Is Korea Mecca of Cosmetic Surgery?
By Jon Huer
Korea Times Columnist
One of the strangest things observant foreigners notice in Korea is how beautiful the movie and TV actresses are.
Indeed, the femme fatales in the movies and television dramas are so strikingly formed and celestially flawless in their features that one is easily convinced, just on the basis of what one sees in these media, that Korean women are the most beautifully blessed females on Earth.
Then the foreigner becomes somewhat puzzled by the fact that he almost never sees such heavenly beauties anywhere else in Korea. The females we encounter on the street, on the subway, or anywhere else in Korea, are so remarkably un-celestial, so ordinary looking, that we almost conclude that Korea has two completely different kinds of females: One incredibly beautiful and the other incredibly plain. The difference is so great that we almost wonder if Providence is involved in this unfair division among Korean females.
Sooner or later, perhaps sooner than later, foreign visitors discover the Providence they are thinking about is really a human agent called plastic surgery.
A recent report in The Korea Times was headlined: ``30 Percent of College Students Seek Cosmetic Surgery.'' I am not sure what this percentage really means, as this beautification game is known to have spread to the lowly ranks of society, like waitresses and cashiers, and even to men.
But aside from this scientific percentage issue, and perhaps more meaningfully, Korea is universally, and particularly among Asian females, regarded as the Mecca of cosmetic surgery. Korea is rightfully recognized worldwide as the most technically advanced in ``aesthetic'' medicine, as it is now called, and many females from other Asian nations flock to Korea for ``improvement.''
Some cosmetic surgeons offer to fix two sisters for the price of one, ``Buy One, Get One Free,'' Korean style. A few unlicensed practitioners make house calls and carry out light procedures like double-eyelines and botox shots in the comfort and privacy of the candidates' homes.
How widespread is this among Korean females? The report says, ``Lee Dong-jin, a plastic surgeon at BSL Clinic, said people's overall perception toward cosmetic surgery has drastically changed in recent years, as more celebrities are openly accepting facial enhancements.''
Such openness is fanning the plastic surgery trend more, so young students should especially give it thorough thought on why they want to undergo the procedure, he said.
According to the poll, more than 41 percent of respondents up for a surgery plan get money from their parents, while the remainder are working part-time jobs to shoulder the costs that typically range anywhere from 1.2 million won to 7 million won."
Indeed, Koreans are so cosmetics-surgery crazy, they try to fix everything on their faces. It is universally recognized that Korea is a haven for removing their ``physical inferiority complex.'' Why is plastic surgery so popular in Korea?
Three important ingredients are present in Korean society to make this possible: One, a population made up of people with plain faces; two, enough money to go around for this fixing enterprise; three, Korea's famed one-for-all and all-for-one herd mentality.
Combine these three factors and you can see reasons for this wild popularity in plastic surgery. It is so popular and accepted that even the late President Roh, during the first year of his tenure, had an aesthetic eye operation, which made his eyes look bigger like those of an actor ready to go on stage.
What was equally as interesting as the surgery itself was how casual the local press was about reporting on this presidential makeover, either out of respect for the sitting president or because it was just not a very interesting topic.
It is so common and expected that it is no longer embarrassing to ask someone about what kind of cosmetic surgery has been applied to a female. It is not uncommon to overhear two females go about it like this:
Female One: ``Are they (referring to the other's lined eyes) your own?''
Female Two: ``(very casually and indifferently) Oh, no.''
Then the two females go on with their conversation on other topics. This aesthetic revolution in Korea may eventually bridge the gap between the extremely beautiful that we see in the media and the extremely plain that we encounter everywhere else.
The Korean female herd is on alert and has been ready to stampede toward the land of beauty and happiness.
No point in telling them that their Asiatic eyelines, or no eyelines, are just as beautiful as double-lined eyes; they have the money and the desire, and other members of the herd are already in full gallop.
This cosmetic herdism in Korea is also a matter of existential necessity as marriageable females must compete for the most desirable males ― college graduates, hopefully employed at well-known companies, and preferably not from Chollado, and only marginally aesthetically pleasing ― with other females.
An average male goes through at least a dozen female candidates, either through matchmaking agents, relatives, or friends and the aesthetic factor is perhaps the strongest card in this marriage game. It is not uncommon, and almost natural, that the female contestants rely on cosmetic surgery for a competitive edge.
It is widely known that the double-lined eyes are the most common item in aesthetic alterations in Korea. One typical double-eye operation used to take at least a week in hiding before the surgery healed and the female could emerge with a new set of eyelids.
Perhaps with advanced techniques, the hiding period is somewhat shorter nowadays.
Still, the female goes through something of a preparation, both physical and psychological, for her ``coming-out'' debut after the surgery.
The transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly may be natural, but the human process is not without some trepidation and anxiety.
For the female person, who was hitherto inferior with her physical attributes, to suddenly emerge as a noticeable beauty, it requires long preparation and smart logistics.
Naturally, the candidates commonly prefer a vacation period, in which they can disappear from public view and reappear to a startled but understanding audience, like Eliza Doolittle after the transformation, without calling undue attention. Some such transformations are so extensive that often their old friends do not recognize the post-surgery butterfly.
The candidate continues to fret through her courtship period, lest her male companion, suitably impressed with his mate's beauty, finds out about this artificial metamorphosis.
This perverse practice of plastic surgery in Korea has its galvanizing temporary effect, all positive and good, on all members involved, as surgeons make money and women become beautiful ― except their children.
The beautification process, after all, is cosmetic and superficial, not genetic, and it does not positively affect the genetic make-up of their children.
All the beautification is only skin deep and stops its goodness at the knife's edge and suture's stitch. For this reason, it is not uncommon for foreigners to notice that beautiful mothers are often accompanied by their rather not-so-beautiful children.
So, big-eyed mothers have small-eyed kids, and perfectly featured mothers are saddled with ugly-faced offspring. The latest is that Korean mothers begin the aesthetic process for their children at a young age so that their trauma is over with as soon as possible.
Now, it is human nature to want to look beautiful and the desire of Koreans for beauty can be understood in this context of universal generality.
The only problem is that the popularity for artificial beautification seems to be particularly, and one might say unnaturally, strong in Korea, adding to the already established reputation of Korea being a ``strange'' society.
Who knows, in the not so distant future, the Korean winner of the Miss World crown might have to return the title when her eyelines or nose begin to unravel, just like the late Michael Jackson.