Cutting Edge

So. Let’s talk about your face.

Sure, it props up your glasses ok, but is it going to get you a good job in an investment bank? It’s pretty competitive out there. Don’t you think a little shaping might give you an edge? We could shave down that jaw bone—no, sorry, we’d have to break both the upper and lower, but you’ll have the cutest little chin by the time we’re done. Redoing those teeth would help a lot too. Just pop ‘em out and put in implants. Ok, so maybe you won’t be able to eat for a few weeks. But you could stand to lose a few pounds anyway, am I right?

Back in the United States, ‘price of beauty’ generally refers to the blisters brought on by a great pair of shoes. Here in South Korea, you can calculate an actual monetary amount—the cost of plastic surgery. Jaw reshaping, eyelid folding, nose reshaping, tooth replacements, you name it. I’ve even heard of a leg-lengthening procedure that puts the patient out of commission for six months (supposedly popular among men—crazy, crazy men). The popularity of these procedures is undeniable; South Korea leads the world in plastic surgery per capita.

There are several supposed reasons behind the boom in face sculpting, but the most often repeated is to gain an edge in a competitive market. In a country of highly qualified people, how does one stand out to potential employers? It’s not enough to have fabulous grades and fabulous clothes—everyone else has those too. What’s left but to have the best face? (Rumor has it, this doesn’t hurt your chances of landing a good man either.)

The coveted look is basically Disney Princess: Bambi eyes, a v-shaped chin, and a “high” nose. A high nose is one that sticks out from its owner’s face. That’s right, the women here have surgery to make their noses bigger. I don’t fully understand it, but at least my schnoz finally gets the respect and admiration it deserves.

But since everyone wants the same thing, the net result is a raft of identically gorgeous faces flitting around Seoul. This seems to undermine that memorable edge they were going for. It also occasionally creates moments of sci-fi weirdness, like when the 2013 Miss Korea competition appeared to be populated by clones.*

It’s estimated that 20 percent of women in Seoul have had their faces changed in some way. You can pick them out on a crowded subway—young women with beautiful, mass-produced faces. And sometimes you catch sight of one with her jaw wrapped in gauze, hiding behind Audrey Hepburn sunglasses. It looks excruciating, but I guess that's the price of beauty.