The power of social media, backed by skilful marketing, has helped K-pop, or Korean pop music, evolve from a simple musical genre to a subculture that is wildly popular among many Thais. But, like all subcultures, it has its sinister side. Now the president of the Facial Surgery Association has expressed alarm over the extreme behaviour of some young women who travel to South Korea for surgery to help them look like their pop idols. He says these surgeries are often botched because neither the patients nor the Thai clinics, which act as agents, properly check the reputation of the Korean medical facilities. Dr Chonlatis Sinratchatanant says Thai doctors then have to try to repair the damage and psychological trauma.
While cosmetic surgery is big business in South Korea and Japan, it is also a thriving industry here. And if the Medical Council and plastic surgeons have their way, the whole healthcare industry will expand. They have urged the government to support their efforts to promote Thailand as the surgical hub of Asia, a move they believe could earn the country at least 200 billion baht a year. To that end they have proposed a comprehensive cosmetic surgery and tourism package. Going even further, the newly formed Medical Tourism Association will follow in the footsteps of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) and organise roadshows throughout Southeast Asia aimed at attracting more foreigners to undergo medical treatment and cosmetic surgery.
In essence, both organisations are selling the power of dreams. While the TAT promises an idyllic holiday amid the scenic attractions of Amazing Thailand, cosmetic surgeons are offering a path to greater self-esteem, fulfilment, youth and beauty through facelifts, rhinoplasty (nose reshaping), breast resizing, liposuction, Botox and a host of other procedures. This is in line with commercials for cosmetics which are almost always about making people look younger. Pensioners need not apply.
It is rare nowadays to hear a celebrity claim in public that "life begins at 40" or that there is merit in growing old gracefully. Today we live in an image-obsessed society in which vanity and peer pressure to achieve the right, youthful "look" have become big business. The trouble is that sometimes these makeovers fail to achieve the desired results and have a devastating psychological impact or they can be botched and lead to tragedy. Look no further than France where one of the biggest and most expensive court cases in that country's legal history began last week. Directors of French breast implant manufacturer PIP are on trial for using industrial instead of medical-grade silicone in breast implants. Many of these implants ruptured and the case involves some 5,000 plaintiffs from 65 countries.
We can be thankful that we live in a youth-oriented society in which the vast majority of people seek to project an attractive, wholesome image, regardless of their age. Although we have the highest number of citizens over 60 in Asean, our cities and streets are alive and vibrant with little evidence of social problems due to the generation gap. There is no need for anti-ageism laws as in the West. If people want to remodel, reshape and reinvent themselves, they have the freedom to do so. The danger comes when people take things too far and destroy their natural good looks and put their lives at risk by trying too hard to improve on nature.
Russian president Vladimir Putin, 60, and former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, 76, are both rumoured to use Botox to stave off the ageing process. If so, they are certainly not alone among politicians and celebrities. The old warning that appearances can be deceptive has taken on a whole new relevance.