SEOUL, South Korea — In the heart of Seoul’s famous Gangnam neighborhood lies the “Beauty Belt,” a grouping of streets lined with hundreds of cosmetic surgery joints.
Untold numbers of Koreans — as well as Chinese and Southeast Asian tourists — have trekked to this district, seeking a pointed nose, rounded eyes, a slimmer jaw line and even a gentler smile, considered graceful in some East Asian countries.
South Koreans are the most cosmetically enhanced people in the world, according to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons. In this hyper-competitive society, plastic surgery is often seen as a prerequisite to job and relationship success.
But what if you can’t afford these high-end clinics?
Turns out, there’s an alternative: do-it-yourself cosmetic enhancements.
It’s popular among anxious Korean teens who lack the funds to purchase the rarified good looks plastered on subway and bus advertisements. Taken together, a “VIP package” of procedures such as an eye lift, nose job, and even a popular jaw bone-cutting operation can fetch more than $10,000.
Impatient for such treatments, these youngsters are taking the burden upon themselves to carve out a better face. Enter the DIY craze, a potentially hazardous fad among high school friends who self-apply cheap and scantily regulated tools bought online.
The process usually doesn’t involve self-mutilation (although there are exceptions). But cosmetic surgeons insist it is potentially dangerous because it involves trying to contort and manipulate bodies that have not fully matured — offering the potential for harm.
Na and Choi, both 17, told GlobalPost that two years ago, after seeing Korean talk show guests demonstrate various shape-changing gadgets, they started buying the products online. Since then, they have suffered all sorts of facial injuries — thankfully, none of them permanent.
“We want to become pretty without spending all the money,” said Na. “We know that these methods aren’t approved of, but lots of our peers do it. Girls [in our all-girls school] like girls who look pretty.” At times, the “patients” are as young as 12 or 13.
And you thought Mean Girls was bad.
“We know about the dangers, but we don’t think the dangers will come to us,” she said.
(Because they’re minors, the two friends asked GlobalPost not to use their full names, per South Korean standards.)
Sitting in their apartments, the pair explained that every day they spend some time wearing eccentric glasses that forced their eyes to stay open without blinking. The goal: a cheap version of double-eyelid surgery, which aims to give Asians a... “Hollywood look.” At least, that’s what sellers told them.
A pair sells on the web for anywhere from $5 to $20.
But fads come and go quickly in South Korea, and this duo opines that even the strange-looking specs are becoming old news.
“Elementary school kids wear them,” one girl chimed in dismissively. They’ve become “lame,” she said — not because of their outcome, but because of this growing demand from ever-younger fashionistas.
Sound bizarre? Another popular contraption: the $6 jaw-squeezing roller device. Vendors claim it pushes the jaw line into a pleasing petite, oval form. The two teens spend hours rolling and molding the product along their jaw, trying to fit their faces into the perfect shape — and inflicting a good deal of pain in the process.
(And you thought stretching your bones was tough, Bobby Brady!)
The pain pales compared to the infamous double-jaw surgery, a recent fad among South Korean and Chinese women. The procedure involves cutting off and realigning part of the jaw bone, and carries the risk of permanent damage.
The second teen, Choi, admits she’s taken multiple bruises from yet another widget, sold for $2, that promises a raised nose bridge after a few hours of pressure each day. In East Asia, a pointed nose is sometimes perceived as an elegant Western trait.
Cosmetic surgeons are concerned the DIY trend is “impairing” the underdeveloped bodies of adolescents, explains Dr. Hong Jung Gon, of the Metro Plastic Surgery Clinic in Seoul.
Teenagers sometimes show up at clinics complaining of infections and damage to their eyes, he said. For the most part, problems like those are minor and can be repaired.
A few crazed addicts have already indulged too far in their love of cosmetic enhancements, inflicting grotesque and irreversible damage to their bodies. In one famous episode, a South Korean woman injected cooking oil into her face, causing it to bloat. Months of futile surgeries could not repair her disfigurement.
It’s an extreme episode, but the type that casts anxiety over the plastic surgery craze. In the past, throngs of patients sought out treatment in early adulthood, when their bodies were fully matured, Hong said.
“But recently,” he explained, worryingly, “the overall age of the patients getting plastic surgery has fallen to the first and second years of high school.”
Park Jeong-min contributed reporting.