Take Two®

News and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by A Martínez

South Korea's obsession with plastic surgery

by Nuran Alteir and Josie Huang | Take Two®

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Health-SKorea-cosmetic-surgery,FEATURE by Jung Ha-Won This picture taken on May 22, 2013 shows a South Korean woman walking past a street billboard advertising double-jaw surgery at a subway station in Seoul. South Korea's obsession with plastic surgery is moving on from standard eye and nose jobs to embrace a radical surgical procedure that requires months of often painful recovery. JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images

Nowhere is the rate of plastic surgery higher than in South Korea. It's estimated that one in five Korean women under 50 go under the scalpel, but the Korean beauty ideal is not unique to Korea. 

Many of the plastic surgery patients aren't from Korea, but from countries such as China and the United States, says Sharon Heijin Lee, an assistant professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University. 

While 30 percent of plastic surgery patients in Korea are from China, many Korean-Americans are also traveling to the country to get plastic surgery.

"Growing up in the Korean-American community in Orange County, it was very common for Korean-Americans to get the double-eyelid surgery, or to want it — but in a different way than most Americans might think," Lee said.

But it was not necessarily that these Korean-Americans wanted to look white, she said.

"Often in my Korean-American circles, it would be girls (who) would think 'well, my mom did it, my auntie did it, my cousin did it and they look great,'" said Lee. "In that way, it's almost like a familial or a cultural procedure, or right of passage that I would see in the Korean-American community."

Korean pop culture and films are also reasons why many people are looking for the Korean beauty ideal. Some women are even bringing photos of their favorite Korean starlets to their surgeons. 

"You can't really separate out these two industries any longer," Lee said. "I actually interviewed a representative of Korea's medical tourism industry and she said they really don't spend that much money, or as much money as one would think, because Korean pop culture is a global advertisement for the cosmetic surgery/medical tourism market."

Lee says there appears to be a standardized look in regards to the Korean beauty ideal.

The look encompasses a small face and wide eyes, Lee says, and one of the most common surgery is the jaw-shaving procedure, which makes the face smaller. The double eyelid procedure is even more common — so much that it is not even considered surgery.

"It's almost like a very expensive facial," Lee said.

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