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Intimate Post-Op Portraits Of Plastic Surgery Patients (NSFW)

Photographer Ji Yeo captures a behind-the-scenes look at K-Pop culture’s influence on standards of beauty.

The South Korean plastic surgery industry is flourishing. One in five Korean women have gone under the knife (compare that to one in 20 American women). Miss Korea contestants look startlingly identical. Job applicants are often asked to submit a photo, which perpetuates the pressure to meet a certain standard of beauty.

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“In the entertainment news section of the daily newspaper, more than half of the stories were about those who had recently had plastic surgery–where they did it and how successful it was,” says Ji Yeo, who grappled with her own plastic surgery obsession. “I was going to have a whole body surgery. I met 12 different surgeons, consulted with friends who had already gone under the knife, and compared the different looks that I might choose for my own. Did I want Angelina Jolie’s lips or Winona Ryder’s nose? Perhaps both?”


Ji came to a different realization: “It was a societal fantasy of aesthetic perfection, and it didn’t really belong to me at all,” she said. So she took a different tack and re-purposed her fixation into an intimate, and at times jarring, photo series of other young women–fresh out of the operating room.

The result, Beauty Recovery Room, is an exercise in vulnerability and trust. The women featured all went through surgery without support from families. (This is a rarity in South Korea, where plenty of mothers and grandmothers have also had operations or at least pressure their daughters to do so.) Ji gained their confidence by assisting them throughout the procedure–by driving them to and from the hospital, picking up prescriptions, and making soup. Post-op, these women stay under the radar at a hotel near the Seoul clinic until the bandages and bruises disappear.

Wildly demanding beauty standards are not exclusive to South Korea. The United States and the UK both have unfettered tabloid cultures, and we’ve written about extreme cases of plastic surgery.

But Korean women face a different cultural landscape than most: South Korea is the most technologically tethered country in the world, with a smartphone usage rate of 67%. Statistics on surgery adoption are somewhat in sync with fast mobile phone adoption, which allows for continuous access to images and news about celebrities and pop bands, such the popular WonderGirls and Girls Generation. The singers all fulfill the beauty aesthetic displayed by Miss Korea contestants: big “Western” eyes, small noses, and V-shaped chins (achieved during the trendy double-jaw surgery).


Depending on the angle, Beauty Recovery Room could conjure up emotions that fall somewhere between empathy and judgment, Ji says. The women are clearly camped out in isolation and are in various states of discomfort. But while driving patients to the clinic, Ji found that many weren’t afraid of the operating table. And after, while trapped in back braces and stitches, they exuded a sense of being thrilled: “Even though they were in extreme pain, I could feel their excitement, and the excitement of hopes realized. In fact, most of them were planning other surgeries in the near future.”

About the author

Margaret Rhodes is a former associate editor for Fast Company magazine.

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