Life in Plastic, It’s Fantastic!

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In the Seoul metro, Apgujeong station one of many dozens in that station

When commuting in Seoul you are constantly reminded how having a good face 을짱 is a major concern in Korea. Plastic surgery ads are plastered all over the subway with incredible before & after pictures, telling us there is a price to achieve perfection. Korean women don’t think twice: in 2009 one of every five women in Seoul between the ages of 19 and 49 said they had undergone plastic surgery at least once (Trend Monitor).

I always end-up staring at these pictures, looking for little clues in the skin or the shape of the face to check if really it is the same person before & after surgery. Because I often wonder if their own mother would recognize them. These total face make-over are pretty scary and the concept is in total opposition of the beauty values I heard while growing up.

“Love yourself for who you are”, “don’t be artificial”, “little imperfections make you unique”… These are probably things the average Korean kid never hears while growing up. Recently, I was shocked to hear one of my Korean language teachers say that her 10 year old daughter isn’t pretty. And after seeing her picture, I can vouch that she looks as cute as any other 10 year old!

As I already explained on this blog here the Korean obsession for beauty is the result of different tensions on society. First of all, the Confucian heritage translates into a culture that values oneness and homogeneity of the group. With it, comes the importance of keeping face which can be found all across Asia, encouraging conformism in countries such as Japan, China and Korea.

The little girl in this shot was talking about the surgery ad with her mother, asking: "Is that pretty?"

Secondly, the high number of college graduates who do not find employment creates tremendous pressure on Korean society. Also intertwined with the fear of losing face and bringing shame, getting a job in one of chaebol 재벌 companies (Korean conglomerates: Samsung, LG…) is the dream of thousands since middle school. The societal and individual pressures are such that it has become the #1 cause of suicide among young adults (as already discussed here). One of my Korean friends felt so ashamed to be unemployed, she basically became an hermit for a year, too embarrassed to be seen outside enjoying herself with friends when she was jobless. Ironically, now that she has a job, the long hours and over time keep her away from her friends too…

Thirdly, the image of women in Korean society is pulled in many directions by a multitude of contradictions. In 60 years, Korea has made a huge leap in its development to become a modern economy, however cultural values and mentalities take a lot longer to change and women are still at the bottom of the pyramid. Looking back at Joseon dynasty (beginning of a patriarchal Confucian era in Korea), women were subordinates to men with no freedom, literally forbidden outside of the home This era is often considered the dark age for women’s culture and Korean women in general.

Thankfully, contemporary Korea is more evolved, yet many of the issues regarding women and their emancipation can be traced back to Joseon times. Even today, openly criticizing women for their looks, telling them how to behave and live is quite acceptable. I remember this New Yorker in Seoul article, where a saleslady simply told her she was too fat 뚱뚱 for the clothes in that store.

Young or old, all can get a new face!

Getting double eyelids or a slender nose are so last decade! Now all the rage is in getting a smaller face. Even Korean celebrities are getting the procedure done, to the disbelief of fans who see them reappear a few weeks post-surgery looking like a totally different person.  ”It could be easily assumed that 99 percent of South Korean celebrities got stuff done on their faces,” said to Dr. Park Sang- hoon, head of Seoul’s ID Hospital, which specializes in double-jaw surgery (

Along with the Hallyu wave in Asia, more and more fans, fixated by the beauty standards of Korean celebrities, are flying to Seoul for plastic surgery (see the short BBC report below). Medical tourism is all the hype in Gangnam and Apgujeong, both business and private clinic hubs and the most expensive areas in Korea. A lot of customers don’t think twice about spending 10 thousand dollars on a new face assured that it the returns are worth it. However, not all are happy with the results.

Leaving aside the possible psychological trauma of looking like someone else (or all looking the same…), a major issue is that plastic surgery in Korea is still widely unregulated. In the past decade the number of plastic surgeons in Korea has almost doubled to 1,500. Then how can 4,000 clinics offer cosmetic surgery? Well that’s easy… Psychiatrists or dentists can perform surgeries they have no qualifications to be performing because Korean law authorizes doctors to switch to this money making field.

According to the Korea Consumer Agency, the number of malpractice suites has increased from 1,901 cases in 2006 to 2,984 in 2010. Keeping in mind that double-jaw surgery is extremely invasive and that being put-under general anesthesia there are always unfortunate cases that don’t make it. In some cases the the consequences of a bad plastic suregery can be devastating. Last year a woman hanged herself  “Every waking minute is hell,” she wrote in her diary of the pain following a bad double-jaw surgery (New York Times).

I have nothing against plastic surgery, on the contrary I find it fascinating and if it can make people feel good then all the better. However extremes are never healthy and altering one’s appearance to satisfy others can’t bring happiness. But according to Whang Sang-min, a psychologist at Yonsei University “in recent decades, cosmetic surgery has become a weapon in Koreans’ efforts to impress others, like buying an expensive handbag”.

Travis Kemp
Joined: 12/21/2009
Re: Life in Plastic, It’s Fantastic!

liked the article. the title itself is catchy and displays a bit of irony.  i think beauty myth is a tragic happening on a global scale. at times i wish citizens might take to the plastic surgeon what many had done to the likes of dr morgentaler (abortion doc) in canada, or kevorkian in the states.

saving face, to me, is ridiculous. i'm the kind of man who pulls no punches, says what he's thinking(or not thinking at times), no fear of bringing shame on me or my peers or family. its an old and societal retarding  custom. nonetheless it got me thinking: for many asian communities saving face is very important to their social standing, then why not just throw the custom out the window, be who you want, and just say to society... why save face when i can have a new face for XXX,000 KRW. its twisted logic i know, but made me chuckle,

again, nice read!


Paul Gaasenbeek
Joined: 08/25/2009
Re: Life in Plastic, It’s Fantastic!

I thought this article was going to be about all the food that gets sold in plastic. Everything is sold in a plastice container or bag. For a country that is so obsessed with recycling, this has always perplexed me. 10 cherries in a plastic container. 2 peaches wrapped in plastic. What is the point to this madness?

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