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By some counts, 1 in 3 South Korean women over the age of 18 has had cosmetic surgery. But images that promote plastic surgery are starting to spark some backlash in the capital, Seoul. NPR's Elise Hu has the story.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: In Seoul's Gangnam district, there's an area known as the Improvement Quarter. Above ground are 10-story buildings where plastic surgery clinics are on every floor. Women walk up and down the sidewalk with bandages on their faces and nose guards on, fresh from new facial fix ups. And below ground, in the subway stations, you can't look in any direction without finding a floor to ceiling image of a woman's face staring back at you advertising cosmetic surgery.
I'm with our interpreter, Seyun (ph). So Seyun, this woman is staring at me, and then she appears to be saying something in Hangul. What is she saying?
SEYUN: All the pretty girls know.
HU: All the pretty girls know about BK Plastic Surgery. OK. Now I have two women staring at me. And what is the promise of this ad?
SEYUN: Harmony of eyes, nose and facial line.
HU: Harmony. OK. And then behind us is another one, called, MVP Plastic Surgery. And what does MVP sell here?
SEYUN: Touch-up surgeries are MVP Plastic Surgery Clinic.
HU: So if you're not pleased with the first job, you go to MVP to make it even better?
Making yourself prettier is a way of life in South Korea.
HEATHER WILLOUGHBY: It's not even a question, a moral question, is it good, is it bad? It simply is.
HU: Heather Willoughby, a women in cultural studies professor at Seoul's Ewha University, has lived here for nearly 15 years.
WILLOUGHBY: Much of the ideal is industrialized. It's being created by the beauty industry, by K-pop, by perhaps even the government, in what they're selling to the rest of the world as the ideal Korean beauty.
HU: But there are signs that all the signs selling surgeries are no longer so welcome. The Seoul Metro is beginning a ban on cosmetic surgery ads in the subway system. It comes in response to a rising level of complaints from riders. Bora Ki (ph), who rushes past these ads every day, says they're the worst.
BORA KI: I think they kind of seem horrible (laughter).
HU: Horrible? Why?
KI: Because you guys can see, all of these women look the same. So I think it's not positive (laughter).
HU: The sameness, she mentions, of the women in the ads is striking. Willoughby says it reflects the one standard beauty ideal that's prized here - ivory-white skin, big, round eyes with the Western-looking double eyelid and a V-line jaw.
WILLOUGHBY: Idealized beauty, I think, is very strong. There's just a sense that to conform, to be part of that norm, that you have to look a certain way, you act a certain way.
HU: Another subway rider, Kim Sook-in (ph), who makes her living as a porcelain artist, doesn't question cosmetic surgery or the prolific ads promoting it.
KIM SOOK-IN: (Through interpreter) It's every woman's desire to become prettier so I think it's a good thing.
HU: Despite some disagreement among South Koreans, Willoughby says Seoulites could stand to see fewer reminders about how much looks matter.
WILLOUGHBY: When young girls in particular see this over and over and over, they subconsciously are told they have to be a certain way. So seeing less of it, or seeing a greater diversity, is a much better and much healthier thing.
HU: These ads are on their way out, but not all that soon. The Metro says it doesn't expect to phase out all the subways' gleaming plastic surgery promotions until 2022. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul.
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