Ouch! Western Beauty Norms Head East

Their legs encased in protective plaster shielding wobbly bones impaled by a medieval-style metal brace, a group of young Chinese women sit smiling through their post-surgical pain in an upscale Beijing hospital, content in the belief that they have just received a leg up in loveliness.

Having your tibia sawed just below the knee with a metal apparatus of levers and nails forcing the bone apart until it regenerates and heals is not a particularly pleasant experience. But for a growing number of Chinese women, it's a small price to pay for physical perfection.

At the Beijing Institute of External Skeletal Fixation Technology, the women are at various stages of recovery from a complex surgical procedure — or "distraction osteogenesis," as it's medically called — that can make a person taller by a couple of inches.

Based on the principle of bone regeneration, the orthopedic procedure was originally intended for patients with birth defects or injuries. But in China today, it's a hot new addition to the field of cosmetic surgery because tall, quite simply, is suddenly in.

Beauty is reaching new heights in China after more than two decades of an unprecedented, market-driven consumer boom. And if the urban landscape has changed dramatically since the early days of the Communist revolution, so have the dreams and aspirations of China's "me" generation.

But with international companies rushing to do business in one of the world's most promising economies, a largely unsubstantiated popular belief — that foreign companies prefer to hire taller employees — has begun making the rounds.

In a country where smallness as a beauty norm once led women to bind their feet, a new aesthetic has them physically extending themselves through excruciating, expensive surgical procedures to keep up with a new — equally impossible — beauty standard.

Skinnier, Leggier, Paler

But Chinese women are not the only ones opting for extreme cosmetic makeovers. With globalization blurring social, cultural and economic boundaries, an international glamour standard is shaming women around the world into conforming to a skinnier, leggier, and, in many cases, paler standard of attractiveness.

In India, cosmetic companies have been doing booming business in "fairness creams" that promise to lighten the user's skin.The government of African nations such as Kenya and Mali have launched education campaigns to warn women against using toxic chemicals to bleach their skins.

In Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, a growing number of women are opting for surgery that "opens" the eye by sucking excessive fat out of the eye socket and stitching a permanent lid crease in order to achieve a more Caucasian look.

And in cities across Asia and Africa, anorexia and bulimia rates are rising — even in nations where acute malnutrition still plagues the countryside.

"It's like the good messages coming out of this country — like democracy and women's rights — never gets out, only the bad and most of all, the commercialized," says author Robin Morgan, a veteran women's rights activist. "It's like they're starving for nourishing food and instead what comes to them is whipped cream and candy."

A Beauty Pageant Superpower — of Sorts

More than a decade after free-market reforms shook India out of socialist-style economy, a beauty pageant explosion has rocked the South Asian nation.

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