Asian Women Rate Western Beauty a Cut Above Their Own : Cosmetic surgery: From Thailand to South Korea to the Philippines, women who can afford it go under the knife to have their eyelids and noses altered. Not doing so crimps careers, they say.


Makeup artists complained about her slanted eyes and broad nose. Photographers said they couldn't find her best side. Costume designers balked at dressing her.

Although the Thai singer was beautiful by traditional Asian standards--with delicate features, smooth skin and thick, dark hair--she didn't look Western.

That was hurting her career.

Last spring, 24-year-old Naree Krajang finally gave in. She underwent plastic surgery to remove some of the skin and fatty tissue on her upper eyelids to make her eyes look rounder and put a fold in the lid. The doctor also implanted a piece of silicone on the bridge of her nose to make it look less flat.

"I didn't want others to criticize or insult me anymore," she said.

As Thailand embraces fast-food restaurants, blue jeans and Hollywood movies in its zeal to Westernize, its women are having their faces nipped and tucked to fit in. Though many say they are not seeking to look Western, the higher nose bridges and smaller, folded eyelids they are getting are distinctly European.

This type of cosmetic surgery has taken off in much of male-dominated Asia, where beauty is a must for many women who want to get ahead. From South Korea to the Philippines to Malaysia, women who can afford it are going under the knife in hopes of achieving the now-popular European concept of beauty.

"It's a trend," said Kanjana Spindler, editor in chief of the Thai edition of the women's magazine Elle. "You can see all these plastic surgery clinics popping up like mushrooms."

Montana Ratchadamnuen, 30, the owner of a furniture store, had her third nose job recently in one of those clinics. The first one had left the bridge too high and the second one left the silicone implant too visible.

Her nostrils are now lined with stitches and her nose is swollen from her third operation. It will be up to six months before the swelling subsides and she'll know if she likes this latest nose.

"If it's not beautiful, I must get a new one," she said. "I want to be beautiful."

Her husband, Chot Thammathong, 32, says Montana was beautiful before she started getting nose jobs: "Even the first one was unnecessary."

But Montana, a petite, pleasant-looking woman, thinks he is just being nice. She is considering implants to increase the size of her breasts and surgery on her full, sexy lips to make them smaller.

Although beauty is important throughout Asia, in Thailand it appears to consume many women. They often refuse to wear motorcycle helmets--in violation of the law--for fear of mussing their hair. Their clothes are never wrinkled and their makeup is always skillfully applied. Many use creams to lighten their skin. And plastic surgery has become a must among the in-crowd.

"Thais are very vain by nature," Spindler said. "In this country, people always look at the surface and place so much emphasis on outside appearances."

Dr. Thep Vechavisit works 12-hour days, seven days a week, to disguise the conceived flaws in those appearances. Women often come in groups to undergo the half-hour operations in his tiny operating room.

The doctor works with the doors open onto two recovery rooms. Other patients can be heard snoring, or sometimes vomiting, in the adjacent rooms. The doctor and patient don surgical gowns, hats and masks over their street clothes to protect against infection.

There is no consultation. The doctor simply cuts out a strip of skin, about a third of an inch, from the patient's eyelash and removes a small patch of yellow fat underneath before sewing up the incision to create a fold in the now-smaller lid.

The nose operation is even easier. The doctor shaves a malleable piece of silicone into the right shape. He then cuts a hole into the roof of the patient's nostrils to dig a tunnel under the skin to the bridge of the nose. He pushes the silicone into place between the cartilage and bone and sews up the cut.

Although the nose operation is not risky, Thep says there is a slight chance of blinding the patient during the eyelid surgery.

The ear, nose and throat doctor does about 100 nose and eye operations a month in between face-lifts and breast-implant operations in a clinic below his apartment. The charge is $320 for eye surgery and $480 for a nose job to "Westernize" his patients.

Dr. Surasak Muangsombut, head of the Plastic Surgeons Assn., cautions that there are more than 1,000 untrained doctors performing such operations in Bangkok because Thai law permits anyone with a medical degree to perform surgery. Countless women have therefore suffered permanent scars, painful infections and even implants that wear a hole in their noses and pop out.

Both he and Thep say they spend much of their time fixing what untrained surgeons have wrought.

Despite the widespread accounts of botched surgeries, Thai women think the operations are worth the risk. Some believe the proper eyes or nose can literally change their lives.

Thadsuang Maneejan, a 19-year-old soap opera star, says she underwent a $4,000 surgery last November because everyone said her fatty eyelids made her look sad. Her colleagues, her director and even a fortuneteller told her they were bad luck.

Instead of the smaller, unhappy parts that dominated her career in the past, when she always looked sad, the actress says she now is able to get key roles to play happy women who attract men.

"Now I can act sexy," she said.

Although actresses and singers were the only ones who could afford the operations when they became popular more than a decade ago, the proliferation of clinics, and resulting competitive prices, has made the surgery affordable to Thailand's growing middle class.

Dr. Suwatana Poksawad says women from all walks of life come to her clinic. Often, she says, mothers encourage their daughters to undergo the operations between high school and college, where they will change friends. She herself performed eyelid and nose surgery on both of her daughters during that transition. She hasn't suggested it, however, to her 18-year-old son.

Thais generally believe that men don't need to go to such extremes to improve their appearances.

"For women, beauty is first," said To Phuklan, a 20-year-old salesman at a major department store. "For men, their character, habits and actions are more important."

Spindler wants her magazine to convince women that such attributes are just as important for them.

"Stick to what you've got and supplement it with something else that you can show off, like your brain," Spindler said.

But Naree, the jazz singer, says the public doesn't subscribe to that philosophy.

"The best actresses and singers can't get the best roles or major success unless they are beautiful," she said. "Westerners have perfect figures, beautiful faces and shapes. . . . We want to be beautiful, like foreigners."

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