The cutting edgeGoh Mi-young was a typical college student who had one overriding desire: to be beautiful. That passion drove her to take her life earlier this month at the age of 22.
Ms. Goh was found dead on a hillside in Chuncheon, Gangwon province. By her side was Kim Mi-jeong, age 23. The pair, Seoul residents who had never met before, poisoned themselves by swallowing herbicide because they were unhappy with the outcome of their cosmetic surgeries.
Not that the women were unattractive. “To my eyes, both were quite charming,” says Jeong Giu-seob, the Chuncheon detective overseeing the investigation into Ms. Kim’s and Ms. Goh’s April 17 deaths.
Being plain or average wasn’t good enough for Ms. Goh, who in January had her jaw pruned and eyelids cut to create double folds at a clinic in southern Seoul.
Emerging from anesthesia, she was wracked with pain and devastated that she wasn’t the stunning beauty she had envisioned. Months passed. The pain continued and Ms. Goh’s face stiffened with paralysis. She slipped into depression.
She met Ms. Kim on a Web site where cosmetic surgery patients share their experiences. Ms. Kim had also undergone eyelid surgery that she felt had been botched and was distraught by the results.
Three weeks ago, Ms. Goh wrote on a piece of paper, “I just can’t deal with the aftermath of this surgery.” Then she and Ms. Kim left for Chuncheon, never to return.
In the halls of Seoul’s high schools and colleges, students chat in hushed tones about the suicides, and the misery that the two women felt. But their deaths are quickly dismissed as students turn to more pressing matters, such as their own eyelid surgeries, cheekbone reductions and nose enlargements.
The recent deaths appear to have had no affect on business in Apgujeong-dong, the upscale neighborhood in southern Seoul that’s home to more than 400 surgery clinics.
Business certainly didn’t slow when news broke in February about a 27-year-old nursing assistant who died after suffering complications during a liposuction treatment. The woman, identified by police only as Ms. Han, died at the Yongdong Severance Hospital in southern Seoul after being rushed from a nearby plastic surgery clinic, where she had paid 9 million won ($7,650) to have fatty tissue sucked from her body.
Koreans, particularly young Koreans, are clamoring for bigger eyes, slimmer faces and larger noses. To create slender legs, some are having a nerve in their legs cut to force their calves to atrophy and shrink. To embellish their busts, some are having the fat from their thighs injected into their breasts. To please their husbands on their wedding night, others are having their hymens reconstructed so they can marry as virgins.
Seventy-five percent of Korean teens under the age of 18 said they would consider cosmetic surgery to improve their looks, according to a 2001 poll of 5,100 adolescents by Groonet.com. Another study found that as many as 70 percent of Koreans undergoing plastic surgery in 2001 were students.
Clinics are busiest during winter break, when high-school students are getting ready to enter college and college seniors are preparing for job interviews.
During the recent winter vacation, from December to February, the Apgujeong-dong cosmetic surgeon Song Hong-sik said that more than 60 percent of his patients were college students.
Dr. Song is one of a team of doctors associated with the Dream Surgery Clinic, a well-respected practice that has done a thriving business since opening three years ago.
Walking into the Dream Surgery Clinic is, indeed, like walking into a dream. With its ivory walls, overstuffed couch, broad coffee table and cherry flooring, the clinic seems more like a posh cafe than a medical facility. Nurses in light pink outfits greet clients as a Mozart piano concerto plays gently in the background. The only inconvenience is locating the entrance, and that seems intentional. The clinic is discreetly located in an office building so patients can enter and leave anonymously.
Lee Kyung-ja, an attractive Seoul housewife who looks much younger than her 41 years, has been in and out of Dream clinic’s doors numerous times. She’s on Dream’s VIP customer list.
On a recent weekday afternoon, a nurse smiles and brings Ms. Lee a cup of green tea the moment she walks through the door. “It has been an elaborate production,” says Ms. Lee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “And, I’m grateful for the care that Dr. Song has provided.”
Ms. Lee always has been pretty. But three years ago, after returning from a trip to New York with her two younger sisters, “I skimmed through our photos and realized that I looked old and tired because of my wrinkles and aging skin.”
She decided to have fat injections and, by chance, met a friend who had done the procedure at Dream. Ms. Lee chose the clinic, and her results were even better. The injections left her face as taut as a 20-year-olds.
Ms. Lee was hooked. She had liposuction and her breasts enlarged with fat injections. She kept the procedures a secret from her husband, who drove her to the clinic, telling him that she was having a skin care. “After the procedures, I felt young again. It was like a whole new world,” Ms. Lee recalls.
For Ms. Lee, the most natural thing was to introduce her 18-year-old daughter to the world of cosmetic surgery. “You know, as a mother, I feel responsible for my daughter’s looks,” says Ms. Lee, who noted that her daughter, Kim Yu-kyung, was painfully self-conscious about her single eyelids.
Two months before Ms. Kim was planning to start college, Ms. Lee brought her daughter to Dr. Song for surgery. Today, Ms. Kim is a cute, tall, fashionable 20-year-old art student. “I had wanted to have surgery for a long time,” says Ms. Kim, who spoke using a pseudonym. “It was only a matter of time.” And winter break, just before going to college, was the perfect time.
Younger, freer and more outspoken than her mom, Ms. Kim hasn’t hidden her surgery from her family and friends. The night before having her eyes done, Ms. Kim went out with her friends to celebrate the occasion and told them to take a good look at her face because it would be completely different in 24 hours.
“There’s no reason to hide my surgery, especially when it’s almost a must for young people today. I’ll certainly tell my future boyfriend about it,” says Ms. Kim. She adds that at least 6 out of her 10 closest friends have had cosmetic surgery.
Ms. Kim’s surgery was a success, and only her grandmother was upset because she believes in physiognomy, the practice of judging a person’s character and intelligence from facial features.
Ms. Kim was so happy with the results that she returned to Dr. Song a year later, during winter break, to trim her cheekbones. The procedure carries more risk. “But I knew I had to do it,” Ms. Kim says. “With my high cheekbones, I couldn’t wear bangs or a hat, and I wanted to do both.”
On this very afternoon, Ms. Kim’s hair is cut into bangs and she’s wearing a fashionable denim hat.
“It’s not only a physical transformation, but also a mental evolution. I feel more confident and more outgoing as a result of the surgery,” Ms. Kim says. “I’m not advocating that people should become man-made creatures. But if you’re unhappy with your looks, then you need to improve them to make yourself happy.”
Her mom agrees, saying that they grew closer as a result of their shared experiences. “We weren’t so close before the surgeries. But afterward, we began to share our feelings more intimately,” Ms. Lee notes.
In the middle of the interview, a family member phones Ms. Lee. “We’re doing some business,” she says. “Go home first and I’ll call you, OK?”
After finishing their tea, Ms. Lee and Ms. Kim left to conduct their business ― shopping at the nearby Hyundai department store.
Plastic surgery is big business. According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the number of clinics is growing at an unprecedented rate. In 1997, there were 693 registered clinics in Korea. Last year, there were 1,020. There are undoubtedly many more ― operated without licenses by illegal practitioners.
Dr. Song is typical of many licensed plastic surgeons in the business. He spent a decade as a restorative surgeon at a general hospital in Seoul before opening his Dream clinic in 2000 to specialize in cosmetic surgery.
In just three years, he says he has seen a shift in attitudes among his patients. “Most of my clients used to say that they wanted surgery to get a job or to be more attractive to find a boyfriend or husband,” he says. “These days, they aren’t doing their surgery for other people; it’s entirely for their own satisfaction.”
When Dr. Song first opened his Dream clinic, young women used to bring him photos of celebrities. Customers would say “I want to look like so-and-so.” Dr. Song had difficulty dealing with these patients, because he wanted to make people more beautiful, not resemble movie stars.
Today, patients are more sophisticated. They do extensive research before choosing a clinic, know what procedures they want and have different reasons for wanting them. “Patients today want subtle changes. They want the results to be natural, practically unnoticeable,” Dr. Song says.
Kim Jong-seo, another cosmetic surgeon practicing in Apgujeong-dong, also says that personal satisfaction ― rather than pleasing others ― is the prime motivator behind plastic surgery today.
The demand for consultations is so great that Dr. Kim has established a virtual surgery Web site (www.surgery.co.kr). Prospective clients can send him photos online and he’ll touch them up within 10 seconds with a photo-manipulation program so they can see the possible results. “At least 5 out of 10 people who send me photos make their way to the clinic,” says Dr. Kim, whose photos and clinic phone numbers can often be found pasted on wastebaskets in Seoul’s subway stations.
Along with the popular double eyelid surgery, Dr. Kim specializes in so-called “noblesse surgery,” in which he injects fat into patients’ cheeks to give their face a rounder look, a traditional symbol of wealth.
The widespread popularity of cosmetic surgery has changed the public’s attitudes toward the practice. People are more open and accepting.
“I wouldn’t care if my future girlfriend had cosmetic surgery. If she did it on her own accord, with her own money, then what’s wrong with it?” asks Yu Jae-rim, a 19-year-old biology student at Sejong University in Seoul.
Kim Sang-gyun, 26, a researcher at Samsung Electronics, agrees with Mr. Yu. “I don’t hold anything against women who have done plastic surgery,” says Mr. Kim, a bachelor who says he would marry a woman who had cosmetic surgery. “After all, everyone wants to be beautiful, and you can’t blame someone for pursuing beauty.”
Ms. Goh and Ms. Kim, gone for two weeks now, will never tell their stories. Ms. Lee and Ms. Kim, meanwhile, are celebrating the magical embellishments of cosmetic surgery.
The dissimilarity of their tales is as different as life and death. But one message is clear: For young Korean women, beauty is only skin deep ― and that easily can be altered.
Putting on a good face
Cosmetic surgery procedures
popular in Korea
Cost: 1 million won ($820) to 1.3
Cost: 2 to 2.5 million won
Jaw line trimming
Cost: 4 to 5 million won
Cost: 4 to 5 million won
Cost: 3 to 4 million won to the face,
4 to 5 million won for the breasts
Cost: 3 to 4 million won for the belly
Cost: 3 million won
by Chun Su-jin