We re­port from South Korea, where beauty is supreme and plas­tic surgery is the norm – but at what cost?

Women's Health (UK) - - CONTENTS - Words CORINNE REDFERN pho­tog­ra­phy FRANCESCO BREMBATI

Stark­ers and shiv­er­ing in front of a mir­ror in Seoul, I re­alise my knowl­edge of South Korean spa eti­quette is fun­da­men­tally flawed. I’ve for­got­ten some­thing – some­thing im­por­tant. To my left and right are dozens of women; all slim, toned and com­pa­ra­bly nude. And yet, I’m the most naked of us all. The face of ev­ery other woman is cov­ered by a sheet mask; a mi­crofi­bre dis­guise de­signed to brighten, plump, clear and lift over the course of 20 min­utes. It’s just one of the seem­ingly end­less steps that ev­ery woman in Seoul com­pletes daily. ‘I’m go­ing to do three masks to­day,’ Sa­man­tha, 19, tells me, un­pack­ing the prod­ucts that make up the rest of her 10-step quo­tid­ian cleans­ing rou­tine. ‘I have a maths exam to­mor­row, and I want to look my best.’ Such is life in South Korea, where I’ve been dis­patched by Women’s Health to in­ves­ti­gate the place that, more of­ten than not, makes the head­lines not for the stag­ger­ing beauty of its land­scapes, but of its peo­ple. Korean beauty tech is es­ti­mated to be a decade ahead of the UK’S, and the ‘K-beauty’ mar­ket (K for Korean) is one of the world’s big­gest. But it isn’t all sheet masks and ex­fo­li­at­ing mois­turiser pads. Around 50% of twenty-some­thing women in Seoul are thought to have un­der­gone cosmetic surgery, giv­ing South Korea the high­est rate per capita glob­ally, fol­lowed by Brazil.


‘Beauty is the most im­por­tant thing in any Korean woman’s life,’ says Sarang Kim, 26, a pro­fes­sional dancer in the Korean Na­tional Bal­let. She sets her alarm clock for 5am each day to spend an hour work­ing on her com­plex­ion, and her monthly per­sonal care bill – for prod­ucts, fa­cials, man­i­cures and body treat­ments – runs into the hun­dreds. ‘It’s ba­sic main­te­nance,’ she says. ‘Ev­ery woman I know does it.’ Sarang should know. Last year, she came sec­ond place in Miss Korea – the beauty pageant that has made head­lines glob­ally for all the wrong rea­sons. As she rem­i­nisces about her time as a con­tes­tant, it’s clear the out­rage isn’t mis­placed. The event is so shut-off from the pub­lic, com­peti­tors’ phones are con­fis­cated and their lug­gage ran­sacked (‘in case we try to smug­gle in things like spare mo­biles – or choco­late’). They’re as­signed body­guards and have teams of hair­dressers and make-up artists at their dis­posal; so fierce is the com­pe­ti­tion that when a con­tes­tant is do­ing well, her jew­ellery and make-up might start to dis­ap­pear in a bid to scup­per her chances. For the du­ra­tion of the month-long con­test, Sarang sur­vived on two hours of sleep a night. Af­ter her body­guard and room­mates fell asleep, she would sneak into the stair­well where she’d ex­er­cise un­til three or four in the morn­ing. ‘All I could think about was the swim­ming cos­tume,’ she re­calls, show­ing me a photo (right) of her pos­ing in a tiny turquoise num­ber. ‘I had the big­gest bags un­der my eyes, but I just thought to my­self,


“This would be the worst sce­nario – for you to look like a pig.”’ While Sarang was run­ning up and down stairs in the dead of night, fel­low com­peti­tor Chae Yeong, 23, was dream­ing of ba­con. ‘I was very hun­gry,’ she re­calls. ‘The food dreams were just part of it. I don’t think the con­test made me a very nice per­son. I would of­ten get an­gry.’ It sounds hor­ren­dous, with an im­pact on the con­tes­tants that clearly lingers. And yet, be­com­ing a Miss Korea con­tes­tant is seen as such a stamp of ap­proval that women with Korean her­itage fly in from all over the world to take part. For Sarang, it was a feel­ing that bal­let wasn’t mak­ing her ‘beau­ti­ful enough’. ‘I needed to prove that I was pretty in other ways,’ she tells me, scrolling through pic­tures of the prize­giv­ing cer­e­mony. ‘I’ve never seen my par­ents look so proud of me,’ adds Chae. ‘It was like, they knew I was smart be­fore, but now I was of­fi­cially beau­ti­ful, too.’


There it is again. This need to be seen as beau­ti­ful. It’s not as if Western cul­ture is im­mune to this pres­sure, but it seems to have wormed its way far deeper into the South Korean con­scious­ness. ‘Your ap­pear­ance in­flu­ences ev­ery­thing from your job prospects to your re­la­tion­ship suc­cess, but it goes fur­ther than just in­flu­ence – it con­trols ev­ery­thing,’ Sarang ex­plains. ‘When you ap­ply for a job, you have to send a photo, so it’s the first thing an em­ployer sees and rates you on.’ ‘Off-days don’t ex­ist here,’ says Ji­ay­ing Lim, Seoul-based psy­chol­o­gist and founder of coun­selling clinic Cou­chol­ogy. ‘At week­ends, ev­ery­one might wear ath­leisure to get cof­fee with their friends, but clothes will be neat and clean, hair will be washed and make-up per­fectly ap­plied. You might feel tired or stressed, but you don’t show that side of your­self, even to your clos­est friends.’ Stella Yu­jin agrees that the cul­ture feels de­cid­edly dif­fer­ent com­pared with the West. The 27-year-old grew up in Po­hang city on the east coast of South Korea be­fore mov­ing to San Fran­cisco in the US when she was 23. ‘I was raised to be per­fect,’ she says. ‘I grew up at­tend­ing high school from 8am un­til mid­night, and then I’d go to see my tu­tor for two hours.’ Yes, you read that cor­rectly. That’s un­til 2am. By the time Stella was at uni­ver­sity, she was fix­ated on her weight. ‘I’m 5ft 4in, so I thought I had to weigh ex­actly 44kg [that’s a BMI of 16.5 – well be­low the healthy thresh­old] be­cause no­body would ever em­ploy me if I was over­weight. When I moved to Amer­ica, I thought, “Hold on, women can be big­ger and beau­ti­ful,” and I gained 10kg in three months. I started ex­er­cis­ing rather than re­strict­ing my food in­take. I was so happy!’ She pauses. ‘But of course, as soon as I came back, a friend was like, “Stella, what hap­pened? You need to go on a diet.”’ The ex­pec­ta­tions weigh­ing on Stella, even as a teenager, caused her to turn to far more than calo­rie re­stric­tion. ‘I re­mem­ber grad­u­at­ing high school and my mum said, “Stella, you’re pretty, but you’d be pret­tier if we did a lit­tle some­thing to your eyes,” so she paid for me to have plas­tic surgery. It was like the pres­sure to be per­fect aca­dem­i­cally shifted side­ways into the way I looked.’ Par­ents pay­ing for their chil­dren to have plas­tic surgery sounds like some­thing straight out of My Su­per Sweet 16, but ac­tu­ally sug­gest­ing it? Ac­cord­ing to Lim, cosmetic surgery is so or­di­nary in South Korea that it doesn’t have the shock value it has else­where in the world. ‘My sis­ter-in-law had a baby with mono­lids [eye­lids that are nat­u­rally with­out a crease] and ev­ery­one was jok­ing that they’d buy her surgery for her birth­day when she was older,’ she re­calls. ‘On the one hand, it was just silly fun. But on the other, chil­dren here re­ally are taken to plas­tic surgery clinics at 12 or 13 years old by their par­ents, and when you’re aware of that, the joke stops be­ing funny. Un­der-18s need per­mis­sion from a par­ent to have surgery, but there’s no min­i­mum age re­quire­ment. One doc­tor I spoke to re­calls a nine-year-old com­ing in for fa­cial surgery.’

The sheer num­ber of Korean clinics was part of the draw for Mika Rivero. The 20year-old Span­ish stu­dent, who moved here a year ago to study busi­ness, had li­po­suc­tion within weeks of ar­riv­ing. ‘Ev­ery­where you look, there are posters ad­ver­tis­ing cosmetic treat­ments,’ she tells me from the La Prin surgery in Cheong­dam, where she’s mid­way through an hour-long face-lift­ing laser treat­ment. But the con­ve­nience of a clinic on ev­ery cor­ner wasn’t her only temp­ta­tion. With a nose job start­ing at £150, it’s also more af­ford­able for the masses. The hub for cosmetic surgery may be the so-called Bev­erly Hills of Seoul, but treat­ments cater to men and women of all in­come lev­els. ‘I felt the same need to be pretty at home in Spain, but I never con­sid­ered plas­tic surgery – prob­a­bly be­cause it’s so ex­pen­sive in Europe. The treat­ment I’m hav­ing now is to coun­ter­act my acne and tone my fa­cial mus­cles. It costs about £700 but it lasts a year, so I think it’s worth it. I’m plan­ning to get my nose and lips done next.’


That plas­tic surgery is so ac­ces­si­ble, and per­fec­tion so in­grained in South Korean cul­ture, is at the root of why Miss Korea proves so con­tro­ver­sial else­where. The 2013 con­test made head­lines around the world. The rea­son? The con­tes­tants all bore a strik­ing re­sem­blance to each other. ‘Most of the girls look so sim­i­lar, we say they have “Gangnam Girl Face” named af­ter the up­mar­ket district – Gangnam-gu – where all the cosmetic clinics are lo­cated,’ says Dr Yang Soo Park of Miin Clinic. ‘There are cer­tain trends – like straight, neat noses or wide, baby­ish eyes. Walk down the street and you can see ex­actly the same fea­tures on mul­ti­ple peo­ple – both men and women.’ ‘Ev­ery pageant con­tes­tant has had some surgery,’ Sarang tells me. ‘Mine cost about £800, and that’s all I could af­ford. But other girls had their eyes, nose, mouth and breasts done. I mean, they looked amaz­ing,’ she sighs. Sarang had ‘V-line’ surgery, a pop­u­lar pro­ce­dure that elim­i­nates fat from un­der­neath the chin to cre­ate a heartshaped face. It’s so in de­mand ahead of pageants that the body­guards are re­port­edly tasked with mak­ing sure con­tes­tants don’t sneak off for top-up treat­ments. Sarang low­ers her chin to her neck, prov­ing there isn’t a fat fold in sight, and it sad­dens me to hear that she still doesn’t think this was enough. As the first girl in 11 years to reach the fi­nal of the con­test with mono­lids, she felt torn when de­cid­ing whether to have the pro­ce­dure to cre­ate a crease in order to reach the top spot. Ul­ti­mately, she rea­soned against it. ‘I de­cided it was the thing that made me dif­fer­ent and unique,’ she says. Dr Young Gil Kim is pleased to hear it. ‘We ac­tu­ally marked down con­tes­tants who had too much surgery,’ he tells me. The many-time judge of the con­test and founder of Al­lura Cosmetic Clinic is also for­mer pres­i­dent of the Korean So­ci­ety of Aes­thetic Plas­tic Surgery. ‘It’s un­for­tu­nate. There is so much pres­sure on the girls to look beau­ti­ful in this coun­try, but ev­ery­one for­gets that diver­sity is the most beau­ti­ful thing of all.’ It’s the rea­son that, de­spite car­ry­ing out some 40,000 suc­cess­ful pro­ce­dures in his 30-year ca­reer, he dis­suades his own daugh­ter from hav­ing any­thing done.


A shot of anaes­thetic and a ban­daged jaw doesn’t ex­actly sound like a recipe for self­con­fi­dence to me – and in many cases, it isn’t. A re­cent study found that 32% of cosmetic surgery re­cip­i­ents in South Korea weren’t happy with the re­sults, and it’s thought that up to 80% of Gangnam-gu doc­tors may be un­qual­i­fied to carry out the pro­ce­dures they’re of­fer­ing, with con­sul­tants out­sourc­ing pro­ce­dures to less ex­pe­ri­enced col­leagues in order to meet de­mand. Of course, it could be a co­in­ci­dence that the coun­try with the high­est rate of plas­tic surgery in the world also has the high­est fe­male sui­cide rate among de­vel­oped coun­tries, but in a so­ci­ety that places so much weight on ap­pear­ance, when it goes wrong, the con­se­quences can be cat­a­strophic. In 2014, it was re­ported that a for­mer Miss Korea con­tes­tant had at­tempted sui­cide twice af­ter a botched breast aug­men­ta­tion. ‘I re­gret [the surgery] so much,’ the con­tes­tant, who asked to re­main anony­mous, said at the time. ‘Plas­tic surg­eries are like an ad­dic­tion. If you do the eyes, you want to do the nose. And doc­tors don’t say you are beau­ti­ful enough, but get peo­ple to do more.’ Work­ing as a coun­sel­lor in Seoul, Lim says she con­stantly hears from peo­ple who feel over­whelmed by the pres­sure of main­tain­ing a fa­cade of per­fec­tion. ‘Men­tal health is still a sub­ject that’s stig­ma­tised in this coun­try,’ she ex­plains. ‘Open­ing up to a stranger about your feel­ings – es­pe­cially those of fail­ure or in­se­cu­rity – can be frowned upon, and the ben­e­fits over­looked. But women who do come to me of­ten talk about suf­fer­ing from ex­treme com­par­i­son dis­or­ders, im­poster syn­drome and eat­ing dis­or­ders.’ Hap­pily, ev­ery so­ci­ety has its rebels. ‘Peo­ple have a nar­row per­cep­tion of what women should look like, which doesn’t


nec­es­sar­ily make them feel good about them­selves,’ says 25-year-old Gyo-hyo Bae. She’s one half of a plus-sized duo on a mis­sion to shake up per­cep­tions of beauty, mod­el­ling clothes in sizes 16-20 on In­sta­gram (@jstyle_ev­el­let). She’s lucky, she says. Her par­ents raised her to feel com­fort­able in her own skin; a con­fi­dence that came from do­ing sports she loved in­stead of di­et­ing. ‘I want to prove that be­ing ac­tive is more im­por­tant than be­ing thin. I might be big­ger than most women in this coun­try, but I love what I can do with my body.’


‘My friends back home don’t recog­nise me,’ says Span­ish stu­dent Mika. ‘But that’s not be­cause I’ve trans­formed my face – it’s be­cause I’m so con­fi­dent.’ Since hav­ing li­po­suc­tion, she’s started fol­low­ing a healthy diet so she never again has to re­sort to surgery. To­day, she be­lieves she’s health­ier than ever. Seoul-born Rachel Lee, 31, agrees that en­gag­ing with this cul­ture can serve as a pos­i­tive tool for health. ‘In Seoul, you are what you eat – it’s that sim­ple. My mother raised me to re­ally think about what I put into my body. I knew I couldn’t ex­pect to have good skin if I didn’t ex­er­cise or eat de­cent food.’ She stud­ied in Lon­don for 10 years and was amazed (read: ap­palled) by the laid-back ap­proach to food in the UK. She cites the all-too-fa­mil­iar rit­ual of chow­ing down on cheesy chips post-night out. ‘In Lon­don, no­body had surgery, but make-up was used as a kind of dis­guise for your bad habits – a tool for cov­er­ing up blem­ishes or spots. Here, spots are a symp­tom of an un­healthy lifestyle.’ Sarang sums it up. ‘In Korea, beauty re­ally isn’t skin deep. It’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive of how you live your whole life. We in­vest in our ap­pear­ance just like we in­vest in our ca­reers. I’m just try­ing to be the best per­son I can be.’ Thrice-daily face masks and all.

Half of women in Seoul have had work done

‘Ev­ery­where you look, there are posters ad­ver­tis­ing cosmetic treat­ments’ Women f ly in from all over the world to com­pete

Sarang sur­vived on two hours of sleep a night

‘Plas­tic surg­eries are like an ad­dic­tion’

Gyo-hyo Bae (right) and Yun-hye Yeom model plus-size fash­ion for their fol­low­ers (@ jstyle_ev­el­let)

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