Many Korean women are ready to go further than creams and treatments to transform their looks. A 2007 survey revealed that 8 out of 10 Korean women over 18 believed they needed plastic surgery to be beautiful and that half of them had gotten plastic surgery at least once (source Chusun Ilbo).
In these advertisings for plastic surgery clinics in Korea the models are either Caucasian or go from typical Asian faces to Westernized features of double eyelids, high cheekbones and pointy nose. The most popular surgery in Korea is the double eyelid representing 80% of cosmetic procedures (source: Medical Tourism Board of Korea), then rhinoplastie (to achieve a longer and higher nose) and eye or face-lifts completing the top 3 for both men and women. In comparison, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgery the most demanded surgery in North America is breast augmentation. It’s also interesting to see how products such as Botox and hyaluronic acid commonly employed to reduce the appearance of wrinkles have found new uses in Asia, respectively to make cheeks smaller and to create pointier noses and chins.
Extreme surgeries are also practiced for the sake of beauty such as facial bone structure alteration pictures (involving jaw bone scrapping) or calf reduction to eliminate what is commonly called ‘radish calves’ (requires reeducation for walking post-procedure). A famous example both on-screen and in real-life is actress Kim Ah-Joong (김아중), star of the movie 200 Pound Beauty (미녀는 괴로워) where she plays a singer with a beautiful voice and an ugly-duckling appearance who achieves stardom after going through a complete body-makeover. The 2006 movie actually reflected Kim Ah-Joong own story as she herself went through quite a transformation.
So why are Koreans so crazy about plastic surgery? Well, it is a blend of three elements. First conformity, Korea is a collective society, where to be part of the group one must do like everyone else or fear to be left out. Second, sexism is very present and women face open criticism about their looks on a daily basis. And third it is a hyper-competitive society, from being accepted into a top school to getting a job the competition is intense and the current high unemployment level just increases the pressure on people.
Employment cosmetic surgery is actually a big motivational factor for many Korean families. After pushing their children in school to get into the best universities, parents see plastic surgery as another way to get the best for their children and increase their chances in the job market, since nowadays having a graduate degree is not enough to land a good position (source: The Independent). It is common for students to go through surgeries during their last university year, so that by the time they are meeting with employers they have healed and look as good as the Photoshoped picture on their resume. Another original use of Botox has been found for job interviews; by injecting the toxin in their vocal chords candidates don’t need to worry if they get nervous as their voice will not be able to tremble.
More surreal on the other hand, is that superstition is yet another reason why Koreans are devoted to plastic surgery. Visiting a ‘face fortune teller’ is popular and some people decide to go through surgery to increase their fortune. Not only is it lacking all objective reasoning but some fortune tellers have been linked to unscrupulous cosmetic surgeons who pay them commissions. Also ironic, people who are anxious to better their luck visit palm readers to have additional lines sliced into their palms hoping to influence their destiny. Their is quite a contrast between the fast paced rhythm of modern Seoul with all its high rises and the popularity of visiting a fortune teller around new year.
Men too are under increasing scrutiny and pressure to look good. With the popularity of Korean dramas such as Boys Before Flowers (top: Lee Min Ho, 이민호, the face of Etude House in Korea) or Queen of Housewives (bottom: Yun Sang Hyeon, 윤상현), styles such as “Flower Man” have become popular and in turn Korean masculinity is becoming softer and more polished. Cosmetic surgery and skincare clinics are seeing a great increase in the interest from men and shops dedicated to men’s cosmetics are opening in Seoul’s coolest neighborhoods.
To conclude this Beauty Series, an interesting remark from Seoul-based plastic surgeon Dr. Yang Jeong-Ryol who sees gradual but profound changes in Korean culture through the widespread acceptance of plastic surgery. According to the surgeon being a successful Korean used to mean endurance: “holding in feelings, keeping your head down, and working hard. Now, being Korean is more about expression, presenting to the world what people here call Ul-jjang or best face” (source: Medical Tourism). For many Korean families, plastic surgery is helping to turn that concept from an idea into a reality.
Beauty Series: Korean Women Then and Now is adapted from a presentation I gave at the Montreal Korean Language & Culture Club in February 2010.