Beauty, at what price? ‘If I Had Your Face’ explores women’s lives amid unnatural expectations

Jung Yun

THE WASHINGTON POST – In a 2015 Saturday Night Live (SNL) monologue, comedian Amy Schumer criticised the lack of “regular looking” women in Hollywood. Pointing at her round, full cheeks with pride, Schumer said, “We have to be a role model for these little girls, because who do they have? All they have, literally, is the Kardashians.” Later that year, I travelled to Seoul on assignment for a magazine and visited several plastic surgery clinics, where I frequently thought of Schumer’s comment. In lobbies and waiting rooms, I saw glossy, oversized photos of the clinics’ success stories – women with faces so radically altered, it was difficult to believe that the “before” and “after” pictures featured the same people.

Frances Cha’s debut novel, If I Had Your Face, is set in contemporary South Korea, the plastic surgery capital of the world, where an estimated one in three women will elect to have a procedure before the age of 30. In addition to examining the country’s impossibly high beauty standards and obsession with appearances, the novel takes aim at other societal constructs that are difficult to overcome, such as class, patriarchy and inequality.

Cha’s novel revolves around four young women who live in the same apartment building. There’s Kyuri, whose many surgeries have earned her a job at a room salon. Her roommate, Miho, is an up-and-coming artiste who once studied in New York and has a wealthy Korean boyfriend. Across the hall is another pair of roommates – Ara, a mute hair stylist traumatised by a mysterious event from her past, and Sujin, who dreams of working alongside Kyuri in a “10 per cent” room salon.

With one notable exception, the men who populate this novel are not depicted as friends, much less allies. They lie, cheat, abuse, and/or view the women around them as objects.

In general, the wealthier the man, the more arrogant and entitled his behaviour. Similar to Bong Joon-ho’s Academy Award-winning film Parasite, Cha deftly renders a society in which upward mobility is extraordinarily difficult, and what passes as advancement for poor women is often soul crushing.

Cha’s background as a former travel and culture editor for CNN in Seoul serves her well as she vibrantly brings the city and country to life.

And her excellent depiction of how difficult it is for young South Koreans to get ahead will likely resonate with American millennials and members of Gen-Z.

There are, however, a few instances when the novel attempts to incorporate one too many familiar Korean headlines; and some plotlines feel a bit underwhelming once finally realised.

Thankfully, these are minor exceptions in an otherwise powerful and provocative rendering of contemporary South Korean society, one that might be considered bleak if not for the women themselves, who occasionally surprise with their compassion and bravery. At heart, If I Had Your Face is a novel about female strength, spirit, resilience – and the solace that friendship can sometimes provide.