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

By Keith B. Richburg
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.

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."

Xu said he now sees about 20 patients each day, about half of whom elect to have plastic surgery. Most are women in their 20s, he said, and the most popular procedures are eyelid slicing - to make Western-style double-lidded eyes - followed by nose jobs and tummy tucks.

"I feel people have a higher standard of beauty right now," Xu said. "I tell many of my patients they score 98 already, and that's good enough, with no need to pursue a perfect 100. But most of my patients still choose to add those two missing points."

It was the pursuit of perfection that led Wang Baobao down her never-ending path of surgeries.

She was an aspiring dancer in China's hardscrabble northeastern Heilongjiang province when she decided to have work done on her eyes. "I wanted to make my eyes more beautiful," she recalled. "But the technology wasn't good enough. Their skills weren't good enough. I kept needing repair operations."

Despite the bad experience, she decided to have her breasts enlarged. But the doctor used polyacrylamide hydrogel, which two years ago was banned for breast implants in China when it was found to cause infection and deformation.

Eventually, she said, her friends and neighbors no longer recognized her. Her colleagues at a Shanghai stock brokerage firm laughed behind her back, so she quit and began freelance stock trading from home. Two years ago, her boyfriend became frightened and left.

Now, Wang runs a Web site about the promise, and perils, of plastic surgery.

Her last major operation was in April, when she had implants put into her heels to make her taller. The doctor promised the 5-foot tall Wang a few extra inches and a recovery after a week. She paid about $7,500 and was left on crutches for nearly six months with large scars on her feet. And she didn't get any taller.

Another patient, Fung Jian, 28, also underwent the heel implant surgery after learning about it on Wang's blog. At just 4 feet 9 inches, Fung said he always felt "tortured" by his height. And like Wang, he too paid for the surgery, but did not get noticeably taller.

Wang and Fung have hired a lawyer, and, with a third patient, are trying to take legal action against the doctor. The doctor, when contacted, said he never makes absolute promises to his patients and that, on average, they get "a little bit taller."

Wang said she regrets ever having that first operation. After spending more than $600,000, she said, "The effects are not that good. And all over my body, there are too many scars."

She also offers advice for young people considering enhancing their appearance. "Don't get any plastic surgery," she said. "This is a no-end track. You can never turn back."

Washington Post researchers Wang Juan in Shanghai and Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.

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