Why are South Koreans getting significantly bigger

So-yeong had plastic surgery from his father when he graduated from high school. You should have a second crease in the eyelid so that the eyes appear larger. In South Korea this is a typical graduation gift. But So-yeong, who is not really called that, declined the gift. The father was horrified: it would improve her job opportunities.

South Korea is now the Mecca for plastic surgery. A quarter of all interventions worldwide are carried out here. There are more than 500 clinics in Seoul alone. With 650,000 operations annually, around half of them on Koreans and the other half on - mostly female - tourists, the industry has a turnover of 4.5 billion euros. A trend that is strongly supported by the government in Seoul. President Park Geun Hye has announced that VAT on cosmetic surgery for foreign women will be abolished from next year.

There are still streets in Seoul that are dominated by the wholesalers of a single branch. There is a shoe street, a furniture district, a street with Russia dealers and Nonhyeon Street in the luxury Gangnam district. One beauty clinic follows the next. They are called "Grand", "Reborn", "Euro" or "VIP". Their entrance halls are made of glass and fake marble, and many look like the reception areas of luxury hotels or private banks.

In some school classes, 80 percent of girls have their eyelids corrected

At the reception of the BK-Klinik - BK stands for "Beauty Korea" -, which resides in a slim high-rise made of blue glass, you can touch a woman's breast. Man should even. Doesn't the silicone implant feel real? Or even better? The woman, a life-size torso, is an exhibit in the "Museum of Plastic Surgery" at the BK Clinic. The exhibition connects the Bolognese doctor Gaspare Tagliacozzi, the founder of plastic surgery, with what is happening in Seoul today. From the 16th to the 21st century.

Plastic surgeons came to Korea with the Korean War. The chief of US naval surgery, Ralph Millard, operated on mutilated war victims to restore their bodies as far as possible. Until Korean women asked him to operate their eyelids to make them look more western. The operation quickly became popular, "especially among Korean prostitutes who wanted to lure American G.I.s," wrote Millard in 1955. Asiatic eyes underlined "the stoic and unemotional of the Orientals," he said. But with him, Korea became "a plastic surgeon's paradise".

Big eyes are considered beautiful in Asia. The second fold of the eyelid is by far the most common surgery currently. "More harmless than a visit to the dentist," said Hyun-hee, a student. "It was all over in half an hour. I don't even think about it anymore." You don't even talk about it being normal. In some high school graduation classes, 80 percent of girls have their eyelids corrected. Even in the provinces. The fashion is even spilling over to North Korea.

Until recently, the BK Clinic Museum also displayed a jar of bone chips that had been scraped off women's mandibles to make the face appear narrower and more V-shaped and the head smaller. This is also a popular intervention. The bones have disappeared, the staff don't know why. The convalescence after slimming the jaw takes a long time and is painful, the patient is not allowed to eat anything solid, and some of the lower half of the face becomes less sensible. The clinics' advertising, on the other hand, portrays the interventions as normal and painless as applying makeup. Bone chips don't fit there. In addition to the eyes, their position, and the jaw, Korean women like to have their nose, cheekbones and forehead corrected. And remove bags under the eyes. Older people have Botox injected into the subcutaneous tissue of their face, which makes their features smoother. Liposuction and breast modeling are also popular. Around 15 percent of customers are men.

Why do Koreans go under the knife for their appearance more often than women from other nations, even though newspapers keep writing that surgeons are insufficiently trained? There are many reports of botched operations, women who have been disfigured. The industry is considered to be little regulated.

Do double eyelids make you happy? He doesn't think so, says psychologist Suh Eun-kook, director of the Happiness and Cultural Psychology Laboratory at Yonsei University. "In the moment of change maybe, but not in the long run." Of course, all those who have a clear indication for a correction, for example as a result of an accident, are excluded from this.

In East Asia, the appearance is more important than in the West, as Suh's research shows. He had students in Korea and the United States assess job applications and asked them what their criteria were: Koreans chose based on the photos, Americans based on the texts. It should therefore be true that cosmetic surgery improves job opportunities in Korea. And the marriage prospects too.

Koreans' obsession with looks older than plastic surgery, Suh said. It affects men as well as women, and - this amazes him most - also the elderly. It's less about beauty than about competition. In the very competitive, "I would almost say: jealous" society, everyone wants to have what others have. Double eyelids would be as important as a new car or an iPhone. "You definitely don't want to miss out," says Suh. This also explains why Koreans accept innovations faster than other nations.

It's about competition, says the professor. Everyone wants what the other has

The advertising of the beauty clinics takes advantage of this, it turns the operations into a kind of hairdresser visit. A matter of course for everyone. Because people in Korea also believe that with enough effort almost anything can be achieved and those who do not make an effort are their own fault, many feel it is almost a duty to "improve" their appearance surgically, says the professor.

The activities of the branch now extend far beyond the borders. The cosmetics industry advertises in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore with package tours to Seoul, including OP. The tourism industry also benefits from this. The tour guide becomes a beauty advisor. And because a vacation on Korea's holiday island Jeju is more pleasant than in Seoul, the clinics have branches there.

When people in Europe or the USA go to the cosmetic surgeon, they usually have specific requests. For example, you might want a smaller or larger nose. The clinics have photo books ready for this, with before-and-after views. Most Koreans, on the other hand, come with pictures of a movie star: This is what they want to look like.

But does all of this contribute to the nation's wellbeing? The more prosperous a society, the happier it is, this trend is observed around the world, says Suh. "Only the collective societies of East Asia are relatively unhappy in terms of their standard of living." This applies not only to Korea, but also to Japan and Singapore. In Scandinavia, on the other hand, people are particularly satisfied. Suh explains this with the great individual freedom in the north. He finds the idea that the fulfillment of collective expectations could compensate for freedom "naive".

It is all the more paradoxical that plastic surgery sells Koreans individuality, but models faces similar to everyone. Are So-yeong's friends happier today after their operations? "No, some regret it, others want more."