PLASTIC SURGERY IN SOUTH KOREA
South Korea is the plastic surgery center of Asia — if not the world. The country is home to more than 4,000 plastic surgery clinics and has the world's highest rate of cosmetic procedures — 13 for every 1,000 people. Its US$5 billion plastic surgery industry accounts for a quarter of the global market according to the country's antitrust watchdog. According to Reuters: “In South Korea, where physical perfection is seen as a way to improve the quality of life, including job and marriage prospects, plastic surgery procedures can seem as commonplace as haircuts.” [Source: Ju-min Park, Reuters, November 1, 2014]
South Korean women undergo more cosmetic surgeries than any other people in the world. Common cosmetic surgery procedures performed there include breast enlargements, facial reconstruction surgery that alters the cheekbones and chin, and operations to create a pointy nose, turn up nose, shrunken nostrils and full lips. One of the most common surgical procedures is the double-eyelid operation. Many Asian women don't have a crease over the top of their eyelid like Western women do. This crease, along with round eyes, in considered beautiful by some people. The double eyelid adds a crease above eyelids with a scar-making incisions and reduces excess skin in the upper eyelid to make the eyes appear bigger.
CBS News reported: Globally, surgeons performed more than 20 million cosmetic procedures” in 2014. South Korea, a country of about 50 million people, accounted for nearly a million of them... In the capital city of Seoul, plastic surgery clinics line the roads...Plastic surgery is advertised on subway billboards and is even the focus of one popular reality TV show about dramatic makeovers. South Korea's plastic surgery clinics have become a major attraction for its neighbors, including wealthy Chinese.” In spring of 2016, South Korea started offering a 10-percent tax break on cosmetic procedures. [Source: CBS News September 28, 2015]
Stephen Evans of the BBC wrote: “ You can't avoid the adverts. Everywhere you go in Seoul, you are urged to change your shape through plastic surgery. In affluent Gangnam, every wall seems to have a sign pointing to a surgery. On the train and in the street, you're told you can "bring your face to life". "Facial contouring" is on offer - "breast surgery", "anti-ageing", "eyeplasty", "body contouring". There is "square jaw reduction" (mainly, the adverts imply, for men). Or transforming your face "from saggy and loose to elastic and dimensional", targeted mostly at women.” [Source: Stephen Evans, BBC News, December 15, 2014]
Elderly people often get Botox as part of an anti-aging procedure. The vast majority of patients are female, but males make up approximately 15 percent of the customers. Young girls who wear midriff blouses and bikinis have their navels altered from a " — " shape to a "§." Men get operations to make their eyes look wider. “In the subways in Seoul, there are plastic surgery ads everywhere,” American filmmaker Kelley Katzenmeyer, who has lived in Seoul for 10 years, says.”To girls in Seoul, beauty standards are as important as their academics.”
South Korean: a World Leader in Number of Cosmetic Surgeries
Seoul has more cosmetic surgery procedures per capita than any other place in the world. nation. The tony neighborhood of Gangnam there reportedly has 500 aesthetic centers alone. Over 980,000 cosmetic surgery operations were recorded in 2014. That's 20 procedures per 1,000 people, compared US's 13 procedures per 1,000 in the U.S.. Korea has had the most operations per capita since 2009. [Source: Drake Baer, Business Insider, September 22, 2015]
Some estimates have suggested that around one in three South Korean women between 19 and 29 have had plastic surgery. Others have put that number at 50 percent or higher. [Source: Harrison Jacobs and Annie Zheng, Business Insider, June 28, 2018]
Patricia Marx wrote in The New Yorker: “South Koreans do not merely brood about their physiognomy. They put their money where their mouths. It has been estimated that between one-fifth and one-third of women in Seoul have gone under the knife, and one poll reported by the BBC puts the figure at fifty per cent or higher for women in their twenties. Men, by one account, make up fifteen per cent of the market, including a former President of the country, who underwent double-eyelid surgery while in office. Statistics in this field are iffy because the industry is not regulated and there are no official records, but we’ll get to that in a grimmer paragraph. [Source: Patricia Marx, The New Yorker, March 23, 2015]
Karen Lee wrote in fashionone.com: “If you aren’t satisfied with your looks, especially once you’ve hit middle age, you have a wide array of plastic surgery procedures to choose from. Whether you want to improve visible signs of aging or beautify your appearance, the options are endless. It is...quite astonishing that South Koreans are so open about plastic surgery. Parents sometimes even pay for their children to undergo plastic surgery procedures to improve their looks because South Korea is still considered a traditional Asian country deep-rooted in the morality of Confucius’ ethics.” [Source: Karen Lee, fashionone.com, October 28, 2016]
Competitive Koreans and the Plastic Surgery Boom They Triggered
CBS News reported: “In South Korea, people have also come to equate "beauty" with success and job resumes commonly require a photo attachment. Beauty has become a means to distinguish oneself in the nation's hypercompetitive culture. "I think it's more competitive than other areas of the world — very highly educated — so you can't just have a good spec on your resume," Oh said. "Because everyone has good grades, everybody has all the credentials, so how are you going to get ahead of it?" [Source: CBS News September 28, 2015]
Plastic surgery was become so common in South Korea that it is even given as a gift to graduating high school students, 20-year-old Sally Park, told CBS said it was a "new face, new start" and almost every one of her friends have had it. "When I told my friends I was going to get this surgery, their reaction was bland...they weren't surprised," said Kim Eun Som, before going under the scalpel at Regen, one of Seoul's biggest cosmetic hospitals.
Moments before the operation, her doctor, Oh Myeong-Joon, marked up her face during one final consultation. At 23, she worries she looks "old" and "gloomy," so she saved up about US$1,800 working part-time retail jobs to get a "fat graft of the full face." "She thinks she has a very haggard look- a very skeletonized look, which makes her look older than her age," Oh said. "And she wants to have a more babyish face or a younger face."
To achieve the new look, he would take some fat from Kim's thigh and inject it into her temple and under her eyes. It is a "simple procedure," one that's so subtle that he called it "the perfect crime." Less than 24-hours after her surgery, bandaged up and still swollen, Kim said, "I think I will be stressed out less. Since the depressed areas of my face are now filled with fat, I think I will be able to live a brighter life."
Importance of Looks in Korea
Patricia Marx wrote in The New Yorker: “ If you want to feel bad about your looks, spend some time in Seoul. An eerily high number of women there — and men, too — look like anime princesses. Subway riders primp in front of full-length mirrors installed throughout the stations for that purpose. Job applicants are typically required to attach photographs to their résumés. Remarks from relatives, such as “You would be a lot prettier if you just had your jaw tapered,” are considered no more insulting than “You’d get a lot more for your apartment if you redid the kitchen.”“ [Source: Patricia Marx, The New Yorker, March 23, 2015]
Christoph Neidhart, wrote in Tages-Anzeiger: “In East Asia, the external has been a higher priority than in the West. For job applications, the Koreans selected based on the photos while Americans selected based on the written contents. It would therefore be true that cosmetic surgery improves job opportunities in Korea, and the marriage prospects probably. [Source: Christoph Neidhart, Tages-Anzeiger, October 27, 2015, Tages-Anzeiger, also abbreviated Tagi or TA, is a Swiss German-language national daily newspaper published in Zurich, Switzerland]
According to Eunkook Suh, a psychology professor at Yonsei University, in Seoul, “obsession of external appearance has been very old even older than the history of plastic surgery. He also did the research with men and women, even with old people and found that in highly competitive society, people had a stronger desire for having what competitors already have. Professor Suh described this condition as a “Jealous Society” and said having double eyelids for people meant having a new car or an iPhone. He said, “they want to come up short in any case.” This research shows why Koreans tend to accept innovations faster than other nations.
“Today, beauty clinics have been advertising aggressively and promote everyone that visiting plastic surgery hospital is same as visiting a hairdresser. In Korea, people tend to think they can achieve everything if they put much effort, and if they fail on something, they blame on physical appearance: they think they should have improved appearance even in a surgical way.
Drake Baer wrote in Business Insider: “Homogenized beauty standards stand out in Korean beauty pageants.” A photo “of contestants for the Miss Daegu 2013 beauty pageant made the rounds on Reddit and Gawker. The contestants have strikingly similar looks, especially in the eyes. One former Korean beauty pageant contestant says that the majority of her pageant peers received plastic surgery, ranging from double eyelid surgery to nose jobs (rhinoplasty). Plastic surgery is, she says, seen by judges as a sign that a contestant is serious about their career. Since everybody wants to look the same way, Lee says that Koreans assume it's normal, "regardless of history or meaning." [Source: Drake Baer, Business Insider, September 22, 2015]
“You submit your photo with your resúmé, with the assumption that if you look like you can take care of yourself, then you can take care of your job. Attractiveness is a competitive advantage in the job market, which is why, Choi says, applicants go as far as photoshopping their resume images. "Usually," one plastic surgeon he says, "people believe that people with better appearance have more opportunity.
History of Cosmetic Surgery in Korea
Patricia Marx wrote in The New Yorker: “The national fixation on plastic surgery began in the aftermath of the Korean War, triggered by the offer made by the American occupational forces to provide free reconstructive surgery to maimed war victims. Particular credit or blame — you choose — goes to David Ralph Millard, the chief plastic surgeon for the U.S. Marine Corps, who, in response to requests from Korean citizens wishing to change their Asian eyes to Occidental ones, perfected the blepharoplasty. As Millard wrote in a 1955 monograph, the Asian eye’s “absence of the palpebral fold produces a passive expression which seems to epitomize the stoical and unemotional manner of the Oriental.” The procedure was a hit, and caught on fast, especially with Korean prostitutes, who wanted to attract American G.I.s. “It was indeed a plastic surgeon’s paradise,” Millard wrote. [Source: Patricia Marx, The New Yorker, March 23, 2015]
Christoph Neidhart, wrote in Tages-Anzeiger: “There is an exhibit of the Museum of Plastic Surgery” at the BK Plastic Surgery, a cosmetic surgery clinic in Seoul. “The exhibition draws a line from the Bolognese physician Gasparo Tagliacozzi, the founder of plastic surgery, to what is happening today in Seoul. There are detailed information about history of plastic surgery from the 16th to the 21st century. [Source: Christoph Neidhart, Tages-Anzeiger, October 27, 2015, Tages-Anzeiger, also abbreviated Tagi or TA, is a Swiss German-language national daily newspaper published in Zurich, Switzerland]
“History of Korean plastic surgery has begun since Korean War especially when a US plastic surgeon came to Korea. The head of the U.S. Marine surgery, Ralph Millard, operated mutilated war victims to restore their bodies, and one day he operated a double eyelid surgery for a Korean woman, and this issue marked the beginning of eyelid surgery.
“Eyelid surgery became popular in a quick period, "especially among Korean prostitutes who wanted to attract American soldiers" Millard wrote in 1955. According to Millard, Asian eyes were described as "the stoic and unemotional of the Orientals." But afterwards, Korea became a "haven for plastic surgeons".
“As more and more Asians preferred to have bigger eyes, Korean double eyelid surgery became very popular. "It was harmless than visiting a dental clinic" said Hyun-hee, a female Korean student. "In half an hour it was all over.” In some graduating classes, there can be found about 80 percent of girls have done plastic surgeries in Korea. Double eyelid surgery became a “Trend” not only in Seoul but also in country side and even North Korea.”
Why Koreans Want Cosmetic Surery
“We want to have surgeries while we are young so we can have our new faces for a long time,” one young woman told the New Yorker. Patricia Marx wrote: “In search of a clearer understanding of why South Koreans are such lookists, I stopped by the book-cluttered office of Eunkook Suh, a psychology professor at Yonsei University, in Seoul. “One factor is that, in contrast to Western cultures, the external aspects of self (your social status, clothes, gestures, and appearance) versus the inner aspects (thoughts and feelings) matter more here,” he explained. Suh described an experiment he did in which he gave students, both at Yonsei University and at the University of California at Irvine (where he once taught) a photograph and a written description of the same person. Which format, he asked the students, gives you a better understanding of this person? The Koreans chose the photograph, and the Americans chose the description. Suh, like others, partially attributes the Korean mind-set to Confucianism, which teaches that behavior toward others is all-important. He elaborated, “In Korea, we don’t care what you think about yourself. Other people’s evaluations of you matter more.” [Source: Patricia Marx, The New Yorker, March 23, 2015]
“Suh went on to explain that the two societies also have different ideas about personal change: “In Asian societies like Korea, a lot of people hold an incremental theory versus an entity theory about a person’s potential.” If you subscribe to the latter, as Suh claims we do in the United States, you believe that a person’s essence is fixed and that there is only a limited potential for change. “If your American ten-year-old is a born musician and not a soccer player, you’re not going to force her to play soccer,” Suh said. “In Korea, they think that if you put in effort you’re going to improve, so you’d force your kid to play soccer.” So, in Korea, not only can you grow up to be David Beckham; you can — with a lot of work — grow up to look like David Beckham, too.
Dr. Kim Byung Gun, Chief Plastic Surgeon of BK Plastic Surgery Hospital in Gangnam district of Seoul, told fashionone.com: Korean customers tend to have particularly high standards and tastes in beauty which lead to the development in the Plastic surgery industry as well. To satisfy the customers' high standards and needs, Korean plastic Surgeons have to be very experienced and specialized in the field and they use world-class techniques to perform plastic surgery.” [Source: Karen Lee, fashionone.com, October 28, 2016]
South Koreans are very receptive to plastic surgeries “for two main reasons. Firstly, because of Korean customers' high standards and tastes in beauty and Korea is also particularly active in leading innovation and in developing new and safe techniques for plastic surgery procedures. Korea is leading the world in terms of world-class techniques and safety in Plastic Surgery, bringing about societal acceptance of plastic surgery.
Looking Like K-Pop Stars
Drake Baer wrote in Business Insider: Cosmetic surgery “is also strongly linked to the global phenomenon of K-Pop according to Atlantic writer Zara Stone. "K-pop has created a completely new beauty aesthetic that nods to Caucasian features but doesn't replicate them," like the big eyes that are so dominant in pop culture, she says, It's hard to wrap your mind around just how huge K-Pop is in South Korea. According to the Paris Review, 2.08 million Koreans — an unbelievable 4 percent of the entire population — tried out for "Superstar K," the country's biggest singing competition in 2012. As a result of this idolization of K-Pop stars, plastic surgery is seen as aspirational, even normalized. [Source: Drake Baer, Business Insider, September 22, 2015]
John Seabrook wrote in The New Yorker: ““Good looks are a K-pop artist’s stock-in-trade. Although some of the idols are musicians, K-pop artists rarely play instruments onstage. Where K-pop stars excel is in sheer physical beauty. Their faces, chiselled, sculpted, and tapering to a sharp point at the chin, Na’vi style, look strikingly different from the flat, round faces of most Koreans. Some were born with this bone structure, no doubt, but many can look this way only with the help of plastic surgery. [Source: John Seabrook, The New Yorker, October 8, 2012]
“The popularity of the K-pop idols has also brought Chinese, Japanese, and Singaporean “medical tourists” to Seoul to have their faces altered to look more like the Korean stars. Some hotels have partnered with hospitals so that guests can have in-house procedures; the Ritz-Carlton Seoul, for example, offers an eighty-eight-thousand-dollar “anti-aging beauty package.” Women come to have their cheekbones shaved down and undergo “double jaw surgery,” in which the upper and lower jawbones are cracked apart and repositioned, to give the whole skull a more tapered look.”
Is Korean Cosmetic Surgery Boom and Effort to Look More European
Harrison Jacobs and Annie Zheng wrote in Business Insider: “Many Western critics, plastic surgeons included, have taken the prevalence of these procedures to mean that Koreans desire to look more Caucasian or white. Only about 50 percent of East Asians have "double eyelids," while it is widespread among Caucasians. But Alfred "Haeppy" Leung, a Seoul-based YouTuber with WeFancy, a channel that examines Korean culture, believes that this is a major misconception about plastic surgery in South Korea. "The misconception that, 'Koreans just want to look white,' is a symptom of western arrogance and Eurocentrism and has no basis in reality," Leung told Business Insider. "Pale skin has always been a standard of beauty not only in East Asia but all of Asia, based on the implication that the lighter the skin the less one was in the sun working outdoors." [Source: Harrison Jacobs and Annie Zheng, Business Insider, June 28, 2018]
“Further, the type of nose bridge that Koreans tend to ask for in a rhinoplasty is markedly different from the ideal Caucasian nose bridge. And the crease above the eyelid has always been sought after in Asian cultures both because it is rare and because it creates visually larger eyes, according to Leung. The misconception is one battled frequently by plastic surgeons in Asia, as Li Binbin, a Beijing-based plastic surgeon, explained to the South China Morning Post last year. "In the East, we have our own beauty standards. The majority of Chinese don't have very big eyes. That's why people all want [the double-eyelid surgery]," Li said.
Even Dr. Robert Flowers, who has received some credit for popularizing the surgery in the US, disputes the notion that blepharoplasties are about making Asians look more white. "The general idea then — and I keep hearing it even today — was that Asians who have facial and eyelid surgery want to 'Westernize,' Flowers told New York Magazine in 2014. "And that's even what Asian plastic surgeons thought they were doing then as well. But that's not what Asians want. They want to be beautiful Asians."
“Common procedures beyond eyelid surgery, nose jobs, and skin whitening are also aimed at achieving specifically Korean beauty standards, not Western, according to Leung. "For example, Koreans like slimmer jawlines while Westerners like stronger jawlines. Westerners like higher protruding cheekbones while Koreans tend to like flatter cheekbones. Koreans tend not to like very thick and full lips, while lip fillers are considered a standard procedure in western cosmetic surgery," Leung said.”
Cosmetic Surgery: Really Graduation Present in Korea?
Double-eyelid surgery is said to be a common graduation present and a popular reward for children who get good marks on school exams. Christoph Neidhart, wrote about a student named So-Yeong who “got a promise from her father for her plastic surgery. So-Yeong’s father says “If you do double eyelid surgery, you may look prettier with bigger eyes.” [Source: Christoph Neidhart, Tages-Anzeiger, October 27, 2015, Tages-Anzeiger, also abbreviated Tagi or TA, is a Swiss German-language national daily newspaper published in Zurich, Switzerland]
Patricia Marx wrote in The New Yorker: “Kim Kibum, a professor at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, visiting his family in Seoul, is thirty-one. He is not considered young for cosmetic surgery, which, like computer coding, competitive gymnastics, and Trix cereal, is for kids. A typical high-school graduation gift for a Korean teen-ager is either a nose job or a blepharoplasty, also called a double-eyelid surgery (the insertion of a crease in the eyelid to make the eye look bigger), which is by far the most common procedure performed in Korea. [Source: Patricia Marx, The New Yorker, March 23, 2015]
When asked if it is a norm for parents to pay for plastic surgeries for their children when they turn 21, Dr. Kim Byung Gun, Chief Plastic Surgeon of BK Plastic Surgery Hospital in Seoul, said: “ Taking Korea's whole population in mind, it is not common. There are parents who are against plastic surgeries. However, when children in middle class families are not as good-looking, parents are willing to support financially. Meaning, if minor surgical procedures can improve their children's overall look, they will support when necessary. [Source: Karen Lee, fashionone.com, October 28, 2016]
Young People and Plastic Surgery in South Korea
“When you’re nineteen, all the girls get plastic surgery, so if you don’t do it, after a few years, your friends will all look better, but you will look like your unimproved you,” a college student who’d had a double-eyelid procedure told The New Yorker me. “We want to have surgeries while we are young so we can have our new faces for a long time,” another young woman said. [Source: Patricia Marx, The New Yorker, March 23, 2015]
JK Plastic Surgery Center founder Joo Kwon warned that young people should be cautious when seeking cosmetic surgery operations. 'I think South Korea has a very rigorous and narrow definition of beauty because we’re an ethnically homogenous society and everyone looks pretty much the same. It is also related to low self-esteem. I think the situation will somewhat moderate in future as society becomes more diverse. But it will take quite a bit of time until we get there,' he told AFP. [Source: Sadie Whitelocks, Daily Mail April 24, 2012]
In 2011, the South Korean Education Ministry issued a booklet warning high school students of 'plastic surgery syndrome', citing Michael Jackson and a local woman whose addiction to plastic surgery left her with a grotesquely swollen face. But many Koreans remain unperturbed by the risks involved. City worker Seonghee Yang, 25, who is from Seoul but now based in London told MailOnline: 'I think Koreans see cosmetic procedures as 'enhancements'. People see it as bettering yourself and celebrities are happy to talk about it. 'It is worrying that this can lead to extreme cases but if the surgery helps people with their confidence then I don't personally see anything wrong with it.'
Cosmetic Surgery For Men in South Korea
In 2006, Associated Press reported: “It started with the doctors sculpting his nose, then an operation to cut his eyelids to create folds and make his eyes appear bigger. Next came Botox injections in his forehead, followed by the fat being surgically sucked out of his abdomen. Before he was done, Park Hyo-jung had 24 procedures on his body over more than three years to improve his appearance — including adding dimples on his cheeks and removing blemishes and chest hair — transforming his former droopy face into his current studly visage. "Before I didn't have a girlfriend, I didn't want to even try because I didn't have confidence," said the 24-year-old, a technician at a medical supply firm and part-time student. [Source: Associated Press, March 14, 2006]
“While Park's case is extreme, there's little question that South Korean men are increasingly undergoing surgical beauty treatments — once the almost exclusive domain of women — in hopes of boosting self-esteem and better competing for jobs. South Korean media have called the phenomenon a male "plastic surgery craze" and reported a boom in cosmetics for men. The trend of men seeking a nip and tuck has reached all the way to the president's office: Roh Moo-hyun had his eyelids done last year. The official reason his office gave was to improve his sight, but the president's undergoing the cosmetic procedure has effectively ended the already-fading taboo on even older men having beautifying surgery. "They don't hesitate anymore since President Roh got plastic surgery," said Lee Sang-eun, director of the Real Clinic Group.”
In November 2005, “Lee's company opened a male-only clinic, Real For Men, which it says is the first in the country to capitalize on the newfound willingness of men to seek beauty in the operating room. Statistics on the trend are hard to come by due to the sheer number of clinics performing cosmetic proce-dures. It seems nearly every building in Seoul's trendy Apgujeong and Kangnam districts has a "beauty" or "aesthetic" clinic, often located together with hair stylists or dentists for a one-stop total makeover.
Kind of Men That Get Cosmetic Surgery in South Korea
Associated Press reported: ““Wee Sung-yun, who performed the last six surgeries on Park, said he saw almost only female patients until several years ago, but that now some one-third of his clients are men. Men usually seek eye or nose alterations, saying they hope to do better at job interviews, Wee said. In other hip cities, "metrosex-uals" — stylish heterosexual men who aren't afraid to show their feminine side — have already been overtaken by the "ubersexual," a more macho breed whose straight sexual orientation is unambiguous. [Source: Associated Press, March 14, 2006]
“But in Seoul, the trend veers the other way toward the "cross-sexual," an androgynous form of beauty. That type of pretty-boy allure has gained renewed attention through the recent hit film King and the Clown, which became South Korea's No. 1 all-time movie this month and portrays an effeminate male jester at the center of a gay love triangle during Korea's Chosun empire.
“South Korea has also seen a change in generations since the end of the Korean War, with recent rapid modernization and the comforts of wealth dramatically transforming the way young people live compared with their parents, who suffered for decades from the 1950-1953 war's aftermath. "The former generation who experienced the Korean War didn't have any time to take care of themselves. But those in their 20s and 30s have grown up in a more open environment where they don't think it's a shame for men to beautify themselves," said Kim Jun-hyun, editor in chief of the South Korean version of the US-based Men's Health magazine, which was launched here this month.
He said the market for men's grooming, cosmetics and athletic equipment has gone up 20-40 percent in the last five years. Women's rising social position also means they are putting increasing importance on the appearance of potential mates and not just their earning potential and breeding, Kim said.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.
Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.
Updated in July 2021