Survival of the Beautiful in KoreaStroll through any of Seoul's more fashionable districts and you cannot help but notice the women's beautiful make-up. In fact, it can be puzzling that these women all look remarkably similar. Perhaps it is the clothing, make-up or hairstyle － after all, Koreans are very fashion-conscious and most will sport the latest look. But a closer look will reveal that many of these women have had plastic surgery. Eyes, nose, lips, cheekbones and jaws can be cut, sewn, molded and sculpted to meet the whims of women in their quest to be ever more beautiful.
More than 500 private clinics specialize in plastic surgery, according to The Korea Society of Plastic Surgery, a professional organization of cosmetic surgeons. In Apgujeong-dong or Cheongdam-dong, for example, it is difficult to walk a block without seeing several signs for cosmetic surgery clinics.
The Internet has also played a role in popularizing cosmetic surgery. Women no longer need to muster up the courage to visit a clinic but can have home consultations via the Web. For those who need a little nudge, some sites show photographs of actual procedures being done at a clinic. Clinics at the leading edge even use the Internet to send prospective clients images of what plastic surgery can do, after the prospective clients have provided photographs via the Web.
Winter is the most popular time for plastic surgery. Cold weather means less possibility of infection and complications from scar tissue being exposed to the sun. "We are usually fully booked in winter," says Choi Chung-woo, manager at Beauty For Ever, a practice with three branches in Seoul. Each clinic is handling 25 to 30 consultations a day, according to Ms. Choi.
The three-month winter school break also is an ideal time for students to get new faces. Surprisingly, 60 to 70 percent of people having plastic surgery are third-year high school students due to graduate in March. Most of the girls opt to have their eyes done, according to Ms. Choi. This involves creating artificial creases along the upper eyelids to create folds and make the eyes look wider.
Another popular procedure is reshaping the facial structure. Although this involves major surgery － breaking cheekbones and jaws － young girls are apparently not deterred, even though 10 patients die from complications each year. "It is not uncommon to have middle-school girls tell us they want an oval-shaped face," says Ms. Choi. She turns away many girls who she says are too young.
The popularity of these procedures reflects the image of ideal beauty in present-day Korea: large eyes with folds, sculpted nose and gentle jaw line. The classic ideal of a round, plump face with narrow almond-shaped eyes and a round nose has been out of favor for quite some time, ever since Hollywood movies arrived.
Reasons for altering the face with which one is born are as varied as the sizes and shapes available. For young, single women, looking more beautiful means better marriage prospects. In Korea, where many knots are tied through matchmakers, it helps to look beautiful. Survey after survey of men cite beauty as one of the most important criteria in choosing a partner. Last summer, in a survey of 150 men by matchmaking service Sunoo, 57 percent of respondents considered a woman's appearance important.
Just how important is appearance compared with other factors such as education and family background? On a scale of 100, appearance counts for 43 points, meaning that men consider beauty comparatively more important than any other criteria.
Looking beautiful is also believed to improve work prospects, something that cannot be overlooked in the increasingly tight job market. Can anyone really blame young women for resorting to plastic surgery when many job descriptions list a minimum height requirement of 1.65 meters and "neat appearance" as part of the qualifications? In Korea, it appears that survival of the most beautiful, not just the fittest, holds true, at least for women, with good looks improving both marriage and job prospects.
Men also are turning to plastic surgery to make themselves more presentable. "We get a fair number of men in their 20s, who specifically say that they need to make a good impression during a job interview," says Ms. Choi. However, unlike women who are most likely to want surgery on their eyes, men are more preoccupied with their noses. The men believe a good-looking nose can dramatically enhance one's looks.
Older men who want to look younger have the bags under their eyes removed or have age spots zapped away with a laser. In fact, during an informal press conference at his inauguration last year, a cabinet minister made no secret of the fact that he had age spots removed. "People said I would look less tired that way," he said.
For married women, attaining a slim figure is the ultimate goal, unlike younger women who are more interested in facial features. In a recent survey, zubu.com, an Internet portal for married women, asked more than 1,400 visitors to the site which part of their bodies they would like to have changed by surgical procedure. A third of respondents chose liposuction of their abdomen, upper arms and thighs.
But the surgeons who create more beautiful and youthful faces point out that plastic surgery is not for everyone.
"It is important that patients realize they are doing this for themselves. Plastic surgery should never be done to please someone else," writes a team of plastic surgeons who co-authored "Beautiful People," a guidebook to plastic surgery published by Guini Books last month.
The book says ideal candidates for cosmetic surgery are those who are confident about their overall looks, but who are unhappy with certain features. Plastic surgery can also boost the confidence of people with physical problems or surgical scars that have left them emotionally damaged, the book says.
by Kim Hoo-ran