Sunday, June 26, 2016

Welcome to Seoul - the cosmetic surgery capital of the world

Society’s ugly obsession with beauty is nothing new. Ever since the Ancient Greeks, humans have overvalued aesthetic appeal. Today, the media’s oversaturation of bodily ideals and the glamorising of celebrity culture is fuelling a worldwide beauty addiction.

In one country, the pursuit of perfection has reached new heights. Full-length mirrors are installed in almost every public place, walls are plastered with plastic surgery ads and bandage-wrapped patients, fresh from going under the knife, unashamedly go about their daily business. 

Welcome to South Korea, the plastic surgery capital of the world.

South Korea’s obsession with cosmetic surgery

Cosmetic surgery is a billion dollar industry in South Korea. It is estimated that one in five South Korean women have had some form of cosmetic enhancement, compared to about one in 20 American women. Korean men are also fixated with beauty – around 15% of plastic surgery patients are males.The capital, Seoul, has become a medical tourism mecca with more than 4,000 clinics performing nips and tucks on around 650,000 patients each year. In a single mile of Seoul’s opulent Gangnam neighborhood, nicknamed the “Improvement Quarter”, there are 500 aesthetic centres dedicated to performing plastic surgery procedures.

Medical tourism has been steadily growing since 2007 when the Korean government lifted visa requirements that restricted extended medical stays. By 2020, the number of medical tourists is expected to surpass 1 million, injecting an estimated $3.2 billion into the South Korean economy.

South Korea has the highest rate of plastic surgery per capita in the world. Its natives consider physiognomy, a person’s literal face value, to be a life-defining factor and are willing to spend heavily in order to perfect theirs. But why are Koreans so obsessed with beauty and what are the consequences of this superficiality?

South Koreans equate beauty with success

Half of South Korea’s population lives in Seoul, the 6th most densely populated city on earth. This has generated a hypercompetitive culture where people are routinely confronted with each other’s appearances and thousands of applicants challenge one another for a single job. As a result, Koreans often equate beauty with success, using their appearance to distinguish themselves.

According to leading plastic surgeon Dr. Hang-Seok Choi, it's widely accepted that attractive people have an advantage in the job market. Many businesses genuinely consider a candidate’s beauty before hiring them and make it obligatory for jobseekers to attach a photograph to their application - a practice that is not as widespread in the UK or the US.

Students in Seoul often receive a new nose or eyelid surgery as a graduation gift from parents, a gesture designed to give a significant boost in the corporate world. South Korea has the lowest rate of employment for female college graduates among OECD nations, so it perhaps isn’t surprising that a huge number are willing to undergo cosmetic surgery to ensure they land a job.

According to studies conducted at Huazhong University in China, South Korean females can earn up to 2% more for every centimetre of height. Because of this, so-called “survival surgeries” are growing in popularity, such as cosmetic limb lengthening which can give patients a few inches of extra height.

K-Pop is fuelling the fixation with plastic surgery

For many years the male-dominated Korean media has endlessly reinforced the appeal of Caucasian appearance, equating the Western aesthetic with affluence. This was originally met with feminist and racial criticisms of body objectification, but these arguments have quickly evaporated with the rise of Korean pop music.

K-Pop, combined with a powerful consumer culture, has created a beauty aesthetic that incorporates Caucasian features without replicating them. Cosmetic surgery is a large part of creating this carefully crafted image which is presented to consumers as both desirable and attainable. Many Korean celebrities act as spokespeople for surgical companies, influencing youngsters who want a similar appearance to their idols.

One of the most common surgical procedures is blepharoplasty, also known as double-eyelid surgery. Unlike many Westerners, the majority of Koreans have monolid eyes without a visible crease. The procedure is designed to give patients a double eyelid appearance and has become so common that is rarely considered as cosmetic surgery. Jawline thinning, skin bleaching and rhinoplasty are also popular procedures.

Beauty comes at a price for many cosmetic surgery patients

As the popularity of cosmetic surgery booms, many unqualified surgeons are exploiting the market and performing procedures on unwitting patients. This has led to a rise in the number of botched surgeries, where patients who go under the knife are left with life-changing conditions.

South Korea’s cosmetic surgery industry is heavily regulated, but patients are often fooled by fake reviews of clinics on social media platforms and blogs. Third-parties are paid, often in the form of free surgical procedures, to write fake online reviews designed to attract naive patients through the doors of the clinic.

Last year, a huge backlash against the cosmetic industry erupted after a Chinese medical tourist was announced brain dead after undergoing surgery at a clinic in Seoul. But despite these high profile cases, thousands of South Koreans and medical tourists continue to be lured by the promise of beauty. In a place where cosmetic procedures are as commonplace as haircuts, surgery is simply seen as another milestone on the road to success.

Jhonson Peterson

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