As another Mao-era taboo collapses, new wealth is buying women their ideal looks, no matter the pain, writes Alexa Olesen
The beautician from Chairman Mao’s hometown looks at herself in the mirror and bursts into tears of joy. Nineteen kilograms lighter, jaw slimmer, eyes and nose refined, breasts lifted, 30-year- old Chen Jing has just been through an extreme makeover for a Chinese reality show called Lovely Cinderella.
It’s a sharp insight into China’s own makeover, as a consumer generation moves ever further from communist founding father Mao Zedong’s era of drab-is-beautiful austerity.
Modeled after The Swan, Fox TV’s reality television show, Lovely Cinderella was created in Hunan province and has tapped into a surging Chinese interest in cosmetics and cosmetic surgery – luxuries beyond the means of most a generation ago, but gaining in popularity as incomes grow.
Consumers have quickly developed their own tastes, no longer chasing Hollywood’s notion of perfection but opting for their own traditional aesthetic.
Zhang Xiaomei, a publisher of fashion magazines in Beijing, says that early blunders taught doctors and patients that cosmetic surgery needed to be customized for the Chinese face.
"It was popular to do a surgery 10 years ago, a so-called European-style double eyelid that really made eyes sort of pop and appear more Caucasian but it didn’t look good and Chinese women have learned from that," said Zhang.
High noses and super-plump pouts have also fa
llen out of favor, she said, giving way to techniques that play up, instead of distort, Asian beauty.
Asked whom they wanted to look like, Cinderella contestants rattled off only Asian names: former Miss Hong Kong Li Jiaxin; actress Maggie Cheung; and Kim Hee-sun, a South Korean soap opera star.
This full embrace of beauty is a contrast to 30 years ago when even primping could be seen as counterrevolutionary.
"Your whole life was dedicated to revolution, to the [Chinese] Communist Party, to struggling for the communist cause," said Zhang.
Watching the taping of Cinderella with approval, Lu Zaining, mother of beautician Chen, agreed things had changed.
"People then would have criticized you for putting on lipstick," she said. "Back then, we couldn’t imagine having a television."
In the city of Changsha, where Cinderella is taped, spas offer seaweed wraps and slimming massages, and in plastic surgeon Li Fannian’s Yahan Cosmetic Surgery Clinic, posters for implants called Magic Peach and Dream Xcell show ivory-skinned women with bursting cleavage.
The clinic’s most commonly performed surgeries are minimizing eye bags, sculpting noses and shaving the jawbone to soften the face.
Chinese ideas of physical perfection today jibe with ideals espoused for centuries in Chinese literature and art, Li said, describing wide, bright eyes and a face "shaped like a goose egg or a sunflower seed."
Double eyelid techniques today are much more subtle and give the appearance of larger eyes, he said, but do not try to make Asian women look Caucasian.
Cinderella contestant Yang Shaqin, a Beijing undergraduate, said she always wanted to look more like her mother. After eight procedures, she no longer felt like an ugly duckling but insisted she would never date a man shallow enough to have cosmetic surgery.
"We have a Chinese saying, `A man should possess talents and a woman grace,"’ Yang said. "Men shouldn’t be worried about these trivial sorts of things."
These trivial things are driving a booming industry. And Chinese men are also not shy about using products and sometimes surgery to look better.
About 10 percent of the clients at the Yahan clinic are men, said Li, and the concept of the metrosexual has arrived, known in Putonghua as dushi yunan or "urban pretty man." They spend an average of 80 yuan (HK$81) a month on grooming products, according to a December report by the Xinhua News Agency.
Xinhua cited a survey of 2,239 men aged 18 to 60 in seven Chinese cities that found men in Shanghai to be the country’s most vain because they spent just over 17 minutes a day gazing in the mirror.
Men and women together spent 96 billion yuan on beauty products in 2005, up 13 percent from 2004, according to the China Association of Perfume, Essence and Cosmetics Industry.
The United States Cosmetic, Fragrance, and Toiletry Association last year called China its "largest future growth market," and companies such as Avon Products, Mary Kay, L’Oreal and Procter & Gamble are all fighting for a share.
Zhang, the publisher, estimates there are about one million plastic surgeries a year in China. In the US, with less than a quarter of China’s population of 1.3 billion, twice as many operations were performed in 2005.
Hao Lulu, a Beijing fashion writer and aspiring actress, became a sensation in the Chinese media – which dubbed her the "Artificial Beauty" – after she had 16 surgeries to redo her eyes, lips, nose, cheeks, neck, breasts, upper arms, buttocks, thighs and calves.
China, which had virtually no cosmetic surgery a few decades ago, now claims to be an innovator. Last year, a military-run hospital announced it had become the second facility in the world after France to attempt a complex partial face transplant – grafting a donated nose, upper lip, cheek and eyebrow on to a farmer who had been mauled by a black bear.
The risks some take for beauty can be harrowing, especially in an industry that lacks regulation.
Wang Junhong, a 37-year-old fashion retailer from Guangzhou in south China’s Guangdong province, collected elegant European trousers that she adored but couldn’t wear because she was only 1.58 meters tall.
So she spent 80,000 yuan to gain five centimeters in a procedure that involved breaking her legs, driving pins into the bone and gradually cranking the pins apart to lengthen the bones as they heal.
"The more I thought about doing it, the more I was convinced I had to do it," said Wang, as she lay in a hospital bed in 2005, her legs encased in brutal- looking frames with spokes that jabbed through her legs.
Her treatment went smoothly, but Chinese media frequently report on bungles that result in deformity and infection. In November, the Health Ministry banned the procedure except for medical reasons.
But height increases job prospects and help-wanted ads sometimes stipulate height requirements for white- collar posts.
"Taller people will have more opportunity for promotion," said Sun Honggang, an editor for the human resources trade magazine Human Capital and Career Post, a Beijing newspaper dedicated to employee recruitment.
Lovely Cinderella producer Wang Zhiyi said that while his show is meant as entertainment, it’s also cautionary. The footage is graphic, showing grotesquely swollen postoperative faces and surgeons vigorously sucking fat from a contestant’s waist.
A video clip shows Chen, the beautician, crying out on the operating table for her husband and for more anesthetic. Later, she is shown throwing up and weeping in her hospital room because she misses her five-year-old son.
But as she gazes at herself in front of the studio audience, the memories seem to evaporate like the theatrical fog blasted out of fire extinguishers before she stepped to the mirror.
What would Mao, leader of China from the 1949 revolution until his death in 1976, make of Lovely Cinderella?
Chen, born in Mao’s hometown of Xiangtan in Hunan, laughs.
"How can I answer that?" she says. "I think that people today, with their more liberal ways of thinking, are at a place where if someone has an opportunity to change their life and become mor
e confident, then everyone would want to support that."