A few years ago, I led some ethnographic research for Nokia in South Korea. One of the unexpected things we kept hearing about was how often our female respondents mentioned plastic surgery. Everyone talked about it, and I mean everyone. We met generally younger women; some wanted plastic surgery, some didn’t, but everyone knew someone who had it.

Following up on the advice of one of our translators, we flicked through a couple of copies of Korean Vogue and found these enormous spreads from plastic surgeons describing their procedures. There was something horrifying yet hypnotising about seeing the before-and-after pictures of surgery; seeing what women were and what they became. I’ve wanted to blog about it ever since.

I was in Seoul again in December and sadly there are no more plastic surgery ads in Vogue. But where print fails us the internet can provide.There are countless websites for plastic surgery clinics on the web nowadays. This screenshot is from the clinic that just happened to be co-branded with my hotel.

IP Clinic Korea

Page after page of eyes getting bigger and rounder. Click a tab and see noses getting longer, cheeks getting fuller and jawlines becoming more slender.

Elsewhere on the internet the Tumblr KPSurgery cuts to the chase and collects and endless stream of before-and-after shots. 

These images are typically more posed and less clinical. They show us a fraction more context about these changes, using posture, lighting, clothes and maybe even photoshop to project an emotional, social message. It’s not the surgery, it’s the image, it’s the promise, it’s the new you.

Over on Jezebel there is a nice post wondering about the implications for Korean women. There is also a small debate raging about whether these girls want to look more Western, or whether whiter skin and rounder eyes have longer roots in Korean culture. Either way, it’s now part of celebrity interview throat-clearing to confirm or deny surgery in their past.

Three members of the 1990s boy band Shinhwa, which has recently reunited, have admitted to having had plastic surgery. The three members – Jun Jin, Kim Dong-wan and Shin Hye-sung – revealed their secret yesterday on KBS2 TV’s “Win Win.”

When asked “Are you naturally handsome?” only members Andy, Eric and Min-woo answered “Yes.”

When the host of the show asked Jun Jin why he didn’t reply, he said, “Obviously because I had work done,” as the audience erupted into laughter.

And now plastic surgery is becoming more mainstream for the elderly.

But when Shin hit 55, she looked in the mirror and didn’t like what she saw: “horrible bags under the eyes.”

“I have such a great skin with hardly any age lines on my face, but it was just the bags and dark circles under my eyes that made me look so old,” she says. “It made me look older than 50.”

“It was so painful I don’t know if I could go through that again, but I’m satisfied with the result,” she says. “You can’t tell I’m over 50, right?”

The world is full of weird things, and the internet is pretty great at collecting them. What does this mean for us as design researchers?

Some of the designers I travelled with on this trip were pretty horrified by the womens’ aspirations for cosmetic surgery. The thought of making such radical changes to your face made many of us squeamish. KPSurgery and the Jezebel commentators can argue that Korean girls aren’t trying to look more western, but the people we talked to spoke about wanting Gwyneth Paltrow’s nose, Angelina Jolie’s eyes and so on. Then there is the double-eyelid surgery, which gives asian eyes a seam that western eyes have. This idolisation of western beauty and rejection of some Korean aesthetics made many of us uncomfortable.

But a moment when we are uncomfortable is also a moment when we can learn. When I stopped to reflect on plastic surgery, I remembered that plenty of people I know have had similar procedures. One friend had a breast reduction, another friend has his ears pinned back, plenty of friends have botox injections, and me and countless other people had braces on our teeth. While fresh details of plastic surgery are always shocking and unsettling, it isn’t an alien practice – it is part of everyday life.

If this still makes you squeamish, treat this as an exercise in empathy. Come up with the most sympathetic judgement you can about these Koreans. Project a positive intent behind their actions. Try to dream their dream for a minute. You might find something human in them.