Korean Women Aren’t Messing Around With Their Contouring

Whenever I have visitors from abroad, I warn them: “Don’t be shocked if anyone tells you that you have a small face. It is the lodestone of compliments in Korea, so own it.” To put it in perspective, having a small face is as enviable a quality as having legs for days or amazing brows.

This may seem like a bizarre aspiration to some, but the trend isn’t so much about having an impossibly small head as it is about retaining a youthful appearance. As we age, faces bloat and bits start to wobble. This may not be the apex of beauty in any society, but the desire for a small baby face is especially pronounced in Korea where eyes tend to be smaller, thereby creating the illusion of a much bigger face. To be specific, Korean women are after a taut, cherubic visage with a delicately pointed chin (referred to as a “V-line”). Any kind of sharp angle is seen as undesirable, since cheekbones and jawlines become more defined as skin ages and becomes thinner. This is why Korean girls are often seen posing in photos with objects placed along their jawline to prove their faces' smallness. It gets to be a bit much, with girls racing to the back of group photos so that their faces appear smaller than the others'. Let's just say, I’ve often served as the big-faced sacrificial lamb in the front.

A few months back, I covered a step-by-step tutorial on contouring techniques Korean women use to optically shrink their faces. But, makeup is just a scratch on the surface of what many are willing to do to achieve this beauty standard. While some of these techniques are just insane (jaw-carving? pass), others have surprising benefits like improving skin tone or putting an end to chronic teeth-grinding. Keep reading for all of the ways Korean women practice makeup-free face contouring.

Illustrated by Anna Sudit.

V-Line Massages
The first time I got a V-line massage, I wondered at what point I was allowed to cry out in pain and beg for the aesthetician to stop. I couldn’t believe this entire clinic was filled with women getting the same treatment as me, and I didn't hear a peep.

When I closed my eyes to submit to the procedure, there was a sweet, smiling Korean lady rubbing cream on my face. A few minutes in, and she somehow transformed into what I could only imagine as a linebacker, reversing everything I associate with the word “massage.” I kept quiet and endured this woman pressing down on my face with the strength of a million thumbs. The hour-long V-line facial treatment generally includes a scalp massage, lotion-cleansing, deep-cleansing, moisturizing cream mask, décolletage massage (FYI, boobs will be touched), V-line massage, ampoule treatment, V-line-lifting modeling mask, and a short, consoling back rub. 

Even with the soothing mask treatment, I felt like my face was going to be completely bruised. I mean, this is a massage meant to physically change the shape of one’s face. Weirdly, the face can tolerate quite a bit, and mine looked normal afterward — though not any smaller. 

According to the aesthetician, V-line massages only work if you commit to them on a weekly or bi-weekly basis over several months. Though I couldn’t track down any actual science to back this up, I found it shocking how even doctors conceded to the efficacy of facial massages in changing, albeit marginally, the shape of one’s face. It all has to do with blood circulation and acupuncture.

According to an article in the Chosun Biz: “On the face, there are many acupuncture points. One of the points is located in the recess behind the ear. Pressing on this is effective in reducing swelling in the cheek.” The articles goes on to explain other acupuncture points in the face. These ideas are fairly common in Korea: I’ve been given advice to press the hollow right under the chin to “reset my skin” or press on the ridge beneath the inner cheekbone to promote skin elasticity.

While massaging your way to a smaller face doesn’t seem to have much backing outside Eastern medicine, this procedure isn't all for naught. A big part of V-line massages is manually draining the lymphatic system to move fluid out of your tissues, which reduces swelling in the face. Though this doesn’t decrease the actual size of your head, it does have benefits in draining the lymphs and improving circulation. And, you're allowed to ask for gentler pressure, which will be just as effective.


DIY Massages
The Internet is full of DIY solutions for a smaller face, including wraps, oscillating gadgets, and rollers, which have become so popular in Korea that even dollar stores carry cheap, plastic facial rollers for those in a pinch. Like professional V-line massages, these gadgets are meant to be used over time to yield results, and many Korean beauty bloggers have their own blends of techniques and tools. One of the most popular face-massaging tools is a Japanese product called ReFa Carat, which is a solar-powered, platinum-covered roller that creates micro-currents similar to the weak electrical current human skin naturally has. According to ReFa, these currents keep skin looking young. It’s also what this insanely young-looking-for-her-age Japanese lady uses on a daily basis.

Though I can’t get behind the science of the Carat or any of these tools that, if not colored pink, I would think are torture devices, massages have a long-standing history in Asia. This is why the belief that the technique is just as important as the product is central to Korean skin care. Creams, lotions, and toners come with specific directions, with diagrams, on how to apply them for maximum efficacy. Korean women would gape in horror at the rubbing method. Instead, a flurry of pats and swirling strokes take up a significant portion of the time commitment involved in sticking to a skin-care regimen. 

While it takes more time and energy, tapping saves the skin from the compounded impact of stretching every morning and night from rubbing in products. If you really can’t part with the rubbing motion (it takes a lot more patience than you’d think), turn it into a circular, lymph-draining massage. 

Illustrated by Anna Sudit.

Botox temporarily paralyzes muscles, so while elsewhere in the world it's used for getting rid of wrinkles, in Korea, it's known for its powers of shrinking jaw muscles. Because the procedure can be done in five minutes and requires no incisions, it’s insanely popular. 

Though the overall consensus in the medical community is that Botox is safe, it’s hardly free of side effects. As many would point out, it’s literally poison being injected into your body. While botulinum toxin is lethal when ingested, its application when reputably manufactured and safely administered acts as more than just a vanity drug and is used to treat a number of medical conditions. (This is precisely why I wouldn't recommend hitting up any of the $50-a-pop places in Gangnam I've seen advertised.)

Korean dermatologists craft a blend of treatments to enhance the effects of Botox. The most popular is called MesoBotox, which is a dual Botox and phosphatidylcholine (PC) injection treatment. PC (also known as mesotherapy or injection lipolysis) is publicized as a fat-melting solution and is used as a non-surgical alternative to liposuction all over the body. In Korea, PC shots are also propped up as face-toning treatments. Where Botox is usually confined to injections in the jaw, PC is injected in a ring around the face to melt away blubber. Science is inconclusive in supporting its fat-dissolving properties, but the claim is that it acts as a detergent to break down fat. Like Botox, injections can be administered in minutes, and side effects include bruising, swelling, and soreness in the injection area.

I have a personal experience with Botox. Having exhausted all other options, I had it injected into my jaw recently to remedy my terrible bruxism (excessive teeth-grinding). Thankfully, my jaw muscles didn’t completely abandon me, and eating is definitely not an issue. I honestly cannot detect any changes in my face shape, but the teeth-grinding stopped the night I got Botox, and hasn't returned since. So, while I can't attest to Botox' supposed face-smallifying powers, it can certainly help with other issues.

Facial Surgery
There are two surgery procedures for attaining a smaller face. V-line surgery, as it's colloquially known, involves carving up the jaw, while cheekbone surgery requires cracking the cheekbone. Both are devastatingly wide-spread in Korea (especially V-line). To find out more, I visited a plastic surgery clinic.

With an X-ray of my skull on the screen next to him, the doctor matter-of-factly explained to me why my face is too big. According to him, the length from my chin to the bottom of my nose should be shorter than the length of my browbone to the bottom of my nose. “The length from your nose to your chin isn’t smaller. It’s not even the same size. It’s…longer.” So, that's…bad?

V-line surgery requires anesthesia and months of recovery, which many Korean women view as a twofer since, in that time, a mostly liquid diet spurs significant weight loss. The actual procedure involves cutting a piece of bone from the chin, bringing the surrounding bones together, and cutting away remaining protruding edges on the jawline. Voilà. Smaller face. 

Cheekbone surgery, on the other hand, means shaving the cheekbone down or cracking it and tucking one end of the bone under the other. While it doesn't drastically change face width, with less protruding cheekbones, the face appears less wide. This surgery also smoothes the face of any sharp angles, which are associated with thin, aging skin. 

Both procedures are extremely difficult and dangerous. They require a high degree of surgical prowess because, as you can imagine, the face is a labyrinth of bones and nerves crucial to human function. The V-line surgery boasts an especially long rap sheet. Side effects vary in levels of disturbing, including difficulties breathing, chewing, speaking, and smiling; and even death. Last December, a 19-year-old college student died from the procedure. One woman found the side effects so unbearable, she committed suicide after the surgery left her unable to chew food or stop crying due to nerve damage in a tear duct. The number of registered complaints with the Korea Consumer Agency about the side effects more than tripled from 42 cases in 2008 to 130 cases in 2012, though many more instances of post-operative problems are believed to go unreported.

A common culprit in a bloated face is processed and salty food. In Korea, that means ramen noodles. Recently, ingestible beauty aids have been increasing in popularity with companies producing skin boosters in pill and drinkable “beauty shot” form. There’s even a tea promising a smaller face with each steamy cup. (" 이 차를 마시면 브이라인이 된다." Translation: "If you drink this tea, your face will be a V-line.) Though the jury’s still very much out on whether beauty ingestibles really deliver on their claims, it’s never a bad idea to cut down on salty, processed foods.

So, the next time you look at a contouring makeup kit and think That seems like a lot of work, just remember: At least it's not a V-line massage.

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