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.
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!"
The stress on aesthetics-by-knife is part of a strange cultural mix of the modern and the ancient in South Korea today. Families embrace traditional routines such as dining and living together, but equally encourage their children to work 18 hour days at school. The country is the most wired in the world, with the highest rate of smartphone usage -- 67 percent -- and 95 percent of Korean homes having internet access. Technology pervades every part of life, from keyless doors -- you type in a passcode -- to karaoke studios on trains. In this setting, women need to juggle the cultural expectations of being productive, engaged citizens, with the expectations of femininity and beauty that is also demanded from them.