Eyes wide cut: the American origins of Korea's plastic surgery craze: South Korea's obsession with cosmetic surgery can be traced back to an American doctor, raising uneasy questions about beauty standards

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Author: Laura Kurek
Date: Fall 2015
From: The Wilson Quarterly(Vol. 39, Issue 4)
Publisher: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,818 words
Lexile Measure: 1260L

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At sixteen stories high, the doctor's office looms over the neon-colored metropolis. Within the high-rise, consultation offices, operating rooms, and recovery suites occupy most floors. Additional floors house a dental clinic, a rooftop lounge, and apartments for long-term stays. This is Beauty Korea (BK), a one-stop, full-service plastic surgery facility in the heart of Seoul, South Korea.

South Korea has an obsession with plastic surgery. One in five South Korean women has undergone some type of cosmetic procedure, compared with one in twenty in the United States. With plastic surgery's staggering rise in popularity, an attractive physical appearance is now the sine qua non for a successful career. Undergoing surgery to achieve an employable face in South Korea is just as commonplace as going to the gym in America.

The most popular surgery is Asian blepharoplasty, the process of changing the Asian eyelid, commonly referred to as the "monolid," into a double eyelid. The second is rhinoplasty, or a nose job. The prevalence of these two procedures, especially the "double-eyelid" operation, has led to a delicate question: Are South Koreans are seeking to westernize their appearance? Cosmetic surgeons and scholars tread lightly around the issue. Some argue that Western culture--a broad and imperfect term--cannot claim "big eyes" as unique to its definition of beauty. Others note that only 50 percent of the Asian population is born with monolids. Some practitioners, including Dr. Hyuenong Park of OZ Cosmetic Clinic and Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Kenneth Steinsapir, deny altogether that double-eyelid surgery is intended to make its recipient appear more Western.

The story of an American surgeon in the postwar Korea of the 1950s, however, suggests otherwise.

Photo via KSU Maigc, CC BY-NC; Illustration by Zack Stanton The late David Ralph Millard was a titan in the field of plastic surgery. Obituaries in various medical journals praised him as the "messiah of children all over the world who were born with facial clefts" and "the most brilliant and creative plastic surgeon we have alive." The American Society of Plastic Surgeons named Millard among the top ten "Plastic Surgeons of the Millennium.

"A graduate of Yale College and Harvard Medical School, Millard apprenticed Sir Harold Gillies, widely regarded as the father of modern plastic surgery. Gillies had been a surgeon during World War I, when new weaponry injured soldiers in ways previously unimaginable. He reconstructed the disfigured faces of wounded soldiers, and in the process became the first physician to successfully graft a new nose onto a patient--a soldier who had been injured at the Battle of Ypres. Years later, Millard trained under Gillies for two years in England, becoming a close friend and colleague.

In 1954, Millard was stationed in South Korea as the U.S. Marine...

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