Burning Seoul Photo: Justin De La Ornellas

It’d been a good night in Itaewon, one of Seoul, South Korea’s busiest nightspots.

I’D POTENTIALLY MADE a new friend to guide me through the city. Even better, I was dancing with an attractive girl. We moved closer together and she put her arms around my waist. She stopped dancing and smiled.

“What’s this?” she teased, grabbing at my several pounds of excess fat.

“Uh … well, me,” I replied, surprised and embarrassed.

What did one say? She’d picked out one of my flaws and told me all about it. Thanks for the observation? Unsurprisingly enough, things with that girl never went beyond the platonic. I had just learned my first lesson on the importance of looks in Korea.

In any subway car you will see young Korean women checking their hair and makeup in mirrors that come attached to their cell phones. For those with less image-savvy devices, the windows provide ample reflection for women to fretfully fix stray stands of hair or rouge streaks of foundation.

Wondergirls Press Conference Photo: DekOow

This preoccupation with beauty is no less reflected in how many Korean women dress. High heels, mini skirts and frilled blouses are not reserved for nights out on the town – they are the norm for many women going about their daily business.

But Korean’s quest for beauty often leads them to take drastic, more permanent measures. The number of women who get some form of cosmetic surgery is nothing short of astounding. Conservative estimates put the figure at 50 percent of women in their twenties. Equally striking, one newspaper poll carried out last year suggested that almost 90 percent of Korean women have thought about getting work done.

By far the most common procedure is double eyelid surgery, which involves putting an extra fold in the eyelid, making the patient’s eyes seem bigger. Nose jobs and liposuction are also popular.

While looking good is a matter of boosting self-esteem for many women, there are often more practical reasons for going under the knife. A lot of women believe that their chances of employment are largely dependent on their looks and will improve significantly after a cosmetic touch-up. In this highly competitive society, where it is routine to send your photo attached to your resume, a pretty face can give you the edge in a job or college interview.

Such is the pressure to succeed that some parents even pay for their daughter’s procedures. It is not uncommon for high school girls to have their surgery paid for as a graduation present. And with many Korean celebrities getting surgery, the pressure to look a certain way comes from outside the home as well as within.

Asian Art Festival Photo: Stinkie Pinkie

Even politics is far from immune from the beauty obsession. Recently, one South Korean politician who had judged at a college debating competition raised eyebrows when he gave a group of students his view on how to win a debate.

“When we have a debate competition, judges don’t really pay attention to the debate. They are actually interested in how participants’ faces look,” the politician was quoted as saying.

At the same gathering he was reported as telling an aspiring news anchorwoman, “You will have to give ‘everything.’ Can you still do it?” “Everything,” one can assume, was not an innocent reference to plain determination and hard work.

Shortly after my lesson in appearances at the nightclub, I saw an online advert for free weekend Korean lessons. I went without hesitation, eager to pick up a few phrases in a country where English-speakers are firmly in the minority. The lessons were being provided by a group of young Koreans, who were keen to improve their English.

They invited me to lunch after the first class. The conversation turned to pop music. Before long, one of the girls produced her phone to show me a photo of the “Wondergirls,” one of Korea’s biggest girl groups. She wanted to know which one of the girls I thought was the most beautiful. I pointed out my favorite. I had good taste, my new friend told me.

Of course I did. I’d already learned what it meant to be beautiful here.

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