From the moment you hit the bustling streets of Seoul you are confronted with just one thing: you are not beautiful enough and you should fix this as soon as possible. Subway stations, bus stations, street signs, shopping malls - there are advertisements everywhere, shouting at you how you should look like.
Korean obsession with beauty standards is beyond understanding. The beauty ideals are imposed on Koreans from early age, and the only way for them to feel accepted in society is to go under the knife.
Before my visit to South Korea I heard that the percentage of people which goes under the knife is the highest in South Korea, but I never imagined to what extent it actually goes.
Seoul is not only national capital, but also capital of plastic surgeries in the world. Just to imagine: in Gangnam area - Seoul's most affluent neighborhood and birthplace of infamous Gangnam style, there are around 500 beauty clinics on just 40 km².
The statistics is overwhelming as well. Every one in five Korean girls will undergo plastic surgery at least once in her life – making it 20% of the whole population. Getting a plastic surgery has integrated into Korean society and if your face doesn't look according to the beauty standards, you are immediately considered as "ugly".
One of the most common “gifts” for entering adulthood is plastic surgery. It is also nothing unusual to have your nose fixed during the break at work and later continue with work as nothing has happened. The Korean society is also pretty straightforward about the whole beauty ideal. If the girl is overweight or have imperfections, her relatives and friends will tell her that directly and encourage her to “correct it”.
I even found some pictures before and after plastic surgeries, which exactly show which facial corrections have been made.
But where does this ideal of Korean beauty come from?
For better understanding of South Korean obsession with beauty clinics we need to have basic understanding of South Korean historical and economic background. Japanese colonization of South Korea and war with North Korea left South Korea devastated and one of the poorest countries in the world. In 1961, average South Korean household earned around 100 $ per year, making the country one of the most poverty-stricken in the world.
After 1961 industrialization miracle took place and South Korea has transformed into the country as we know it today: developed and high-income country with rich and thriving economy. In 1988, Seoul hosted Summer Olympics and since then its economy had been boosted. Today, an average person in South Korea earns around 33.000 $ per year. People have become wealthier and they can afford more. Apart from money, health and beauty have become their biggest concern and they want to appear "beautiful" in the eyes of others.
Korean beauty standards have also been largely influenced by United States. During Korean war, South Korea was supported by United States, which reflected in imitating American lifestyle, food, language and entertainment. Western facial traits are widely appreciated in South Korean society and implemented by Korean plastic surgeons. By getting a plastic surgery a person will appear more American - beautiful and attractive.
The saddest part of the whole obsession with beauty is that individuality and uniqueness are completely irrelevant. Instead of telling people they are beautiful because of their personality, they are encouraging them to go under the knife, to be beautiful. Appearance also plays an important role in dating and job recruitment. It is very common to break up with someone who isn’t good-looking or to hire a girl, who is considered more beautiful.
Although this is how mainstream of South Koreans think, there are still people who value personality over appearance. Most of them were single guys, interested in foreigners. On my question, why they are still single, they replied: I don’t like South Korean girls. They are all plastic and they just want money. I prefer foreigners instead.”