In the Passionate Eye documentary Changing Face, Annie Price travels to South Korea, to find out how that country became the plastic surgery capital of the world. Price is no stranger to plastic surgery. She was horribly burned in a fire as an infant and has had multiple operations on her face throughout her childhood.

“I had third-degree burns on my face, my head, both my hands and my arm,” she says. Now engaged and expecting a baby, Price is comfortable with how she looks, but wonders what some of the best plastic surgeons would recommend for her.

She visits the famous Gangnam district, known as the beauty belt of Seoul, a neighbourhood that has more than 400 plastic surgery clinics. In addition to serving a massive domestic market, the clinics of Gangnam attract medical tourists from across Asia and all over the world.

Top 4 countries for plastic surgery (per capita)

South Korea
Greece
Italy
United States
Colombia
Source:  International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons
South Koreans have more plastic surgery procedures than anyone else in the world

The K-pop (Korean pop music) boom hasn’t just upended the global pop charts; it’s also created a  new beauty aesthetic. Young people all over East Asia aspire to look like K-pop stars, with wide eyes, small noses, angled chins. Twenty per cent of Koreans have had some sort of plastic surgery, and in the capital, Seoul, the number rises to 60 per cent of  20 year-olds. Price interviews a young Korean girl, Myung, about her upcoming procedure.

“I think that these days, most people see plastic surgery as something they ‘must do,” she says. “So I think many people do it without question.”

The most popular form of plastic surgery in Korea is blepharoplasty

Also known as double eyelid surgery, this procedure reshapes the skin around the eyes making them appear larger. Critics say it makes people look “less Asian” and “more Western.” But Dr. Byung-Gun Kim, a famous Korean surgeon featured in Changing Face has a different take on the surgery’s popularity. 

“Many Koreans and Asian Chinese people have small eye-opening, and they have an angry appearance,” he explains. “Even though they are not angry, everybody thinks that they are angry. After she opens the eyes bigger, she can have little more friendly, brighter appearance.”

Many South Koreans view plastic surgery as an essential part of having a successful career

In South Korea’s hyper-competitive job market it helps to be attractive. “Oemo jisang juui” — which translates to “looks are supreme” — is standard in many workplaces. In addition to a resume and references, most employers want a head shot. According to a survey of 760 companies, 93 per cent of firms required one, and six out of ten human resources managers are influenced by an applicant's appearance at the time of hiring. 

“If I were an employer, I will not choose the person who doesn’t look friendly, because when we hire people, they should look prettier and nicer and friendly to the customers,” said Dr. Kim.

Many parents offer to buy their kids plastic surgery as a high school graduation present

They’ll spend thousands hoping that a more attractive face will give their children an edge in the job market. According to a survey, 41.4 per cent of teens interviewed said they would be willing to have plastic surgery. Koreans think it’s preferable to have cosmetic surgery young so that they can have maximum benefit from the investment.

Men have plastic surgery too

K-pop has also changed the face of male beauty. More traditional, husky, masculine looks have been replaced by "pretty boy" aesthetic, typified by K-pop stars like G-Dragon and Taeyang. The Korean Association of Plastic Surgeons estimates that 15 per cent of men have had procedures and 44 per cent of male college students were contemplating it. Korean men are also huge consumers of beauty products. They now make up over 20 per cent of the world market in men's cosmetics. 

Botched procedures are common 

There aren’t enough plastic surgeons in South Korea to meet demand, and the industry is currently unregulated.

“Once you have a medical license, you can do anything,” says Shin Hyun Ho, a lawyer who specializes in plastic surgery-related lawsuits.

He has 300 cases on his books and estimates that as many as 80 per cent of doctors who practice plastic surgery are not certified in the field. Meanwhile, both lawmakers and the Korean Association of Plastic Surgeons are calling for tighter supervision to protect the reputation of the industry, now estimated to be worth $5 billion.

Some in South Korea think the plastic surgery craze has gone too far. Korean president Moon Jae-in wants to overhaul the job application process, in part, to keep candidates from being rejected on the basis of their looks. He announced plans to implement “blind hiring” in Korea’s public sector, meaning that employers would not be allowed to ask potential hires about their physical appearance or require a photo.

At the same time, ads for clinics and hospitals providing plastic surgery will be banned from Seoul Metro stations by 2022. The move is in response to complaints submitted by more than 1,000 commuters who were concerned that the images were promoting a distorted view of women’s bodies.

And for now, Price has decided to hold off on any plastic surgery for herself. Watch her journey on Changing Face.

 

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