By Andrea Grant
“We’re going to put 30 needles in your face”, the doctor told me as I stared up at him nervously from the table. “Don’t move and try to relax”.
“Do you want me to hold your hand?” a friend asked. She had accompanied me into the treatment room, which was decorated in soothing yellows and browns. “Yes!” I blurted out. I tried not to flinch as the doctor gently tapped in the first needle. He had applied an anaesthetic cream to my skin about 20 minutes earlier, so my face felt as though it had been novocained. I shut my eyes as he gently inserted the needles from my chin to my forehead, and squeezed my friend’s hand. She squeezed back then took the opportunity to take some photos, capturing me in all my Hellraiser glory. “Now that is one for Facebook”, I thought.
Why exactly was I voluntarily having needles inserted into my face? It was all in the name of beauty. Or, rather, “anti-aging”. I was in Seoul, South Korea on a trip to learn about the Korean medical industry, in particular how traditional Korean medicine is being used in new ways for cosmetic purposes. Medical tourism represents a possible boom industry for the country as its clean, cutting-edge, and world-renowned facilities allow foreign visitors to have a bit of an aesthetic tune-up in between sight-seeing, shopping, and sampling local delicacies. Think taking in the splendor of Gyeongbokgung Palace, chowing down on a sizzling bowl of stone-potbi bim bap – and throwing in some facial acupuncture for good measure.
More precisely, I was at the celebrated Myungokhun Korean Medicine Clinic for an “anti-aging needling” (Dong-an–chim) treatment. Founded in 2005 and headed by the eternally youthful Dr Jin Hyoung Kim – Dr Kim, in fact, was the man behind the needles in my treatment – the Myungokhun Clinic has attracted international media attention for its successful cosmetic procedures. While acupuncture has become common in the West, we usually associate the ancient Chinese practice with pain management, and I had only heard of it being used to treat ailments such as backaches or migraines. Yet acupuncture, much to my surprise, also has various cosmetic uses. The Myungokhun Clinic uses it to treat neck wrinkles, acne, scars, burn wounds, rosacea, and stretch marks. (While before and after photos always have to be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism, the ones I saw were impressive.) In 2012, the Clinic had performed more than 32,000 cases of acne treatment as well as 18,000 cases of non-surgical cosmetic treatment. In 2011, it had successfully performed 75,000 cases of stretch mark treatment and scars.
Fittingly, the Clinic even offers treatments to help reduce the side effects of botched plastic surgery. This is perhaps unsurprising given the Clinic’s location. Myungokhun Clinic can be found on the third floor of a building in the posh Cheongdam-dong, a ward of Gangnam-gu. While Gangnam has been made famous by the Korean pop sensation Psy, the neighbourhood is also known as Seoul’s “beauty belt”, given the fact that there are more than 500 plastic surgery clinics in the area. Beauty, after all, is big business in South Korea. The country has the highest rate of plastic surgery in the world, with one in five women in Seoul reportedly going under the knife, according to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons. The trend has been linked to the country’s booming K-pop music industry, which has very specific aesthetic requirements for young women: doll-like eyes, heart-shaped faces, and double eyelids.
For those interested in less extreme procedures, however, cosmetic acupuncture is an intriguing alternative. The anti-aging needling I undertook promised to “lift aged, saggy skins and wrinkles by using various Korean traditional beauty needling remedies”. I had just turned 32 the week before, and I figured a little tune-up wouldn’t hurt. I was about to go back to school to complete my PhD, and wasn’t quite ready to be mistaken for a senior lecturer. Facial acupuncture works, I was told, because the needles stimulate the skin’s dermis and meridian points, increasing blood circulation and cell rejuvenation. The thin needles are also said to increase collagen production, the protein that keeps the skin looking young and taut, but which declines with age. Indeed, facial acupuncture is often billed as a non-invasive form of Botox, and Hollywood starlets such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, and Jennifer Aniston are reported to be fans. If it was good enough for them, I figured, why not try it out?
Thanks to the numbing-agent Dr Kim had placed on my face, I didn’t feel any pain when the needles went in. But there was slight discomfort. Once all 30 needles were in place, Dr Kim left the room and I had to wait about 20 minutes with the needles in. Before the treatment, I had thought that this would be the most difficult part. “What if I freak out and just want to pull them out?” I had asked my friend, who had assured me that this would be an unlikely reaction. Fortunately, she had been right. I lay on the table with my eyes closed, chatting with my friend until the doctor interrupted us and kicked her out. “You’re supposed to be relaxing”, he chided me.
Once she left, I closed my eyes and tried to relax. Much to my surprise, I could. It had been a hectic few months. I’d been teaching and doing research in Africa, returned to the UK, then two days later I was on a flight to Seoul. Still buzzing from all the travel and exhausted from jetlag, I finally had nowhere else to go, no meeting to attend, no report to write. I was stuck – literally pinned down. I took a few deep breaths. My stomach rumbled. My shoulders began to relax. I began to understand way the clinic was named after the Myungokhun pavilion in Damyang, Jeonnam. The name derives from the belief that a flowing stream sounds like jade stones knocking against each other. While I had no idea what two jade stones knocking gently together actually sounded like, in that quiet treatment room I tried to imagine it.
After 20 minutes, Dr Kim returned and removed the needles. The process was painless. An assistant came in and applied toner, then a mask to my face. After about 10 minutes, she wiped off the thick cream and applied a fragrant moisturiser. “Would you like to try some foundation?” she asked me. It was the clinic’s own brand. It was in a trial phase, yet to hit the shelves. Why not, I said.
Examining my face in the mirror, I noticed a visible difference. I didn’t look quite as tired, and, a bonus side effect, my jet lag was gone. I felt energised, revived, and, above all, quite pampered. “You’re glowing!” my friend exclaimed when I emerged from the room.
Two weeks later, after a whirlwind trip through South Korea, I was back at school. Walking through the hallways of my college, I stumbled upon a group of undergrads. I stopped to greet them. One of the girls turned to me and asked, “Are you a fresher?”