Korea's robust plastic surgery industry stems from "the Confucian tradition of considering appearance as an important factor in judging a person," said Hyun Taik-Soo, professor of sociology at Korea University.
When applying for jobs in Korea, attaching a head-shot photo of oneself on the resume is a requirement. Some companies even hire physiognomists -- who attempt to judge a person's character through facial features -- to sit in on recruiting interviews.
The social obsession with appearance is often denounced in local news media editorials, branding Korea the "Kingdom of Plastic Surgery." Numbers prove the phenomenon. More than 80 percent of job recruitment executives said they view appearance as an important factor in making hiring decisions, according to an online JobKorea survey of 761 recruitment executives.
In another survey, by www.career.co.kr, 27.4 percent of job seekers answered that they think they were rejected at a job interview because of their looks, and 73.4 percent said they have considered plastic surgery in order to try to better their chances the next time. "We have come to an age where appearance is an asset. And plastic surgery is the fast track investment for a higher return," professor Hyun said.
Nip and tuck is such a common practice in Korea that surveys show 30 percent of Korean women aged 20 to 50, or about 2.4 million women, have had some kind of procedure, according to ARA Consulting, a medical marketing consulting firm.
Parents often present the experience as a high-school graduation gift and college graduates save money to go under the knife before getting into the job market. With the recent "dong-an" craze, or obsession with looking young, middle-age men and women spend thousands of dollars to iron out their wrinkles through fat grafts, botox injections or laser treatments.
Such continuously surging demand has boosted Korea's plastic surgery industry, where only the top 1 percent of medical school graduates become plastic surgeons, Kim said.
Meanwhile, one week after the procedure, Lim and her new friends were in the waiting room ready to take their bandages off. "We walked around all day yesterday at Hong-Dae ... in our bandaged masks," Lim said, referring to a hip neighborhood for the younger crowd. "But it was alright. In a foreign country, no one knows who we are."
Coming out of the doctor's office bandage-free, they sprinted straight to the clinic's ladies' room to find a private place to mingle and assess their new looks in amazement.
"I can't believe it. Look, I look so cute," Lim said, touching her new chin as Teo gave an approving look in the mirror. "Now, we'll go shopping without our masks."