Korea's Dangerous Obsession with Plastic Surgery

Jennifer Wantier Jennifer Wantier

Plastic surgery has become an obsession in Korea. One in five women has already had surgery to improve her body or face, according to the U.S. magazine Atlantic. Plastic surgery is everywhere in Korea, from TV programs to ads in every subway stations. If you are at Apgujeong station in Seoul's affluent Gangnam area and are looking for things to do around the area, you will find instead a lot of plastic surgery clinics.

Some high school students now want plastic surgery as a graduation present.

Most of those operations are done to make people look more Western -- a dangerous process that nobody seems to be able or willing to stop.

Getting an operation in Korea is easy. Procedures vary from double eye-lid to complex jaw surgery. According to the Daily Mail, "a painful plastic surgery usually only performed for medical reasons is being embraced by Koreans as the latest way to improve their appearance." Indeed, Koreans go crazy for a V-shaped jawline. The operation consists of cutting the bones, which can in the worst-case scenario result in permanent paralysis.

The Korean obsession with beauty is being fed by social pressure. On the subway, in the cinema or reading a magazine, there is always some advertising in praise of plastic surgery. There is even a TV show called "Let Me In" where a team of doctors and professionals offer people free plastic surgery in exchange for letting them show it on TV. Here at least some of the participants need plastic surgery for medical purposes, not just to make them prettier.

Most of the participants end up saying that the operations have changed their lives, that they feel better and can imagine a happier future now that they are beautiful.

But in some cases, surgery fails and leaves patients with lasting problems. "Last year, a girl committed suicide after getting double jaw line surgery," according to the New York Daily. "She left a suicide note explaining her desperation after the surgery left her unable to chew food or stop crying due to nerve damage in a tear duct."

Even though more people are suing clinics and surgeons over side effects or the surgery itself, nothing seems to change as more and more people are getting surgery every year.

Unfortunately, young Koreans are going to suffer from all that social pressure. They believe that they are judged on their looks, and this is often true. Many students they will get a job more easily if they get cosmetic surgery, while schoolchildren and youngsters are bullied because they do not fit in the conventional standards of beauty.

Being a foreigner here has made me realize how much Koreans idealize Westerners. But their focus on appearance blinds them to the risks, and to the fact that changing their looks is not the key to happiness, even if that is what they are promised.

There is much the government could do to solve this problem, but unfortunately plastic surgery tourism is big business as Korean surgeons are leaders in the field. Instead of promoting this scalpel paradise, the government should think of ways to reduce pressure on its own citizens.

By Jennifer Wantier, a student at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies

englishnews@chosun.com / Dec. 26, 2013 12:54 KST