IT’S NO SECRET K-pop has spiked in popularity in recent years. According to Korea JoongAng Daily USA, by 2010, over 900 K-pop videos on YouTube by South Korea’s top three media companies had received over 500 million hits from Asia alone. (This was long before Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” of course.) Money Today reported that the four top-paid Korean male celebrities are in the music industry. And, thanks to "hallyu," or the Korean wave, referring to the increasing international popularity of Korean culture, K-pop has gained a considerable fanbase abroad, too. A reporter for Monocle on Bloomberg Television dubbed K-pop South Korea’s “most potent weapon,” and YouTube has officially added K-pop as a genre to its “Music” page.
However, even as countries around the world are reveling in the music of girl and boy bands like Girls’ Generation, 2NE1 and Big Bang, some Koreans internally are worried that K-pop may be encouraging the growth of another trend: teen plastic surgery.
Commonplace today on numerous K-pop fan websites are speculative stories about whether pop idols with picture-perfect facial features are natural or the work of a talented plastic surgeon. Sample headlines from fan sites include: “Chocolat denies plastic surgery rumors: ‘We are 100% natural beauties’”; “Did SNSD’s Taeyeon & Tiffany recently undergo cosmetic surgery?”; “Brown Eyed Girls’ Miryo addresses plastic surgery rumor; “IU denies that she went under the knife”; “ZE:A’s Kwanghee hasn’t been able to drink alcohol since he got plastic surgery.”
Often accompanying such stories are recent photos of the K-pop star alongside his or her childhood photos, so that netizens can draw their own conclusions.
Certainly, plastic surgery in South Korea, in general, has made headlines over the years. Last April, The Economist reported that the Asian country emerged as the most-cosmetically enhanced population in the world. The report was based on data from a 2010 Survey by the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, which found that, while the total number of aesthetic surgical procedures was highest in the U.S., when adjusted for population size, Korea topped the list. (To be fair, some Korean media pointed out that nearly half of those procedures were non-invasive, such as Botox injections.)
Just a decade or so ago, the majority of Koreans receiving plastic surgery were in their 20s and 30s. But that majority appears to be shrinking as more teenagers go under the knife—so much so that, in 2011, South Korea’s Ministry of Education issued a booklet to warn high school students about “plastic surgery syndrome.” An e-Seoul survey reported last year by Korea JoongAng Daily found that 41.4 percent of teens were “willing to have plastic surgery for beauty.” This percentage is about 10 points higher than that of interviewees in their 20s, 20 points higher than that of interviewees in their 30s, and 30 points higher than that of interviewees in their 40s or older.
It could be mere coincidence that, with the incredible rise of K-pop, the plastic surgery age may be trending younger. However, while it’s difficult to prove a direct correlation, it’s no secret that K-pop stars are recognized not only for their music, but also for their physical appearance. And what’s become almost trademark for most Kpop idols are features like double eyelids and high-bridged noses, facial features that many East Asians aren’t necessarily born with. Even members of Korean boy bands are known to be “pretty.”
Sharon Lee, an associate professor in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, has researched the spread of plastic surgery in South Korea, as well as in the Asian American community. “I can’t say statistically that clinics or cosmetic industries [in Korea] are necessarily going after [the teenage] demographic,” said Lee.
“But I also think that they really don’t need to specifically do that because pop culture is so oriented towards young people and young kids. The stars of pop culture are getting younger, and their fans are getting younger.”
Lee cited numerous recent Korean documentaries and news segments on plastic surgery in which they’re not interviewing older women, but rather those in their 20s and younger. “They have the interview segment with high school students, which you can always identify because, in Korea, they have to wear uniforms. This places a really sharp focus on the fact that these are young girls … talking about how they absolutely will have plastic surgery after they graduate if they can afford it and, if their parents won’t pay for it, they’ll work hard [to pay for it themselves].
“The [pop] culture industry is so salient amongst these groups,” Lee added. “I don’t think the plastic surgery industry in particular is targeting this age group, but I think it all comes together. Because of the culture industry, the younger demographics are engaging in [plastic surgery] more and more.”
Sujin Shin, a 17-year-old student at the Hanguk Academy of Foreign Studies in Yongin, South Korea, said that she has seen many of her classmates get double eyelid surgery or nose jobs. “It’s not uncommon for middle schoolers to get eyelid surgery before going to high school,” she added. “It’s also common to get surgery as a high school graduation gift from their parents.”
She sees the influence of K-pop idols on her peers’ self-perception and decision to get plastic surgery. “K-pop has persuaded teens to think and believe that there is only one type of beauty, which they must strive to achieve,” said Shin, who lived in California for 11 years before moving to Korea. “To reach that ‘one beauty,’ they opt for surgery.”
A senior at the School of Performing Arts Seoul, Jang Seung-hoon said “three to four” of his classmates have had plastic surgery. “It is a common thought for most classmates,” said the 18-year-old, who hopes to work in the K-pop industry one day.
Plastic surgeons in Seoul have also noticed the downward age trend for their clientele. Park Hyun-cheol, a doctor at OZ Cosmetic Clinic in Seoul, estimates that as many as 20 percent of his patients are under the age of 20. Most of his teenage patients request a certain feature of K-pop stars, as well as other Korean celebrities, to explain the look they want to achieve. “It is useful to doctors in understanding what they want,” Park said.
Lee Jung-bok, a 17-year-old Kpop fan from Los Angeles, was among the top 32 competitors on K-pop Star, a Korean television show in which contestants sing to become the industry’s next big act. Lee said talent trumps physical appearance, but he acknowledges that looks are a major selling point for Korean entertainment companies. This phenomenon pushes media companies to recommend plastic surgery to their idols, he said.
“They always want to change you,” Lee said. “When I was on K-pop Star, they wanted me to be a typicallooking star … skinny, hair this way, earrings like that, shoes like this. You can’t be who you are. It’s like being a puppet.”
Lee, who lived in South Korea before moving to Los Angeles, said many of his friends in Korea have undergone plastic surgery to look like their favorite K-pop idols.
“I talk to them about this,” Lee said. “I’m like, ‘Why do you get this?’ And they go, ‘I want to look pretty.’ They start talking about Girls’ Generation, f(x) … they want to be pretty like them.”
Lee disapproves of the plastic surgery culture that he thinks K-pop has helped create for teens.
“You’re not confident about your looks and you’re covering that,” Lee said, “You should be confident. I really hate it. I hate it a lot.”
But others like Hyunjin Kim, 17, don’t view plastic surgery in those terms. She admits that years of listening to and watching K-pop stars influenced her decision to get plastic surgery on her eyes and nose when she graduates from high school.
“K-pop influences our societal view of how one has to look,” said Kim, who grew up in Korea until age 12 and now lives in San Ramon, Calif. “My grandma looks at me and says, ‘Hyunjin, I think you need to fix your nose.’ I want to get double eyelid surgery and make my nose taller. I also want to get the front of my eye elongated so that my eyes appear larger.”
But she explained that she considers plastic surgery a medium similar to cosmetics.
“Because I was raised in Korea, unlike the American view, surgery is kind of like makeup,” Kim said. “Why do we put on makeup? It’s to become prettier. Why do we do cosmetic surgery? It’s just to become prettier. To condemn someone for doing so is harsh.”
Kim’s statement points to the increasing normalization of plastic surgery in Korean society. It’s a shift in mentality that has also been reflected in K-pop stars’ reactions to accusations of having procedures done.
“There’s a significant shift from 10 years ago when celebrities would say that they had never had any work done,” Professor Lee said. “People would find their old photos and do before-and-after comparisons on the Internet to the point of ruining certain people’s careers. Now, it’s very normal for celebrities to not only admit that they’ve had work done, but also to endorse their favorite plastic surgery clinics or doctors.”
Lee said such confessions and endorsements have encouraged teenage fans to become more accepting of plastic surgery.
“You see how these industries, these multimillion-dollar industries are intersecting to really normalize surgery, so that the average woman, the normal woman, feels that it’s not only OK, but also necessary. If so-and-so had surgery as a young woman and now is a pop star, well, maybe the average woman can’t be a pop star, but she can at least get that job that she really wants or marry that guy she really wants to marry.”
IN RECENT DECADES, technology and low costs of operation have increased the accessibility of plastic surgery. An operation to get double eyelids can cost as little as $800 in Korea.
“In Korea, facial plastic surgery is very common because many Asians have single eyelids, flat nose and wide face,” Dr. Park said. “The cost of eye and nose jobs is very low. On the other hand, liposuction, breast augmentation and facelift, which are the most popular plastic surgery procedures in Western countries, are not so popular in Korea.”
The New York Times reported last year that the number of doctors trained in plastic surgery in Korea had doubled in the past decade. In the same story, one plastic surgeon commented how a consequence of this boom was that young women, who often come with pictures of their favorite stars, were starting to look increasingly alike because Koreans tended to agree on what constitutes a pretty face. “The consensus, now, is a smaller, more sharply defined youthful face—a more or less Westernized look,” Dr. Park San-hoon told the Times.
Having grown up in Southern California, home to a large Korean American community, Professor Lee became interested in the explanations for Korea’s high plastic surgery rate. In her research, she found that the Korean standard of beauty has been influenced by the Western look, though the reasons are complex. “The double eyelid surgery actually happened in Korea as a result of U.S. occupation after the Korean War, when U.S. military doctors were doing reconstructive surgeries on Korean War victims,” she said. “One doctor, in particular, felt that alleviating the slanted, Oriental eye was one way he could ‘help’ Koreans, even though, obviously, this wasn’t an actual injury or reconstructive in nature.”
Within that context, one can clearly see the U.S. influence on Korea’s beauty standard early on, but Lee said her research also showed how the reasons for plastic surgery for Koreans changed over time. She pointed to the 1997 economic crisis in Korea, and how people were competing for a limited number of jobs. Because job applicants there must submit their photos with their resumes, better looks are seen as an asset. “Now, people really feel that these procedures are necessary for getting ahead in a highly competitive society,” she said.
But why such a strong societal focus on physical appearance and image?
Lee believes the reasons are tied to Korea’s rapid industrialization. In two generations, South Korea went from an impoverished, agrarian country to an “industrial tiger,” exporting Kias, Samsung smartphones and now K-pop. “Korean people largely see themselves as having made a lot of sacrifices to be where they are today. Where they are today and where they want to be is to acquire these symbols of wealth because that’s the narrative that’s been told to the nation,” she explained. “That atmosphere has led to a focus on looks and image.”
In the last several years, however, the rise of teen plastic surgery has sparked a counter-movement among social organizations in Korea. Korean Womenlink (Yŏsŏng Minuhoe), a feminist organization in Korea, launched a campaign targeting young girls. The campaign, called “Love Your Body,” encouraged girls to embrace their natural appearance. “They would do things like stop young girls on the street and have them write things they loved about their body,” Lee said. “Or sign a contract that they would not engage in dangerous dieting practices or consider plastic surgery until they were adults.”
In 2011, the Korean Ministry of Education released a booklet cautioning students against the effects of plastic surgery. The booklet cited individuals like Michael Jackson to emphasize the potential side effects of surgery.
Even recent pop culture developments, like Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video, criticize the materialism that underlies the K-pop industry, said Lee. “‘Gangnam Style’ is all about looking good and having fancy things,” she said. “But when you look closely at the video, every time you think he’s somewhere exotic, it turns out that he’s really sitting next to a kiddie pool.
“I think that the irony and those contradictions really speak to what’s happened in Korea’s rapid development.”
K-pop fan Lee Jung-bok said he hopes the industry will place more emphasis on talent and less emphasis on physical appearance. He pointed to a certain Korean star who doesn’t match the typical profile of K-pop idols—he’s not “pretty” nor skinny—and yet has achieved success for a song and video that the world can’t stop dancing to.
“You shouldn’t have to have a certain look to be famous in Korea,” Lee said. “Psy proved it.”
But the industry forces are strong in the other direction. Woo Eun-mi, who competed on the Korean reality show contest Superstar K2 a few years ago, vowed publicly she would never get plastic surgery. When she was on the show, she was known for her “plain” face and reportedly even turned down plastic surgery offers. But, last year she revealed that her management company had convinced her she would need to change in order to grow as a celebrity.
Perhaps realizing the larger impact of her decision on fans, the singer felt the need to write on her personal blog, “I want to apologize for not keeping my promise. I’m very sorry.”