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Buying Beauty: Cosmetic Surgery in China by Wen Hua

According to an article by the New York Time’s Keith Bradsher last February, “young college graduates in China are four times as likely to be unemployed as young people who attended elementary school” because office jobs are scarcer than jobs in a factory. The odds are stacked against women even more for, according to Wen Hua, sex discrimination is still the norm in the Chinese workplace. If you were a young Chinese woman faced with those daunting prospects, would you be willing to undergo cosmetic surgery if it increased your chances of being hired?

Buying Beauty: Cosmetic Surgery in China by Wen Hua
Buying Beauty: Cosmetic Surgery in China, Wen Hua (Hong Kong University Press, January 2013)

Wen Hua’s Buying Beauty, Cosmetic Surgery in China is an insightful first book that explores the dynamic tension between cosmetic surgery and the changing role of state power and market forces in post-Mao China. The book is a revision of her doctoral thesis, delivered to the Department of Anthropology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2010.

Wen’s fieldwork involved “listening to women” who had undergone cosmetic surgery. These interviews of fifty-eight women from varied backgrounds and professions, reveal their motivations. Though generally attractive, most of the interviewees expressed “self-dissatisfaction” and hoped the surgery would increase their confidence. Wen asks whether these women are “passive victims of a ‘beauty myth’ constructed by patriarchy and capitalism, and to what extent are they transforming themselves as powerful actors by taking control over their own bodies?” She includes an intriguing quote from French philosopher Jean Baudrillard to encapsulate a facet of this complex issue. The body, he writes, “has today become an object of salvation. It has literally taken over that moral and ideological function from the soul.”


Wen observes that the ideal image of feminine beauty in China today is a far cry from the “robust beauty” of the “comrade sisters” of the Maoist era, when bodies were largely tools of the State, and proletarian subjectivity was aestheticized. Nor are “long, thin, almond-shaped eyes with single-fold eyelids” and small breasts considered signs of elegance, as they were in classical Chinese imagery.

Wen argues that Hao Lulu, known as the first artificial beauty, (renzao meinü) personifies the look Chinese women want. She had dozens of operations worth 400,000 yuan over a six-month period in 2003.


In the course of this extreme makeover, her single eyelids were doubled to make her eyes appear bigger, her nose was reshaped to be more pointed, her face contour was changed to be thinner, her breasts were enlarged with silicone gel implants, and her buttocks were lifted up and made rounder…Bags were removed from below her eyes, wrinkles were removed from her neck,


and she had liposuction on her “thighs, lower legs and cheeks, and Botox was applied to her face.” All of this was free to her because she was the subject of an ad campaign by EverCare Cosmetic Surgery Hospital. It was a success; the hospital’s revenues almost doubled in the two years following, and the overall market has since grown to US$2.3 billion in annual revenues and continues to grow at a rate multiples faster than underlying GDP. Wen views Hao Lulu as one of the opinion leaders that helped the market to take off.

What is unique to China in all of this is Wen’s disturbing finding that, in general, the age range of Chinese women undergoing cosmetic surgery is much younger than their counterparts in Western countries. Indeed, Evercare hospital openly admits that 40% of their patients are in their twenties.


Although Buying Beauty reads a little dryly and academically, the discussion of appearance alteration as a means to build “physical capital” leads to some of Ms. Wen’s strongest writing. She feels that since China’s economic reform in the 1970s, women have been treated as second-class citizens in the job market. Job ads are often for men only. Jobs ads specifically for females include age limits and specify physical characteristics much more often than job ads for men do, according to academic studies Ms. Wen cites. As a result,


more and more Chinese high school and college students, girls especially, have rushed into cosmetic surgery clinics and hospitals to improve their looks...


As one of the young women interviewed states, “Being good-looking is capital,” meaning that she feels it will give her an edge in getting a job. Parents, too, are getting on board. One mother interviewed by Wen said, “A pretty face is a worthwhile long-term investment for my daughter’s future.” Wen’s research was early to identify a trend that has since been picked up on and amplified by the popular press. The China Daily ran an article in 2011 with the opener, “diamonds used to be a girl’s best friend, but these days, her BFF may just be her friendly plastic surgeon.”

Wen highlights the connection between cosmetic surgery and a potential government policy miss-cue. “Coincidental or not,” she observes, “the flourishing of the cosmetic surgery market and the increased flow of graduates into the job market started in the same period.”  She traces the roots of the oversupply of university grads to a policy of the Chinese government known as kuozhao, that “accelerated the advancement of recruitment” of students into the university system. Surely something must have gone terribly wrong with the policy if job success depends on investment in looks rather than education or experience.

Buying Beauty piques the reader’s curiosity. How do these stories end? Do the transformed women in fact get “better” jobs? A follow-up volume would be most welcome.

Jill Baker has a joint MS from NYU Stern and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and is an Adjunct Fellow at the Asia Business Council in Hong Kong.