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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
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
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
"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.
by Elizabeth Pyon Contributing writer