South Korean High Schoolers Get Plastic Surgery for Graduation

"It's common to change one's face in Korea."
A South Korean plastic surgeon operates on a woman who wants to have double eyelids in Seoul on March 23, 2009. (Jo Yong Hak/Reuters)

'"I think I'm ugly, and nobody wants to love me. Just like her I wanna be pretty. I wanna be pretty," sings Lee Chae-lin, member of the four-person Korean girl group 2NE1. The song, "Ugly" was released in July 2011 in South Korea and rose to number one in the Korean charts. One reason for its success is that its themes -- of insecurity, social awkwardness and body awareness -- resonated deeply within South Korea, a culture where children are bred to be brilliant, in both studies and appearance.

"That song was a backlash against the cookie cutter images of beauty you see here," said Mallory Thornberry, a Florida native who moved to South Korea in 2009 to teach English. "Despite the lyrics, the band members have also had surgery and fit the ideal beauty standard here."

When students at Gumi Girls High School told Thornberry, 30, that she had a small face, she was offended. "I thought they were making fun of me," she said. "I've been teased about having a small head on a big body before." It was only when Thornberry mentioned this comment to her fellow teachers that she realized it was a compliment. "I'd just moved to South Korea to teach English, and everything was new to me. The idea of certain physical traits being coveted and considered beautiful hadn't crossed my mind."

This wasn't Thornberry's only surprise. "There were multiple mirrors in the school, full length ones in every hallway," she said. "Men and women here are always looking in mirrors, and they're not shy about it." Large scales were on the second floor corridor of the school, free for any students to use. "Weight is tied to health and beauty here," said Thornberry. "If Koreans think you are overweight, they're not shy of telling you to your face."

Thornberry didn't have this problem, as her slim physique, blonde hair and blue eyes represented a certain stereotyped American ideal. "This teacher, she is pretty," said schoolgirl Ye Jin-Kim, 16. "Small face, big eyes, oh so pretty." Jin-Kim doesn't regard all her teachers so highly. "We had an art teacher who went to have a baby and she came back with a new nose. She looked so much better!"

Cosmetic surgery is rampant in Gumi Girls High School -- and indeed, in all of South Korea. The International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons reported that one in five South Korean women have had some form of surgery, and this number includes adolescents.

The most common procedure by far is that of the double eyelid, also known as blepharoplasty. This type of surgery creates an extra fold of skin above the eye that is visible when the eyes are open. Only around 50 percent of the East Asian population is born with a natural "double lid."

Jin Kim is planning to have eyelid surgery next year when she graduates high school. She will be joining a large number of her classmates when she does so.

"In our school most students want to have a plastic surgery," Seonghee said. "They plan to do it during their ... winter vacation." A number of her friends have already undergone this process, and she thinks it's very pretty. There is also no stigma attached. "Why would there be?" she said. "It's common to change one's face in Korea."

"Students would come back from vacation and tell me that they had gotten eyelid surgery," said Thornberry. "It was very strange, as my background predisposes me to tell them that they don't need to change anything, but they are looking for congratulations -- they want me to tell them that they look 'pretty' now."

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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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