Postcard from Beijing... no 8

Changing faces
So Spring Festival has been and gone for another year and my colleagues are finally back at work, after an extended vacation. Many have returned a few pounds heavier having indulged in too many dumplings, while a couple have taken the phrase "new year, new you" in its most literal sense and returned with new faces.

It's true. Not content with buying brand new clothes to update their image, two colleagues have bought themselves a new pair of eyes - having undergone an operation called double slit surgery. They haven't been backward at describing the procedure - doctors cut, fold and sew the upper eyelids with what looks like a fishhook, to create a crease above the eyelids - which has left me reeling.

It's not that I am surprised by the length women will go to in their quest for beauty: Women (myself included) have always suffered for the sake of looking more fabulous. Although I haven't - as yet - succumbed to any sucking, suturing, nipping, tucking, injecting or implanting, I regularly sit in a salon with my hair in foil and am always teasing and tweezing unruly eyebrows into the perfect arch. What I am surprised about is how open my Chinese counterparts have been in coming forward and 'fessing up to going under the knife. Back home, plastic surgery abounds but few would admit to having had "help" (unless your name is Katie Price or Mickey Rourke) for nobody wants to be thought of as a renzao meinü - aka man-made beauty. In Beijing, it seems to be a different story: Plastic surgery in China is now a $15 billion a year industry and a way for Chinese citizens to show off their wealth.

The reaction in the office to their new eyes has also been interesting. My Chinese colleagues without fail, all rave about Wei and Li Na's new appearance - telling them that their bigger eyes make them look "more awake, more Western and more beautiful." Conversely the laowai in the office can't help but think that their rounder eyes look, well, wrong. To us, they don't look Western; rather they look like Asians who have asked their surgeons for wider eyes to look more Caucasian. And the really ironic thing is that we Westerners want to look anything but! Case in point? My laowai girlfriends and I have spent hours scouring Beijing's shops for tinted moisturiser (to help our pale English rose complexions appear as though they have been kissed by the sun), to no avail. (In China the rule, when it comes to beauty products, seems to be if it's white, it's right). I've also wasted whole weekends in the gym in my quest for a petite figure and smaller chest like that of my Chinese colleagues, so that I too can wear the cute body conscious clothing stocked in the stores at Xidan - which are deeply unflattering on Western women with their ample hips and bust.

All of which demonstrates that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. It also illustrates the ridiculous amount of time and money that mainly women, but also men, are spending on quests that are not only dangerous (let's not forget that well-known singer Wang Bei died during an operation to have her jaw reshaped late last year), but at the end of the day only skin deep.

Beijing will be a better place when locals and laowai alike wake up and realise that while image matters - it's only natural to want to look younger and better - it really isn't everything.