Double Eyelids, Bigger Noses

Young Women Clamor For Plastic Surgery

August 10, 2004

BEIJING -- Huang Feng is a pretty, petite girl with smooth skin and fine features. But she wasn't content with the way she looked.

When she was 17, she went to a beauty salon in her home town in Hunan province to get her eyelids stitched so that her eyes would appear bigger and the eyelid fold more European. It cost less than $40, but after a few months, the stitches started unraveling, so she traveled to Guangzhou in the neighboring province to take the more radical step of surgically slicing her eyelids to create the double fold.

The operation cost three times as much, but the results were better. Yet as time went by, people kept noticing her scar and asking her if she had just had surgery.

Now 21, she is spending a week in Beijing at Jinsong Hospital, recovering from yet another operation on her eyelids. This time, it cost her nearly $750. She says it was worth it.

"I like the double eyelid," she said. "I think it looks better on me."

So now is she happy with the way she looks? Well, no, actually. She'd like to get her nose fixed, even though she's already had it done -- three times.

"Originally my nose was flat, so I got it augmented. But it still wasn't high enough, so I did it again," she said. "They say getting nose jobs is addictive, and I think that's the case with me."

The popularity of plastic surgery is surging in China. Not only is physical appearance more important than ever before, young people have grown up in a society where anything can be had for a price. Unlike older generations, who saved every penny, younger people are willing to spend every penny.

"You don't know today what's going to happen tomorrow," Huang said. "In order to make myself prettier, I don't care if I spend all my money. Money is no use if it's just sitting there."

Plastic surgery is often seen as an investment in the future, mainly to improve one's chances of landing a job or a husband. The market economy has introduced competitive pressures that never existed in the socialist era, and being physically attractive has become more important than ever.

"More and more parents and kids are eager for immediate benefits and success," Cui Lijian, a psychology professor at Shanghai's Huadong Normal University, was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency. "They believe 10 years of study won't do as much as one surgical procedure to completely change their fate."

Some young women unwilling to take such a drastic step spend hundreds of dollars for albums of professional studio portraits of themselves, made beautiful with makeup and lighting, which they hand out at job fairs along with their resumes.

But Huang already has both a job (in a beauty salon) and a boyfriend (who was not supportive of her operations). Like many young women who choose to have plastic surgery, she did it simply for herself, underscoring society's dramatic transformation from the times of Chairman Mao, when the collective was paramount, to the China of today, where the individual is supreme. Some might just call it vanity, a quality once derided as bourgeois decadence.

"My boyfriend asked me if I like him," Huang said. "I said I like myself."

A surgically altered face is hardly embarrassing in China. Indeed, some women want to flaunt it. For them, the Tianjiu Media Co. has just the thing: a beauty pageant of "man-made beauties."

Scheduled for November, the pageant requires only certification that plastic surgery was performed at a licensed hospital and photos from before and after the procedures.

"It doesn't matter if they've had one or 100 operations," said Tianjiu spokesman Zhao Chaofeng. "We're not going to be judging them from a technical standpoint."

More than 30 contestants have signed up so far, including a Chinese-American woman from New York, according to Zhao. One entrant is 18-year-old Fu Na from Changchun in northeastern China, who had her eyelids, nose and eyebrows altered and face re-shaped with an injection.

"Out on the street, the rate of head-turning has increased a lot!" she said in an online chat. "I'm now full of confidence in life."

Fu's operations were paid for by a hospital in Changchun, which also "designed" her new look for her. In return, she agreed to be the hospital's "image ambassador." Such arrangements became widespread after a publicity stunt last November in which 24-year-old Hao Lulu underwent 14 procedures worth more than $37,000 to help market a Beijing clinic.

In modern China, there is no shame in inauthenticity. Still, the trend has caused some controversy, especially as ever younger women covet plastic surgery and even some parents want it for their children.

According to official media, Chinese people spend $2.4 billion every year on beauty treatments, making it third only to real estate and vacations in consumer spending. In the early 1980s, a double eyelid operation could be had for less than $5, but prices have skyrocketed and continue to rise. One beauty clinic in Beijing became the first this month to offer loans, allowing patients to make monthly payments like on a house or car.

At Jinsong Hospital, the double eyelid is the most popular procedure, accounting for more than two-fifths of patients. Nearly one-fifth get nose jobs and about 14 percent get breast enlargements, said surgeon Qiao Aijun.

Hospitals also offer liposuction, surgically created dimples, higher cheekbones and reshaping of the jaw or chin. Some young girls come in with photos of their favorite Chinese or Korean pop star and ask to be remade in their image.

But Qiao won't perform an operation unless he thinks it will look good. Dimples, for example, he refuses to do.

"It's too fake," he said. "The dimples remain even when you're not smiling."

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