There was a recent article by Jan Henderson on the lengthy media coverage of the death during cosmetic surgery of aspiring Chinese pop star Wang Bei.
The details are tragic: She was only 24. Ironic: She was already beautiful. And dramatic: Her mother was having the same procedure at the exact same time. So her mother woke up to discover her daughter was dead. Or perhaps not. According to conflicting reports, her mother was told nothing until the next day.
Wang Bei was having facial bone-grinding surgery “to make her jaw line fashionably narrow and her face smaller.” (Chinese women are said to prefer an oval face shaped like a “goose egg.”) The blood from Wang’s jaw drained into her windpipe, and she suffocated.
Press coverage of the Wang Bei story – in addition to describing the young woman’s failed attempt to become a successful entertainer after her 2005 appearance on the Chinese equivalent of American Idol — was almost entirely about the importance of finding a qualified surgeon for your next cosmetic procedure. This is big business in China. In 2009, the Chinese spent $2.2 billion dollars on three million procedures, a figure that grows annually by 20%. China ranks third highest in the world in number of procedures (after the US and Brazil), and it is number one in Asia.
Most of the subsequent commentary revolved around the importance of choosing a well-qualified surgeon and institution for performing your cosmetic surgery. Few questioned the value system our society is promulgating that forces young, already attractive women into having an operation that, even in the best of facilities, is not free of serious and even fatal risk. Nor did anyone raise the issue of the medical ethics of a surgeon willing to operate on a healthy, already attractive young woman for a marginal improvement in her appearance – clearly, the ethics of market forces are widely accepted.
I know of one young mother who died recently of anesthetic complications while having a breast augmentation, leaving behind three young children as orphans. Another young woman suffered fatal blood clots to her lungs following a liposuction operation.
Why am I bothering to blog about this event, tragic as it is, when it’s been already so widely reported? I write because our idolatry at the altar of Beauty has far greater implications. Of greater concern for society is the fear created in people that if they fail to conform to an almost unreachable standard of “beauty” they will be unable to find or maintain a relationship with a member of the opposite sex, or that they will fail to find work, or be unable to keep their jobs as their bodies age and the appearance of youth fades.
This fear that drives not only many women, but also an increasing number of men, into spending thousands of dollars on plastic surgery, make-up, new wardrobes and beauty spas is driven by the media’s celebration of youth and looks, by the advertising power of giant corporations whose profits come from the insecurities they create, and by our culture’s attempt to deny the mortality that is the essence of life. We are now incapable of even saying the word ‘dying,’ hiding instead behind euphemisms such as ‘passing away’ or ‘departing.’
The price we all pay for our cultural folly is huge. Starting with the ostracism that young children are cruelly subjected to from the earliest grades in school for failing to meet the artificial litmus test imposed upon them, to the multiplicity of bad choices we continue to make in our lives, and culminating in our inability to prepare for and accept death and dying as the natural continuum of our lives – the results are tragic. We marginalize and ostracize our old, our less attractive, our handicapped, while we heap undeserved rewards on those who, through no merit of their own, have reaped benefits from the genetic lottery. Last, but certainly not least, we choose leaders not as much by their character, experience, wisdom and skills, but rather by their appearance and rhetoric. God help us all!