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Plastic surgery has been a popular business in the West, particularly in the United States. However, the trend is shifting to Asia. In the past decade, public attitude towards cosmetic or aesthetic surgery in South Korea have increasingly become optimistic.
Generally, cosmetic procedures are perceived as a valuable and good investment in an individual’s body, rather than an indication of egotism as perceived in the West. The 21st century South Korean women have evolved from the domestic and maternal feminism to a beautiful face and slim body. For many South Korean women, plastic surgery is not only a practice self-care or a symbol of maturity, but also an investment to provide significant benefits in marriage, education and career. Based on the loose observation, it is hypothesized that the sensational plastic surgery trend is attributed to media portraying Western culture and beauty. The research will employ various data sources and qualitatively analyze the complied data from journal, studies and other statistical sources related to plastic surgery. Herein, the terms Korea and Korean refers to South Korea and South Korean, respectively. The recent statistical data documented by the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS) indicates that when population is considered, South Korea tops the list of global markets for cosmetic procedures. In an effort to change their looks, one in five women in Seoul between the ages of 15 and 49 admitted to have undergone a cosmetic procedure. The current paper examines consumer patterns and behaviors in the plastic surgery industry in South Korea. In that respect, the paper discusses the trends and impact of plastic surgery in South Korea. It also gives a personalized projection of the future South Korean plastic surgery industry.
Plastic surgery is a medical specialty that correct, restores or fixes an imperfection of a body tissue through reconstructive or cosmetic surgery (Ray, 2013). The difference between reconstructive surgery and plastic surgery is that the former is performed to improve functionality, whereas the latter is performed to improve the aesthetic appearance on an individual. Some of the popular procedures carried out through plastic surgery include butt implants, eyelid surgery, tummy tucks, nose job (rhinoplasty) and breast augmentations. The top surgeries for Korean women include breast augmentation, eyelid, nose and butt implants. On the other hand, the popular surgeries for men include breast reduction, nose, face and eyelid operations. While the gains of cosmetic enhancements are widely shared in South Korea, failed surgeries are rarely reported. It implies that South Koreans should take into account the negative effects of plastic surgery. Current section highlights the positive and negative benefits of cosmetic enhancement with focus on South Korea. Plastic surgery is widely used by people nowadays and will gain more popularity in the next few years. While patients accept the benefits of cosmetic enhancement, both positive and negative effects of the procedure should be considered. As noted earlier, the widely shared benefits of plastic surgeries are improved appearance and prospectus for good job and spouse. A study performed by the American Psychological Association (APA) indicated that patient of plastic surgery felt better after it (Ray, 2013). The study showed that successful procedures improved confidence and overall well-being.
Statistical Facts about Plastic Surgery in South Korea
Writing from a global point of view and focusing on a 2013 statistical report by International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS), there were over 23 million cosmetic procedures (surgical and non-surgical) performed globally in 2013 (ISAPS, 2014). In reference to the same report, the United States was edged by Brazil for the first time in history in terms of the total cosmetic surgical procedures performed (ISAPS, 2014). However, the United States was still at the top in terms of the total number of both surgical and non-surgical procedures. Brazil, Mexico, Germany and Spain followed in that order (ISAPS, 2014). Botulinum took the first position in reference to the total cosmetic procedures performed. Overall, women had over 20 million plastic surgery procedures, which translate to 87.5% of the overall cosmetic procedures (ISAPS, 2014). Survey subjects completed a questionnaire that centered on the total number of both surgical and non-surgical cosmetic procedures performed in 2013. Primary data from 1,567 plastic surgeons were collected for the survey. The report was analyzed and presented by Industry Insights, an independent research firm. Based on the survey, the estimated numbers of surgeons across the globe were 40,277. Out of this number, the United Stated had 6,133 plastic surgeons followed by Brazil (5,473) and China (2,800), Japan (2,302) and 2,150 surgeons from South Korea (ISAPS, 2014). Out of the total face and head procedures the list was as follows: Brazil (10.1%), the USA (8.3%), Mexico (4.2%), Germany (3.0%) and Colombia (1.8%).
South Korea receives over 100,000 medical tourists annually. Such medical tourists seek high-class aesthetic or cosmetic procedures. In 2010, South Korea was the leading destination in terms of non-invasive skin and hair plastic surgery, as well as in terms of invasive face and hair cosmetic procedures (Korean plastic surgery statistics, 2014) According to the Seoul TouchUp (2014), and as indicated in the Korean plastic surgery statistics, the cosmetic surgery tourism is valued a national asset. The Seoul TouchUp (2014) asserts that it is only in South Korea that plastic surgery tourism is perceived as a practical venture in an extremely competitive medical world. Over the past decade, Korea has continued to experience an exponential growth in the number of medical tourists visiting the country. The 2014 Korean Plastic Surgery Statistics indicate that the number of plastic surgery tourists has grown exponentially. Out of the 7.5 million tourists who visit South Korea annually, over 80,000 of them visit Korea exclusively for medical procedures (Korean plastic surgery statistics, 2014). Such procedures range from plastic surgery to cyber-knife surgery. As more people become aware of the high-quality medical facilities and well-trained medical practitioners present in South Korea, Seoul TouchUp (2014) anticipated that by 2015 the statistics of medical visitors will surpass 400,000 people annually. In the same projection, it was predicted that the growth rate would reach an annual rate of 30%.
RYOT (2014), noted that as technology improves, plastic surgery in South Korea continued to be safer, better and cheaper than in other countries in the world. As of consequence, the country was the busiest destination of plastic surgery globally. Besides women, men have been reported to increasingly visit South Korea for aesthetic perfection (South Korean plastic surgery trend, 2014). According to RYOT (2014), the modern Korean women undergo the cosmetic surgery more than men. According to ISAPS (2014), South Korea had approximately 2,054 plastic surgeons, which is equivalent to 5.1% of the total plastic surgeons worldwide. According to a recent article by Reuters (2014), South Koreas plastic surgery industry was worth $5 billion and was the world’s largest. Despite having qualified medical practitioners and modern facilities, complaints of failed procedures and unqualified doctors doubled in 2013 from 2012. For example, jaw surgery is often the last avenue to correct facial deformations. However, jaw surgery has increasingly become an elective enhancement procedure by many South Korean women seeking original cosmetic enhancements irrespective of the risks involved. Furthermore, the proliferation of new plastic surgery clinics offering risk cosmetic enhancement, such as jaw surgery, have become more affordable to many people. To that end, the number of surgeries that are likely to fail increase hence exposing more Koreans to medical complications. Despite the medical concerns regarding such trends, many studies and resources point that the practice will not lose its popularity (Asian Plastic Surgery Guide, 2009; CBC, 2014; ISAPS, 2014). According to Reuters (2014), a patient of a botched surgery (mostly women) struggles with a series of medical problems. In the worst case scenario, she is unemployed, divorced and suffers from severe depression. In the same context, one of the Miss Korea contestants in the 1980s reported to have suffered a series of infection in her breast after undergoing breast augmentation in 2008 with the agenda of finding a new spouse (Reuters, 2014). She regrets undergoing the cosmetic surgery because her breasts became un-proportional.
In 2013, the South Korean Ministry of Education issued a booklet containing information about the side effects of plastic surgery and effects involved. The booklet Plastic Surgery Syndrome targeted high schools students and cautioned them against the risk involved (Chang & Thompson, 2014). It also cited Michael Jackson and a local woman who was left with a swollen face due to her addiction to cosmetic enhancements. Despites such efforts from the government, most South Koreans remain unmoved by the negative effects or risks related to plastic surgery. The underlying reason behind their persistence is that they perceive the enhancements as ways of improving themselves in terms of outlook and marriage or career prospectus (Emily, 2014). The other underlying argument is that the surgery causes no harm as long as it boosts the confidence or self-esteem of the patient.
According to Whitelocks (2012), the most popular cosmetic procedures in South Korea include lipoplasty, double eyelid surgery and nose jobs. Under lipoplasty, high-frequency sound waves are used to eliminate extra fat. On the other hand, the double eyelid surgery makes eyes appear bigger by reducing the excess skin from the upper eyelid. In the non-surgical front laser hair removal and Botox remain firm favorites (Chang & Thompson, 2014; ISAPS, 2014). In 2010, over 5.8 million cosmetic enhancements were performed in Asia, whereas about 4.5 million aesthetic enhancements were performed in the United States. Juju & Thomson (2014) also pointed out that not only Korean women undergo the surgery, but also people from various countries fly to Seoul for qualified plastic surgeon and competitive pricing. For example, real estate property manager in Loss Angeles flew to South Korea to undergo a plastic surgery overhaul. She traveled to Seoul to improve the cosmetic enhancements she has had in the US and underwent a new operation, including extended eyes, reshaped forehead and chin. According to the sales manager, her first surgeries in the United States cost her $8,000, in Korea the same procedure costs between $2,000 and $5,000 (Chang & Thompson, 2014).
Therefore, it is significantly cheaper to have a cosmetic enhancement in South Korea than in the United States. The motivation of manger was to improve her looks because she was in an abusive marriage.
Causes of the Drastic Optimistic Attitude towards Cosmetic Surgery
One of the causes of such trend is attributed to societal pressure which had pushed many young South Koreans to modify their faces in order to be in congruence with the Western Ideals of beauty or perfectionism. RYOT (2014) pointed that many Korean women strive to look like Western women, with ovular faces, lager eyes and eyelids. As a matter of fact, most South Korean women who have undergone successful plastic surgery are reported to have secured better jobs and marry more successful men (RYOT, 2014). Many South Koreans perceive that the perfect face defines the line between success and failure. Instead of countering the Western culture, most of the Korean youth push each other to conform to the Western definition of beauty. South Korean youth, especially women, seem to internalize that the Western definition of beauty is the only correct one, and the thinking projects complex ideal that most young Koreans struggle to achieve. Notably, all the 2013 Miss Korea contestants looked alike due to the fact that they used similar plastic surgery procedure. The ever growing social pressure and need to look like Western celebrities or supermodels has led to development of an array of plastic surgery procedures to cater for various needs of young women in the industry.
The increase in plastic surgeries among Korean women is also attributed to low self-esteem (Chang & Thompson, 2014). Given that South Korea is an ethnically homogenous country, it is arguable that its youth have a narrow definition of beauty. Ideally, following the ethnical homogeneity and similarity in physical features, it is expected that South Koreans should be conservative. Surprisingly, there is a local and popular television program called Let Me In, propagating plastic surgery (Jay, 2013). On Let Me In, applicants for plastic surgery are selected and their medical expenses covered. According to Jay (2013), the show focuses on post-surgery life of the participants and how their lives haves transformed positively due to their surgical appearance. Furthermore, South Korea government has been promoting the natural beauty of the country alongside with its state-of-the-art medical facilities and medical practitioners. According to Seoul TouchUp (2014), CNN named South Korea as one of the promising destinations for medical tourists. In fact, the South Korean government continues to invest in the industry so that to surpass the other regional destinations known for high-quality medical tourism. Such destinations include China, Taiwan and Japan.
The United States has been known to be country obsessed with cosmetic surgery. Numerous websites and gossip tabloids speculate on which celebrity has undergone cosmetic surgery and where it was done. According to Juju & Thomson (2014), Americans spent approximately $12 billion on cosmetic procedure in 2013. Despite such fact, Seoul is reported to be the only city where plastic surgery edged the United States if population is taken into account. Approximately 7.5 million people have visited Seoul to get cosmetic enhancements. According to ISAPS (2014), 1 in 5 South Korean women have undergone cosmetic enhancement as compared to around 1 in 20 American women. Juju & Thomson (2014) argued that South Korean women seem to be emulating the doll-like features charactering the K-Pop idols depicted in the Gangnam Style music video by Korean pop star Psy. It is also believed that the emergence and rise of the South Korean pop music industry has an influence in the surge, and most patients attend plastic surgery clinics with photos of pop celebrities (Chang & Thompson, 2014; Francis, 2013). One of Korea’s biggest clinics, JK Plastic Surgery Center, is reported to have opened a hotel to extend its customer experience to clients who spend over $17,675 in their single visit (Chang & Thompson, 2014). Notably, the increasing numbers of clients are non-Koreans from Japan, Africa, the USA, the Midle East and China (Chang & Thompson, 2014).
According to Francis (2013), the obsession with cosmetic enhancements in South Koreas is propelled by the popularity of Korean pop music. Korean pop music celebrities continue to influence Korean youth to undergo plastic surgery. For instance, most pictures of K-Pop Stars have undergone transformation due to plastic surgery. When the youth observe the change, they undergo similar cosmetic enhancements to look attractive, as well. Francis (2013) contends that Korean pop music is a global phenomenon. The faces of the stars are almost flawless characterized with big eyes, slim jaw lines and high noses. Such physical features are not naturally Korean. In other words, most K-Pop Stars undergo cosmetic enhancements. Francis (2013) noted that one of the girl groups has their faces changed with the release of a new song. It is suspiring that such sense of perfection has been induced among the Korean youth. Image and beauty play a critical role in the Korean community and almost every person believes that to be attractive is the main cause of being successful either in pop music industry or otherwise (Chang & Thompson, 2014; Francis, 2013). It is quite clear that there is an ideal benchmark of beauty in South Korea. Apparently, the beauty is encapsulated by either the Western definition of beauty or the beauty defined by the K-Pop celebrities. Therefore, as the phenomenon continues to increase cosmetic enhancement will also grow.
Discussion of the Findings
The primary resource used for current paper was ISAPS Global statistics because the institute surveys plastic surgeons globally and provides data about the type of cosmetic (aesthetic) procedure performed annually. Additionally, as of the writing, ISAPS was the only entity that published global data on plastic surgery. From the 2013 statistical report by International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS), it is apparent that Western democracies have a great influence on other countries. For example, the first five countries topping the list of total face and head procedures include Brazil, the USA, Mexico, Germany and Colombia (ISAPS, 2014). Inferring from such observations, it is arguable that the research data proves the first hypothesis that the present trend of plastic surgery in South Korea is influenced by Western culture.
The oppressive demand and pressures on Korean women to look like Western supermodels is attributed to the Western definition of beauty as portrayed in media (Sang-Hun, 2011; Zinn, 2013). Additionally, the ISAPS survey report highlighted that South Korea was in position six (5.1%) in terms of the number of global plastic surgeons. It would mean that there is a high demand for plastic surgeries or the industry is paying highly. Similarly, the availability and demand for plastic surgeons may be augmented by growing number of health tourists. South Korea receives more than 100,000 medical tourists annually. Outstandingly, majority of the medical tourist seek high-quality plastic surgery (Asian Plastic Surgery Guide, 2009; ISAPS, 2014). Further, the exodus of people to South Korea for cosmetic enhancement is attributed to the fact that it is relatively cheaper to undergo the same procedure in South Korea than in the United States. As illustrated in the literature review above, a procedure that cost $8,000 in the United States cost about $4,000 in South Korea. It is almost half the cost in the United States. In line with RYOT (2014), technological developments and innovations in the field of cosmetic surgeries augment the surge in the numbers of medical tourists, as well as local plastic surgeries. Technological developments result in safer and cheaper procedures, hence, increase the number of plastic surgeries in South Korea. Writing from the perspective of medical tourists visiting Korea, and consistent with the 2014 Korea Plastic Surgery Statistics (Korean plastic surgery statistics, 2014), the projected annual growth rate of 30% indicates that there is an increasing interest in Korean plastic surgeons’ expertise in aesthetic or cosmetic surgery. With the exception of China, South Korea is also projected to be one of the vibrant medical tourism destinations in Asia. As noted in the case of JK Plastic Surgery Center (Chang & Thompson, 2014), clinics continue to extend their services to improve customer experience with an aim of sustaining their competitive advantages.
Risks and Post-Surgery Complications
There is an old saying: “if it is broken fix it.” In spite of some successful plastic surgeries, the saying may not be applies in some scenarios. According to “South Korean reporter ruins her face with plastic surgery” (2014), a South Korean reporter ruined her face after a facial cosmetic enhancement. The reporter underwent the sensitive jaw surgery with the hope of achieving a better look.
Instead of a heart-shaped face, she received undesirable pointy chin. In eastern Asia, particularly South Korea, a heart-shaped face is perceived as a symbol of beauty alongside with big eyes and high-bridged nose (South Korean reporter ruins her face with plastic surgery, 2014). Consequently, the result of plastic surgery is completely dependent on surgeons. Other side effects of plastic surgery include blood clots, allergic reaction to the medication used and blocked respiratory system due to the used anesthesia (Ray, 2013). Additionally, plastic surgery may cause bleeding and bruising. Further, nerve damage may occur. It is common for breast augmentation procedures. Serious and bad infections are prone in open areas of the skin. Depending on the patient’s genetic formation, some patients are more likely to have bad scars after plastic surgery. Despite this, most plastic surgeons take such factors into consideration. Further, best practice and safety steps are taken to minimize infection because there is a probability that the opened skin can be infected. In the event that excess blood loss occurs, blood transfusion may be required. According to Ray (2013), blood clots emerge due to extended periods of surgery. However, mobility after the procedure always minimizes the risk. For patients with high expectations about their cosmetic procedures, failed surgeries result in negative emotional effects (Ray, 2013). For example, patients with medical complications after the procedure experience depression, anger towards doctors and isolation. The bigger the cosmetic enhancement is, the higher the risk of medical complications or loss of facial identity.
Besides the medical issues, such transformative processes also create an immigration problem. The enhancements can make a person almost unrecognizable to the extent that foreign patients attempting to return to their native countries after the surgeries face troubles with the immigration through passport control. After the surgery, the photos of the patients before and after do not look alike (RYOT, 2014; Jay, 2013). In most scenarios, women look differently because they reshape their noses, remove excess skins in their eyelids and slim their jaw lines. People considering cosmetic enhancements must factor in the time for healing.
Healing time varies from one patient to the other, as well as based on the magnitude or type of the procedure. It implies that plastic surgery can be expensive in terms of time. Further, most medical policies do not cover elective plastic surgery procedures.
From an economic point of view, the money used for plastic surgeries can be invested in other ventures if improving appearance does not help the patient to obtain a promotion or employment.
Emerging Trends and the Future Plastic Surgery Market
Despite such notion, the author of The Birth of Korean Cool, Euny Hong contends that South Korean women are not necessarily seeking to look more Western (CBC, 2014). At the same time, reverse plastic surgery is documented as the growing new trend in South Korea. It is exemplified by Back to my Face reality show in which contestants that had undergone plastic surgery return to some form of pre-plastic surgery look (CBC, 2014). Based on the present consumer behavior and patterns in the South Korean plastic surgery market, it is projected that the demand for more cosmetic procedures, both surgical and non-surgical would continue to grow. In 2012, it was estimated that 20% of women in Seoul had undergone a cosmetic surgery (Whitelocks, 2012). In the same context, South Korea was leading in the global list of plastic surgery procedures. Additionally, women between the ages of 15 and 49 admitted to have undergone a cosmetic procedure. The other emerging trend is the increase in number of South Korean boys who outspend on cosmetic enhancement more than any other men in other parts of the world. Currently, South Korea has surfaced as a technological hub in terms of plastic surgery. South Korea has the highest number of cosmetic surgeries per capita. In agreement with the 2014 South Korea Plastic Surgery Statistics, the number of tourists visiting Korea, specifically for cosmetic procedures will grow and surpass the projected 400,000 mark by 2015. It would be as result of increased awareness and recommendation from the successful patients. Moreover, the growing number of surgeons is expected to ease the cost of medical expenses and differentiation strategies are likely to characterize most clinics so that to create and sustain their competitive advantage.
From an economic point of view and in recognition of the fact that the plastic surgery industry is not only competitive, but also sensitive, plastic surgery clinics would have no option of reducing their medical fee to increase sales without compromising quality.
The industry will also face the threat of new entrants due to the fact that the market is open and as of current writing there were no tangible barriers for new entrants. Further, as more people become aware of South Korea as an affordable and high-class destination for cosmetic surgery, the bargaining power of service seekers will increase. In others words, cosmetic surgery may be cheaper than it was at the time of performing current research. The Korean medical tourism industry is projected to improve the country’s economy through taxation and growth of foreign market. As people move to South Korea for medical reasons, they would probably buy goods and procure services different from that of plastic surgery. To that end, local traders benefit and the economy grows. With the increasing desire to emulate Western idols or celebrities, plastic surgeons are expected to devise a new range of innovative surgical procedures to suit an array of needs from young women. In spite of the vibrant growth in the industry, safety fears may stifle South Koreas fast-growing market for medical industry, in reference to China as a major competitor. As much as most Asian countries desire the Korean or the K-Pop Stars look, it is projected that the failing procedures will trigger a series of articles, TV shows or new headlines criticizing plastic surgery or creating awareness of the flourishing trend. Western magazines and TV shows will also continue to feature the trends in Korean plastic surgery industry. As of consequence, foreigners will continue to invest huge amounts of money in cosmetic enhancements in Korea.
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Based on the variation in the outcomes of similar plastic surgery procedures, mindfulness-based psychological counseling will be incorporated in post-plastic surgery sessions. Additionally, more pre-screening will be needed to identity patients with prior incidents of depression and anxiety disorders. Such efforts would be crucial addressing post-surgical effects experienced by some patients. Anyway, it is possible that within the next decade South Korea will become the core of medical tourism in Asia.
From the literature, illustrations and discussion above, it is apparent that the South Korean plastic industry will continue growing rapidly. To some extent, the industry is highly influenced by the media portrayal of the Western looks as the perfect look. Further, the emergence and growth of the Korean pop music industry plays a role in supporting the drastic rise in local cosmetic enhancements. Nowadays, women across the globe tend to think that make-up is not enough for them. It translates to seeking beauty through any other means. For Korean women, the most immediate remedy for attractiveness is plastic surgery, which is largely done due to the peer pressure. Influenced by the media, most Korean youth aim at conveying perfection. In South Korea, physical perception is perceived as a way of improving the quality of life, including marriage and job prospects. It is not just South Korean women that undergo cosmetic enhancement, but also men who take part in such processes. Moreover, non-Koreans are increasingly becoming the clients of South Korean plastic surgeons. Such clients come from China, the Middle East, Japan and Africa. Despite the improving attitudes towards plastic surgery, the situation can moderate in the future as the Korean society becomes more diverse. The impact of Western media and the K-Pop Star ID definitely debatable. However, considering the costs and risk involved in cosmetic enhancements, the impact of such phenomenon is nor desirable. In that line, future studies should consider investigating methods of fixing such issues so that to address the effect of plastic surgery from a holistic perspective. In summary, the missing link among Korean youth is the definition of inner beauty and cultural identity. It is the absence of emphasis on cultural values and inner beauty and the availability and affordability of plastic surgery that motivates young Koreans to undergo cosmetic enhancement.