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[Cover Story] Plastic surgery boom changing faces of Korea

     Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that if the eyes were made for seeing, then beauty was its own excuse for being. Beauty ultimately may be only skin-deep, but that skin goes a long way, as evidenced by the growing population of both young and old turning to plastic surgery to improve their looks.

     People with stunning looks have been eulogized throughout world history and literature, and the value placed on having a beautiful face and body has hardly changed. But the range of benefits has expanded and the way to achieve such a state of adoration is no longer left only to fate.

     Although people in the past may have sought beauty mainly for the purposes of love, pleasure and vanity, many today are driven by competition in the job market and social acceptance. Korea, in particular, has rewarded beautiful people with well-paying jobs, improved marriage prospects and respect.

     Whispers of "Is it real? Is it fake?" that once scandalously traveled between social circles are no longer so hush-hush. Plastic surgery is more socially acceptable now than ever, according to patient numbers and opinion surveys, as the number of those opposed to interfering with nature's allocations declines.

     The rate of the general public going under the knife is currently at about 13 percent in Korea, while that in the United States is less than 3 percent. Plastic surgery has become so popular that the government even introduced a "reasonable" bill last year to reissue national registration cards to those whose appearance has changed as a result of plastic surgery.

     "The market for cosmetic surgery is larger here. Also, people are less apprehensive about it," said plastic surgeon Yun Sung-yul.

     In a poll conducted by a Korean daily last October, 60 percent of respondents approved of plastic surgery for improving their life prospects. "If you're face is beautiful, your heart also becomes beautiful," said one avid supporter.

     The advancement of medical technology, the relative ease of performing plastic surgery and the low risk of accidents or ill effects have enabled almost anyone - pocketbook permitting - to change their looks. You can reshape your ears with an octoplasty; eliminate wrinkles, blemishes and unevenly pigmented or sun-damaged skin with a chemical peel, change the shape of your face with facial implants; or go for a rhytidectomy - the classic facelift - in which the sagging facial skin is tightened and redraped over retoned facial muscles.

     Today, with an eye job (1-1.5 million won) and a little bone shaving (4-5 million won) here and there, the typical Korean face - small, slanted eyes, round face and high cheekbones - can be dramatically altered to achieve the preferred Western look. You can also smooth out forehead wrinkles for 4-5 million won, enhance lips for 1 million won, augment breasts for 5 million won or have liposuction done on the stomach, thighs and calves for 2-3 million won.

     More than half of the surgeries performed involve the eyes (57 percent) and removing wrinkles (30 percent). The double-eyelid operation, which involves the creation of a fold on the eyelid, is perhaps the most popular procedure performed in Korea.

     Simply put, says one doctor and veteran of 20 years in the business of altering peoples' faces, "It is a fact that plastic surgery will improve your looks. You will be more beautiful as a result."

     That is debatable. However, after experiencing the difference cosmetic surgery can make in someone's life, it is not uncommon for the patient to become addicted, craving an even bigger rush with another type of surgery.

     Even after 30 million won in operation fees, says on woman, it all seems worth it in view of the disappearance of the disrespect and indifference she suffered due to her "ugliness" before cosmetic surgery.

     Of course, plastic surgery isn't just popular with those who consider themselves to be unattractive. The operation rate among entertainment industry celebrities, for whom better looks promise a higher chance of making it big, is three times that of the general public in Korea.

     According to a recent survey of 200 entertainers by Seoul-based plastic surgeon Lee Kang-won, 77 people or 38.5 percent acknowledged that their looks had been artificially changed at an average of 1.42 operations.

     Nevertheless, figures show that plastic surgery appeals mostly to Korean women. "Men do not feel pressure to be attractive as much as women do," said Park Hye-jin, an employee at a local computer company. "Men are judged more on their ability than women are."

     Even if a female student at a vocational school has graduated at the top of her class, if she is considered unattractive, the chances of her finding a good job are slim. So instead of attending classes that might enhance her skills, she is busy improving her appearance with cosmetic surgery appointments and visits to the gym.

     Top actresses and female singers on television, while putting on display their artificially-improved looks, influence many women, sending the message that they, too, can have such success and admiration.

     Disgruntled opponents to this trend harshly criticize these entertainers for using their spurious looks to fuel their "ill-motivated" ambition to earn respect and money.

     Although these people may mean well with their personal attacks, deeper analysis tells us that the issue should be reckoned in the overall social context.

     "At the root of the problem is a society that places more value on superficial things such as appearance and educational background," says psychiatrist Lee Na-mi.

     All told, when plastic surgery can change one's destiny and increase the value of one's worth, it can hardly be expected that the phenomenon will cease to increase. It seems the ability to change one's appearance has become one of the quintessential symbols of personal liberty, pursuit of happiness and confidence building in modern society.


Updated: 02/04/2000
by Elizabeth Pyon Contributing writer


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