Photographer Ji Yeo’s shots of women in the aftermath of cosmetic surgery have transfixed online audiences. But has her work changed her teenage wish to go under the knife?
The photographer Ji Yeo had two dreams as an adolescent. One was to attend a prestigious college. The other was to have a full body transformation, top to toe, through cosmetic surgery. She spent her school years moving between the US and South Korea, and when she had achieved her first ambition, starting university in Seoul, she began pursuing her second.
In her late teens she saw several cosmetic surgeons, more than 12 in all. Now 29, she says of that time: “I didn’t like myself at all. I had very low self esteem. I even hated my toenails! I didn’t like my hair. I didn’t like my eyebrows.” But the consultations failed to clear up her concerns about surgery. “The more I did,” she says, “the more I questioned plastic surgery, because none of the doctors clearly explained how the surgeries would go, or the possible side effects. Not knowing every detail, I felt I just couldn’t do it … I had wanted plastic surgery my entire life, but I realised maybe something outside of me was almost forcing me to want it.”
To test this theory, she stopped the consultations, and embarked on her Beauty Recovery Room project. She contacted women through an online cosmetic surgery forum in South Korea, and asked whether they’d agree to have their picture taken in the days after surgery, when they were still bandaged. In return, in some cases, she helped look after them. Around 10 women said yes, and the results are extraordinary. The images show women at their most vulnerable: bandaged, bruised and scarred, in some cases with weeping wounds. In a culture where women are heavily criticised for looking old, out of shape or tired – but also for any obvious signs of cosmetic surgery – the photos show a part of the process that’s rarely seen, a moment when a woman is very clearly, unequivocally, a surgical subject.
The photos have exerted such a fascination, that they keep on circulating – both online, where they were most recently covered by Wired magazine – and on the gallery circuit. Ji was shortlisted for the 2013 Taylor Wessing photographic portrait prize, which led to an image of a woman in surgical stockings and head bandage appearing in the National Portrait Gallery in London. She has been exhibited in Brighton, is currently on show at three galleries in the US, and has just been part of a two-person show in South Korea.
In her series Somewhere on the Path, I See You, she took portraits of women in an eating-disorder support group, and is currently at work on a project depicting cosmetic-surgery facilities in South Korea. “Plastic surgery clinics are huge here,” she says. “It’s almost a hospital, not just a clinic. It’s a 14-floor building, with entertainment rooms, everything … So I’m taking photos of these interiors.”
In 2010, she dressed in a skin-coloured leotard and went to the bustling Brooklyn flea market alongside a sign saying, “I want to be perfect. Draw on me. Where should I get plastic surgery?” The performance was initially daunting, she says. “I was really nervous at the idea of putting myself into vulnerable situations, and I don’t even like it when people stare at me on the street.” She found, in some cases, that men were looking very closely at specific parts of her body. “But during the performance I got really comfortable that people were coming up to me and saying they were surprised at the idea of me getting plastic surgeries.” They scrawled on the leotard and on her skin, “You are beautiful as you are,” “You already are perfect”; and “Not here” along her thighs. “It felt great,” she says. “It doesn’t mean that I overcame all my fears or vulnerability, but it helped a little bit.”
Perhaps surprisingly, taking the photos for Beauty Recovery Room made her more accepting of the idea of plastic surgery. “I was really influenced by talking and interacting with [the women] – at the beginning I had a huge fear about surgery, about lying on the bed, but I don’t feel any fear now. I became one of them, I guess. I feel like it’s very casual, it’s not that big a deal, and I’m more fond of plastic surgery these days.”
South Korea is estimated to be the world’s largest market for cosmetic surgery, with a 2009 survey suggesting one in five women aged 19 to 49 in Seoul have had a procedure. Ji was surprised, at first, by the attitudes she encountered from her subjects, but came to understand them. “One woman was going to get a breast enlargement, and she got a bank loan for it, because she didn’t have the money.” When an examination revealed a problem with one of her breasts, Ji assumed any surgery was off. “But instead of getting a breast enlargement, she got a nose job and chin implant. So it wasn’t about getting a breast enlargement, it was about getting plastic surgery, and enhancing their appearance. For most of them, the attitude was very casual. There was no fear, more excitement … Maybe it’s not true, but I felt even with the bandages and the pain they were more confident.”
Virginia Blum, a US professor and author of the book Flesh Wounds: The Culture of Cosmetic Surgery has said that cosmetic surgery can be addictive, “because people potentially experience that swell of self-esteem, and then they want to have that experience again. I would argue that that’s because it’s located in the realm of consumption. You’ve consumed this body transformation, and have a really great feeling, and want to sustain it. I also argue, either way, that once you’re in it, you’re in it. You either have a bad [cosmetic surgery] result, and have to redo yourself, because the result was insufficient – or the result was really great, and you want to reproduce that intoxicated feeling.”
One of the women Ji photographed had had more than 16 surgeries in the space of six months. “Women continue to experience their body as more mutable,” Blum says, because, “women are raised around a fashion-magazine culture in which we realise we can work on these different body parts, so we divide and conquer. Plastic surgery approaches the body in much the same way women are trained from girlhood to approach their bodies. And male bodies are not quite as available to that divide-and-conquer model, although I think they are becoming increasingly so.”
The power and discomfort of Ji’s images arises, at least in part, through her own ambivalence. She says the reaction to them has differed according to culture. “Audiences in the US and Europe seem to be more surprised by the images than a Korean audience. Koreans usually see the photos and instantly try to figure out what they had done – so it’s a guessing game. ‘Oh, she’s done eyes and nose’ or ‘She’s done liposuction'”. Living between the two cultures, Ji says she still has a desire to get plastic surgery – she might one day have a facelift – “but then there’s another me saying, ‘no, you’re beautiful as you are.’ They’re always fighting.” Can she live happily with that? “I think I’ve got used to it.”