Mental health concerns rise with cosmetic surgery boom - Korea Times

"This is the nose you'll see most if you go clubbing these days," said Sumi Lee, a university student in Seoul. She gestured to an ad for a posh plastic surgery clinic, showcasing "before and after" images of a rhinoplasty patient. 

"I call it the Gangnam nose, and half of my friends have it. If I could afford it, I'd get it too."

Lee isn't alone. A country renowned for its dramas, music and high tech culture is swiftly becoming famous for surgically altered faces. The International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery reported that Korea has the second highest rate of plastic surgery procedures per capita in the world after Hungary. 

A survey conducted by the Seoul city government reported over 50 percent of women under the age of 30 went under the knife in 2011, and 31.5 percent of participants over the age of 15 expressed intentions of having surgery in the future.

Last year, the Ministry of Education distributed a booklet aimed at educating students about "plastic surgery syndrome," or the unhealthy preoccupation with surgery.

"It isn't uncommon for students to return from vacation with a new nose or double-lidded eyes," says Sheri Grant, a high school teacher in Seoul. "I had one girl come back that I didn't even recognize; she had her entire face made over."

What had inspired this penchant for shape-shifting in a nation where traditional Confucian teachings depict the body as "a cherished ancestral inheritance"?

From an evolutionary perspective, women's desire for beauty is instinctual, so understanding it is helpful in distinguishing the "healthy" from the "unhealthy."

Reports by prominent Korean match-making services reveal that marriage-seeking women prioritize the following attributes in descending order: Economic capacity/occupation, personality, family background, appearance. 

Men, however, answered similar surveys in the following order: Beauty, personality, economic capacity/occupation, family background. 

The results show that for women, a good job out-ranks a handsome face. But for men, beauty comes before brains and bucks.

Another contributing factor might be the nature of the Korean cosmetic industry itself, which is especially attractive to ambitious medical students. Unlike the situation in fields such as internal medicine or general surgery, cosmetic procedures are not regulated by the government, nor are they covered by national insurance. 

This allows doctors to negotiate, dole out discounts, or raise prices in accordance with fame. Not surprisingly, savvy advertising is prominent in subway stations, conventional media, and most notably, through the wide eyes and high bridged noses of the hottest celebs. 

Healthy vs. unhealthy 

At what point is surgery unhealthy?

The difference between healthy and unhealthy plastic surgery can be vague, and is rife with controversy. 

There is no legal requirement for surgeons to demand psychological screening for patients, though parental permission is required for those less than 18 years of age. 

Surgery that is considered healthy are those in which we can understand the motivation of the patient to get the surgery from a common sense standpoint, the cost of the surgery does not exceed economic capacity, the patient does not seek excessive or repeated surgery, the patient is satisfied with results, and that leads to a rise in self esteem.

The most extreme disorder related to appearance is body dysmorphic disorder, a condition marked by a delusional level of concern about a physical trait. Interestingly, reports have shown that one third of rhinoplasty patients suffer from the condition. In 2007, a U.S. study showed that women who get cosmetic breast implants are nearly three times as likely to commit suicide as other women, and had a tripled risk of death from drug and alcohol abuse.

Although there is no arguing that successful 'nipping and tucking' has bolstered many careers, boosted confidence, or combated unwanted genetics, there are those who wish that the adage "it's what's inside that counts" could be more prominent in today's society.

"I don't know if I agree with plastic surgery, really," says Grant. "The girl who had her face made over became a completely different person. She went from being the shy kid to the most popular kid in class. She did, however, say that she went through excruciating pain, and it cost her parents a fortune. I hope it was worth it."

Kelly Frances is a guest columnist from Ontario, Canada, and is currently living in Seoul. She welcomes topic suggestions from readers and can be reached at Park Jin-seng is a psychiatrist and psychotherapist who specializes in family therapy.


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