SEOUL, South Korea — The citizens of this hyper-competitive East Asian nation are the most cosmetically enhanced people in the world, going under the knife more per capita than Americans, Italians, Greeks and Brazilians.
Here in Apgujeong, a beauty belt in the glamorous Gangnam district, an untold number of South Koreans and medical tourists flock each year to hundreds of plastic surgery clinics. By California standards, packages of multiple procedures fetch bargain prices.
It is here that both male and female patients seek out an East Asian ideal of beauty: a softer, slimmer jaw, an eye lift, and a raised nose bridge — often on the assumption that better looks will land them better-paying jobs and loving spouses.
But what happens when a few insecure souls take their drive to an extreme, contorting and spoiling their youthful, angelic faces with a dozen operations?
One reality show is pushing back, calling for a more reasonable standard. “Back to My Face,” as the program is called (the show uses an English name, not a Korean one) gives addicts an opportunity to, ironically, go under the knife one last time to restore their natural beauty.
Each episode features four or five young women who’ve undergone 10 or more operations, along with a surgery-loving man who appears in the May debut. Contestants gather in a communal house and then mingle in the streets of Seoul, guided by the South Korean comedian Park Myeong-su and treated to a cameo by one naturally beautiful actress.
A series of games, activities and intensively blunt discussions force participants to reflect on their choices and to muse on what it means to be beautiful. Will people accept me for who I am? Why am I trying to be somebody else? And worst of all, do I unknowingly look like everybody else, with the same oval eyes and pointed nose?
In one exercise, the contestants pull aside the pedestrians of Seoul, exhibiting “before and after” photos of themselves and asking what other surgeries they need. Cheeks? Eyelids? Nose? Jaw?
The response was friendlier than the reality show participants, timid and self-doubting, expected.
"Please just stop. You're beautiful, and you shouldn't get any more surgery," said one onlooker.
Other times, the conversations get intimate, with participants coming to the understanding that they’re under a “grass is greener” spell. “I’ve realized that the plastic surgery girls are too similar looking,” lamented one contestant, reflecting on her cookie-cutter face. “Now I think I was also good enough in the old days, too,” before her plastic transformation.
Each contestant later concludes with a declaration: either they’ll revert back to their old facial structure, proclaiming “back.” Or they’ll proclaim the word “stop,” staying with their post-surgery face.
The activities and discussions are intended to encourage patients to conquer their insecurities, said a spokesman. That’s the opposite of another popular reality show that follows around Korean women seeking more Gangnam-style plastic surgery.
In chic urban Seoul, intensively competitive residents can succumb to an extreme take on “keeping up with the Joneses.” Some are insecure not just about their looks but try to live up to impossible standards on the whole. Ivy League degrees, elite corporate jobs, height, and a symmetrical whitish face are considered the zenith of human achievement.
South Korea is home to one of Asia’s biggest beauty scenes, partially the result of the intense pressure to succeed. Male makeup is a booming market, with many department stores selling the image of the smooth, milky complexions of K-Pop stars.
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, bloating it. Months of futile surgeries could not repair her disfigurement.