The Global Makeover

When the ancient Indian poet Kalidasa wrote his epic tale of love between Lord Shiva and his consort, Parvati, his vision of female beauty had little to do with the half-starved waifs of Western catwalks or the lean-muscled athletes of cereal boxes. To Kalidasa, Parvati was a soft, voluptuous temptress. In the centuries since, ampleness has remained a great female virtue in India. This classical image of beauty is inscribed on temple walls and depicted in sculpture, paintings and literature, including the famous treatise on esthetics, the Kama Sutra. The ideal Indian beauty, says Alka Pande, author of "Indian Erotica," has always been "heavy breasted, with a languorous gait, large child-bearing hips, full--in every sense of the term--luscious lips." The ideal has been expressed, too, in crude but simple measurements of chest, waist and hips, most often in inches: 36, 24, 36.

Those are precisely Preeti Singh's measurements. She also happens to have a luscious-lipped, round face that would have made Parvati proud. She is, in the classical Indian sense, beautiful. Yet the 24-year-old aspiring model is struggling to get her career off the ground. She's a three-time loser in the Miss India contest, never once making it to the final round. She hasn't been able to land a job on the most lucrative local advertising campaigns. The modeling agencies in her native India have told her that she's "too big" for high-profile local ads and international spots. Singh has tried slimming down with diets and intense workout routines, but there's not much she can do: her body is a stubborn, biological fact. "It's not what designers want," she says. "It's slightly out of fashion."

Singh is caught on the cusp of a subtle sea change in the world of beauty. In recent years Eastern and Western tastes have been cross-pollinating with a vengeance. The trend is particularly pronounced in Asia, where Western notions of beauty have been sweeping aside classical ones, from China and India to Korea and Japan. The classical zaftig Indian goddesses and the heart-shaped face of the Chinese beauty are yielding to round eyes, oblong faces and lean figures. The signs can be seen in the faces of the stars of the big screen and the glossy magazines, many of whom take on a kind of amalgamated look of East and West. "It's going both ways," says Nancy Etcoff, a psychologist who studies perceptions of beauty at Harvard Medical School, "but there's still a huge influence from the Western standard."

The current trend is in many ways an extension of the longstanding influence of Western images in movies and television, accelerated in recent years by the addition of satellite television and the Internet. But the proliferation of cosmetic surgery has given this trend a new twist. Techniques and technologies of plastic surgery are more widely available than ever before. As prices keep coming down, more and more women--and men--are electing to go under the knife in pursuit of an emerging global standard of beauty. What started years ago in Beverly Hills and Palm Springs, California, has spread to Seoul, Beijing, Tokyo and Mumbai, not to mention thousands of smaller places in between. It's not just the wealthy and the famous anymore who are free to alter their looks to suit the current fashion. A growing global middle class is warming to the idea of augmenting the breasts, hips and buttocks or shaving a few millimeters off the cheekbones.

As if the notion of sawing and sewing weren't disturbing enough, there's a scientific twist to this phenomenon that's enough to raise goose bumps on your skin grafts. All this tinkering with facial and body types may be changing the way our brains perceive beauty. For millions of years our sense of beauty served an evolutionary function: it helped us choose the best mates--the wide-hipped woman best suited to bearing children, or the broad-shouldered hunk of a man who could protect and provide. But a good portion of what we think of as beautiful is merely our brain's average of all the faces we've been exposed to. Back in the days when we expressed our beauty preferences in our choice of mates, the course of human beauty was determined by natural selection. With cosmetic surgery, there's no need to wait until the next generation to fiddle with the beauty equation.

Perhaps the perfect example of the new global face of beauty is Saira Mohan, a model who's scored gigs with Chanel, Calvin Klein and Victoria's Secret. She owes her sharp features to her father's north Indian Punjab ancestry, but her round eyes and light complexion come from her mother's French-Irish-Canadian side. Mohan is just Asian enough to suit Western sensibilities, while still retaining some ambiguity. "She's one of those beautiful women who can easily be Italian, British or Spanish," says fashion photographer Atul Kasekbar. "And she can very well be an Indian in a sari." Or as Mohan told an Indian newspaper recently: "I capitalize on all the angles. I am what I am, and if they want to pay me for being Punjabi, great. If they want to pay me for looking Spanish or Italian, wonderful." Says Calvin Cheng, Asia head of Elite Model Management Group: "There is an increased awareness of all things oriental in the West. And with [the rise] of China, I think this trend is set to continue."

Mohan, of course, is not the product of cosmetic surgery; she's all natural. The interesting question, though, is to what extent her popularity is reinforced by a kind of plastic esthetic, in which all features can be smoothed over and blended into a seamless, ambiguous form? Unlike Mohan, 24-year-old Beijing-born Hao Lulu inherited classic Chinese features for which decades ago she might have considered herself lucky. Instead, Hao has had her eyes widened, the skin of her cheeks smoothed, her formerly button nose elongated, her breasts pumped up, her rear end reshaped, her hips rounded and her calves slimmed down. Plastic surgeons aren't finished with her yet. Sometime next year the doctors at Beijing's Evercare beauty center will slim her face, smooth out the skin on her neck and reshape part of her back to make it slimmer. If all goes well--and so far Hao's transformation has been smooth, if not painless--they will have succeeded in recreating Hao to their liking. In return for the $50,000 worth of surgery, Hao's agreed to be Evercare's spokeswoman for a year. Who would Hao ultimately like to look like? "I'm not trying to look like anyone, just like myself," she says, lighting up a cigarette, her plastic deadpan betraying no irony.

For many years Asian women wanted fair skin, a small pouty mouth, a straight nose, very shiny black long hair and an oval, melon-seed-shaped face. Nowadays, some Asian women want their faces lengthened and their cheeks made more angular. In China, Evercare performs about a half-dozen operations a day, seven days a week, while elsewhere doctors work in hospitals, clinics and even beauty salons. Although the Chinese government doesn't keep official statistics, the number of cosmetic operations performed in the past several years is probably in the millions. The practice has become so widespread that last year the government issued regulations to control the industry for the first time. In South Korea, business has been even more brisk. Although official figures aren't available, Korea has more than 1,200 plastic surgeons, the highest per capita in the world, who perform roughly half a million procedures a year.

In fact, the cosmetics industry is booming worldwide--including makeup, plastic surgery and spa treatments, it's a $160 billion-a-year industry. Cosmetic procedures, from Botox to breast-lifts, are safer, readily available and easier to access than ever before. Sales revenues of Allergan's cosmetic pharmaceuticals--the company that makes Botox, the wrinkle-smoothing drug--reached close to half a billion dollars, of which 30 percent came from outside the United States. Cosmetic procedures in the United States jumped to 6.9 million last year, up 226 percent from 1997; the jumps in Europe and Asia have followed suit.

Fueling the democratization of cosmetic surgery is a steady stream of new technologies--implants, Botox and laser treatments--that have come out of the lab in recent years. And there's more where that came from. Dr. Stephen Marquardt, a former plastic surgeon in Huntington Beach, California, insists that ideal beauty can be reduced to a facial geometry based on the Golden Ratio--the recurring measurement in nature of 1.618 to 1 that shows up on everything from snail shells to tree leaves. "People have tried to understand a beautiful face, but what the hell is it?" asks Marquardt. "It's an image that is mathematically quantifiable. All life is biology, all biology is chemistry, all chemistry is mathematics." He's invented technology for digitally scanning a client's face and then morphing it on a computer to conform to his mathematical standard, which surgeons can then use as a guide.The Advanced Aesthetics Institute plans to use Marquardt's program in a flagship cosmetics clinic opening later this month in Palm Beach, Florida, and eventually in stores in Tokyo, London, Paris and Rio as well as in more than 40 markets in the United States and Canada.

Despite the progress, cosmetic surgery is still a tricky business, especially when it comes to Asian women. Because the Asian face is vertical and smooth, without all the contours of Western faces, a slip of the surgeon's hand is readily apparent. Moreover, standards are often poor. In China, many illegitimate practitioners offer procedures for less than $100, turning out almost as many beasts as beauties. In the past decade more than 200,000 lawsuits have been filed by patients who claim they've been victims of botched procedures, according to government publications. "My nickname is the Fireman," jokes surgeon Chen Huanran of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, who has had to repair damage done by these so-called doctors. Another disturbing trend is that procedures are being marketed at young people--the ones most insecure about their looks. In Korea, plastic surgery is common among youth. "On the streets of Seoul these days, we see so many same-looking standardized young people produced by the same surgery," says Choi Byung Sik, an arts professor at Seoul's Kyunghee University. "Plastic surgery deprives Korean youth of their individual characteristics."

In many ways, the Western fixation on looks is being exported eastward. "There's been an estheticization of the whole culture," says Etcoff. "Everything has become an esthetic choice." The trend is bolstered by studies showing that "good-looking" people are more successful in getting jobs and higher grades in school and making friends. Ask Choi Hey Eun, a 27-year-old nurse, who borrowed $1,700 to have her nose raised by three millimeters, which makes her face look less round. It's changed her life: friends gave her compliments, her boss praised her for her positive attitude and she had better luck on dates. "They used to say I was just cute but now they say I am pretty," Choi says proudly.

Although the global tendency is toward homogenization, there are some countervailing trends. L'Oreal, the industry leader in cosmetics, now operates 12 research centers around the globe to understand how the company can fine-tune its products to the unique needs of different cultures. In September, L'Oreal opened up the Institute for Ethnic Hair and Skin Research in Chicago, devoted to African-American beauty, and the company has also done similar work in China. "We're fighting against an ideal beauty," says research spokeswoman Patricia Pineau. Some experts say that greater travel and cultural exchange among Asian countries is creating more of a Pan-Asian standard of beauty than a Western one.

Some scientists think that beauty has always been standard. They have a point. Part of our perception of beauty has been programmed by evolution to ensure that we choose the best mates, and so hasn't changed much since we were hunter-gatherers. But that's only part of the beauty formula. Nature also gave us the ability to adapt to changing circumstances--in a sense, to love the ones you're with. Even if it means learning to like the look of silicone-augmented buttocks and Botox-smoothed skin.

Editor's Pick