When Xiao Huo came back to school after summer vacation, he was surprised to find that the faces of some girls in his class had changed. Their eyes were bigger, faces thinner, and noses appeared less crooked. "I couldn't help asking myself: 'what's the matter?' " says the college student, who is a part time teacher. A tour of some of Beijing's plastic surgery hospitals provides the answer.
"Every day, we receive about two dozen girl students asking for cosmetic surgery, which accounts for about half of all our patients," says Zhang Wei, a nurse with the Department of Plastic Surgery of Beijing Union Medical College Hospital. "Many students come during their summer vacations though summer is not a good time for such surgeries."
The Union hospital is the most prestigious medical institution in China. According to a survey undertaken by China Central Television (CCTV) in Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing, more than 40 per cent of those having undergone such surgeries are college students and 30 per cent are high school students.
'Beauty within easy reach' - a commercial put up by a private hospital, Ever Care Medical Institution (ECMI), seems to have tugged at the heartstrings of numerous young girls in China. "Most of our patients think that by undergoing a makeover they will be more confident in finding jobs or spouses," says Zhang Yu, Director of a consulting service centre of ECMI.
Parents think the same way for their beauty-seeking daughters. According to a survey conducted in Nanjing, about 85 per cent of the girls who underwent cosmetic plastic surgeries got their parents' prior approval. "I'll support my daughter in her attempt to be beautiful, so long as the surgery is safe and affordable," an unnamed mother was quoted as saying in a survey report prepared by Da Zhong Hospital in the city.
Physical appearances do matter. When Wang Ping, who graduated in 2004 from a university in Beijing, went for a job interview, she was rejected because she was not "good looking". She had a birthmark the size of a coin on her face. "Among several applicants for the job, I had scored the highest in the written examination. When I questioned their decision, the manager said `Sorry, we need to protect our company's image!' "
Ping now works in another company as a secretary, "where there is least contact with clients". "I got this job after a government official intervened," she says.
Sociologists and other experts attribute the recent beauty phenomenon to `Han Liu', which means the 'gale blown from South Korea', referring to the growing influence of South Korean culture. Many youngsters are hooked on to South Korean TV serials. Numerous South Korean film and TV stars, who have themselves undergone cosmetic surgery, are now idols for Chinese youth.
Increasingly, more and more young women are ready to risk anything. Hao Lulu, China's first `man-made beauty', came into the limelight in 2003 after she received 24 operations that completely changed her "undistinguished appearance". Her first film is due to be released soon; and at 24, she is all set for Hollywood.
When asked whether she was worried about the potential risks of cosmetic surgery, Lulu said, "I am still young and it's too early to think that much. Problems, if any, can be solved thanks to technological progress. At the moment, I just want to enjoy my new life."
Lulu may not care about the risks involved in cosmetic surgery, but such risks do invoke worries. According to the China Consumers' Association and the China Hairdressing and Beauty Association, there have been 200,000 cases in the past decades of patients in which complained of discomfort and even worse side effects after receiving cosmetic surgery. Nearly 300,000 patients suffered from injuries and some even lost their lives. Cao Zhihua, from northwest China's Harbin, received a liposuction operation in a local hospital. The next day she died of a heart attack associated with an excess loss of fat, press reports said.
Medical experts have time and again warned young women and girls to be careful with cosmetic surgery. They have urged the media to help people understand that cosmetic operations can be risky and even dangerous, especially to youngsters who are not physically and mentally mature.