South Korean Women Pursue 'Smile Surgery'

What Women Really Think
Aug. 27 2013 4:27 PM

'Smile Surgery' Is Becoming Popular With South Korean Women

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Before and after

Goldenview plastic & aesthetic surgery clinic

For women, especially women in service professions, the demand for toothy grins is relentless. A neutral expression on a woman reads as sour or sad. Even if the smile police don’t yell at her, she risks being perceived as both unlikeable and unattractive—which translates into lower tips for waitresses and a lower likelihood of getting hired or promoted for everyone.

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

But what’s a girl to do? Smiling when she doesn’t feel like it exacts a psychic toll, estranging her from her emotions and putting her at risk for depression. Not smiling makes her look like a jerk. The solution, unless she discovers a magic happiness pill that will make her effortlessly beamy all the time, is to wear her face how she wants to (within the bounds of basic politeness) and hope the norms shift to catch up.

Just kidding! The solution is to get smile surgery. 

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On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal became the latest to report on a new trend in South Korea: a cosmetic procedure called the “smile lipt.” This informational video from the Seoul clinic Aone Plastic and Aesthetic Surgery explains that “lipt” represents a fusion of the words “lip” and “lift”—which is essentially what the surgery does: It tugs the corners of your mouth upward to simulate a faint perma-smile. The video claims the adjustment creates a “bright and gentle” impression, which is probably handy until you want to convey something other than mild amiability. (Though if you’re really mad, you could probably inspire mortal fear in your victim by pairing the smile lipt with a baby-doll coo and an unblinking gaze.)

The surgery works by severing the strong jaw muscles that naturally pull the mouth downward. (In the West, it is called “valentine anguloplasty” because those muscles are heart-shaped.) It was originally marketed as an anti-aging procedure, although now women in their 20s and 30s are its most common aspirants, according to the WSJ. Western beauty ideals as well as social expectations may play a role in the surgery’s popularity: “In general Western people have longer mouths and higher mouth corners than Korean people,” purrs the seductive female voice in the video. But Kwon Taek-keun, Aone’s lead clinician, frames the lipt as a practical adjustment to reduce annoyance and “stress.” “Even when you are looking like your normal self, people keep asking you: ‘Why are you frowning?’” he says.

He’s right: Those comments are annoying and stressful. And traditionally, women could only avoid them by being eternally gracious, companionable and nice. The smile lipt offers a third way, albeit one that costs $2000 and lies on the tip of a scalpel.

Also worth noting: South Koreans lead the rest of the world in plastic surgery rates. One fifth of South Korean women have surgically altered their features. Whether you think these procedures build confidence or perpetuate unrealistic ideals or are empowering or pathetic or all of the above, there’s no question that they basically amount to putting on a mask you can’t remove. What’s different about the smile lipt is that it fixes in stone not just a visual impression but a behavior. You are both committing yourself to expressing an emotion you may not always feel and narrowing the range of moods you can communicate. Given the choice between a facial straightjacket and shade from the smile cops, I’d take shade. What about you?