative comments about my appearance. I think people don't intend to hurt my feelings, but it’s part of the culture. It’s almost like saying hello. I was curious about what non-Korean people would say about me. They were nice.