Arts, Culture & Media

Why some South Koreans want to look like Barbie — or Warren Buffett


One of many ads for plastic surgery in a Seoul subway station.


Jason Strother

Look around the Apgujeong subway station in Seoul and you'll see lots of ads for plastic surgery clinics, showing before and after shots.

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Woori, who’s 19, had some work done about a month ago, but she says it wasn't the ads that made her do it. It was pressure from friends and family.

"Whenever I saw pictures of my face, I felt a lot of stress. One of my eyes was bigger than the other. But the real problem was my nose. Everyone, even people who'd just met me, would tell me how big it was," she recalls. "They said my nose covered my entire face."

So, with about $3,500 of her own money, Woori had her eyelids lifted and the bridge of her nose raised.  

Woori is in good company. South Korea has one of the highest per capita rates of plastic surgery in the world, according to one survey. They go for nose jobs, Botox injections, and double-eyelid procedures, trying to look less Asian.

Woori says her new look makes her more popular with guys, but it's helped her get work, too.

"Koreans are obsessed with how we look. Before my surgery, if I had about 10 job interviews, I didn't get any calls back,” Woori says. “But now, I get a lot of calls."

Woori also models for the doctor who did her surgery, Cho Soo-young.  

Dr. Cho says his patients want a more Western, “Barbie” look, even if it’s not realistic for Asian women. It's what employers are looking for, too, he adds.

"Korea is a very competitive society,” Cho says. “If you look old, you'll lose out to the competition, so people try to change their face and their bodies." 

Cho notes that most school and job applications in Korea require a photo, so plastic surgery can change a person's destiny.

A lot of Koreans seem to agree, says Yvonne Kim of the Asia Society's Korea Center.

"They believe, or the market makes them believe, that good-looking people have better jobs or are offered better opportunities,” Kim says. “It's a sad reality. Are we focusing on their skills and education or are we hiring them just because they're good looking? It's something that society needs to think deeper about and should be concerned about."

Kim’s organization is making a documentary on Korean ideals about beauty. But even before the plastic surgery craze, Koreans have long believed that facial characteristics can determine your fortune. Park Sang-jun, who is a traditional “face reader,” says there are certain desirable features. 

“If you see Warren Buffet's nose, it's very high and has a lot of fat around it,” Park says. “That type of nose brings good luck and can make a person wealthy. But if someone has surgery to get Warren Buffet's type of nose, it won't work.”

Park says that good fortune only comes from the inside.

Woori, the young woman who had her eyes and nose done, says she doesn't care what people say about natural beauty. She feels more confident since her surgery, and she's considering having more work done.

"I had been thinking about having my jaw thinned out, but my doctor suggested I just try to lose some weight first," she says.

So now she’s considering getting another nose job.

  • surgery_pic2_Woori.jpg

    Woori, 19, has had her eyelids lifted and the bridge of her nose raised. And she's not done yet.


    Jason Strother