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Health and wellness

Body dysmorphia in Hong Kong – doctor fears disorder is rife, with low self-esteem causing plastic surgery addiction

Human Ken and Barbie dolls are an extreme manifestation of a condition that leads people to seek repeatedly to improve their appearance by going under the surgeon’s knife

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 October, 2017, 6:02pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 October, 2017, 7:25pm

Human Ken doll Rodrigo Alves has had 10 nose jobs, silicone chest implants, a butt lift, and much more. Not content with that, the 34-year-old reality star from Brazil plans to have a sex change and become Barbie. He first went under the knife in 2004 after struggling with his identity in his childhood.

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Human Barbies and Kens are just one factor behind the recent rise of “body dysmorphia”: a disorder that causes someone to judge their self-image harshly, causing appearance-related stress and a tendency to get hooked on plastic surgery.

Harvard-trained doctor Sue Jamieson claims body dysmorphic disorder is now rife in Hong Kong as an increasing number of people seek to improve their appearance.

“I believe it’s actually very common, but we don’t realise it,” she says. “We just think a patient is perhaps like a neurotic or overly worried and anxious about their appearance,” Dr Jamieson says.

In fact, the disorder does have a strong association with anxiety and low self esteem, which bother half her patients, she says. But there is more to it than that.

A post shared by Rodrigo Alves (@rodrigoalvesuk) on Oct 1, 2017 at 10:48am PDT

Perfectionism is also a factor, because the environment is competitive in many ways, she says.

Spurred by a sense of imperfection, her dysmorphic clients may be in the market for a new nose, Botox or some other expensive “corrective” procedure.

A sufferer may be overly concerned about one muscle or breast being bigger than another, although it is perfectly normal for one breast to be 10 to 20 per cent bigger than the other, she says.

Often, the operation meant to fix the perceived flaw goes wrong, making the situation worse, she says. “Then it’s repairing the damage, and they actually forget what they looked like in the beginning sometimes,” she says.

I think Chinese historically have had these Western role models and Hollywood film stars and thought that they look really good
Harvard-trained doctor Sue Jamieson

Invariably the look that the surgery-obsessed clients seek is European. The reason, according to Jamieson, is the impact of Western culture.

“I think Chinese historically have had these Western role models and Hollywood film stars and thought that they looked really good,” she says.

In China, the dysmorphia prevalence rate is slightly less than 5 per cent, according to research by Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.

Other than Alves, few living Kens exist, except American plastic surgery fan Justin Jedlica. The self-styled artist and pioneer of the modifiable male aesthetic states that he has no intention of stopping surgery.

In fact, he acts as a consultant for others considering modification, which he presents as a sacred, artistic act. “Your body is your temple, and Justin is here to act as the architect your design specialist,” his statement says.

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Last year, according to British newspaper the Sun, Jedlica and his friend, self-declared living cartoon Pixee Fox, vowed to live together as the real-life Ken and Barbie – to share life as living dolls.

Like Jedlica, Fox seems all-in … and then some. In her bid to be the ultimate Barbie, she has had four boob jobs and liposuction and removed six ribs. “I am dedicating my life to creating my own fairy tale. I see my body as a work of art, my life as a science project, and the world as my gallery,” says Fox’s website statement.

The Swedish-born performer faces stiff competition from a gaggle of real-life Barbies who have gone under the knife. The sisterhood includes Ukrainian model and entertainer Valeria Lukyanova, fellow Ukrainian Alina Kovalevskaya, two Russians – Lolita Richie and Angelica Kenova – and British mother Kerry Miles.

According to British tabloid newspaper reports, Miles has spent more than £100,000 (US$130,000) to look like the doll, and set aside £20,000 for her daughter to follow suit.

Rival Briton Blondie Bennett is reportedly such a Barbie buff that she has undergone hypnotherapy to reduce her IQ. A more complicated case, Californian Amber Guzman or Amber Kohaku Chan, just dresses and makes up like Barbie to distract from her symptoms of the wasting disease muscular dystrophy.

Likewise, Tokyo-based Barbie Taylor R presents as natural, inspired by the lifestyle trend called kawaii: cuteness in the context of Japanese culture. According to Taylor, while in Western culture cuteness is viewed as a trait that you should grow out of, in Japan it is cherished indefinitely.

Despite the inspirational toy dolls’ innocent air, they are charged with doing harm – nurturing unrealistic body image expectations. In January 2017, it emerged that playing with Barbie dolls just once could make young girls think they needed to be thin. The research, published in the journal Body Image, found that the dolls made girls as young as five equate thinness with perfection.

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In line with unease about the impact on girls and slipping sales, Barbie maker Mattel has given her an overhaul with good results – 66 per cent of Americans surveyed by HuffPost/YouGov said they knew that Mattel is selling a more diverse line of dolls. And a vast majority favoured the development: just 8 per cent were opposed.

Mattel’s makeover means that parents bothered by Barbie’s standard superhuman proportions can buy a fuller, curvy version. Barbie is also available in petite, black and Islamic form. In the product pitch for her flowery Chinese guise, Mattel describes her costume as gorgeous and highlights her intricate bordering.

No longer an icon of bland masculinity, Ken too has undergone some startling multicultural changes. You can now buy broad, pan-racial and cornrowed Kens. A yoga dude Ken with a man-bun now even exists.

Inevitably there is also an Asian Ken from Japan, who wields a samurai-style sword.

The cultural chameleon must sometimes feel like impaling himself, because on average, kids just have one Ken doll to seven Barbies. The skewed female-first ratio may partly explain Alves’ decision to assume Barbie’s identity next.

Meantime, being a living Ken is hard. The role requires constant maintenance. Bits drop off and need repairing, according to Alves, who states he was born in the wrong body.

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Perversely, often body alteration enthusiasts are already beautiful, according to Jamieson. “I treat a lot of models – often the most beautiful people are like this,” she says.

In therapy, her practice’s take is to encourage clients to be comfortable in their own shoes.

“Fifty per cent of my patients are in this anxious sort of spectrum where they come in with many anxieties about their health and, obviously, about their body and worrying about small things or their appearance.

“So I see this as a general part of general anxiety, perfectionism and the competitiveness. I really think it’s that they’re all striving to be as good as they can.”

Barbie lookalike Pixee Fox might agree because, her website vows, her body modification journey is far from over.

“Pixee is just warming up, and has even bigger plans to come.”