Risky double-jaw surgery South Korea's latest cosmetic fad
A nation's love affair with plastic surgery now embraces a dangerous procedure, once used by dentists to correct congenital deformities
South Korea's obsession with plastic surgery is moving on from standard eye and nose jobs to embrace a radical surgical procedure that requires months of often painful recovery.
A stream of celebrities boast on TV shows how it gave them a "new life", while advertisements extolling its cosmetic benefits are everywhere from street billboards to subway stations, magazines and popular internet sites.
But there's nothing really "cosmetic" about double-jaw surgery. A radical solution to congenital facial deformities or for people unable to chew properly due to excessive over- or underbite, the operation involves realigning the upper and lower jaws. One result of the bone-cutting procedure is often a slimmer jawline - and that is what caught the attention of South Korea's booming beauty industry.
A small face with a "V-shaped" chin and jawline is considered a mark of feminine beauty in much of East Asia, along with a high-bridged nose and big eyes.
"This surgery alters your look far more dramatically than, say, Botox or a nose job because it changes your entire facial bone structure," said Choi Jin-Young, a professor of dentistry at Seoul National University.
"But it's a very complex, potentially dangerous surgery … It's disturbing to see people with no real dental flaws daring to go through it just to have a small, pretty face," Choi said.
The procedure, which involves general anaesthesia and months of recovery, carries the risk of various complications, including permanent facial numbness or even paralysis.
Data from the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons suggests South Korea has one of the highest per-capita rates of plastic surgery procedures in the world.
A number of celebrities, some reportedly paid by doctors, underwent double-jaw surgery and later appeared on TV talk shows saying it had provided a "turning point" in their career and personal lives.
There is no official data on how many double-jaw surgeries are performed. One recent study estimated the annual figure at 5,000, but it did not differentiate between cosmetic and medically prescribed procedures.
Some 52 per cent of those who had taken the surgery suffered sensory problems such as facial numbness, the study said.
Seoul's consumer protection agency saw the number of registered complaints surge from 29 in 2010 to 89 last year.
"My mouth keeps moving leftward and the jaw area has gone numb," wrote one user of a medical consumer online forum, showing photos of her skewed mouth. "I can't even feel when saliva keeps dripping out of my mouth."
Last August, a 23-year-old college student who had undergone double-jaw surgery killed herself. She left a suicide note explaining her desperation after the surgery left her unable to chew food or stop crying due to nerve damage in a tear duct.
Seoul medical malpractice lawyer Shin Hyon-ho said he had seen cases where the surgery had resulted in chronic jaw pain, a skewed mouth, misaligned teeth and an inability to chew or smile. "The number of plastic surgery-related cases is growing … with complications becoming more serious," Shin said.
A doctor with the Korean Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons said the procedure took off about four years ago when a Seoul dental clinic ran a major ad campaign promoting the cosmetic benefits.
As it became popular, plastic surgeons began offering the surgery, causing the price to fall.
"If we are seeing more complications, that's largely because the sheer number of people getting the surgery has increased rapidly in such a short period of time," said the doctor, who declined to be identified. "Yes, it was originally invented to correct a dental deformity, but you can't blame someone for getting the surgery to look good, especially in a place like the South where beauty, especially for women, pretty much trumps it all."
Advertising for the procedure is prevalent and unambiguous. "Everyone but you has done it," admonishes a poster on a bus.
A lawmaker in January proposed a minimum age for plastic surgery, noting the danger of "bone-related surgeries".
But Korea University sociology professor Lim In-sook said legislation could not tackle the root causes that push women to risk their health for a prettier face.
"So every single part of our bodies becomes an object for nip and tuck," Lim said. "Today it's your jaw, but who knows what we'll have to fix tomorrow?"