- Buying Beauty: Cosmetic Surgery in China by Wen Hua
Plastic surgery is hot business and becoming something of a cool personal choice for Chinese females along with an occasional male. In this delightful study, Wen Hua provides a useful overview of the social and psychological factors that are [End Page 94] influencing women to modify their physical appearance by creating something of a blend of European and East Asian phenotypical features. Wen’s focused ethnographic study is constructed around interviews with a variety of age cohorts that range from sixteen to fifty-five with incomes ranging from 800 yuan to 40,000 yuan a month.
Wen’s primary research question concerns female motivation: Why would women want to alter their physical appearance? Does the desire arise from wanting to please powerful men and, thus, uphold the patriarchal social system that objectifies female beauty, or does female motivation arise out of globalizes ideas that associated Western images as the prefer idealized image of beauty? Or does it rather arise from women, who wanting to be active agents, are in the process of reinterpreting their bodily image as part of their reconstructed personal identity? Wen finds support for all three motives, but prefers a cultural syncretic thesis in which Chinese women continue to value whiteness (i.e., skin), along with an angular nose and larger almond shape eyes. Many Chinese writers are hypercritical of this syncretic blend. They argue that women who undergo this type of cosmetic surgery are victims of patriarchal assumptions of beauty as well as being duped by newly introduced ideas of consumerism that highlights Western aesthetics over local cultural preference.
Wen is adamant, however, in her disagreement. She argues for a more nuance evaluation that gives more weight to historical, contemporary, and personal factors. For example, she points out the emergence of surgeries reflects the changing ideas of female beauty in the 1930s in China that also favored large eyes and the removal of double eyelids. In contrast to contemporary China, which favors large breasts, women in the Republican era struggled over whether to stop the practice of wrapping their breasts. Whatever reluctance women felt toward altering their body image in the past has all but vanished from twentieth-first-century China’s single-child generation. “Today, more than one million cosmetic operations are performed each year making cosmetic surgery [e.g., double eye lid, rhinoplasty, breast augmentation, and liposuction] a 2.4 billion yearly industry with a 20 percent growth rate” (p. 47). This growth has been accompanied with a burst of illegal clinics, which has led to an increase in botched operations. There is a need, like much else in China, of better governmental regulation.
The age range of Chinese women undergoing cosmetic surgery is younger than for their Western counterparts. Wen reports that 18 percent of cosmetic surgery patients are high school and college females. It is understood that female physical attractiveness is essential for enhancing a woman’s erotic appeal and, thus, social capital. This was true in pre-1949 China as it was in the socialist danwei era. Beautiful women were valued and often economically rewarded. Wen is aware of the impact of China’s new consumer culture that highlights the value of freedom, independence, and personal choice. In the rush to become modern, engage in new life experiences, and embrace an ethos of consumption, women are intensely [End Page 95] motivated to transform themselves into physical objects the opposite sex finds most desirable. Sexual banter and more explicit sexual dress are increasingly popular. In this heightened erotic milieu, it follows that the value of physical beauty would be more consciously admired.
In an intriguing analysis of the rise in popularity of the Barbie doll, Wen seeks to restate her thesis that Chinese women are not copying new images as much as blending a variety of images into a new synthesized whole. She points out that most single-child generation girls grew...