SEOUL – “Those K-pop stars don’t have Korean faces.”
So says Dr. Jaegwon Wang, a top plastic surgeon at Oracle Clinic, one of the most popular skincare and cosmetic surgery clinics in the world. While most all Korean female celebrities have had their faces stitched in some way, Dr. Wang says “6/10” male celebrities have had procedures as well. He can tell just by looking at their v-lined jaws, their double eyelids and their delicate facial features who’s had their looks enhanced. “It’s really obvious,” he tells me. “Those aren’t what typical Koreans look like.”
In a city where one’s appearance is obsessed over, where having better skin and a more handsome jawline can give you an edge not only personally but professionally, plastic surgery has become a national obsession. A peruse through Gangnam aka the “Improvement Quarter,” one that’s become even more famous due to a certain Korean rapper, will show just how normalized plastic surgery has become. On any day, it’s a normal occurrence to spot men and women wrapped in gauzes. Their eyes are covered with dark, over-sized sunglasses, their faces swollen from surgery, they walk around like zombies in the daylight as it’s just another day.
South Korea’s plastic surgery economy is so big, it’s estimated to be $5 billion.
Because it is.
According to a 2014 study from the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, a global plastic surgery association, Koreans had the most procedures done per capita than any other country. That’s 20 people out of 1,000 who have had some kind of enhancement. South Korea’s plastic surgery economy is so big, it’s estimated to be $5 billion, one that attracts foreigners to take “enhancement vacations” to the city. To make this even more appetizing, South Korea offers tax-free nose jobs, meaning, foreigners can get their procedures done at a “duty-free” rate.
It’s no wonder why every person I meet looks like a Korean celebrity. Whether walking in trains, on the sidewalk or quietly observing in a cafe, every woman and man has a perfect bone structure, alluring almond-shaped eyes, flawless skin tones. Their jawlines are sharp, pronounced, just like any Korean pop star. I begin to become a little insecure with my own square jaw, my monolids, my hyperpigmentation. For the first time in a long time, I feel … totally unattractive.
6/10 male Kpop stars have had surgery
Which is one reason I make an appointment with Dr. Wang. Not only am I curious about plastic surgery, I want to have a consultation to see what I could do to become a more attractive person. While in the U.S., beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, in Seoul, it’s one size only. For males, Dr. Wang, explains, it’s a very defined jawline, a small face, with a high nose bridge, and bigger, awake eyes. While in the past, double eyelids were all the rage, with men wanting a more feminine “Flower Boy” look, these days, he tells me, monolids are “trendy.” They “make a man look masculine and strong.”
I inquire if these features are due to the fact that Koreans want to look more Westernized, and Dr. Wang agrees to a certain degree. “There is definitely Western influence when it comes to Korean aesthetics,” he says. “But Koreans do not want to look European.” No one, for instance, comes in wanting to look like Angelina Jolie or Jennifer Aniston. Rather, Dr. Wang explains, Korean men and women take Western beauty references to see what works for an Asian face. “It’s getting that beautiful Korean face to make it more attractive with small enhancements.”
While in the U.S., beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, in Seoul, it’s one size only.
These days, he says, Korean men have been requesting the risky V-line jaw surgery. It’s one where surgeons take a person’s bone structure and literally shave it down. If it sounds painful, it is. Surgeons have to map out one’s facial nerves to define the bone. Side effects have been said to be sensitivity around the face that never goes away, a clicking sound with every open of the mouth and numbness. Though the procedure comes with these possibility, Dr. Wang assures me technology has gotten so much better it’s rare these patients go through such pain. The cost is anywhere from $5,000-$10,000.
But it’s still terrifying to think you could be impaired with permanent side effects from the pursuit of gaining a perfectly shaped face. Still, I inquire about what surgeries my own face would need. Immediately upon inspection, Dr. Wang tells me something I already know: he’d shave down my square jaw for a more defined chin.
“We’d make it more oval with that V-line that everyone wants.” He’d also slit my upper eyelid and take out extra skin. “We wouldn’t get rid of your monolid, but make your eyes look wider and more alive. Less sleepy.” In terms of my nose, it’s the only part of my face he says should stay put. “You already have an enviable bridge and your nose is big enough but not too big that you don’t need anything there.”
I appreciate Dr. Wang’s insight and how straightforward he is. There’s no beating around the bush, there’s no false flattery or inflation of a potential patient’s ego. It is what it is. And what it is is that I’m ugly.
For the next couple of days, I find myself staring intensely into any and all mirrors, making a “V” with my hands on my face to see what I’d look like. I admit, from a Korean standpoint, I would look more attractive.
But as the days go by and I make my way back Stateside, I realize that my imperfections make me, well, me. My square jawline, my “sleepy eyelids,” and my crooked smile are different – unique, even – and I’m beginning to come back to my senses. Who’s to say that my imperfections are anything less than perfect?
On a recent Saturday, I tune into a video from the KPOP band, EXO. I’m fascinated by how perfect they look, their elfin milky skin dewy, their jawlines sharp, their double eyelids making them seemingly wide awake. Then I realize for the first time that it isn’t real. It’s all an illusion. Their flawless personas are merely projections of perfection. At least, that’s what makes it easier for me –my square jaw, and all.