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The other side of the cosmetics and plastic surgery discussion

When it comes to the topic of plastic surgery, many people take a “good or bad” value position.  The unofficial consensus is if a lot of it is done to a normal face then it’s “bad,” but if it’s done to restore looks lost due to an accident, then it is generally thought of as “good.”

When it comes to South Korea, much of the press is negative and borders on reporting mostly on the strange and/or weird such as the so-called “tower of jaw bones,” the proliferation of plastic surgery ads in Gangnam-gu, startling before and after shots, or the fact that South Korea undergoes the highest number of plastic surgery procedures per capita in the world.

Korean culture, particularly modern urban culture, puts an extraordinary amount of emphasis on outward appearance.  Clearly, sociological pressures play a decisive role.  Interestingly enough, there is pressure on the supply-side too.  Korean doctors essentially have their incomes capped by price controls mandated by the National Health Insurance plan, so there is pressure to turn to plastic surgery to escape limits on their pay.  All this has created a massive aesthetics-based business of cosmetics companies, skin care clinics and plastic surgeons.

All points well taken from a position that’s attracted a lot of attention, debate and discussion.  IMHO, criticism of Korean sociological pressures and aesthetics culture is not without merit.

However, is it all bad?  If we are to take perhaps subjective values out of the equation and just look at economic impact, then is this all “bad,” per se?  From an economic and business perspective, Korea’s highly demanding aesthetics culture is creating an expertise, technology and infrastructure base that’s become the core of a highly developed cosmetics and plastic surgery industry.  It’s an industry that’s so developed it is attracting considerable overseas demand, particularly in medical tourism and cosmetics.  The big prize is China’s aesthetics market, for which Korea may be uniquely positioned to capture a greater share of than more established players in Japan (i.e. Shinseido), France (i.e. L’Oreal) and the U.S. (i.e. Procter & Gamble).  From a plastic surgery standpoint, Chinese patients now make up the largest percentage of medical tourists visiting Korea.

Tremendous domestic demand and emphasis on quality is creating a “virtuous cycle” of sorts, that’s in turn supporting an industry that’s becoming increasingly more attractive to a lot of non-Koreans.  The demand translates into sales and profits, which creates additional capital to be available to fund more product and service improvements and to keep comparative costs down due to efficient capacity utilization and expansion of economies of scale.  This creates even more non-domestic demand, further expanding and accelerating the cycle and thus giving Korea, Inc. yet another industry to hang its hat on.

  • s melmoth

    Children will no longer look like their parents – who cares? Poor people will become even more separated from the upper class – so what! Meanwhile, any concept of inherent human dignity is trampled underfoot, with nary a concern. Simply focusing on the concepts of “individual choice” and “comparative advantage” without any sense of how individual choices might combine to create a toxic social environment is to relegate humaneness to the dustbin. Our ancestors cringe, but we gain market share!

  • brier

    Not much to add. As it has been said many times before by others the definition of success and beauty in Korea is very narrow. It would be wonderful to see some social consciousness (other wise know as acting with class) going hand in hand with broadening of these definitions to embrace a broader spectrum of beauty and success. Too many crass jokes, too much looking down on others. Perfectly normal people made to feel they got to embrace ‘the manufactured look’, solid characters chided for not gaining employment within narrow set of employers. It drains the soul.

  • Sumo294

    Plastic surgery is way for rich girls to fight against pretty girls from blue collar families. A lot of women feel humiliated that their education, social position, and address is often not enough to fend off opportunistic social climbers. They feel frustrated that their potential mates have been manipulated by scheming pretty faces and especially hate running into these new girls at exclusive apartments and retail boutiques.

  • platethief

    ‘This creates even more non-domestic demand, further expanding and accelerating the cycle and thus giving Korea, Inc. yet another industry to hang its hat on.’

    The hat hangs proudly on an artificial face, it’s success measured by how less recognizable the owner is to themselves. The hat will later be given to a greater artificiality, society having shifted its goals.

    The surgeons and marketing men silently rub their hands in glee.

    It truly is a great achievement, nationally, internationally and for humanity as a whole. Lots to be proud of.

    Go Korea.

  • wangkon936

    I am not discounting the high social costs that this industry may have on the general population. There are other [legal] industries that have high social costs too, that may be just as destructive, if not more, than the cosmetic surgery industry:

    1. Civilian firearms industry- Increased crime rates and incidents of “spree” murders.
    2. Military grade weapons industry- Negative international political effects. Technologies developed here transfer into the civilian firearms industry.
    3. Alcohol industry- Deaths related to mechanical operation while under the influence.
    4. Tobacco industry- Increased health issues that clog the payer system.
    5. Fast food service industry- Increased future rates of diabetes that will clog the healthcare payer system.
    6. Favoring the car industry vs. mass transit- Increased air and noise pollution and dependence on fossil fuels (from sometimes unsavory nations that hate us).

    A society (and nation) picking questionable industries for economic development happens all the time.

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