Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Korea # 17: Cosmetic surgery and The Beautiful in Korea

So many of the young women I saw in an upscale section of Seoul my last night were stunningly beautiful.  Asian women have always appealed to me but this was well beyond the beautiful women of Jeonju.  Perfect skin and mouths, small pert chins and noses and luminous eyes, always great eyes.  And thin bodies with long legs exposed in shorts or short dresses and amplified by platform shoes, as always.

Could this be what I suspect it is, the cumulative effect of plastic surgery?


The previous afternoon I made my way to the new Gangnam Tourist Center in the upscale district after which the “Gangman Style” of K-pop music is named.  The center was built to help attract to Seoul, first, people who love Korean Wave music and style and want to experience it for themselves; and, second, to accelerate the already exploding “medical tourism,” particularly for cosmetic surgery.


The two purposes of the center are not unrelated: the goal of surgery would seem to be to look like music and film stars.  Are the doctors above the chorus line?

On the second floor you can dress up like a K-pop star, pretend you’re singing with a band and watch and buy videos.  On the first floor you can explore which part of yourself you want altered.  (No one paid the least attention to me on either floor, for obvious reasons.)

Put on these clothes....and go on this stage....


In the neighborhood I met an attractive young Laotian, an anthropologist, who teaches at a community college in Hong Kong and one of six students she brought here to study “the
consumer society in Seoul.”   She had sent each of her students into a cosmetic surgery clinics the day before, asking for an evaluation.  All were told they needed help, although the one male was said his appearance was okay “unless you want to be a celebrity.”  All said they left frightened.

The walls of the subway are full of invitations to look slimmer in some places, fuller in others.  The faces, which include the two above, run toward those I saw in the streets.


Seoul is the leading source of cosmetic surgery in Asia.   A 2009 survey said one in five women in Soeul had had plastic surgery and the numbers will certainly be higher next year as more doctors, nurses and investors enter the field.  Korea has the highest percentage of those with plastic surgery in the world.

Korea is experiencing a flight of doctors and nurses to the United States; the association of Korean doctors in the United States has about 20,000 members already.  But for this specialty, they’re staying in Korea or coming home.  There are four hundred cosmetic clinics in Seoul.

You can see in this photo why plastic surgery can be attractive.  This is a double jaw surgery which alters both the upper and lower jaws. It can be painful and have higher complaint rates.


But looking through booklets and brochures collected at the tourist center I saw lots before and after pictures which invited the question, what was the purpose?  To my eyes, the young women often looked as attractive before as after.  So some ideal has taken hold and that’s what most young women want to attain.  To repeat an earlier comment, my anthropology professor only advised his 16 year old high-achievement daughter at least to wait until she is older, not to give up the idea entirely.

Pictures of Audrey Hepburn show up frequently in Seoul, like in a neighborhood coffee shop.  Someone is the new Audrey Hepburn and a lot of Asian women must have that look.  Indeed, Hepburn’s small features, great eyes and slim figure predicted today’s version of herself, an Asian look or a hybrid with Western features.  Actresses in Taiwan are said have had plastic surgery to look more like Korean stars.

I saw several women looking like this....


Women interviewed after surgery said they felt better about themselves, more interesting to other people and that they are more likely to successful in life.  Research in the U. S. confirms that attractive people are more likely to get ahead. 

Round, open eyes apparently cost $1,500 to $2,000.  A new, smaller nose  costs$3-4,000.

Whether this is surgery to gain a more “Western” look is debated but it certainly imitates previous surgery and the look of movie stars.

 Of the women I saw on my last night, the proportion of those with surgery would have to have been well above one in five because I was in a young, affluent area.  It is a little sad to see so many fail to appreciate their features and natural beauty.  Parents are often of a similar mind but Geoffrey Cain, writing in GlobalPost.com, quotes a young woman who said, "To be Korean is to get plastic surgery.  You must do it or people will think you are weird."

Coming home on the plane I enjoyed walking up and down the aisles for a long time, looking closely at Korean faces I would not see 
again in homogenous Idaho.  You can safely look at people sleeping or in repose.  Such attractive people in the fullest sense.  An 11 year old sitting next to me, on a church-related trip to NYC and Washington, could not have been smarter or more natural and enjoyable.
A few thoughts about racial stereotypes, including my own.....

I grew up with war movies in which the Japanese Zero fighter pilot was always the same bad guy.  Literally, the same actor, movie after movie.  Hiroshima and Nagasaki could be a experienced as lesser tragedies because of our own racism, on top of the war itself.   (By the way, 25 percent of the dead in those bombings were Koreans who had been conscripted to serve in Japan.)   Then came the Korean and Vietnam wars.  We may have had allies and friends but also acquired brutal new enemies.  

So I go back to an early question on this blog:  why Korea? Perhaps a subconscious reason was to overcome my own history and become comfortable with one-third of the world's people I had not lived among and to become more comfortable with and excited for.  Coming home, it very much feels like that happened.  I greatly enjoyed the Korean people and cheer for them. 




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