The K-Pop Plastic Surgery Obsession

Inspired by pop stars and encouraged by culture that equates success with physical beauty, the "self-racism subtext" of buying an ideal Korean face

Mihija Sohn, Miss Korea 1960, and Sung-hye Lee, Miss Korea 2012. (AP)

When 17-year-old Hailey Kim looks in the mirror, she doesn't see a pretty person. Her face is too round, she thinks; her lips too thin, her nose not quite right. Her reflection fuels a cosmetic surgery wish list -- bigger lips, higher cheeks, and a more delicate chin. Unhappiness with appearance is de rigueur for many teenagers, but for Korean Americans perhaps more than any other ethnic group, this is increasingly being addressed with a scalpel.

California-born Kim has already undergone two procedures: a nose job and double eyelid surgery. These have given her eyes a Western crease and made her nose small and high. Kim had full support from her family for these operations. And why shouldn't she? Her mother and aunts have all had similar operations. Kim hopes to study psychology when she goes to college, but she's deferring for a year so she can work and save money for more surgery.

"My cousin had her nose and eyes done, my mom had her eyes done, and my aunts had noses and eyes done, all in Korea," she says. "I found out about this when I was in elementary school."

None of these operations, however, are as radical as what she wants to do next.

One in five South Korean women has had some form of cosmetic surgery, compared to around one in 20 in the United States.

Kim recently read about a relatively new cosmetic procedure that is colloquially known as V-line surgery. It involves breaking and shaving the jawline to create a V-shaped face. This surgery is popular amongst young Korean pop stars, who have their faces reshaped to give them elfin, anime-like appearances. The V-line shape gives the face a certain fragility, and its childlike appeal has won Kim over.

"I hope to achieve a slimmer, oval face from the procedure," Kim says. "I just want to better myself. My wants may be drastic, but I'm not trying to look exactly like someone else."

Dr. David A. Koslovsky, a maxillofacial surgeon at Columbia College of Dental Medicine, performs the V-line operation regularly, though he has a different name for it. "I perform corrective jaw surgery," he says. "This is first and foremost a functional procedure for when teeth are misaligned. It does have an aesthetic benefit, but that's not why we do it. It's a complex, risky procedure. You could have permanent numbness, and there have been cases where people have died from this operation."

It's also extremely painful. The jaws are wired together for six weeks, and it can take six months for the swelling to disappear. But the danger and the physical pain -- and the possible confusion of seeing a totally different person in the mirror -- is seen as a small price to pay by many Korean American women. To understand why, you have to go to South Korea.

Remarkably, one in five South Korean women has had some form of cosmetic surgery, compared to around one in 20 in the U.S., according to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons. A powerful Korean consumer culture over the past two or three decades has made Korean women equate beauty with professional and economic success. Feminist criticisms of body objectification are barely heard, and the racial argument that this surgery is a form of "trying to look white" has faded -- due to the rise of Korean pop music culture. K-pop has created a completely new beauty aesthetic that nods to Caucasian features but doesn't replicate them.

K-pop culture -- think "Gangnam Style" -- and its look have spread across East Asia and into the Asian community in the United States. This popularity -- and the value placed on the surgery behind the stars -- has meant that South Korea is now synonymous with medical tourism, and has established itself as an epicenter for all sorts of cosmetic surgery.


K-pop group Girls' Generation performing in Seoul (Jo Yong-Hak/Reuters)

Mihija Sohn, Miss Korea 1960 looks nothing like Sung-hye Lee, the winner of Miss Korea 2012. Miss 1960's face is full, her nose is flat, and her eyes are small. Beauty in the 1960s had a very natural slant to it. Women were expected to enhance rather than alter their physical beings. This is in direct contrast to the identikit images of contestants in pageants over the last decade, where contestant pageant teams often feature a consulting surgeon on staff.

"Older standards of beauty were big body, wide hips, and good to make baby," says Bae Seonghee, a 16-year-old schoolgirl from Gumi, South Korea. "Eyes there were slanty and sleepy." Seonghee giggles and hides behind her long bangs. She's elbowed by her classmate Kang NaYeon on her left, and she shrugs and looks up again. "Pretty is a small head, big eyes, and high nose and forehead," she says earnestly. Seonghee is practicing English as part of her school curriculum, and she motions to different parts of her face as she speaks.

Gumi is a small rural town, 115 miles south of Seoul, and the girls at Gumi High School are less sophisticated than their city counterparts. Out of the seven girls I spoke with, only one had even been to the capital. But cosmetic surgery isn't an urban, cosmopolitan phenomenon in South Korea. It's becoming a nationwide obsession.

For the girls of Gumi, it's driven by videos from the WonderGirls and Girls Generation, girl groups that launched with 17 to 20-year-old singers. They all have small faces, large eyes, and tiny button noses. Chins are pointed, cheeks are wide, and their faces glow artificially, imbuing them with the anime quality.

A big industry ensures they stay that way. Everything, from their vocals to their face shape, is manufactured by their management companies. Cosmetic surgery is a large part of creating the K-pop image. Many of the K-pop idols even act as spokespeople for surgical companies. In a video on the Cinderella Clinic website, singer G.Na says, "This clinic is where Dr. Jong Phil is. As you are aware he gives a really kind consultation. Come and become more beautiful." The stars don't actually admit to actually having had the surgery, but it is so rampant among them that numerous websites exist dedicated to analyzing who got what where.

"I like Girls Generation," said Korean schoolgirl Kim RyeoGyeong. "They have double eyelid and a small face; a round forehead -- from an implant. They say they didn't do any surgery, but I know they did."

As James Turnbull, a writer and lecturer in Korea on feminism and pop culture, noted, "The idea here is that you like the appearance of the 'idols' and you should try and look like them."

"K-pop is a package that's not confined to the music," he said.

Before the K-pop boom, Korean youth already were being brought up on a diet of surgery, so the idea of an operation to look like their favorite starlet is socially acceptable. Children are considered an embodiment and reflection of their parents' status, and to this end they are shaped and molded -- through intense schooling, but also through surgery to be the best they can be. Notions of beauty and productivity are married together.

The surgery quickly caught on. Its first clientele were Korean prostitutes, who were trying to appeal to American soldiers.

16-year-old Chae Jeongwon, a schoolgirl at Gumi High School, has grown up with the understanding that she'll have double eyelid surgery one day. "It's a present for senior schoolgirls," she wrote, in an essay about Korean surgery. "They say, Mommy, if you get my eyes or nose, my scores are better than before. Please!"

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Zara Stone is a writer and reporter whose work has appeared on the BBC and in The Guardian and Psychologies Magazine.

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