Pain is Beauty: Plastic Surgery in South Korea

By Rachel Miller

The contestants from 2013’s Miss Korea pageant. 

The contestants from 2013’s Miss Korea pageant. 

As a young girl, I was fortunate enough to have a mother who taught me that beauty comes from within. I remember as a child my favorite Disney princess was Belle from “Beauty and the Beast.” Sure Belle was plain on the outside, but let’s get real. She was the only princess that loved to read—maybe the only one who could read—who was smart, unmaterialistic and who did not take what life threw at her. She fell in love with the Beast for who he was as a person, not by what he looked like on the outside. Now, imagine for a second you live in a world where you are constantly told you are not pretty enough, your nose is not high enough, your eyes are too slanted and your skin is too dark. Sounds like hell, right? Welcome to South Korea, a place where beauty is thought to be a singular face and where plastic surgery is called “treatment.”  

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the collective eye for Korea needs to put on some glasses. After living in South Korea for several years, I found that there seems to be one ideal form of Korean beauty, and she is the skinny, stick-like figure with no curves—save for the modest artificial C cup, perfect porcelain skin, wide-eyed, double-lidded, aegyo styled, high-nosed, v-line jawed girl. This face can literally be seen on every girl you meet in Gangnam, Seoul.  In fact, this is precisely the girl that Korean singer Psy was talking about in his hit song “Gangnam Style.” Many girls go through painstaking surgical operations to come out looking more like this cultural view of beautiful. In the 2013 Miss Korea pageant, many people couldn’t tell one contestant from another. Help! Someone really needs to teach these women about how to be an individual.

Statistics taken from the 2011 study conducted by  the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons.

Statistics taken from the 2011 study conducted by  the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons.

A 2011 statistic by The Economist, found that one in five Korean women have gone under the knife in order to alter their looks. In a country where beauty is everything, plastic surgery clinics are as popular as Starbucks. Get a nose job and the plastic surgeon will throw in a dimple for free, no joke. I quickly learned that most Korean girls get blepharoplasty, or double-eyelid surgery as a graduation gift. While this surgery dates back to the 1800s in Europe, these days it is often referred to as “treatment” and not seen as plastic surgery because it is so common. The point of the surgery is to make the eye look bigger by taking the single eyelid and transforming it into a double-lidded eye. Another popular operation is “Korean Love Band” surgery. This is known as aegyo sal, which translates to “cute eye fat”. Aegyo sal is a puffy layer of fat that girls have injected into their lower eyelids. When girls smile, this overly dramatic lid can be seen and is considered cute.

    “Mandible contouring” or “V-line surgery,” is also becoming more popular these days. This dangerous procedure involves the plastic surgeon shaving various parts of the jaw bone (depending on the certain face shape) into a more refined point, creating a V-line shape on the bottom half of the face.

A popular plastic surgery ad that can be seen in most subway s stations showing the results of the popular V-line surgery.

A popular plastic surgery ad that can be seen in most subway s stations showing the results of the popular V-line surgery.

    Oin Plastic Surgery in Gangnam, Seoul recently displayed its former patients shaved jaw bones in order to boast just how many customers had gone through with the surgery. UGH. In what world is showing a case of HUMAN bones going to get you more customers? Women are willing to have their jaw bone shaved, a very dangerous and painful operation, to have a more delicate looking face. This operation takes months to recover from, and can have lasting nerve damage. While I was taught that beauty comes from within, it seems as though most Korean girls grow up learning that pain is beauty. Of course there are other ways to achieve the look without surgery, and many people use makeup as well as injections of botox.

For me, caring what people think is incredibly exhausting so I tend to not bother.  I hope for the sake of my former students in Korea that they are able to learn that true beauty comes from within, and that they are already perfect the way the are. I only wish that plastic surgery in Korea is a fad that will soon die out, and that they will start to develop their own sense of what makes someone beautiful.