Crossing south over the Han River, which bisects Seoul, will land you in Gangnam. (Gang means river, nam means south.) A little smaller than the island of Manhattan, it’s the Seoul district that many of us know thanks to Psy. In Gangnam, streets widen to 10 lanes and are lined with glossy multi-story mixed-use towers, almost always with a franchise coffee shop on the ground floor. Apgujeong, perhaps its wealthiest ward, has so many luxury retail and fancy-car showrooms that it resembles a city-size mall. At night, some of the buildings look like elaborate art installations, their façades changing colors every 10 seconds, putting on free light shows for the crawling traffic out front.
Gangnam’s posh Apgujeong and Sinsa wards are also home to an astounding concentration of South Korea’s world-leading plastic-surgery businesses. This has earned it nicknames like the Beauty Belt, the Improvement Quarter, or simply, Plastic Surgery Street (a misnomer—the area reaches far beyond a single street). In 2020, according to the National Tax Service of Korea, there were 1,008 total plastic-surgery clinics in the country. Of them, 538 were located in Seoul, and around 400 of those were in Gangnam. Signs on the sides of Gangnam buildings list different plastic-surgery practices, often occupying every floor of 15-story buildings. Their English names sound like promises: Elevate. Solutions. Reborn. Feel So Good.
Elevate is apt enough. For most of us the only way to even get close to the unachievable ideals set by visual culture is through digital filters or actual fillers—straight up changing the physical body. Korea’s hypercharged industrial and biomedical sectors have responded to the comparative, competitive tendencies amplified by social media by making enhancements to the surface of the body—improving your specs—more affordable, expansive, and attainable than anywhere else.
American plastic surgeons and dermatologists coined the term “Snapchat dysmorphia” to describe young patients who want cosmetic fixes so they look more like they do in filtered selfies. Korean surgeons say they had been doing this for their patients for years, without pathologizing it as a syndrome. As the line between smartphone fantasy and reality blurs, one self tries to become more like the other. The direction is toward the synthetic version.
When it comes to cosmetic surgery in Korea, it’s “not even a moral question [of] is it good, is it bad, it simply is,” said Heather Willoughby, a professor at Korea’s Ewha Womans University. In a time of ever expanding pressure to correct new areas of the body, Seoul is where you can go to get your armpit colorized, your asshole bleached, even your forehead or the back of your skull shaved down to be rounded just as you like. South Korea can correct everybody, down to features you wouldn’t even think anyone would bother altering.
When it comes to cosmetic surgery in Korea, it’s “not even a moral question [of] is it good, is it bad, it simply is.”
It is probably not surprising that the journey to correction often begins on a screen. GangnamUnni, like a rival app, Babitalk, is an elaborate online emporium to shop for cosmetic fixes and get connected to discounts and doctors. It’s like a car-buying app, but for surgery and injections. First you choose an icon of the body part that’s not satisfying to you:
- Hair and hairline
- Waistline and stomach
- Eyebrows and lashes and body hair
- Etc. (though I can’t imagine what isn’t already covered here)
Each area then has subcategories, not unlike what you’ll see in car buying, with all the makes, models, and features of cars. Let’s say you choose face. This part of the body is then broken down into a dizzying kaleidoscope of highly specific regions. They prompt you to complete a sentence: “My problem is …”
- Cheek fat
- Double chin
- Forehead volume
- Too little cheek fat
- More specific cheekbone areas (too high or too low)
- Frenulum length
- Swollen face
- Head shape
- Correcting dents in the back of skull
“None of the above” is not an option, naturally.
On the day I downloaded the app, it was offering a post-Korean SAT promotion for high-school graduates. “Special prices for 18-year-old men and women!” All you have to do is provide proof that you’d taken the high-stakes national exam, the Suneung, on the day it was most recently given.
In late 2016, on a day the air turned a biting cold, as South Korean winters often are, a cab dropped me off in Gangnam at Oracle Clinic, one of Korea’s most well-known dermatology and fix-up destinations.
A few weeks earlier, I had met a fellow Texan named Joyce when we were seated beside each other at a wedding reception. She’d agreed to bring me along to try the facial called an aqua peel, which she more accurately described as pore vacuuming. I hoped the procedure would magically clear and even out my skin tone without a twice-daily multistep routine like Joyce’s.
Oracle is a three-story labyrinth of cosmetic enhancement in a space that used to be a Kinko’s. As a dermatology clinic, it specializes in injectables and laser therapies rather than surgeries. Hundreds of people cycle in and out every day for touch-ups and treatments with the nonchalance of someone stopping by the nail salon for a mani-pedi. While I was there, a manager told me that many of their domestic patients come in weekly, if not more often.
Oracle Clinic’s lobby bustles like a popular restaurant on a Saturday night. At each of the six or seven faux-wood tables in the lobby, a potential client sat across from a businesslike woman, the two of them huddled over forms and pamphlets offering the menu of procedures available. The Oracle staffers are “consultants” or “coordinators” who conduct patient intakes and discuss the suite of treatment options available after you fill out your initial form. As was true of the other beauty clinics I’d later visit, Oracle’s intake form includes a black-and-white outline of a face and the outline of a body. You simply draw on the face or body the areas you’d like to fix.
Hundreds of people cycle in and out… for touch-ups and treatments with the nonchalance of someone stopping by the nail salon for a mani-pedi.
My services at Oracle that day didn’t fall under anything requiring a doctor or a nurse, but more medicalized cosmetic procedures were happening all around me. Women sat on benches along the marble-tiled walls, their hair pushed back with plastic headbands and their faces covered in thick cream, covered by a layer of Kirkland-brand plastic wrap. A staffer explained the white stuff is a numbing cream that is applied before injections such as Botox or filler.
Oracle is a known hub for medical tourism, surgery tourism, or what I’d describe as aesthetic-enhancement vacations. Seoul’s cosmetic-surgery clinics were shutting their doors in the early aughts due to oversupply—too many surgeons, not enough patients. But in 2007, the Korea Tourism Organization sprang into action, establishing medical tourism as one of its focus areas for growth and one of the country’s “strategic products.” Today, a Medical Tourism Support Center greets visitors at the Incheon International Airport, the entry point for the hundreds of thousands who visit South Korea for procedures each year.
In 2009, about 60,000 foreigners visited Korea for medical procedures. By 2019, the number of medical tourists reached nearly half a million. Oracle, like many other clinics, has previously partnered with hotels and restaurants to offer packages for tourists who came in for beautifying, much like how high-rolling gamblers get their accommodations comped in Vegas. Premier packages include perks like stretch limos for the ride from the hotel to the clinic.
The year before COVID-19, 40 percent of all foreign cosmetic-surgery patients visiting Korea were Chinese, with Japanese patients comprising the second-largest group, at 26 percent. The United States, Thailand, and Vietnam rounded out the top five countries from which surgery tourists visited. The popularization of Korean aesthetics has fueled Oracle’s advancements into those countries themselves. The franchise has expanded to more than 60 branches throughout Asia, with locations in China, Japan, the Philippines, and elsewhere.
Even as Korean franchises like Oracle set up operations in other countries, Korea’s Improvement Quarter still remains the regional destination for the newest, most advanced beautification procedures and some of the most skilled cosmetic surgeons in the world. “Seoul, specifically Gangnam, is maybe the most mature plastic-surgery market in the world,” Los Angeles–based plastic surgeon Dr. Charles Hsu told me. “Definitely a much more mature market than Beverly Hills, in everything. In hyper-competitiveness. In specialization.”
“Seoul, specifically Gangnam, is maybe the most mature plastic-surgery market in the world.”
The abundance of surgeons and services drives prices to at cost or below; at Oracle in Seoul, an entire region of Botox treatment (for instance, the forehead area, or the frown line) is offered at as low as $30. It’s available even cheaper at giant plastic-surgery hospitals. In Beverly Hills, where Dr. Hsu ran his practice for a decade before moving to Koreatown, clinics easily charge $200 per region.
Under the bright recessed lights at Oracle Clinic, Joyce and I were led past other treatment areas into a cramped room with two beds covered with sheets and a soft blanket. Our aestheticians wheeled in a pair of white plastic machines with square bases that looked like humidifiers with vacuum-hose attachments. We lay down on heated beds and tucked ourselves under cozy pink blankets. After we got comfy, aestheticians used the machines’ wand attachment with a spinning suction at the end on our faces, moving back and forth, sucking out oils, sebum, and other gunk from our pores (accompanied by little vacuum sounds, naturally) while simultaneously leaving hydrating nutrients on the skin.
After the sucking portion of this procedure, I sat under a face helmet that blasted me with UVA light before being covered up by a sky-blue finishing mask, a goop that solidified into a shiny rubbery substance and made me feel like I was being buried alive.
As we were led out into the lobby, I saw more faces covered in numbing cream and topped with plastic wrap. In the States, privacy surrounds cosmetic procedures. At Oracle and others just like it, clients regard revealing what goes into beauty work with a blithe nonchalance. And the work is almost all facial. According to a 2021 survey of Korean women, “petit plastic surgery” (injectables like Botox and filler) was the most common work respondents had gotten done, followed by double eyelid surgery and nose jobs. Liposuction came in fourth. In the second- and third-largest markets for cosmetic surgery, Brazil and the United States, body surgery is more common. Asia is face-first.
Elise Hu is a Los Angeles–based journalist, podcaster, and media entrepreneur