'Good looks bring good fortune' for Koreans

PHOTO: The Straits Times

Looking for a job? Consider visiting a plastic surgeon first.

The advice, posted recently on the South Korean Labour Ministry's official blog on pointers for job-seekers, drew fire for encouraging plastic surgery.

Though the ministry has since removed the controversial text, the fact remains that many South Koreans have undergone cosmetic procedures. People with their faces swathed in surgical gauze are not an uncommon sight in the affluent Gangnam district, where most of the clinics are located.

The country is No. 1 in the world in terms of per-capita cosmetic enhancements, with 131 out of every 10,000 people, including men, going under the knife, reported the Chosun Ilbo newspaper last year.

While some procedures like filler injections are simple, major surgery is required when it comes to creating the popular V-line chin.

"Koreans believe in face reading, and that good looks bring good fortune," said Mr James Kim, chief executive of Medical Korea Services, a medical tourism consultancy company.

The plastic surgery industry here is worth about five trillion won (S$6 billion), about a quarter of the global market, according to South Korea's Fair Trade Commission.

Gangnam alone is home to more than 500 plastic surgery clinics.

Let Me In, a reality series which has transformed the looks of many ordinary-looking men and women since 2012, has been credited with changing attitudes towards plastic surgery, despite drawing flak initially for promoting the industry.

Still, some believe that the obsession with looks can be harmful.

Undergraduate Han Ye Won, in a commentary in the Korea Times, notes that "myths about supposed correlations between physical features and character traits harm those who do not meet society's narrow standards of beauty".

Subtle or dramatic, they all want dewy skin

Some want to look like Korean beauties Kim Tae Hee and Song Hye Kyo while others prefer China's Fan Bingbing and Angelababy.

South Korea's plastic surgeons attract patients from various parts of Asia. While all hope to improve on their looks, their notion of what is beautiful can differ.

Chinese nationals, for instance, are not shy about wanting more dramatic changes, be it bigger eyes, higher nose bridges or a sharply slimmed jawline, according to industry experts here.

"They want it to look obvious so it stands out more when they pose for photos," said Ms Daphne Wu from Medical Korea Services, a medical tourism consultancy firm. They also tend to covet what they see on Chinese celebrities, like Fan's well-defined double eyelids.

While South Koreans like their noses small and perky, the Chinese tend to ask for more prominent ones, said Dr Choi Soon Woo of Seoul's View Plastic Surgery.

Generally, Koreans, as well as patients from Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and other South-east Asian countries, ask for a more natural and subtle outcome, "as if they didn't have surgery", said Dr Choi.

Whatever their nationality, all desire the smooth, dewy complexions that Korean celebrities are famous for. That look, which has been compared to the surface of peeled hard-boiled eggs, is usually rendered by hydration injections, and lasts three to six months.

To avoid post-surgery unhappiness because of different perceptions of beauty, Dr Choi stressed the importance of in-depth consulting sessions with foreign patients.

"Our aim is not to make a perfect face, but to heal the inferiority complex they have over a certain part of their face and give them confidence to face the world," he said.

This article was first published on July 15, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.