The truth about youth, and the fiction of fixes
The pressure to look younger than one’s actual age has only worsened since Korean President Roh Moo-hyun had his eyes done earlier this year (the president had already had a few Botox injections for his deep forehead wrinkles). The before-and-after photographs of President Roh supplied more than enough material for columnists and comedians, but behind the brouhaha, the fact is that having cosmetic surgery to look younger is no longer for the super-rich or movie stars ― it’s easy, affordable and open to all.
“Patients can expect almost immediate rejuvenation after surgery, thanks to the advances in technology,” said Park Seung-ha, the committee chairman of the Korean Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. It goes without saying, however, that post-operative maintenance doesn’t come easy, as patients must adopt daily habits that can help them improve their overall health and appearance, even if not done initially after the surgery.
It’s the psychological aspect of cosmetic surgery that makes people seek it out, Dr. Park said, pointing at two series of photographs, one of Elizabeth Taylor and the other of Audrey Hepburn, showing the actresses from their 20s to their 60s. “Even these famous beauties had to succumb to physical aging. There’s no trace of youth in these actresses after their age surpassed their beauty,” he said. “Aging is unstoppable, but it’s the side-effect of aging that causes people to lose self-confidence and become anti-social.”
For years, advances in genetic bio-engineering have allowed those seeking eternal youth to benefit from growth hormone treatments. “The level of growth hormone reaches its peak in our teen years. When administered regularly in adults, the hormone can help patients feel less tired and appear rejuvenated,” Dr. Park said. “The actual long-term anti-aging benefit can come from various medicinal and hormonal treatments, and even from exercise, a change of diet and lifestyle.”
And such treatments once reserved for the supremely rich have become relatively affordable, at about 1.5 million won (about $1,300) per month. The hormone treatment can help promote tissue growth, in hair, nails and skin as well as muscle mass, and reduce fat residue in the body as long as the treatment is continued.
What are the other options nowadays? And what about those painless procedures advertised in fashion magazines that promise dream-come-true overnight results? The most widely-advertised procedures in Korea are known as “mesotherapy” and “diamond peeling.”
Diamond peeling, often recommended for young women in their 20s who have acne scars, blasts the outer layer of the skin using vibrating diamond-tipped brushes. Each session is painful and can cost as much as 200,000 won; the patient is advised to do it several times. In mesotherapy, super-fine endodermic needles are used to stimulate the production of collagen, a type of protein, in the inner layers of the skin; this is painful without proper anesthesia and can cost up to 3.5 million won or more. According to advertisements, the procedure can dramatically clear out impurities in the skin and enhance the tone.
Dr. Park dismisses as false the notion that such operations can provide quick and easy results. He says most procedures are “not clinically proven” and that results may vary. “If you want to get the same effect as the expensive skincare, just go to a bath house, soak your skin in hot water and scrub it with an exfoliating towel. You’ll get the same pink face,” he said.
What frustrates Dr. Park is that the Korean law does not control media advertising for private clinics and medical procedures. What’s worse, since May this year, the government has allowed hospitals to compete in a free market, allowing doctors to work as freelancers and letting medical institutions advertise.
Despite glossy ads by doctors detailing how things are done quick and easy, there is no quick and easy way to make a person look younger, Dr. Park said, other than a full-scale facelift, chemical abrasion or fat injection, depending on one’s facial type or skin condition. In the past, he tried injecting fat into the sunken cheeks of young women in their 30s; photographs of the faces of the women showed little change, but he said they were “so happy with the result that they didn’t come back for additional injections.”
If full-scale chemical abrasion for anyone with mature skin is done properly by an expert, who burns off just the top layer of the skin, the results can be very satisfying, he explained. “If the skin is burned too shallowly or unevenly, the patient will not benefit fully from the procedure; if burned too much, then the skin will be badly damaged. It has to be just enough for a new skin layer to come alive,” he said. “These procedures may be far more complicated than what would assume would be a seemingly quick fix at a clinic, but if properly done at a major hospital, it guarantees an improvement in appearance that lasts longer.”
At Korea University Hospital where Dr. Park and his team work, a full-scale facelift without hospitalization costs about 5 million to 8 million won, depending on the complexity of the operation.
Ko Yong-beom, who runs a clinic in Apgujeong-dong, southern Seoul, is one of a handful of surgeons in the capital who advises his patients to opt for the least invasive procedures. As for those popular Botox injections, he recommends that the procedure only be used for short-term improvements in problem spots.
“Botox may not be the best way to improve an aging face, but it is by far the most effective invention that can improve, almost instantly, isolated spots on the face, especially when we consider a few important factors ― time, price and the simplicity of the procedure,” he commented, adding that a bottle of Botox, which costs about 500,000 won, may sound costly, but the bottle is good for multiple injections.
And staying youthful is not limited to women only these days, as Dr. Ko receives a steadily increasing number of male customers over the age of 40. For those who wish to improve their appearance, Dr. Ko recommends that they first have a laser remove the bags and dark circles around their eyes. Deep lines in the forehead, like President Roh’s, can benefit from simple shots of Botox. For sunken cheeks or deep lines around the mouth, most clinics suggest implanting cosmetic “fillers,” whose materials vary from Restiline to collagen to human fat.
As always, there are things to beware of: “When you introduce foreign things into your body, your body may or may not accept it, even if the material is clinically proven to be safe,” Mr. Ko said. “You can use a piece of silicon bone to enhance your nose, for example, but if your body rejects it, then have it removed quickly. Never allow anyone to inject a liquid-type filler anywhere in your body, because it can never be retrieved later in case there’s a problem.”
For those whoare over 60, the most common problem is the sagging face line near the neck, for which Dr. Ko recommends one of the latest technologies, a partial facial lift, which costs about 3 million won. A surgical thread, which acts like a “sling” on both sides of the head, can pull up and tighten the sagging jaw line from above. “A facelift for the entire face involves cutting out the excessive skin and fat underneath and stitching up along the side of the ears, so it can leave a scar and takes weeks to recover, but the new technology is simpler, faster and less invasive,” Dr. Ko said, adding that an accompaniment of popular skincare procedures like mesotherapy can be an option, if costly, after any cosmetic operations.
Can anyone ― without the information on the latest technologies and all the money to spend ― be blessed with a gracefully youthful appearance into old age? “Of course, yes,” said Dr. Park of Korea University Hospital with a smile. “Do a facial massage on a regular basis ― it doesn’t matter what kind of cream you use. My comparative research shows that those who regularly massages their faces look just as younger, as if they had undergone a full-scale facelift operation.”
by Ines Cho