Has the pursuit of perfection run its course?
Seoul Letter: A typical high school graduation gift is a nose job or double eyelid surgery
Korean K-pop superstars BTS. Korea’s love affair with K-pop aesthetics makes it more acceptable for men to care about their looks. Photograph: Brendan McDermid/EPA
In 2016 one of the most anticipated theatrical shows in South Korea was an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. The eponymous protagonist, fearing the ravages of old age, makes a Faustian pact to keep eternal youth and beauty on his side, a deal made at the expense of his soul.
In the Korean adaptation, Dorian Gray was played by Xia Junsu of the popular K-pop boyband, JYJ. Junsu is famed for his chiselled, symmetrical face and sought-after anime looks – all rumoured to be the result of cosmetic surgery.
It was probably fitting, then, that about a third of the audience coming to see the show had actually gone under the knife themselves in the pursuit of perfection.
South Korea boasts the highest rate of plastic surgery in the world. Of its population of 51 million people, one in three Korean women between the ages of 19 and 29 has had surgery. Self-worth in South Korea, it seems, is based on the goal of having a small face, big eyes, a high nose bridge, pale skin and, to top it off, a nine-to-one body ratio, where the body is nine times as long as the face.
“Born pretty?” reads one advertisement on a Seoul bus. “That’s a big fat lie.”
Here the act of physiognomy – judging a person’s character from their outer appearance, especially their face – is not gender specific. Korea’s love affair with K-pop aesthetics makes it more acceptable for men to care about their looks and undergo face surgery.
Walking around downtown Seoul you’ll spot young people clad in full face bandages boasting swollen eyes. This is likely because they have just had double eyelid surgery and jaw reconstruction.
The former takes about 15 minutes and involves the insertion of a crease in the eyelid to make the eye look bigger. The latter involves shaving off some of the jaw to create a smaller looking head.
Some say it is to make the recipient of the surgery look more western; others argue it is an act of aspiring to the ultimate version of Asian beauty.
Whatever it is, this addiction to cosmetic surgery or “ethnic tweaking” as it has been branded outside of Asia, starts with teenagers as young as 15. A typical high school graduation gift for a Korean teenager from their parents is either a nose job or double eyelid surgery.
And it’s no wonder. When applying for jobs, applicants have to include a photograph of themselves along with details of their height and weight. A 2017 poll found that nearly 40 per cent of respondents experienced discrimination based on their appearance when applying for jobs.
Across the pond in China, the South China Morning Post reported that millions of young people in China also undergo double eyelid surgery “to help them get a job and be happy”. South Korea is notorious for its enthusiastic approach to plastic surgery and for being one of the cheapest places in Asia for procedures. Cue the rise in cosmetic surgery tourism.
As a result, you can find hotels in Seoul offering nifty hotel-plastic surgery combos. Some even include shuttle services from the airport along with tour guides of Gangnam, the “improvement quarter”, notorious for having 400-500 clinics within a square mile. In 2017 three Chinese surgery tourists were turned away from a flight home after surgery made their faces so radically different that the authorities were unable to confirm their identity.
But things are changing. Gender inequality and the global #MeToo movement have contributed to a new Escape the Corset movement which is seeing Korean women cast off the country’s rigid beauty standards by destroying make-up and publicly shunning plastic surgery.
Lina Bae used to give beauty tutorials on YouTube. She decided to ditch make-up after reading comments from young girls who said they wouldn’t have courage to even go to school without make-up. Flashbulb moment. She uploaded a video in which she goes through the laborious process of applying creams, foundation, eyeliner and fake eyelashes and then takes off all the make-up and tells the viewer: “Don’t be so concerned with how others perceive you ... I am not pretty, but it is fine ... I will not be able to wear this corset forever.”
The video has been watched seven million times.
A new word has also appeared in the Korean language for people who have gone to town on plastic surgery: sung-gui, meaning “plastic surgery monster”.
In the immortal words of Oscar Wilde: “Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic.”