Why is South Korea so ugly

South Korea : Caught in the beauty craze

The turmoil of puberty had hardly passed, by then the comments had long since settled in Ji Yeo's subconscious like red wine stains on a white couch cover: "You should really lose weight", Ji Yeo is greeted by her classmates every morning. An equally popular joke is: “Why are you so small?” The grandmother hands the 15-year-old colorful pills to accelerate her growth. Only the mother tells Ji Yeo, who works as a photographer today, that she is beautiful just the way she is. But she no longer believes in it: "I felt extremely ugly, I just kept comparing myself to others."

For example with the girl bands from television, whose plastic pop is just as interchangeable as their plastic faces. Or with the models in the before and after pictures smiling at you in the subway, on the bus or on the street. “Everyone has already done it except you,” emblazoned on one of the advertising posters for the beauty clinics. The now 28-year-old interrupts her story with an embarrassed smile, trying to cover up how uncomfortable it is for her to report on a social phenomenon that has gotten out of control. With her petite stature, round face, almond-shaped eyes and a small snub nose, her appearance corresponds exactly to the stereotype of an East Asian woman. Ji's shyness is not played: she still has weak self-confidence, she says, even if she is now more at peace with herself than before.

In the past, that was the time of high school preparation, when the competition for the best university places started, which will determine the future of life in Korea. But instead of math or English, Ji Yeo prefers to look into the latest make-up manufacturers' catalogs, always wearing the trendy clothes - and yet feels deadly sad when she sees her reflection in the bathroom.

This will change soon, the student decides. Behind her parents' back, she waits in the café every free evening to raise enough money for her plan. "My only dream was to have my entire body undergo a huge plastic surgery," Ji recalls. She is not alone with this dream in her home country South Korea. According to a study published by the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, no population in the world is more likely to help improve their beauty than that of the East Asian tiger state. In 2011 alone, around 650,000 interventions were recorded. A 2009 survey of Seoul women between 19 and 49 showed that one in five of them had had at least one cosmetic operation.

Such statistics only elicit a weary smile from the German studies student Lee Su-rim, there was hardly a girl in her school class who did not go under the knife immediately after graduating from high school. To be honest, says the 20-year-old, she is the only one who has refused to be obsessed with surgery. Since she grew up in Germany for the first twelve years of her life, she probably has a different perspective on her own beauty than most Koreans, she says with a shrug: "After surgery you just look artificial." An opinion she shares Is alone in her circle of friends in the hallway.

Lee sips at the frothed milk crown of her oversized plastic cup, around her in the café the almost exclusively female audience sweetens their lunch break with cappuccino and gossip. Here in Seoul's posh Gangnam district, which alone accounts for seven percent of Korea's gross domestic product, the office towers are a few floors higher, the restaurants a few thousand won more expensive and the women a few surgeries nicer. Foreigners may think of the singer Psy when referring to Gangnam because of the YouTube hit “Gangnam Style”, but the term triggers a completely different chain of associations with Koreans: Gangnam is the Mecca of the beauty industry.

In Seoul's “Beauty Belt”, entire streets are full of beauty clinics, and a noticeable number of women are walking around here wearing sunglasses and bandages to cover up the traces of their operations. 350 of the more than 1000 clinics in the country have settled in this quarter.

In the “Beauty Belt”, most of Lee's old classmates also had the “basics” done, as the student puts it. She understands “basics” as an eye operation in which a crease is cut in the eyelid. In contrast to Europeans, only half of the East Asian population has a double eyelid from birth. The procedure is considered the most popular graduation gift from mothers to their daughters. Some clinics in Seoul offer targeted discounts, such as a free Botox injection for the mother if the daughter has her eyes and nose done.

The parents are often the driving force anyway, says Lee. A classmate, for example, did not want to have an operation, but finally agreed to the pressure from her mother: “They are mostly for it, because otherwise they feel like an underdog. Everyone does it anyway. "

Everyone, from sociology professors to young people on the street, agrees on this point: The extreme pressure of competition within society is the reason why many young women believe that they gain an advantage through cosmetic surgery. For them, a beautiful face can be worth more than a good university degree, because Korean society is not only strongly male-dominated, but also deeply rooted in the traditional belief that human attributes such as cleverness or sincerity are primarily linked to external facial features. For example, cosmetic operations for young women function primarily as an investment in marriage and career opportunities. The ideal of beauty is clearly defined: A narrow, V-shaped face is required, plus large eyes, a high nose, skin that is as white as possible and large breasts - a type that most Koreans do not naturally correspond to. "Everyone in Korea believes that you look more beautiful with a Western face," says student Lee.

The beauty clinics do everything possible to transfer their patients into their new bodies as gently as possible. The operators of the JK Plastic Surgery Center in Seoul are true masters at this. In the white entrance area, one of the receptionists is watering the palm trees in the room, while a piano is jingling soothingly in the background.

One who makes the new look possible is surgeon Baek Hye-won. She is the eye specialist at JK. During the holiday periods, she cuts artificial eyelids for up to 16 patients a day. "Sometimes people have unrealistic ideas about the possibilities of an operation," says the 37-year-old. Many of the young women come to the consultation appointments with pictures of famous pop stars and specifically want the nose of a certain singer or the shape of the jaw of an actress. It's an open secret that nearly every woman in Korean show business has stopped at a beauty clinic on her way into the spotlight.

The industry is only too happy to conceal the risks. "The number of accidents after cosmetic surgery is increasing," reports lawyer Shin Hyon-Ho, who specializes in medical malpractice. Jaw surgery, in which both jaws are broken and reduced in size to create a feminine face shape, is considered particularly dangerous. 52 percent of the patients suffer from problems after the procedure. Last August, a 23-year-old student even committed suicide after undergoing such an operation.

A fate Ji Yeo was spared. Even years later as a photography student in Seoul, she does not let go of the subject - but now she has found an outlet to deal with her trauma artistically. Her photo series is called “Beauty Recovery Room”. It shows young women right after the operation, with puffy eyes, bandaged noses and threads on their faces. The portrayed fluctuate between physical pain and simultaneous euphoria about their newly acquired appearance. "For them, the interventions were as banal as buying new shoes."

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