K-pop perfection spurs plastic surgery boom

Members of South Korean girl group Girls' Generation perform onstage during the KBS Korea-China Music Festival on August 25, 2012.

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.

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.

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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.

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.

10 comments

  • The eyelid surgery is very very common among the more superficial sheep there. Most of the women I know who got it done, had it done to remove the natural Asian double eyelid they were born with. The bigger/rounder eye is an added bonus with the eyelid surgery.

    But no mention of the upper leg muscle removal operation to give girls thinner legs.

    And no mention of the revirginisation surgery that many promiscuous women get before they turn 28, which is the perfect marrying age in their culture. They'll have the op and then go online to find a male as defined by blood type and the Chinese astrological calendar.

    Dateline is a quality production so I'm hoping they examine the wider social picture in a bid to discover why less studious women opt for surgery.

    One of the most famous plastic surgeons on the main drag in Gangnam is the most plain looking woman I have ever seen [not trying to be rude but hey, maybe that's unavoidable when describing this].
    I asked her once if she 'is ever tempted to have surgery herself?' and the doctor replied "Why should? I am happy with the face I was born with".

    It's an interesting place.

    Commenter
    Alex
    Location
    Finley
    Date and time
    March 19, 2013, 10:38AM
    • I'm not sure how well researched this story is.

      The plastic surgert tourism business in South Korea started surging well before the Korean Wave began. The industry began to establish itself as a higher quality version of Thailand or India's plastic surgery tourism industry in the early 90's.

      The Korean Wave only first identified as a cultural movement by Asian journalists in 1999.

      So while the Kpop phenomenon has probably pushed up their sales, they already had a thriving plastic surgery tourism industry which catered almost entirely to Japan before Kpop became popular outside South Korea.

      Claiming the industry is only successful because of Kpop when the industry was already thriving before Kpop was is a little silly. Maybe Kpop became popular because of the South Korean plastic surgery business. Especially as they would have been using Kpop singers as examples of possible surgeries to Japanese tourists which would have elevated their profile in Japan ;)

      Commenter
      SG Warren
      Date and time
      March 19, 2013, 12:58PM
      • This story is poorly researched and implies that K-Pop and Plastic Surgery are connected. Living in Seoul and understanding the culture would lead you to other conclusions.

        Commenter
        Seoulman
        Location
        Seoul
        Date and time
        March 19, 2013, 5:32PM
    • I'm sorry but I find articles like this a little bit condescending and racist. Oh, the poor ugly Asian girls that just want to look like pretty white (i.e. Anglo) women. How about white women? Since when was the brown skin obtained from a spray tan a common naturally-occurring trait among Anglo women? How about breast implant surgery, collagen injections in lips or butt lift surgery? The desired result of these surgeries is not something that Anglo women generally have. Anglo women are also curling their hair with straightening irons to give a more "exotic" look. I'd hazard a guess and say many Anglo women are actually trying to look like African/southern European/Latina women. Would that be an inaccurate statement? I don't think so at all.

      Yet the media only seems to report about the Asian girls getting eyelid surgery or the black women straightening their hair (or similar). It goes both ways and to imply otherwise is just dishonest. Please take your ego down a notch.

      Commenter
      Cimbom
      Location
      Real World
      Date and time
      March 19, 2013, 2:12PM
      • @Cimborn, Yes, plastic surgery occurs everywhere, and Korea and Japan is not the only countries that have a high percentage of this occurring. But I think it is just the nature of humans to want something they don't have. Particularly when societies all over the worlds seems to be shifting in the direction of looks over everything else (think of the idea of speed dating, how you judge someone and what that implies for example). It is interesting to see what social pressures and expectations that influences the large numbers of Korean girls to get that look (I am actually interested - for example, in manga, the characters have large eyes, high nose etc, so is that an ideal look?). For example, in western countries, a tan is now considered a healthy (and desireable) look, because many of us now work indoors and became more pale and a tan implied a more active lifestyle. But during medieval and the enlightment, only nobles and upper class get to stay indoors and out of the sun, and it was desireable to be pale to distinguish one from the "lower" classes.

        Commenter
        Asian
        Date and time
        March 19, 2013, 3:49PM
      • @ Cimborn.

        I think its ridiculous to naturally assume that asians want fair skin or eyelid surgery because they want to look white (as you have mentioned, although the article doesn't allege this). A good comparison is breast augmentation. People do breast augmentation surgery mainly because they want bigger breasts because they think that looks better. Its not because they want to look like any other particular race. Similarly, these South Korean girls do eyelid surgery because in their culture bigger eyes is considered to look better. No asian in their right mind would think that doing such surgery will suddenly make them look caucasian.

        p.s. I am an asian female.

        Commenter
        stncloud
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        March 19, 2013, 6:58PM
      • Westernisation and globalisation does have its role in this trend, but I tend to agree with people like you that it is certainly isn't just the case of some sort of racial jealously. Such views are very superficial and never sit very well with me. At least in the case of Japan, I would recommend Laura Miller's (2006) Beauty Up: exploring contemporary Japanese body aesthetics. In short, she acknowledges the role of Western influence but emphasises that many of these aesthetic norms have their own roots in traditional Japanese culture in one form or another. Perhaps the same could be said (to an extent) for Korea, although I know much more about Japan than South Korea.. Nice food for thought though.

        Commenter
        Akira
        Date and time
        March 19, 2013, 7:33PM
    • South Koreans by necessity have to be US-sycophantic because of Kim Jong - hence a tendency to be susceptible to vanities - just like the Yanks.

      The Yanks have tarred the North Koreans as loonies although, it's doubtlessly their considered opinion, no doubt.

      Anyone who bows to the vice of vanity will be rewarded with being out of pocket and looking like The Joker after one too many botoxes and chin-lifts - riseable how vain most people are due to the media portrayal of acceptance in a virtual reality.

      Anyone expecting another Korean song in the top ten this millenia are having a real larf at themselves. Just goes to show, today's music is, basically, rubbish. No time has been taken to punch out all this mass-produced plastic crap. (A turntable is not a musical instrument - no matter how you swing it.) And no-one can tell me that rap or hip-hop is music - because it's not - it falls between crap and excrement. Macklemore? Learn to sing, buddy, oh, and learn play music - must have a lot of gall to charge for that rubbish, eh, and keep a straight face.

      I much prefer sloth to vanity, anyway - back to napping...

      Commenter
      Snidery Mark
      Date and time
      March 19, 2013, 4:28PM
      • Why not an article about all those Hollywood movie stars going for nip and tuck surgeries. Many (especially females) of them have done on their lips to look thicker as westerners tends to have thin lips. Westerners age a lot faster thus they go for face skin surgeries to remove all the wrinkles.

        Commenter
        David_
        Date and time
        March 19, 2013, 6:30PM
        • I think it is every woman's desire to look beautiful. If it is possible (by given and available means), they would want to become more beautiful, as long as it does not harm them.

          It is true that the despite the high cosmetic surgery rate, the most women in Korea, get eyelid surgery, a simple, safe and cost-effective procedure. With respect to this particular surgery, I looked at it in a different angle (ie use a photoshop on Western women to create a single eyelid). I don't think they, at all, look as good as they normally are. Unfortunately, this double eyelid do not come naturally for a lot of women in Korea.

          I sympathize and support Korean (& other Asian) women, getting double eyelid surgery (hence, boosting the cosmetic surgery rate).

          On the other hand, the Pop stars are a lot different, because of huge pressure they are normally under. "Looking beautiful" sells them, as it is their "occupation", and as part of their occupation, they resort to the "quick fix". "Being forgotten" is something they cannot tolerate (remember, they are of certain personality to become a pop-star in the first place).

          Oprah Winfrey once attacked the women of South Korea, for their cosmetic surgery. I would only like to ask Oprah, 1 question. How much did you spend on your looks (make-ups, cosmetics, devices, etc)?

          Commenter
          Lupin
          Location
          New York City, USA
          Date and time
          March 20, 2013, 12:55AM
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