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Published6 Jan 2022
On her visits to various cosmetic surgeons, Lu Yufan brought a stack of self-portraits that she had printed. In Beijing, Tianjin, and other cities in China, as well as South Korea—she visited approximately 30 surgical clinics in total. Many adhered to similar beauty standards and dispensed similar advice. The clinicians drew thick lines and annotations on Lu’s portrait, explaining what should be done to improve her appearance, where to nip and where to tuck.
“The cosmetic surgery clinics represent the beauty standards of society,” Lu says.
At some point, superstition creeps in, too. Many consultants circled her temples and suggested that she have them rounded out if she wanted luck in marriage and love life to come more easily.
Many offered customized services, depending on what look the patient wanted: a pure, innocent style, a celebrity resemblance, or brand-new features that seemed more Caucasian. Nose jobs and eyelid lifts were the most popular. Sometimes, the promises were so grand they were hard to believe. “Some procedures are very risky, and they won't tell you about it,” Lu explains.
With this documentary work, Make Me Beautiful, Chinese photographer Lu Yufan addresses the subject matter of perceived beauty and self-image in Asian countries, and the facial cosmetic operations that Asians are willing to undergo in the name of the beauty standards they’ve absorbed. These procedures are meant to make the patients more attractive, but many consider plastic surgery a “Westernizing” operation that makes facial features look more Caucasian.
Besides portraits of herself, Lu also used portraits of other girls who went under the knife — pre-surgery photos taken by the clinics that Lu found on their website.
To each photo Lu applied a nip-and-tuck approach of her own. First, she cut off the clinics’ watermarks, then she kept carving, making incisions to mimic what happened to the girls’ flesh. “The cuts sort of imitate the cosmetic surgery procedures,” Lu says. “While applying those cuts, I tried to keep the original look of those girls.” But eventually the portraits no longer referred to any person who actually existed in this world.
Each cut-out portrait was paired with quotes from the person portrayed or ads promoting the clinics, creating a work of fiction that posed as candid recollections of a positive experience with cosmetic surgery.
“When I saw those photos, I was really moved by them,” Lu says, “although they are supposed to be medical portraits, very calm photos, I saw a lot of complicated feelings in those faces.”
“I can see hope, I can see insecurity, because they don’t know how they will really become after the surgery. I can also see farewell, because they’re going to say goodbye to this face.”
Some girls Lu interviewed acknowledged that they actually considered themselves “beautiful enough” before the surgery, but proceeded anyway — wanting to look better.
“Better,” in this context, often means more Western. Beauty standards adopted and promoted by our society — by the media, celebrities, advertising, fashion — all deeply contribute to the idea and language that we develop around esthetic canons of beauty and attraction. Lu hopes that her documentary project will inspire viewers to reflect on the notion of beauty in society.
“Sometimes, we internalize other people’s views on our own looks,” Lu says. “Even if we are already beautiful enough, we internalize other people's standards, the social standard of beauty. And we believe it's our own decision to do the surgeries.”
In the end, Lu offers her self-portrait once again, this time with a silk rose scarf wrapping her head, concealing her face — a cautionary exercise in resisting others’ gaze, the social gaze that descends upon us each day and that some of us recklessly embrace.
All photos © Lu Yufan, from the series Make Me Beautiful
This article is part of the series New Generation, a monthly column written by Lucia De Stefani, focusing on the most interesting emerging talents in our community.