When 'just a pretty face' seems enough

A large subway billboard shows a simple image of two hands holding each other.

"Not to worry, my dear daughter. Now you can get married," says the slogan.

It is only when the confounded viewer's eyes wonder to the bottom-right corner and finds the name of the advertiser, "― Plastic Surgery," that the message it is trying to convey becomes clear: You cannot get married if you are ugly.

Bewildered, he may step outside the train and onto the busy streets of Apgujeong-dong ― one of most affluent parts of Seoul ― to find himself surrounded by brightly lit images of beautiful people smiling and looking happy, trying to hammer home the message that cosmetic surgery is the key to happiness.

The scene begs the question: Are looks a crucial element to successful life in South Korea?

"I never realised it in school, but I have felt that way from time to time after I started working," said a 29-year-old office worker surnamed Jeong.

"A friend of mine compiled a report at her work, but her boss forbade her to make the presentation and had a 'prettier' coworker do it instead. This is when she realised that looks are power. A few months later, she had plastic surgery."

After some time hopping between temporary contracts, Jeong recently had plastic surgery herself ― to her great personal satisfaction.

Her suspicion that attractive people get all the advantages is backed by a survey last year by a local job information website Saramin, which found that 64 per cent of human resources staff evaluate a job applicants' looks.

Some 35 per cent said that good looks suggested good relationships with other people, and another 34 per cent said that it was an indicator of one's self management skills.

Make-up, clothes and photo shoots for job interviews put extra strain on young Koreans struggling in a weak job market.

But the focus on looks is not confined to job applications. Lee Seung-min, a 19-year-old student at a Seoul-based university, said her parents gave her so-called "double-eyelid" surgery for her high school graduation gift, which is pretty common for girls her age.

The popular surgery, also known as East Asian blepharoplasty, is done to create an upper eyelid with a crease to make one's eyes look bigger.

"I heard my mom say it used to be like a big deal when she was younger, but it's not such a taboo now," she said.

The psychological barrier to getting cosmetic surgery that existed up until the early 2000s appears to have all but vanished, with celebrities openly joking about their surgical experiences on TV.

This is also implied by the popularity of local makeover shows that offer to change participants' appearances through surgery, makeup and fashion advice.

A frontrunner in the category ― and a focal point of controversy since its launch in 2011 ― is "Let Me In" by tvN.

Producer Park Hyun-woo said the programme ― which selects the participants from some 4,000 to 5,000 applicants per season ― was launched to help women suffering from their looks, by inducing not only physical changes but also giving them counseling that will help them gain confidence and work better with others.

"Many of our participants are people who could barely do anything outside due to personal problems. What they want is not to become pretty, but to lead a normal life like others," he said.

Some applicants even go into modeling and acting, such as a participant in the fourth season whose complex was her height and big gums.

"I think it's positive because they don't do plastic surgeries on just anyone. They help people who have trouble with their everyday lives," said a 31-year-old private tutor surnamed Yoon on the programme.

But other viewers took issue with how "Let Me In" depicted the "transformation" process.

One of the early participants of the show was dubbed "Frankenstein woman" because of her looks, and scenes of other people actively avoiding an overweight woman were also shown in the show.

"I am concerned that the programme may convey the message that ugly, fat women are just not worth anything, said a 27-year-old office worker.

"These programs derogate women as people whose sole value lies in their looks, and not as independent beings who can stand on her own. I'm worried that it will spread the misperception that woman 'have to be pretty.'"

The programme is not just focused on women's looks.

One of the more recent candidates was a man who has been dating his girlfriend for over two years, but her parents forbid them to get married because of his cleft lip and palate.

Her father turned him away with the words, "Go marry someone of your own kind!"

This changed apparently when he reemerged after a year of treatment and surgery. He said the girlfriend's parents had finally accepted their daughter's now-handsome fiance.

Opponents of the show say despite the show's original intent, scenes like this convey a clear message that key to happiness lies in one's looks.

Last week, local women's rights group Women Link filed for an injunction to ban the show.

"I'm sure there are people who are leading happy lives thanks to plastic surgery," said an official from Women Link. "

But the show doesn't stop at helping the person. Many people who watch the show develop positive feelings toward cosmetic surgery. They (producers) should be more careful because, as a popular TV show, it has great influence toward people.

"The fundamental problem is that it depicts life before surgery as misery, and glorifies the effects the surgery had on their lives."