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Eye of the Beholder

China now leads the world in breast augmentation surgery. In Brazil where there are more Avon ladies than soldiers, women are having their buttocks infused with fat. In Mauritania progress is being reported, just 10 percent of young girls are being force-fed. The world is changing and so is the face and shape of beauty.

In a world with seven billion people it’s getting harder and harder to stand out. Shaved heads, Mohawk dayglo hairdos, head to toe tattoos; steroidal biceps are just the most recent attempts by alpha males/females to stand out from the pack. The U.S. and Europe increasingly live in an age of ugly beauty where traditional notions of media molded pretty is morally suspect and ugliness is gaining allure, according to author Nancy Etcoff who takes a Darwinian view in her book, “Survival of the Prettiest.”

Beauty has always been in the beholder’s eye but is also a window into a country’s psyche. Narcissism and power go hand in hand and perhaps no other country’s face and body is changing as rapidly as China’s. For centuries young Chinese girls had their feet bound to achieve “golden lotus foot,” a practice that was finally banned in the 20th century. To mold a young girl’s feet to keep them small, may seem quaint and reasonably non-invasive compared to today’s obsession with multiple plastic surgeries.

When China lifted its ban on cosmetic surgery in the 1980s and its economy mushroomed, the new middle class wanted everything from bigger breasts to rounder eyes to taller silhouettes. Today the Chinese are spending around $3 billion a year to beautify themselves and look more Western. The changes are fueled by heated competition in the job and marriage markets. The downside has been the creation of a cottage industry of quack plastic surgeons dubbed “firemen” who do the procedures out of beauty parlors. There were over 250,000 botched procedures in the largely unregulated industry.

Fat is Beautiful

Africa has always marched to its own drummer and that is especially true when it comes to looking good. The ancient Egyptians are credited by many as giving the world the cult of beauty by developing a full array of cosmetic products. The tribes of central and southern Africa developed scarification techniques that make today’s plastic surgeries almost look civilized. Lip plates and ear gauging are still in evidence among the Mursi and Surma of Ethiopia and the Masai of Kenya. Lip plates boomed during the slave trader era as it was a way to escape enslavement. The traders rejected those with the plates as not being “pristine”. Some lip plates extended six inches and ears dangled equally as far laden with jewelry.

While much of the world has embraced straight hair and tall/ thin physiques, Africa doesn’t adhere to conventional beauty. African-American women spend billions to straighten their hair with the chemical relaxer sodium hydroxide, a harmful chemical, but the Afro and natural look is still in vogue in Africa. Those greyhound thin white cover girls glossing magazine covers in the U.S., Europe and South America won’t turn heads on the streets of Lagos or Ouagadougou. A big woman colorfully wrapped in a flowing Kaftan or a pot bellied man in his dashiki more often marry up and achieve status in many African countries.

Beauty has always been a visual certificate of health especially in countries ravaged by disease. Again Africa stands out. Aids has delayed the thin-is-in trend there. If you have a few extra pounds of fat that is a sign that you don’t have the dread disease and are a safer candidate for marriage or a job. However, in some war torn countries such as Liberia those love handles could get you killed. Big men were the country’s most respected and their size represented wealth and status. During the nation’s civil war big bodied men and women were killed as the reed-thin rebels assumed they had stolen the nation’s wealth.

Mauritania is an Arab republic in Northern Africa. For decades, it has preferred its women obese and wife fat-farms were established. Young girls would be forced to eat and were actually tortured by having their fingers and toes broken as they were fed copious amounts of couscous, milk and porridge. The practice is in decline today as the force-feeding has dropped from 30 percent to 11 percent. Mauritania men are now opting for a more streamlined wife, according to the BBC.

Nightingale Droppings, Goldfish Pedicures

Asia has long had its austere beauty standards and elaborate methods. The Karenni people of Myanmar valued long necks and devised an 18 inch coiled gold necklace to achieve it. Japan may have taken the most Byzantine path to beauty. Its spa culture dates to 737 AD and its Geisha and Kabuki cultures led to an obsession with pure opaque skin.

Japan’s home beauty brews relied on the bounty of nature. Nightingale dropping facials were developed 500 years ago and are currently available at London’s Hari salon. A 90-minute Nightingale dropping facial will cost you 135 pounds. The ancient Japanese discovered that bird dung has skin lightening properties that contain the enzyme, guanine, that will brighten dull skin. Other Japanese beauty rituals still in vogue include rice bran wrinkle treatments, wakame seaweed detox facials and goldfish pedicures. Goldfish have an appetite for dead scaly skin. Thankfully piranhas don’t inhabit Japanese waters.

India gave the world the Ayurveda, a holistic approach to beauty that focuses on inner, outer and lasting beauty. The ancient Indians realized without health there could be no beauty and there are no short cuts to achieve either. The Ayurveda recognized the ravages of poor diet and stress. Yoga, meditation and a good night’s sleep coupled with plant based (cardamom, cinnamon) skin care treatments were the answer. Steam boxes and clay face masks were also used. They must have been doing something right. Yoga and meditation salons are trendy and the end result on the subcontinent is the lustrous locks of its people. Today’s Indian women have the world’s most prized hair. Hair is gold and sold for high prices at auction then shipped to Los Angeles where it is converted into weaves.

China on the Fast Track

In its race to out perform the U.S. the Chinese are not exactly pursing the holistic route to beauty today. Its women are not only getting breast implants but men are too and paying $1200 for the privilege. The bigger chest gives some men the kind of physique that would attract a mate or impress the boss. The nation’s one child per family decree has led to an imbalance where men far outnumber women. Men need to tone up to make an impression. Working out in the gym could have the desired effect but the Chinese are on the fast track.

Botched beauty treatments have drawn the attention of government officials who realize they need to save the people from themselves. In 2006, the Ilizard leg extension surgery was banned. In a Frankensteinian procedure, a patient’s shin bones were cut in half and a metal brace with pins was employed. Developed by a Russian doctor to help dwarfs, the Chinese adaptation backfired when infections and deformities resulted. Heel implant surgery has replaced the procedure but it too has not produced the next generation of Yao Mings.

Some in China are realizing that fast track beauty is based on myth and a way for others to make money. Wang Baobao is the poster woman for beauty gone awry. She was an aspiring dancer from China’s poor northeast and at 16 had her first nip and tuck. Today she is 30 and after 175 plastic surgeries on every part of her body has spent $600,000 for surgery and repairs. She is barely recognizable, her boyfriend left her and now she is older, wiser and bitter. She now has a website warning her countrymen to avoid taking beauty short cuts. She told the Washington Post, “This is a no-end track, you can never turn back.”