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Reality TV hypes plastic surgery craze

Cosmetic surgery reality TV shows shape public perception and attraction for plastic surgery, beauty

June 23, 2013 - 20:26 By Lee Woo-young
An overweight 20-year-old man with breasts and “unattractive facial features,” as well as a 30-year-old woman suffering from excessive hair growth due to a hormonal malfunction boasted that they have found a second life.

They each went under the knife and were strongly driven to shed the weight. And when they walked out into the “world” with vulnerable hearts, hundreds of thousands of people gave them the “victory” sign and applauded them for looking “unbelievably great.”

These were the lucky two picked for dramatic makeovers depicted in “Let Me In,” a cosmetic surgery makeover reality TV show on cable channel StoryOn, which has returned for a third season. 
A before and after plastic surgery image of Heo Ye-eun, who was featured in the second season of “Let Me In.”
A before and after plastic surgery image of Park So-hyun, who was featured in the first season. (CJ E&M)

According to the production crew, the before-and-after images of the contestants have kept viewers tuned in and attracted the most applicants since its launch in 2011. The number of applicants increased from 300 for the first season to 2,000 for the second, and to 4,300 for the third. The show “aims to offer physical, psychological and social help to those who are suffering because of their appearances” by a panel of specialists that range from plastic surgeons, a dentist, a psychiatrist and stylists.

“It has become harder to select contestants who we can offer help. We have seen severe cases of plastic surgery failures, and even someone with no eye,” said Park Min-woo, executive producer of the show that targets women viewers, at a press conference earlier this month.

And as the number of applicants suggest, more and more people are willing to cut their chins and jaws or inject “fillers” in their noses and foreheads to achieve their desire to become “beautiful” ― even if being on TV means that the whole country, and possibly the world, will share the experience. Or perhaps, some suggest, it is the other way around ― TV is encouraging people to transform.

“The makeover reality show has been a popular genre on cable TV networks starting with the first cosmetic surgery reality show ‘Challenge, Cinderella’ in 2003. Since then, the makeover shows have played a significant role in driving the cosmetic surgery boom and trend in Korea,” wrote culture critic Lee Sun-young in a recent newspaper column.

According to some viewer comments, the program makes people believe that cosmetic surgery is somehow simple in the course of transformation, which features some risky procedures such as jawline surgery, which used to be limited to people with dental problems. However, the jawline surgery that shaves a square jawline to create an oval face has become increasingly popular after some celebrities openly admitted to having it. And somewhat simpler surgeries, such as double-eyelid and nose jobs, have become so common that teenage girls drop by plastic surgeons for procedures during school breaks.

The number of teenage patients at ID Hospital, whose head doctor is a panelist for “Let Me In,” surged 138 percent from 2011 to 2012 and 37 percent the following year, according to hospital data.

“More teenage girls between 16 and 18 ask their parents for double-eyelid surgery when they make the grades they promised,” said Jeon Sun-young, director of the hospital’s promotional team.

Another notable trend is that more men choose to go under the knife for aesthetic purposes.

Male patients grew 28 percent from 2011 to 2012 and 14 percent from 2012 to this year at ID Hospital. This year, they make up 11.8 percent of the total patients at the hospital, though the hospital declined to provide actual numbers of plastic surgeries due to internal rules.

According to media studies, the reality show, moreover, shapes people’s attitude towards cosmetic surgery and their perception of beauty.

“Now more women speak openly about their cosmetic surgeries. While women used to refer to someone who had cosmetic surgery in a disapproving tone, now they give them an envious look,” said the producer Park.

His program vowed that it will focus on making over one’s life instead of just changing their looks, but opponents claim that it drives demand for cosmetic surgery in Korea by glorifying the dramatic transformation of contestants who undergo multiple surgeries.

Some point out the show downplays contestants’ problems to a matter of looks, ignoring overall society or other factors.

“Some contestants experience family separation, poverty and violence, which are mostly from social structural problems, but the show somehow blames those problems on their looks,” wrote culture critic Kim.

By Lee Woo-young  (