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As China's obsession with plastic surgery grows, so too do the pitfalls

A patient is seen as she goes through the so-called "double eyelid surgery", which adds a crease to the eyelids to make the eyes appear larger, in a plastic surgery clinic in Shanghai. Double eyelid surgery is the most popular cosmetic procedure in China. Picture taken November 4, 2007. (Nir Elias)
A patient is seen as she goes through the so-called "double eyelid surgery", which adds a crease to the eyelids to make the eyes appear larger, in a plastic surgery clinic in Shanghai. Double eyelid surgery is the most popular cosmetic procedure in China. Picture taken November 4, 2007. (Nir Elias) (Nir Elias/reuters - Reuters)

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 10:05 AM

SHANGHAI - Wang Baobao got her first taste of plastic surgery when she was just 16.

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A nip and a tuck led to another nip and another tuck, another after that, and another, and another. There were the follow-up surgeries, and the repairs for the procedures that were botched the first time, and the second time, and then the third time.

Wang, now 28, estimates she has had between 170 to 180 different operations, usually six or seven at a time, and on "nearly every part of my body." She had her eyes widened. She had her nose and jaw made narrower, and her chin shaped smaller. Her breasts were enhanced, but "I had to keep having operations to repair them."

She had the fat taken out of her hips, thighs, stomach and backside. She even had implants put into her heels to try to make her taller; it didn't work.

Wang, while extreme, is in many ways emblematic of China's new and growing obsession with plastic surgery. Many now feel the craze has gone badly awry, as more and more unlicensed, unskilled and unscrupulous practitioners jump into an increasingly lucrative, yet largely unregulated, industry.

The problems were highlighted last month when a promising 24-year-old singer, Wang Bei, died in the operating room in China's central Hubei province while undergoing a facelift with her mother.

About 3 million people in China underwent plastic surgery last year, according to an official estimate. China ranks third in the world behind the United States and Brazil for the number of plastic surgeries performed, according to industry officials.

But one expert here in Shanghai calls that figure "conservative." Li Qingfeng, a plastic surgeon who is also deputy secretary of the Chinese Association of Plastics and Aesthetics, said his hospital alone receives about 100,000 patients each year, and all of Shanghai could receive as many as 300,000 yearly.

"Most of the people don't have surgery at officially regulated hospitals," with many patients going to beauty salons or other unregulated facilities - "and the number is huge," Li said.

While government-run hospitals adhere to stricter standards with more experienced doctors, the same can't be said of these "black hospitals" and other private facilities, several experts said. "Those private ones make operations secretly, some of the surgeons lack ethics, and their only aim is making money," said Zhou Xiaolin, retired chief surgeon of Beijing's Plastic Surgery Hospital.

Plastic surgery was extremely rare in China before the country's economic reforms of the 1980s. Xu Shirong, a senior plastic surgeon at Beijing Hospital, said that until that point, people were only allowed to have plastic surgery to correct physical deformities.

"Doctors dared not to perform such operations on their patients because plastic surgery was considered a bourgeois way of life," Xu said. "Although I studied it, I only gave operations for harelip patients. After the opening and reform, the tide of pursuing beauty rose gradually."


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