Members of South Korean girl group Girls' Generation perform onstage during the KBS Korea-China Music Festival on August 25, 2012. Photo: Han Myung-Gu
I generally tend to take sweeping statements about a populace with a bucket of salt. Before I left for South Korea, one of my colleagues (of Korean descent) had this warning for me: “They're very superficial,” he said, shaking his head in dismay. “They're completely obsessed with looks.”
He told me tales of the schoolgirls given plastic surgery as graduation gifts; the mother-daughter teams cashing in on the two-for-one clinic discounts; the pervasive desire to "look more Western".
Nicole Kidman, he said, with her high nose, big eyes, slim jaw and white skin was considered the pinnacle of beauty.
K-Pop group, Girls' Generation pose at a media launch on June 7, 2012. Photo: Han Myung-Gu
In reality, that pinnacle is much closer to home and it's shaping a generation with a penchant for plastic.
According to The Economist, South Korea has the highest rate of cosmetic procedures per capita in the world.
Some reports put the number of South Korean women who have had a cosmetic procedure at one in five. In Seoul's ritzy Gangnam district (made famous by the sashaying satirist Psy) there's a strip known as the "beauty belt", a suburb filled with hundreds of plastic surgery clinics and little else. It has one of the highest concentrations of plastic surgery clinics in the world.
An eye-lid surgery takes place in Seoul, South Korea.
Along this strip is Rhee Se Whan's clinic, Grand Plastic Surgery. In the past five years, Dr Rhee has seen an increasing number of young people getting surgery. Ninety per cent of the clinic's clientele are under 30 and of them, half are under 18. But what's interesting is why.
“K-pop stars and Korean celebrities have influenced the younger generation [to get plastic surgery]," says Dr Rhee. "For example, if you look at the before and after photos of K-pop stars you'll see they have gotten prettier. When people see this change, they want to be pretty as well, they want to look as good as them.”
K-pop is an international phenomenon. The pop stars are known for their catchy tunes, synchronised dance moves, trendsetting fashion and flawless faces; those big eyes, high noses and slim jawlines, features not inherently Korean.
They're also known for the amount of plastic surgery they get. With reference to one particular girl group, I was told their faces changed each time they released a new song.
There are exceptions, but it's a generally accepted principle that to succeed in the pop industry, you must be beautiful; in other words you must have those aforementioned features that define beauty. And if like most Koreans you are not born with these, you can – and should – change them, and many pop stars do.
I wasn't entirely surprised to hear about the K-pop industry's cosmetic compulsion, despite how systematic and excessive it seemed. What was surprising, however, was that the plight for perfection trickled down to the country's youth.
Dr Rhee says the majority of young people come in to get what is known as double eyelid surgery, where a second eyelid is created to make the eyes look bigger. (If you're reading this and are not of north Asian descent, odds are you already have a double eyelid that you've probably never paid much attention to.)
“During school holidays, half the class would come in and get surgery done and when they go back to school, their friends would see that they've become prettier, so in the next break you would have the other half of the class coming in,” Dr Rhee tells me.
I immediately picture a hoard of giggling school girls rushing with oversized backpacks laden with books into the clinic. The reality is more understated but not by much.
Beauty and image play a critical role in Korean society (you must include a headshot on your resume for example) and everyone – and I mean everyone I interviewed – believed the prettier you are, the more likely you are to succeed, be that at pop stardom or otherwise.
What my visit made clear is that there is an ideal standard of beauty in South Korea, one encapsulated by the country's pop stars. Whether it's natural or not doesn't particularly matter. As the K-pop phenomenon grows, so too does the plastic surgery industry. Coincidence? That depends on who you speak to.
Jeannette Francis' report on South Korea's beauty industry is on Dateline tonight at 9.30pm on SBS One.