My confidence in the long held belief that the 'Chinese revere their elders' began to fade when a Beijing publisher was first in line to purchase the foreign rights to my book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change" (Hay House 2011). Delighted, but surprised, I heard her say that Chinese women are struggling with their aging appearance and were eager to read a book like mine to help them. During interviews that ensued with Asian journalists, I became further disillusioned. A number of them told me that Chinese culture had been moving away from its traditional attitude about Asian elders for years now. Knowledge and experience, they said, were not nearly as valued as youth and beauty. One male reporter chuckled saying, "Wise grandmas were out. Fashion and glamour were in."
So I wasn't entirely taken aback when I read about the rapid rise of cosmetic surgery in China in a recent New York Times piece entitled "For Many Chinese, New Wealth and a Fresh Face." The vice health minister there, Ma Xiaowei, was described as saying, "In just a decade, cosmetic and plastic surgery has become the fourth most popular way to spend discretionary income in China," with only houses, cars and travel ranking higher.
I knew from my own research and from watching trends published by the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS) that Asia's obsession with beauty has been creeping up close behind that of the United States. The ISAPS publishes statistics about cosmetic procedures, annually updating the trends among age groups, gender and countries around the world. According to their latest report, China, Japan and South Korea were found among the top seven countries where cosmetic surgery is performed, along with America, India, Brazil and Mexico. Mr. Ma's own estimates led him to report that, "the number of operations is doubling every year," in China, so that plastic surgery is now considered "a common service aimed at the masses."
What most surprised me in the Times article was what the general manager of a chain of Chinese cosmetic surgery hospitals said about their clients' demographics. "Two-fifths of patients are in their 20s," reported Li Bin. "Face-lifts and wrinkle-removal treatments are in vogue, just as in the West," but many of the procedures performed in mall-like clinics are more about looking beautiful than looking younger. Zhao Zhenmin, Secretary General of the government-run Chinese Association of Plastics and Aesthetics said, "Nationally, the most requested surgeries have nothing to do with age: The No. 1 operation is designed to make eyes appear larger by adding a crease in the eyelid, forming what is called a double eyelid." In other words, replacing the narrow Asian eye with a more Western looking one.
In another recent article, this one by the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, Seoul, South Korea was described as "ground zero" for Asian faces looking to get lifted. With incomes rising in China, "people are more focused on beauty and coming to Korea to get it," where the surgical techniques are considered more sophisticated. This influx is providing a boost to South Korea's beauty industry, says Sung Min-yun, head of a consulting firm that specializes in the cosmetic surgery industry. Half the women seeking plastic surgery in their clinics are Chinese and under the age of 30, the numbers having increased five fold over the past year.
Many Asian women come for surgery brandishing photographs of two very popular Chinese actresses -- Angelababy and Fan Bing Bing -- whose chins or eyes they want copied. These celebrities who have doll-like features (one who achieved her own look with plastic surgery) are currently setting the bar for beauty. They have big eyes, high-bridged noses and small faces. Apparently this leaning toward a Westernized appearance starts early; Dark haired Asian girls now favor blond-haired Barbie dolls over ones that look more like them.
Dr. Park Sanghooh, who founded a popular surgical clinic in South Korea says most Asian women are very open about it all. He says "life competition is so stiff in Korea and China, people who want to survive that competition come here." Beautification through plastic surgery is about survival, he says, and women go to great pains -- and through a great deal of money -- to achieve it. But according to others, the choice to alter ethnic features is more complicated. Margaret Chin, a professor of sociology at Hunter College who specializes in Asian immigrant studies said, for many here in the US, "You want to be part of the acceptable culture and the acceptable ethnicity, so you want to look more Westernized. I feel sad that they feel like they have to do this."
The Chinese have their own sad stories to tell about the dangerous risks women take for the sake of beauty. Like American Cindy Jackson, who at age 55 recently told the Today Show that her 52 different surgical procedures were to gain the look she wanted, Asians have a 22-year-old television reporter who shares similar goals. Going by the name "Devil," described as already having achieved "large luminous eyes, a delicate nose and softly sculpted cheekbones," she still sought surgery to reshape her jaw. According to her own report, she wanted to look "more sophisticated and exquisite." Why not, she said, her boyfriend was picking up the tab! And she is not alone. At Evercare, a plastic surgery clinic in Beijing, owners report a 30 to 40 percent return rate, with patients starting by renovating one part of their face, only to find the lure of more work irresistible. The slippery slope clearly is an international one.
Officials in China worry, as they do here, that these procedures don't always meet national safety standards. They claim that many of their practitioners offering Botox and eyelid surgery do not have the proper professional credentials. Some go so far as to call the 2.3 billion industry a potential "disaster zone," citing the recent death of a 24-year-old Chinese reality show contestant during an operation to reshape her jaw. Secretary General, Zhao Zhenmin, who also runs Beijing's Plastic and Cosmetic Surgery Hospital said, "Personally speaking, I think this is pretty despicable," talking about this young woman whose windpipe filled with blood during the procedure. "We need to get to the bottom of such cases in order to protect people in the future."
So what are we seeing here? I find it hard enough to watch the once interesting, gorgeous faces in Hollywood looking more and more alike these days as they surgically alter them to retrieve youth and achieve so called, 'beauty.' But does anyone else feel even more disturbed hearing that this trend has reached across the globe? Sure, celebrities all over the world express fears about looking older as their careers wane with age. And sure, more are succumbing to the pressures they feel and ultimately undergo one form or another of cosmetic surgery to 'anti-age.' No doubt public figures -- both male and female -- experience a great deal of scrutiny at any age given our media driven culture, making cosmetic improvements difficult to resist. But this homogenization of beauty across culture and ethnicity is a trend that begins to sound like a bad science fiction story.
I recall a while back half joking that if my book Face It sold to even one out of every million women in China, it would be a great success! Suddenly, I don't feel like laughing anymore.
What do you think about the craze for baby doll faces across the globe?
Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She has written articles on beauty, aging, media and fashion. She serves as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), written with Jill Muir-Sukenick, Ph.D. and edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.