In a globalized world, beauty standards tend to merge. While Nordic
features and toned bodies are the dominant aesthetic in advertising and
show business, in China where Western looks are genetically
unattainable, more and more women are nonetheless resorting to going
under the scalpel.
Cosmetic surgery is now a US$2.5 billion
annual industry in China and one that is growing at a pace of 20 percent
a year according to the official Xinhua News Agency. The No. 9 People's
Hospital in Shanghai alone handles 25,000 cosmetic operations a year,
with women – and men too — across the country having nearly 2.5 million
operations in 2009, landing the country in third place behind the
United States and Brazil for attempts at beautification.
procedure can be a gamble. It is estimated that more than 200,000
lawsuits have been filed against plastic surgeons in the last 10 years,
according to the China Quality Daily. Newspapers are filled with stories
and pictures of horrific malpractice, with women's noses that are now
cavities in their faces, jaws misshapen and other horrors committed by
practitioners, some with the barest amount of medical training, who are
in it for the money.
In November last year, former TV talent
show contestant Wang Bei died as a result of complications on the
surgery table. At 24 she was in for a surgical procedure to reshape her
jaw. Her death showed the ugly side of Chinese obsession with beauty and
sparked a debate in the country.
But it is a gamble that millions of people are willing to take.
be nervous. The more relaxed you are the faster it will be. First I am
going to draw the line on your eyes, then I let you see," Dr Yang Renbao
assures a patient he is treating at a Beijing hospital. "Then we will
do the anesthetic and only when all is in place we will start the
Yang is a Beijing surgeon in his 30s. He has worked
for five years at the private Evercare hospital, one of the capital's
top places to go for plastic surgery. He says the change in his field
has been huge over recent years.
"There has been a change in
people's level of knowledge –from an uninformed level they are now very
aware and ask many specific questions. Every year it becomes more
evident that patients have more demands and expect more concrete result.
A few years ago, if a patient could get a double eyelid that was
pretty, that was good enough," he says.
In the west, cosmetic
surgery tends to serve older women who hope to look younger, but in
China, it is mostly young women, Yang says.
"Chinese people are
very susceptible to fashion. Many people have a certain idea of
themselves and they don't want to wait until they are old to realize
their aspiration. There are more young people and many of them have
worked for one or two years so they have reached a certain economic
level and can do it," Yang says.
Sitting on the grass at her
university park, 24-year-old Summer Shi recalls the day of her surgery.
Shi says she always felt her eyes were too small and every morning she
would apply a piece of sticky tape on the upper part of her eyelid to
fake an "o" shaped eye look.
Many of her friends have undergone double eyelid surgery which, through incision and suture, adds a crease on the eyelid.
started thinking about doing it a year or so before I actually did it,"
says Shi. "But I could not make up my mind. And then one day, a family
friend just took me to do it. I wasn't even prepared. She said she and
my mom were waiting in the car and that I should just go with them to do
it. So I went."
Shi is happy with the results of her surgery, which cost 800 yuan (US$123.20.)
had the surgery on the lunar New Year break, away from the eyes of her
classmates and in the safe and supportive nest of her family. When she
came back to school, friends told her she looked prettier, but they did
ask how her eyes became so big all of a sudden.
parents is a common feature in these stories. Susan Feiner, a feminist
economist at the University of Maine, says she is not surprised by the
fact that parents tend to support their daughters' wish to change their
bodies through surgery.
"Parents are caught between a
traditional world view and a postmodernist world view. On the
traditional side especially, your daughter is your property and
potential to social advancement," she says. "On the postmodern side you
have this idea that western beauty, this imported beauty ideal, is
really a sign of your family's openness to the future. So those two
impulses – a very traditional impulse and the more modern neo-liberalism
impulse come together at the moment of submitting your own daughter to
In 2010, Feiner co-authored a paper about the rise of
the so-called beauty economy in China. She says that Chinese women –
much like their counterparts in the West – are submitting to an
impossible standard of beauty and success.
"On one hand we have
all of this acceptance and even approval for women to become doctors and
lawyers and political leaders and at the same time what's been held up
to women is this Walt Disney notion of our lives. That really even if
you are a doctor or a lawyer or a political leader the best you can
really do is to be beautiful and get some wealthy rich man to take care
of you, so the best possible outcome for any women is to be both hugely
successful professionally and be knock-down beautiful," she says.
Magnani, an iconic Italian actress from the fifties, once warned a
makeup artist not to retouch her wrinkles – because, she said, it took
her so long to earn them. In contrast, many young Chinese women may
prefer not to even get to that stage, and thanks to a flourishing
economy, they have the option not to.
This article was first broadcast on Asia Calling,
a regional current affairs radio program produced by Indonesia's
independent radio news agency KBR68H and broadcast in local languages in
10 countries across Asia.