Move over Hollywood, there’s more primping and preening going on in South Korea. When it comes to sheer numbers, figures show that Korea has the highest proportion of its population undergoing cosmetic surgery. According to The Economist, a total of 649, 938 cosmetic surgeries were performed in the country in 2011 alone.
South Korea also has the highest ratio of cosmetic surgeons to citizens worldwide – that’s one in every 77 Koreans, according to a report from the International Society of Plastic Surgeons (ISAPS). Similarly, one in five South Korean women has gone under the knife, according to a survey conducted by Trend Monitor in 2009.
In Seoul’s upscale Gangnam neighborhood lies the “Beauty Belt”, a grouping of streets lined with hundreds of plastic surgery clinics all clustered around subway stations. All around Sinsa or Apgujeong subway stations in Seoul, slick, eye-catching ads for plastic surgery are plastered all over buses and subway trains.
Adverts featuring famous surgeons and giant before-and-after photos are ever-present on street billboards, newspapers, magazines, bus stops and the backs of bus seats. Hoards of these advertising billboards and prints are promoting eye and nose jobs, face lifts, as well as other nips and tucks.
This drastic increase in the number of plastic surgeries is mostly due to the growing acceptance of the cosmetic surgery industry in the country. The main reason was – the culture has made it normal – that, in [Korean] society, there’s an idea that the prettier you are, the more benefits you get.
It is widely accepted in Korea that good-looking men and women will do better in life. If you look good, you have better chances at finding a good wife or husband, getting the job you desire, or have people treat you better. This is because a lot of South Koreans believe in the stigma that, psychologically, people trust prettier people more.
Another factor that’s driving the cosmetic surgery boom is the cut throat competition among the growing number of plastic surgeons. A number of actors and K-pop idols, some reportedly paid by doctors, openly admit on TV talk shows to having undergone some form of surgical enhancement.
Celebrity groups such as T-ara have readily admitted to having some work done on their faces.
“K-pop stars and Korean celebrities have influenced the younger generation [to get plastic surgery]. 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,” Dr Rhee Se Whan explains to the DailyLife.
Dr. Rhee says majority of young people come in to get those big eyes, high noses and slim jawlines, features not inherently Korean. Therefore, as the K-pop phenomenon grows, so does the plastic surgery industry.
Presently, South Korea’s obsession is moving on from standard double eyelid and nose jobs to more radical surgical procedures like reconfiguring the jawbone – all to give Koreans that distinct Caucasian look.
But cosmetic surgery isn’t just an urban, cosmopolitan phenomenon in South Korea. It is also a big industry that ensures everything stays that way. All thanks to the influx of newly rich people in Asia and elsewhere in neighboring regions, South Korea has become the new hotspot for would-be-swans.
Some 32% of South Korea’s medical tourists are from the United States, followed by China in second place.
In addition to English and Chinese speakers, clienteles from Southeast Asian countries like Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia are also increasingly common.
Furthermore, the booming cosmetic surgery market has made procedures more affordable for consumers.
“An average — not excellent — face-lift in the United States will set you back about US$10,000,” a Korean surgeon told CNN. “But in Korea you can get the same service for US$2,000 or US$3,000.”
The Korean tourism industry has also stepped up to cater to the needs of these visiting patients. Major hotels in Seoul are teaming up with cosmetic surgery clinics and hospitals in offering accommodation and a diverse range of travel services such as hotel accommodations, airport pickups, sightseeing and all-inclusive packages.