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Korea's Obsession with Plastic Surgery
Plastic surgery is safer now, but a whole generation are risking their health to look 'better'
Jennifer Park (internews)     Print Article 
Published 2004-08-12 14:01 (KST)   
On the cusp of "plastic beauty": Miss Korea 1963 Kim Myeong Ja
Korea's standard for beauty used to be in its naturalness. Dark, thick hair, fair skin, thin eyes without eyelids and red lips were considered the pinnacle of beauty.

But Koreans who had once stuck by "natural beauty" are now approving of "artificial beauty." TV commercials and magazines depict western beauty so commonly that a small face, slim figure, long legs, big eyes, fair skin and a sharp nose are becoming the new standard. And so Koreans are making what is biologically impossible into reality using medical techniques.

"H.Y.," a young woman aged 17, said that she feels the need to undergo cosmetic surgery when she is around her beautiful friends or when she encounters men who are only after a stunning woman.

There is much less hesitation and guilt now in giving plastic surgery a try, and some say this is because people take comfort in doing it as a group, rather than alone.

Teenagers are most likely to be swayed by this kind of social trend, succumbing to fads and their feelings of insecurity when they cannot match up to the expectations of the crowd.

"We are more stimulated to shape up, because the media commercializes the stars' outward appearances," explained H.Y.

Exposed to the distorted images peddled in the media, young people risk injury to themselves knowing full well that such surgery is recommended only after their bodies have fully matured.

"That nose is fake? I don't care. It looks better than before."

Actress Hwang In Young: Before & After
This lyric from the band "1TYM" is enough to show the change in Koreans' attitudes toward plastic surgery. Society now openly accentuates that plastic beauty is better than natural ugliness.

It wasn't that long ago that people considering plastic surgery felt guilty for being "dishonest." They thought they were deceiving themselves and others, a phenomenon seen in the vehement denials of plastic surgery by movie stars even when the changes are extreme and obvious. No one wanted to be called a "plastic beauty."

Even those that have not gone under the knife do not look at those who have as aliens anymore. Of course people still bad-mouth plastic surgery, calling it a "fake beauty." But often their hidden desire says, "I would do it too if I had enough money and courage."

According to a recent poll, 80 percent of women in their late teens and early 20s said that they would like to have an operation. According to Dr. Oh, a plastic surgeon working in Seoul, people's motives for undergoing surgery stem from dissatisfaction with their looks.

"They feel that they are treated better when they are more attractive and the solution is plastic surgery," he told OhmyNews.

In one recent TV program called "Cinderella Challenge! Make a Plastic Beauty," just three out of 1,240 applicants were selected for a chance at free surgery and the attainment of their beauty dreams in 100 days. A team composed of a plastic surgeon, dentist, dermatologist, and make-up and hair artists was in charge of making the "artificial beauty."

The project was to help the selected candidates to lead life more confidently. Despite its intentions, women organizations criticized the media's treatment of women as a commercialized product. Those surveyed were critical of society's obsession with beauty, but sympathized with those who resorted to plastic surgery.

"J.Y.," 18, said he thought women have right to undergo cosmetic surgery to improve their looks. There seems to be an understanding toward women's desire to pursue beauty. Respondents have said that personality and talent go before beauty, but beauty is a factor that cannot be ignored in judging a person.

Model Kim Min Gyeong: Before & After
Though nipping and tucking is prevalent among young women, it is now an issue that crosses both gender and age. Though there is an increasing number of men going under the knife, even when people surveyed showed a slight reluctance to tolerate such surgery.

"B.Y.," a 19-year-old male told OhmyNews that he approves of men's plastic surgery for medical reasons but he "cannot yet accept men undergoing plastic surgery because they are dissatisfied with their looks like women." Even H.Y. disapproved of plastic surgery for men -- with the exception of emergency situation. These attitudes seem to reflect the Korean saying: "Capacity for men, beauty for women."

It is no doubt an advantage to be attractive. The saying "you can be forgiven since you're pretty" does ring true. Small flaws can easily be overlooked with beauty. When beauty is a bonus for getting employed, both male and female, young and old, will be knocking on the plastic surgeon's door.

An impressive resume and nice personality mean next to nothing if beauty is missing. Ever wonder why the waiters and waitresses in cafes and stewardesses are so attractive? The competition to get a good job has become a beauty contest.

Though it is absurd to resort to cosmetic surgery out of pure vanity, it is now thought of as a plus to one's life. A once shy person can become outgoing and popular with enhanced looks. One woman, whose last name is Kim, told OhmyNews that after getting eyelid surgery, "I was embarrassed at the fact that I had a face lift, but I have more confidence now." Her self-esteem skyrocketed and social life improved, she reported.

Plastic surgery is not a taboo subject anymore, but its side effects are. Various Web sites have message boards full of satisfied clients' comments. What they don't reveal is the gruesome reality of plastic surgery.

A double eyelid patient: Before & After
The standard of a successful operation differs between the doctor and his patients, which can lead to disputes. An operation can have an unsatisfactory result when infections occur or because the client does not like the final look. Dr. Oh said an unsatisfactory procedure could be minimized of the client receives a considerable amount of counseling before the operation.

What may seem like a satisfying operation may come back to haunt a person. In one instance, a "plastic beauty" in her 60s had undergone so many eyelid operations over the years that she ended up not being able to close her eyes fully because too much skin had been removed.

Her husband told her she scared him to death by sleeping with her eyes open; ashamed, she never went to bed before her husband fell asleep. She savored attention back in the early days, but when she matured, she found out that beauty did not mean much.

It is important to keep in mind that plastic surgery is not magic. Some people go into the hospital and request to be made to resemble some star.

Dr. Oh said that it is important to help patients distinguish between fantasy and reality. When they expect too much, they end up disappointed. Some people, whose operation turns out to be a failure, end up in despair. They can never fully undo the operation.

People spend as much as 8 million won or about $7,000 for a single operation. The determined manage to get themselves fixed up whatever the cost. Many drop out of school to earn money, get loans, or even use diplomatic tactics to ask parents to invest their dowry on plastic surgery.

One member of a plastic surgery Web site expressed her desperation to get cosmetic surgery. Her determination to earn money compelled her to raise her grades from a C to A+ average. She worked for the scholarship to use it as a payment for her operation.

One operation also tends to lead to more. If they like what they see, they will want to fix up other parts of their body they were not happy with. Because people get bold after going under surgeon's knife once, they repeat nipping and tucking until they are satisfied.

This is what a woman wrote on a plastic surgery site: "I look okay when I wear make-up. I want to go for eyelid, cheek, and chin operations. Since I will live as a woman, it would be better to live with good looks." Would a series of operations leave her beautiful or destroy her natural beauty and make her into an artificial person?

An addiction to cosmetic surgery is called body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). People with BDD are usually people with no serious flaws but who nonetheless are never satisfied with their looks. Their "ugliness" is not outside but in their head.

An example of beauty in the Joseon era
©2004 sac.or.kr
According to Dr. Ian Steven who was talking to the BBC, people are "fixated or concerned with particular areas of their body and have difficulty accepting that there is no illness present." Less than 10 percent of the population are in serious need of plastic surgery.

Given that they will never be content with their looks, should the surgeons operate on them? It is evident that their need for counseling is more urgent than their need for another face-lift. Surgeons can either please their patients momentarily by consenting to their requests or they can decline and offend their patients.

But doctors are not trained psychiatrists capable of determining who actually has BDD and who does not. Dr. Oh said that he dissuades patients from getting plastic surgery when their demands do not fit into the standard model of beauty. He said in special cases where patient demands too much, he asks them to sign a legal document.

The number of botched procedures is growing every year. To catch up with overflowing demands, inexperienced doctors perform complicated and risky operations such as chin surgeries. Other professionals such as orthopedic surgeons or otolaryngologists take on the surgeries, contributing to more mishaps.

Several years ago, a 20-year-old woman died of respiratory complications after an operation to shape her chin. She suffocated when excessive bleeding blocked her airway.

Even when the patients walk out of the operating room safe and sound, they are not completely out of the woods. According to Mimi professional plastic surgery, 42 percent of those who have had plastic surgery suffer from side effects.

Those in the hands of unregistered or inexperienced surgeons have even had their side effects lead to psychological disorders. Before the surgery they imagined walking with their head up high, but a failed operation can force them into hiding. Then some of them turned to their last resort: suicide.

Regardless of which era you live in or your cultural background, the desire to be beautiful is universal. Elite women in Rome applied white lead on their face and dyed their cheeks red with plumbic oxide. Women during the Renaissance used cosmetics containing toxic ingredients such as mercury and silver. And in the 19th century, women of the age of romanticism took drugs to create melancholic looks.

As H.Y. said, "It is ironic how people chase after similar looks in a time period where individuality is valued." In other words, we do not have to try to attain a standard of beauty set by someone else. We can all be beautiful in our own way.
Jennifer Park is an OhmyNews intern and will begin her freshman year at Carnegie Mellon University this fall.
©2004 OhmyNews

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