...claudine ko

"A Woman’s Ugliness Cannot Be Forgiven"
Jane, August 2002

So women like Heh-Jin get their cheekbones chiseled narrower, their eyelids sliced open and their legs broken and stretched. Claudine Ko freaks out in South Korea.

"I've been stressed out a lot about my legs," Heh-jin Kang, 22, says in halting English. She's sitting on the edge of the operating table, her perfectly manicured fingers holding together the opening of her pink robe. "Even in the summer when it's hot, I only wear long pants," she says. "I never wear skirts, except with long boots. I want to wear pretty skirts in my youth. I know it sounds a little stupid, but to be beautiful is a woman's instinctive desire."

     A few minutes later, she's knocked out and flipped on her stomach, and her legs are drenched in rust-colored iodine solution. Dr. In-suck Suh slices into the back of her knee and pulls apart the skin with a pair of metal tongs. It makes a squishy noise. Next, he uses a stimulator rod to isolate the nerves. Heh-jin's legs kick up slightly, and the muscles twitch hard. He then digs around with tweezers and scissors for a specific nerve that, when severed, will cause the connecting muscle to weaken and atrophy. "It's usually not this hard to find.," he says after a while. So, he sticks his fingers past the fleshy layers of red and yellow, pokes around and finally gets it. After a couple snips, he places a two-centimeter-long segment on the operating tray. It looks like an egg noodle.

      Dr. Suh, who does this every day in his Seoul clinic, repeats the process on the other leg. The anesthesiologist, who's chewing gum while sitting by Heh-jin's head with some kind of a pump in his hand, answers his cell phone and talks briefly. After she's sewn back up, Heh-jin will be able to walk and run--it'll just be hard for her to tear up a flight of stairs at first. But within three months, she will have visible calf reduction and fall right in with the roughly 30 percent of Korean women in their twenties who have been morphed by cosmetic surgery, ranging from cheek and jawbone shaving to eye slicing and muscle removal.

It started before I even got on the plane in New York, when I caught myself staring at the Korean Airlines clerk's eye job. See, I was never one of those Asian chicks who grew up wanting to be white. And I like to eat, I like having an ass. I've never felt the need to change my looks from straight-up milk-and-rice-fed Chinese girl, not even with makeup. But by my second afternoon in super-trendy Seoul, I begin to feel the despicable burden of self-doubt build inside me. I'm too embarrassed to shop for clothes, since everything looks tailored to a size I haven't fit into since junior high, and I easily outweigh every woman I pass in that big-American-girl-way. People stare at me. Or maybe I'm just being paranoid.

      "I had a complex about the size of my face," Yong-sook, 23, tells me a few nights later at an austere restaurant called Soho in a downtown Seoul neighborhood. "It was too big. Others didn't really think so, but I'd cry thinking about it." Yong-sook had her first "modification" five years ago when she got her eyes done--the doctor cut slivers of skin above them, creating double lids that made her eyes look bigger and more Western. The procedure is so popular in Asia these days that it's practically the norm. "It was easy--just a small step to looking better," she says with a giggle.

      Most cosmetic surgeries happen in Apkujongdong, an upscale district my Korean-American friends refer to as "plastic surgery valley." It has big, clean streets lined with clusters of multilevel office buildings, fancy department stores and high-end boutiques like Prada, Gucci and Louis Vuitton. And above the storefronts are signs for surgical clinics. There's at least one in every building. Another surprising observation: For a city as crowded as Seoul, there's a pronounced lack of freaks, combined with an overabundance of dorky footwear--lots of patent-leather princess-type flats with bows on top.

      There's a very strong culture of conformity in Korea and Japan," says "facial-contouring specialist" Dr. Jin-hyung Kim over cups of tea in his Apkujongdong office. "Like, everyone should go to university or follow certain rules. Appearance is very important. Average Americans don't care as much about how they look--they don't live in a place where people are so close. And there's not much mobility in Korea, so people are always looking at each other."

      Maybe that's why two months ago, Yong-sook went in for chin and cheekbone reductions with a different doctor. That seven hour procedure involved him going in through her mouth with an electric saw and shaving down surfaces of her skull. It is widely considered the most dangerous move of them all and resulted in the death of a Korean high school student early last year.

      "My consultation lasted five minutes. All the doctor said was, 'It'll look better,'" Yong-sook says softly. She wears clear lip gloss and a black turtleneck, and has a subtle, sophisticated look that many here seem to want. "All the other stuff I learned from friends and reading books. I fantasized about having a smaller face, so I really didn't think about the actual surgery. I had no idea what condition I'd be in. It hurt so much I thought I was going to die. There was a lot of swelling, so my face looked bigger. All kinds of things were coming out of my mouth: blood, phlegm. My throat was all clogged up. I pretended it didn't hurt as much--I didn't want to worry or disappoint my parents. "It takes six months for everything to heal," Yong-sook says, her skin smooth and free of scars. "There's no pain now, but I'm still feeling numb. My doctor says it'll be perfect in about a year."

      It's as if Yong-sook entered a witness-protection program: She altered her face, avoided her friends, hid at home and changed jobs just so no one would know. "I wouldn't do it again," she says after a pause. "I don't want to meet new people for a while. I'm depressed. I gained weight--that's inevitable after surgery. But I don't think it was a failure. I'll do whatever it takes to become more beautiful." I recall how one doctor told me he tries to dissuade patients with low self-esteem from going under the knife. "Those people will never be happy," he said. "They need therapy, not surgery.  Yong-sook shows me "before" photos. Her face looks a lot bigger now. I'm guessing it's the weight gain as I watch her pick apart the bloated pie crust of her seafood dish.

It's 4 a.m. I'm jet-lagged, crouched on my hotel bed, compulsively eating peanut M&Ms while watching the milky-complexioned, 100-pound pop queens of Asian music television. They're all young and skinny with cute little heads, big eyes and freakishly clear skin. There are no plump-buttocked J.Lo's, snaggletoothed Jewels or even forty-something Madonnas. I regret packing only one "nice" sweater and make a mental note to wear lipstick the rest of the week. I keep watching. I don't understand the lyrics, just that the plots often involve a love scenario where the guy is a gangster, motorcycle rider or boxer who smokes and isn't nearly as attractive as his lady. She generally ends up getting killed in some horrible accident.

      "Plastic surgery--Korean women is number one." I'm sitting across from the bespectacled Dr. B.K. Kim, one of the best-known plastic surgeons in Seoul. With his face plastered on ads everywhere, from subway stations to magazines, and a convenient office location next to a happening Starbucks near Apkujongdong, he is like the Ronald McDonald of his field. Eyelid jobs--performed hundreds of times a week at his clinic--can be done in twenty minutes. Upstairs, in his brightly lit office, Dr. Kim seems charmed to practice his English--something people take so seriously here that they've been known to get that thing under their tongues severed, hoping it will help with pronunciation. He gives me a breakdown of how the biz developed in the 1950s with post-World War II reconstructive surgery, then boomed in the late '80s and early '90s because of the hot economy.

      In the past five years, Seoul has become a big draw for Japanese and Asian-American women looking for high-quality surgery for about a third of what they'd pay at home. Other delicious ops include slitting the inner corners of the eyes to enlarge them, removing part of the calf muscles to slim legs, as well as breaking shins and inserting pins into the cracks to increase height by cranking them apart. But at the moment, I'm still suffering from the 14-hour time change and have trouble concentrating on Dr. Kim's words. I can't help but zone in on these tiny red spots on his glasses. After a few minutes, I decide that those are, indeed, flecks of blood.

      "We don't talk about how women look, but how they should look," my translator, Jung-min, tells me later in my hotel's lobby. "Korean men freely comment on our looks, even at the workplace. And many Korean women want careers, but it's very rare to meet a girl who has one." She says this because of Korea's continuing patriarchy. "Usually, you have to find a man and get married."

      Jung-min, 32, has a degree from a top-ranked university, but says," "That doesn't guarantee you anything. Most jobs offered to female grads are secretarial positions. My name sounds male, so I got a lot of invites from companies. When I arrived, they were surprised I was a woman, so I didn't even get the interview. The discrimination is so prevalent, it's difficult to fight. I heard it's illegal in the U.S. to attach your photo to a résumé. Here it's very common."

      "As far as getting a job, appearance plays a big part," Mi-hyun Lee, a 22-year-old plastic surgery-free secretary, tells me. It's five days later, and we're trying to talk over the din of prefab pop music in a café. "If you want to be a secretary or stewardess, there's a 165-centimeter [5-foot-4] height requirement. It's ludicrous. Everyone thinks girls have to be pretty to succeed. It's wanting to be someone else."

      Throughout the week, I've asked doctors for consultations. They all make the same general recommendations (except for Dr. Suh, who sensitively--or press-savvily--says I don't need anything done). As one doctor says, "How about making your nose more slim in the tibial area. Your face shows a slender appearance, but the tip of your nose is wide so it's not harmonious. Actually, you have some asymmetry in your eyelids. Actually, you would look much more beautiful if you had a more prominent fold in your right eye."

      Actually, why don't you shove it up your ass.

I scrutinize my face in the hotel mirror, then e-mail my mom, hoping for affirmation.Like a lot of Chinese mothers, mine has been very blunt in her dedication to my academic, personal and career success. She denies it all now, but family members will vouch for the time she chased me around the kitchen with a pair of scissors to give me a proper haircut/told me if I didn't watch myweight I'd soon have to buy two plane tickets to fit in the seats/offered  me $200 to drop 20 pounds/etc. She is very intrigued by the consultations, asking how long it would take, recovery time, cost. "I'm so glad you made this trip. You've learned that appearance is one of the most important things to almost all women, not only Korean women," she replies. She denies she said this, too, but I have the e-mail to prove it. I feel enraged and crazy.

      When it comes to trends, Korea has been what some call a peripheral culture, following the lead of Japan, which is famous for co-opting, flipping and even improving Western fads. And now former wallflower Seoul is gaining the rep of the "new Tokyo," pushing style to the hilt.

      "These days, Western features make you look more distinctive," Wee-in Kang, 24, says. We are in the Middle Eastern fast-food joint she co-owns, near Ehwa Women's University, talking over that ubiquitous gay disco pop again. Wee-in wears a baseball cap over bleached-out hair, gold-orange lipstick and a thick layer of makeup. "People kept saying my features looked too sharp, that if I changed my eye and nose shape, my look would be softer. Drew Barrymore, Angelina Jolie--they look sexy and cute."

      I ask Wee-in what she considers the Korean standard of beauty, and like most of the girls I've already talked to, she answers, without hesitation: "Forehead should stand out. Nose should be high with a straight line. Eyes should be large. Lips should be a little thick and should have good color without lipstick. Skin should be fair, transparent. Face size should be really small. What Korean women should want is to look as natural as possible--which doesn't necessarily mean something you're born with. More like a 'natural' image.

      "The first time, in junior high, when I brought up the idea of surgery, my parents just said no," Wee-in continues. "But after college, many magazines and TV shows covered it and treated it as popular culture, so my parents didn't say anything." Her father, like more and more Korean men these days, even joined her during her eye and nose procedures so he could get his own nose job.

      Earlier, on our way to meet Wee-in, Jung-min had pointed out a skin-whitener ad in the subway featuring actress Nam-ju Kim. Like virtually every Korean celebrity, she's had extensive surgery to look more like a Hollywood star. Only she's one of the few to publicly admit it, opening the floodgates in Korea's celeb-crazed culture. "People used to never tell," Jung-min says. "Now, stars are more open about it--it's not a sin to have it done."

      At the end of the interview, Wee-in asks, "Am I pretty by American standards?" I suddenly wonder: If cosmetic surgery were as cheap and accessible in the U.S., where less than 3 percent of women have had work done, would we be overrun with Jennifer Aniston clones?

There's a joke in Korea that goes, "You marry a girl because she's pretty. Then you have a baby, and it looks nothing like the mom." There's also a saying, "A woman's past can be forgiven, but her ugliness cannot." After a week in Seoul, I notice that I am fixated on the ding on my right eyelid, catching glimpses of my reflection around the city. The thought of slapping my cash down crosses my mind more than a few times, but I always snap out of it, mortified at having even considered it. I realize things aren't perfect in the U.S.--there's still a long way to go for women and minorities--but at least my physical "imperfections" won't cost me a job (theoretically, that is).

      A couple of hours after her surgery, Heh-jin's still resting in the recovery room. While I wait for her to come around, I consider what one surgeon told me--if the doctor cuts the wrong nerve, the leg could go lame. He also talked about the time that he didn't make an exact cut and one leg stayed big. Six months later, he had to reoperate. Another doctor tells me there's also a chance that the other leg muscles will hypertrophy, or overgrow. Dr. Suh developed the surgery in 1993 after a patient's request--her legs outsized her hubby's. He explains that the severed nerve has only supplementary abilities, so it doesn't interfere with the leg's functionality.

      Heh-jin wakes up. I ask her how she feels. "It's like after I walk too much, my muscles feel very tense," she says. Dr. Suh has her stand up and take a few steps, which she does with relative ease. He says that she'll be able to walk out of the office and go back home in another hour. I ask her to sign a photo release. She refuses to do it until her boyfriend, who's been in the waiting room for the length of the surgery, gets back from lunch. "It's important for me to ask him if it's okay first," she says. They've only been dating for six months.

      I ask Dr. Suh if he thinks Heh-jin's legs were big. "The average size is 34-centimeters circumference," he says. "Hers are 36 centimeters." Anything under 32 is considered skinny, and above 37 is big. Out of curiosity, I ask him to measure mine; they're 40, and can I just say, I've never had a man respond to my legs with so much anticipatory mirth and excitement. "I think you need a gastrocnemius reduction," he exclaims, meaning Heh-jin's procedure. I laugh and say, "No way." But honestly, part of me is crushed. Now I know it's time to get on home.