Fifty years ago, South Korea was poorer than many African nations. Today, it’s the 15th wealthiest nation in the world. With wealth has come social change. Like fellow Confucian countries China and Vietnam, South Korea has a strong emphasis on education and beauty. The small Asian nation is emerging as one of the world’s hotspots for plastic surgery. Billboards for cosmetic surgeons abound in Seoul, and with one of the highest ratios of surgeons to people in the world, competition is driving prices ever lower. A decade ago, eyelid surgery was $2000. Now, it’s around $1250 and dropping. Surgeons estimate that more than half of women in their 20s have had cosmetic surgery done.
Pioneered by Korean pop and drama stars, the most popular surgery is the double-eyelid operation, producing the open European-style eyes which are increasingly common on the streets of Korea. Many young women go under the knife for the first time after high school, where they are expected to study hard to make it into a top university and avoid distractions like make-up and boyfriends. Parents foot the bill so that their daughters can maximise their chance of meeting a husband during university.
Seoul woman Eun Jung Lee, in her early 30s, says young Korean women switch from focussing on their studies to their appearance virtually overnight. “It’s an extreme makeover after you graduate, and often as a gift from your parents. You go on a diet, have plastic surgery and wear makeup for the college dating game,” she says. “Beauty really matters for Korean people,” says Lee. “Americans and Europeans really focus on their bodies – breast enlargement, liposuction – but in Korea, beauty is your skin and face.
“Having confidence in yourself is very important in life,” says a young Korean woman who recently underwent surgery. “First impressions are everything, and appearance matters. I didn’t have confidence in my appearance before surgery, but now, I’m very happy.” The 25 year old had her eyelids Westernised and her nose made higher and thinner. “The surgery made me alive. It made me think I can do anything and everything,” she says.
Another woman in her mid 20s had double-eyelid surgery paid for by her parents while she was in university. “As I was a college student, I couldn’t afford it. It wasn’t a present from my parents. They just paid it for me,” she says. “I was very nervous, but I went to a reliable doctor. I like the result,” she says.
But Lee says a friend of hers is less happy with the result. “The surgery changed her face too much. Before, it was calmer, more traditional. But now, she’s more Western and photogenic and it doesn’t suit her calm personality.”
Seoul’s cosmetic surgery epicentre is the affluent area of Apujeong, with upwards of 500 clinics servicing the 24 million people who call Seoul and its sprawling outlying suburbs home. Kangnam is Seoul’s second largest cosmetic surgery centre with an estimated 200 clinics.
Gowoonsesang Plastic Surgery in Kangnam is one of Korea’s top ten cosmetic surgery providers. The spotless reception is lushly appointed, with elegant potplants, red plush velvet and a glass-topped coffee table with rosepetals beneath the glass. A pretty hand mirror lets patients take one last glimpse at their original face before going under anaesthetic.
Dr Lee Byung Hoi, the top doctor at Gowoonsesang, says that cosmetic surgery is a booming industry in Korea.
“It lets people increase their social income, that’s one reason for it. The second is the influence of Western society,” he says. “Koreans are very susceptible to talking about other people’s appearances. It’s acceptable to talk about that.
Dr Hoi says the face his patients are aiming for is a mixture of Caucasian and North Asian. “We want the eyes and nose of Caucasians, but we keep our rounder faces. We don’t want the narrow Caucasian face.”
“Late December is my busiest time,” he says. “It’s the end of high school, and former students are my biggest demographic.”
Men are increasingly having work done as well, Dr Hoi says. “Twenty per cent of my patients are now men. They get nose jobs – that’s the most popular – and eyelid surgery is next. Men want higher noses, less flat.”
Dr Hoi has himself never been under the knife, and believes that plastic surgery isn’t good for Korean society. “I think beauty is a natural thing and training your mind is more important than your appearance,” he says. “But some young people don’t know that. They are always watching TV stars and they want to be like them. It’s not good for society. But as a plastic surgeon, I like it,” he says, smiling broadly.