Comments 5

Apgujeong, Plastic Surgery Mecca

Image source: Getty Images via Business Inside

Note: Have you ever heard these punchlines in your life before?:
“Hey, I’m going to start looking for jobs after graduation, so I’m on a diet. I won’t get hired looking like this!” (girl one year my junior)
“I think the girl we just passed did her nose” “No, no, no, she did her eyes too” “And some fat in her forehead too” (my friend and I)
“This stop is Hyosung Elementary School – If you are headed to Beautiful Face Plastic Surgery, please get off here” (broadcast on the bus)
“Where did she do it, her with the perfect face?!” “She did it at XXX clinic, I must go there too!” (advert on the subway)

Plastic surgery often makes its way into daily conversations in Korea.
Not necessarily because you’re considering it, but because you see it and hear about it every single day. On the subway, on the news, and most notably, on the people. As an example I have gathered a review of how often plastic surgery popped into various conversations in my life over the past few weeks:

  • Two weeks ago I met a friend from Busan. She said (in a thick Busan accent): “Every time I come to Gangnam, I go: That girl had her nose done, that guy had his chin done… it’s like no one in Seoul has not done something to themselves”. When I asked her whether it was that different in Busan, she said “Some, but not this many. This is like a walking catalogue”
  • Last week I was having tea with my friend Calculette, and we were talking about this one girl from English Literature, who we saw so often, and with so much make-up on top of a over-the-top artificial face. And then we remembered this girl from my major who had her chin shaved, and spent two months slurping Smoothie Kings. Then this guy who had his chin done over the weekend. Then this cousin who had her eyes slit front and back to make them bigger. (Yes one of us has a cousin who did plastic surgery)
  • On Friday I was on the subway, and saw this couple, of which the girl had probably spent a good $100,000 on her face (and elsewhere, maybe). I could hang a hook on her nose and it probably wouldn’t even fall. She had obviously inserted fat beneath her eyes too.
  • Sunday, the report on Seoul Citizens’ Health was broadcast on various newspapers. About 4~5% of all women in Seoul are underweight, whereas in Gangnam this number reaches a staggering 21%. Comments included “That’s because it’s where the whorehouses are” “Watch out, if your new girlfriend had surgery and doesn’t pick up her phone after 10pm, she’s  one of them”
  • Today, Tuesday, I was listening to the radio on my way to work and the announcer said “A 30-year old woman died after her liposuction-nose job-operation suite”. The report added that in December, a 19-year old lapsed into a coma after eye and nose surgery – and oh, she was so young, just passed her university entry exam, the CSAT.
  • This Saturday, a friend and I are going to the dermatologist’s to get some moles (spots?) removed in Apgujeong. Looking forward to seeing the plastic ladies up close and alive.

Apgujeong is the Mecca of International Plastic Surgery – In fact, they ought to rename at least one street “Plastic Avenue”, “Fake Boobs Avenue”, “Seriously – You Think Her Nose Is Real? Ave.”, or something in the like. Since a few years, the number of Chinese tourists coming to Korea for a makeover have increased dramatically, and many clinics now place adverts in Chinese on Line 3. “So, if your Chinese girlfriend looks too Korean… you might want to check if her passport’s been stamped with a Korean visa” was a joke I was recently told.

Now, simple surgeries such as the double eyelid, and the eye enlargement procedures aren’t even considered plastic surgery here anymore. They are too common. When I came back to Korea in my last year at middle school (Grade 9), one girl had her eyelids done as a “present for graduating from middle school”. It starts that early. In university I met a girl majoring in PE, who suddenly disappeared, and then then messaged me, saying “Please remove pictures of me we took together in our freshman year from Cyworld (Yes, that’s when we still used Cyworld over FB!)” – of course, she had gotten some work done.

Clinics also advertise heavily on the buses and the subway. Popular slogans include “Mom’s Choice” “For your beautiful life” “Change! Now” “Psst… don’t tell anyone you did it here. No one will know if you don’t tell”, and so on. Some have gone as far as to pay the public transport to announce things such as “This stop is AAA Elementary School – If you want to go to Beautiful Face Plastic Surgery, please stop here” (Isn’t this the epitome of disturbing advertising?)

The saddest part is that the plastic surgery frenzy is not limited to those who make a living from their looks – celebrities, models, escorts, prostitutes, and so on. It’s ordinary people who are in the zone for the most part. So why do they take the risk and the costs related to these procedures?
I think it’s the competitive nature of Korean society. Everything is a competition here – your work skills, your travels, your family life, and your physical appearance. “Oh, that colleague of mine went to Guam last time, I must go somewhere equally exotic!” “My friend’s son got better grades than my daughter. Must send her to an extra tutoring session!”.
The most strange sub-phenomenon in my eyes is that women undertake basic surgeries to land administrative jobs. “Well, it can’t hurt to look good at the interview”, was one possible explanation a friend provided (she did not have anything done herself). Korea has such a highly educated general populace that too many qualified people are fighting for the same jobs, and therefore things that are not directly related to work performance start to weigh in, simply because on every other scale, too many candidates are equal (I will elaborate on exams and Korean society in the future). I can personally vouch for this phenomena, as I have worked intern jobs at two of Korea’s most competitive companies, and witnessed for myself that everyone was fit and quite good-looking, and well-groomed.

eiRjHxY33811_18Image source: Naver Blog

The frenzy has even given birth to a make-over program, called “Let Me In” (Let 美人), also meaning “Let Beautiful Person”.
Anyone can send stories of their lives, reason why they want the make-over, with photos of themselves for a cosmetic package deal.
Famous cases include the woman in the above picture, 21-year old Heo Ye-Eun, born with an abnormally large jaw. Other makeovers include Chinese national Gu, a woman with abnormally large breasts, etc.
Most of these cases have been dubbed “good surgery practice”, since the participants suffered from conditions which deeply impacted their self image and social interaction.
Several participants have started modeling afterwards.

If people are born with features that severely distract them from interacting with the outside world, it may be a problem. Like the contestants with extremely protruding jaws – I bet they had trouble chewing food, and speaking impeccably as well. The issue is that, the surgeries invented for correcting jaw mis-coordination (양악) are being used to simply make the jawline slimmer. A good case of this is Park Bom – who seems to be addicted to surgery as of late. If you listen to her perform live, you can even hear her voice has changed slightly, and that she’s having trouble pronouncing properly. Not to mention the young woman whose story pops up every few months – went into surgery to get her jaw shaved, lapsed into a coma/ can’t talk anymore because of complications / died… Even though the procedure is extremely dangerous (they flip half your face open wide, saw off bone, and then patch you up again), and is supposed to be reserved only to those with seriously uncoordinated jaws, it’s become a fashion surgery costing upwards from 10 million won ($ 10,000)

Pictured below is a photograph that went viral in January 2014 and tweeted by The New York Times. Apparently a clinic posted it on the Web boasting how many jaws they’ve shaved. The…”display” has since been removed from the hospital, and the hospital fined 3 million won ($ 3000) for inappropriately disposing of medical wastes.

Image source: Naver Cafe

 It’s sad that I have this knee-jerk reaction when I see a good-looking Korean woman:

1. Think “wow she’s really gorgeous”
2. Start to analyze her face discreetly
3. (Most often) Oh, Nose. Chin. Eyes. Forehead. Jaw…
4. (Sometimes) Hmm. She looks natural. She must have a really good surgeon.
5. (Rarely) Wow, I think she is a natural beauty. Amazing. Hope she doesn’t start doing anything to her face now.

Unfortunately I’m not close friends with anyone who had major work done, and couldn’t get an interview. If in the future I get to hold a decent conversation with one, I’ll post it here for sure.

P.S. 1: Just an hour ago I saw an ad that said “Your boyfriend gets on his knees…and recommends Eight Plastic Surgery Clinic”. I think this is worse than “Mom’s Choice: XXX Clinic”.

This entry was posted in: Personal


Internationally lost since 2000, Emily was born in Seoul, raised in India, and has been living and studying in France, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands since 2014. A translator and interpreter by profession, she enjoys talking and debating just about anything.


  1. I still hardly imagine how could someone get his/her jaw shaved even after reading this. It must be really hurt. During my trip in Seoul, I barely met youngsters (boys and girls) who weren’t beautiful, however, I still couldn’t tell whether they already went under-knives.
    the most surprising adds; 😀 😀
    “This stop is Hyosung Elementary School – If you are headed to Beautiful Face Plastic Surgery, please get off here” (broadcast on the bus)… –> just too jaw dropping!

    • Hi Yuna!
      I think most Seoulites (including myself) at some point get to the point we can somewhat tell if somebody has had plastic surgery, because it definitely does stand out. But I also know a few women who have had very minor and “natural” surgery in which you wouldn’t be able to tell – so you never know.

      The advert is really shocking, isn’t it! I will see if it’s still running next year when I go back in summer…

      • Ah, now I am curious. Btw, I just got back from another trip to South Korea, and still couldn’t recognize. 🙂 Whatever the people I met there were all amazing, despite of this issue. 🙂 🙂

      • Great to hear you had a pleasant trip to Korea! 🙂 If you’re interested in getting to know more about the plastic surgery issue, I highly recommend Grace Neutral and VICE YouTube’s collaboration on a mini-documentary on that very topic!

Tell me what you think!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.