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BEIJING (Reuters) - When 21-year-old Michelle returns to university this fall, the math major from western Shanxi province will be sporting a new look, and not just because of her fashionable outfits.
Her father drove her six hours to Beijing earlier this month to the Qingmu Plastic Surgery Center, where he paid 6,000 yuan ($940) for surgery to give her double-fold eyelids -- a common attribute of Westerners that is increasingly popular in China.
She emerged from the half-hour operation ebullient in her clingy black top and stylish green miniskirt, despite swollen eyes behind oversized sunglasses.
"I wanted to look and feel better about myself," said Michelle, who declined to give her surname. "When the swelling goes down in a few days, my eyes will be bigger and more lovely."
A generation of Chinese young people is growing up better-looking than their parents, and it's not just good nutrition.
Plastic surgery is booming. The number of procedures hit 3 million in 2010, the Ministry of Health said, as the newly rich trade up not only handbags and phones, but also their looks.
They're starting early, too.
Students made up as much as 80 percent of plastic surgery patients in Beijing last summer, according to a study by the China Medical Treatment Orthopedics and Beauty Association.
"Parents want their daughters to be beautiful so they'll have an easier time finding a job or a husband," said Ding Xiaobang, a Beijing plastic surgeon, as he took a breather between consecutive breast augmentation surgeries.
"They'll often bring the child to get surgery the summer before college or even high school."
China ranked second behind the United States in number of aesthetic surgical procedures performed according to a 2009 survey by the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. But the tastes between the two vary widely.
In China, the most popular procedures are eye and nose refinements, while the U.S. sees breast augmentation and liposuction at the top, Ding said.
With rising wealth in China, beauty is increasingly a status symbol, the triumph of money over birth, experts say.
"This society is brutally practical," said Li Yinhe, an expert in women's sociology with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "Everyone wants to climb to a higher rung of the social ladder, and that includes improving your looks."
Li says the strict beauty standard in China puts enormous pressure on women, adding: "In a rational society, everyone should not have to look the same to be beautiful."
In a country where job listings routinely include height requirements and ask for photos, it's no surprise that there is widespread belief that better looks will help a woman get ahead.
"A diploma is important, but looks are equally important," the Qingmu center's website says bluntly.
The sentiment was echoed by the center's Director of Operations Qin Lili: "If there's an ugly girl and a pretty girl, which one do you think will be more accepted by society?"
Surgeons say many young women opt for plastic surgery right before they begin the job hunt.
Sandra Zheng, a director at China's state-run television station CCTV, said she got two injections of hyaluronic acid, or "liquid facelift," to raise the bridge of her nose last summer after graduating from university.
"A lot of my friends had gotten similar procedures done, so I think I was influenced by them," said Zheng, 23. "I got it to improve my self-confidence."
But along with beauty comes pain -- and danger.
The boom in plastic surgery has resulted in a mushrooming of unregistered and sometimes unsafe practitioners, which came into the spotlight last November when a contestant on the TV talent show "Super Girl" died during a jaw-slimming operation.
On a more mundane level, young women risk being stuck with a face they don't much like even after enduring painful surgery and shelling out a lot of cash.
One young woman at a Beijing clinic said a surgeon had taken off too much skin from the corners of her eyes, leaving her with a slightly alarmed expression. Another was unhappy that her almond-shaped eyes looked practically the same after a 14,000 yuan operation to widen them.
In tandem with the popularity of plastic surgery is a surge in the number of lawsuits from unhappy patients. That number has risen to 20,000 a year, and China's Ministry of Health launched a campaign this year to weed out unregistered centers.
At the most reputable centers -- such as the one Ding works at, which is run by the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences -- business still booms. Ding's center is filled with well-heeled young women any day of the week.
He says that in summertime more than half are students, which means they have plenty of time to become regular customers, like 29-year-old Li Qing.
Li, who says she's spent more than 100,000 on surgery over the years, has a thick file at the clinic and was back to replump her cheeks and nose with hyaluronic acid.
Even with her face smeared with anesthetic gel before the procedure, Li looks like the ideal Chinese beauty, with large eyes, delicate nose and long and slender limbs.
But a closer look reveals a bump on the bridge of her nose where too much hyaluronic acid was injected two years ago, and her gently rounded cheeks are surprisingly stiff to the touch.
"My husband still doesn't know I've done these procedures, because I do them little by little while he's away on business trips," she added.
$1 = 6.394 yuan
Reporting by the Beijing newsroom; Editing by Ken Wills and Elaine Lies