BODY AND SEOUL
We report from South Korea, where beauty is supreme and plastic surgery is the norm – but at what cost?
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,
‘CHILDREN ARE TAKEN TO PLASTIC SURGERY CLINICS AT 12 YEARS OLD’
“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.
WEIGHING ON YOUR MIND
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
‘THEY CAN SUFFER FROM EXTREME COMPARISON DISORDERS’
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.’
AN INSIDE JOB
‘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)