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Cosmetic Surgery in South Korea

During the summer before college, some high school graduates believe it is an ideal time to travel or earn extra money at a part-time job. In South Korea, it is the ideal time to undergo plastic surgery, according to CMU first-year design major So Eun Park, a native of Seoul, Korea.

“A lot of the time, that’s when people get their eyes and face done. In high school, they don’t have time to do anything besides study because their goal is to get to a good college. They think, ‘study hard until high school and get into a good college.’ Then since you have time between that period, you change yourself, lose a lot of weight, and make yourself prettier,” Park says. She has never undergone plastic surgery and does not plan to in the future. However, she has no opinion against it.

The surge of cosmetic surgeries in South Korea has been especially popular among young women. According to ARA Consulting, a medical marketing consulting firm in Seoul, approximately 30 percent of South Korean women between the ages 20 to 50 have had some form of cosmetic procedure in 2008.

In a poll of 2,041 college females in South Korea, about a quarter of them claimed they had plastic surgery according to South Korea’s leading news website The Chosun Ilbo. Of that quarter, 80 percent said they would undergo additional surgeries. But even among the 1,551 females that had no surgery, 80 percent expressed interest in it — eye surgery being the most desired procedure.

Specifically, many Asians opt for double eyelid surgery (blepharoplasty); this surgery reshapes the skin around the eyes to form an upper eyelid crease, making eyes appear larger. Some people don’t even consider this as “real” surgery anymore because it is so prevalent in South Korea. “Double eyelid surgery is so common in Korea,” Park says. “[Girls] just assume they will get it done after they get to college or have time to chill.” A female source that wanted to remain anonymous says she underwent double eyelid surgery when she was around 18 years old.

The nationwide popularity of cosmetic surgery has earned South Korea a notorious reputation. Though the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery ranked the United States first for most surgeries in 2009, South Korea has the world’s highest rate of cosmetic surgery per capita. For every 1,000 people in South Korea, surgeons performed 13.5 cosmetic surgery procedures. In the U.S., it was 9.7 procedures for every 1,000 people.

Park claims South Koreans are really open to the idea of plastic surgery because it is common, so people don’t disapprove of it as much as in the U.S. However, it is a social taboo to bring up someone’s history with cosmetic surgery. “Unless they bring it up, or you are a bitch,” added Park. South Korea values the idea of natural beauty, so people refrain from “discrediting” a person’s beauty by directing attention to cosmetic procedures.

In 2011, the number of plastic surgeons in South Korea doubled to approximately 1,500 according to The New York Times. The demand for plastic enhancements has enticed doctors to switch their practice — resulting in 4,000 clinics that now provide cosmetic services. The competition for business has even prompted some extreme measures of marketing, including “Cinderella events” where doctors perform free surgeries on patients who then appear in the clinic’s ads.

Park says, South Korean celebrities “all have double eyelids, and the ideal face is just something everyone wants, and a lot of the times people can afford it.”

The rampant trend of plastic surgery was publicized by the extreme case of Hang Mioku, a South Korean woman whose obsession with plastic surgery left her with a grotesquely deformed face. According to an article from The Daily Telegraph, Mioku visited the clinics religiously, to the point where most surgeons refused to operate on her. However, one surgeon agreed to perform more surgeries and even supplied Mioku with at-home treatments she could use at her own discretion. When Mioku’s supply ran out, she resorted to injecting cooking oil into her face. Mioku’s story aired on Korean TV, which prompted viewers to offer their sympathy — and financial support to help reduce the size of Mioku’s face.

According to Xinhua News Agency, many South Korean employers now require a headshot from their job applicants. The importance of a pleasant appearance is extending beyond the movie screen, asserting itself as a necessity to succeed in any trade in South Korea. The anonymous source claims to have undergone double eyelid to look more beautiful. She claims bigger eyes are prettier and increase the chances of finding a husband or a good job.

This may be a reason many parents support, and even encourage, their children’s decision to get cosmetic surgery. Park says, “They don’t mind it and think it is a good idea.” In a progressively superficial job market, a cosmetic procedure will soon be seen as an investment, much like a college education. Parents are preparing their children to be as marketable as possible despite the price tag; a double eyelid surgery can range anywhere from $1,000 to $1,700. Keep in mind that cosmetic surgery is not covered by national health insurance in South Korea, according to a New York Times article.

In a society that values outer appearances, all types of people are turning to cosmetic surgery. “You don’t have to be super insecure or ugly,” says Park. “There are girls who are confident about themselves and they still get it just because they’ve been planning to for a long time. And then there are girls who want to get prettier and what to change themselves. It’s just really common. People don’t think about it.”

Connie is a professional and creative writing major at Carnegie Mellon University. She is currently obsessed with pole fitness, pumpkin bread, and '80s fashion.
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