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Plastic surgery boom as Asians seek 'western' look

By Kyung Lah, CNN
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Asians seek surgery to look 'Western'
  • Western concepts of beauty are a booming business in Korea
  • Girls as young as 12 undergo surgery to make their eyes appear rounder
  • Clinics in Seoul are also tapping a growing market of mainland Chinese clients

(CNN) -- Lee Min kyong stretches on the ballet bar in the dance studio. The 12-year old is a little awkward and nervous in front of strangers, until the music begins.

Min-kyong moves to the classical tune, springing easily onto her toes, the very picture of childhood grace and poise. But when the music stops, she falls back into an awkward stance.

She lacks confidence, explains Min-kyong's mother, a problem she hopes will be solved when her pre-teen undergoes plastic surgery, to westernize her eyes.

"If I get the surgery, my eyes will look bigger," explains Min-kyong. Everyone, she says, points out her small eyes. It's why she doesn't think she's a pretty girl. A surgery which cuts a fold into her eyelid to create a double fold will widen her eyes. The effect will also be to give her a slightly more western look.

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"I'm excited. I think I'll look better than I do now," she says shyly, breaking into a small smile.

Her mother, Jang Hyu-hee, says her daughter didn't ask for the surgery.

"I'm having her do it," says Jang, "because I think it'll help her. This is a society where you have to be pretty to get ahead. She's my only daughter."

The definition of pretty, explains their plastic surgeon, is not the standard Asian face, but closer to a Caucasian face. Dr Kim Byung-gun is the head of Seoul, South Korea's biggest plastic surgery clinic, BK DongYang. The clinic is a dozen stories tall, with all of its operating rooms full on the day of Min kyong's surgery.

Dr Kim says his clinic, one of the most successful in a city dubbed the "plastic surgery capital of Asia," performs 100 surgeries a day, ranging from eyelid surgery to nose reshaping to facial contouring.

The Chinese and Korean patients tell me they want to have faces like Americans
--Dr Kim Byung-gun

"They always tell me they don't like their faces," says Dr Kim, explaining what his patients request prior to surgery. "They want to have some westernized, nice faces. They want to have big eyes like westernized people, high profile, nicer noses.

"The Chinese and Korean patients tell me that they want to have faces like Americans. The idea of beauty is more westernized recently. That means the Asian people want to have a little less Asian, more westernized appearance. They don't like big cheekbones or small eyes. They want to have big, bright eyes with slender, nice facial bones."

The surgeries, already popular among Koreans, are booming among newly rich, globally competitive, mainland Chinese, explains Dr Kim. About 30% of his patients are international and of that group, 90% are Chinese. It's why he speaks Mandarin and is partnering with two clinics in China.

"We can see potential huge growth, with the number of patients from China. The Chinese people want to have the westernized face. They don't like their faces. They have big cheekbones, big mandible angle without double fold, and a low profile nose. They are seeking to have westernized face, high profile nose, slender nice cheekbone, and mandible bone."

Dr Kim believes in the global economy, investing in plastic surgery to slightly westernize the face will bring a return on the investment of 100 times, through more confidence, a better job and obtaining a better marital partner.

A global ideal doesn't stop at the face, says dental surgeon Jung Hak. Dr Jung says he's been fighting a trend. Korean mothers who have been bringing in their toddlers to have the muscle under the tongue that connects it to the bottom of the mouth surgically snipped.

The belief, explains Dr Jung, is that it will help a Korean speak English more clearly. People from the Asia Pacific region have difficulty in pronouncing the "L" sound, says Dr Jung. But he calls the surgery, if it's only for pronunciation, misguided, and caused by the hyper-competitive drive in Korea.

"For 10 years, there's been this crazy drive for early English education. Mothers long for their kids to have better English pronunciation," says Dr Jung.

Editor of Giant Robot magazine and Asian American commentator Martin Wong, sees these westernization surgeries as far more insidious than just simple procedures. He sees it as a form of "cultural imperialism."

"They're making a statement about their own race, about where they come from, who they are," says Wong. "They're not doing it on purpose. They're not saying that they think they're inferior looking. They're not saying they're ugly, but that's the message that they're giving nonetheless."

Message or not, for Min-kyong, the 20-minute surgery has been well worth the cost and post-surgical discomfort. A few weeks later, she and her mother email to say she's happy with her new look. And when this 12-year-old stares at herself dancing in the studio, she no longer just sees her eyes. She sees a prettier girl.