Nov. 14, 2003 -- 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.
Ever since the country won its first Miss World contest in 1994, India has emerged as a beauty pageant superpower of sorts, with Indian contestants sweeping a number of major international competitions.
And with it there has emerged a profusion of expensive "beauty pageant schools" training women in the requisite comeliness skills, diets, and gym schedules fit for a beauty queen. Modeling schools and agencies have opened shop in cities and small towns across the nation, and various community groups, suburbs and even housing complexes boast an annual beauty pageant.
In a country where an estimated 25,000 women are killed each year for failing to provide their in-laws with adequate dowries and female infanticide rates are on the rise, Indian women's rights activists are at a loss over what to make of the recent glamour revolution.
"My position is not opposed to sexuality, it's not a conservative position," says Bishakha Datta, program director of Point of View, a Bombay-based nonprofit organization.
"It's the homogeneity that's the problem. Every culture has its dominant image of beauty. It used to be a more rounded look with wide hips and plenty of curves [in India]. But in the past 10 years, with all these beauty pageants, there's only one vision of beauty that's become acceptable," she says.
The Going Rate for a Nose Job
By all accounts, it's not a vision of beauty most Asian and African women can achieve without shedding substantial amounts of cash.
In China, where the national average household income is $4,300, limb-extension surgery costs about $12,000. But despite the exorbitant price, Beijing surgeons say the demand for cosmetic leg lengthening is growing, with several hospitals forced to put up waiting lists for the procedure.
Datta, who conducts "self-image workshops" at a number of Bombay colleges, says most teenage girls across all class divides know the going rate for rhinoplasties, or cosmetic nose surgeries.
"It never fails to amaze me," says Datta. "That's the one question that we have on this board game we've devised, that there's no dispute about. With so many other questions and issues, there's always a raging debate."
Among the more contentious issues is the question: If women dress "sexily," are they asking for trouble? The answers, according to Datta, tend to be divided along class lines. While students from affluent, liberal colleges reply a resounding "no," a majority of middle- and working-class students agree that appearing sexy equals inviting trouble.
"It's a Catch-22," says Morgan. "On the one hand, you're supposed to dress Western and then if there's sexual assault, the woman is blamed. The fact is, rapes are rapes and harassment is harassment — whether you're in sweat suits or parkas. You cannot blame the victim."
Dab Fairness Cream, Grab a Good Job
At times, modern glamour expectations adjust to traditional patriarchal customs — only to make it worse for the women concerned.
Earlier this year, the manufacturers of an Indian fairness cream pulled an ad campaign following massive demonstrations by rights groups.
The television ad showed the father of a young, dark-skinned girl lamenting that he has no son to provide for him as his daughter earns a paltry salary. For Indian audiences, the suggestion was clear: The daughter cannot get a better job or get married because of her dark skin.
But hope in the form of a fairness cream quickly resolves the situation. The daughter uses the cream, becomes fairer, and gets a better-paid job as an airline stewardess, making her father a very happy man.
"It stinks, it truly stinks," says Datta. "It's particularly disturbing and absurd in a diverse country like India, where people from southern India are not fair."
Seeking the Good Life
While sales figures of fairness creams in India are hard to come by since many companies decline to disclose sales figures, a recent study by ORG-Marg, an independent market research group, estimated that the skin-whitener market in India has been swelling at an annual rate of about 20 percent in recent years.
Industry experts however argue that they are merely catering to a widespread demand and that their products actually empower women to exercise a choice.
But while Morgan agrees that women do indeed opt for extreme beauty measures, she warns against laying the fault solely at their feet.
"I can't blame women for doing this," says Morgan. "The global south sees images of the good life and it's natural that they too want it. But you do have to look at the cynicism behind it.
"Instead of saying, 'Let's do something to help you achieve what you want in life as best you can,' it's 'you've got great tits, let's put you in a bathing suit and give you $1,000 and then we'll dump you after a year when we'll go after a newer, young thing.' "