Yufan Lu
Make Me Beautiful

More than ten million people in China undergo cosmetic surgery every year because they want to decide for themselves how their faces will look. With this story, Yufan Lu attempts to understand the mechanisms behind this desire. She visits several cosmetic surgeons to make an operation plan for her own face. After her “beauty defects” are recorded, she can choose from the most popular types of face – as if her face were the only obstacle on the path to a perfect life. The photographer has compiled her own “facial diagnoses” and taken photos in cosmetic surgery practices. Lu shows “before” photos that she finds on specialist websites and, using a knife, adds various patterns to these pictures. Afterwards, she adds to every photo a statement from a person who has undergone cosmetic surgery. Some of her photos are reminiscent of death masks that allude to what has been lost. But they offer more: hope, closure and a certain mystery.

  • Artificiality
  • Beauty
  • Optimisation
  • Surface
3 Questions
1. The door opener: Can you describe a formative moment in your career as a visual journalist?

I don’t think I really have a decisive, formative moment. I think my visual career has always been full of self-questioning, and I have to keep improving myself with reading, learning and practising to continue to be a photographer. In other words, my career is full of formative moments. But in terms of the methodologies of making works and studying photography itself, I think I benefit a lot from my study at the Photography and Urban Cultures programme at Goldsmiths College. That experience is a starting point for me.

2. The decisive moment: When did you first encounter your topic and why did you decide to cover it photographically?

I had the visual idea of asking cosmetic surgeons to make diagnoses on my self-portrait before I began the project. I’ve been unconfident in my appearance since very young. I sort of know the social mechanism behind that insecurity, but that mechanism has become so internalised that I can’t simply detach myself from self-body shaming. I think the same struggle applies to millions of people who seek cosmetic surgeries. To have my portrait being drawn upon by people with power in appearance is at first like an experiment to see how same or different one’s face is judged, and eventually a visual therapy for myself.

3. The future: What could the visual journalism of the future be like?

I think the visual journalism of the present is witnessing more untraditional, conceptual expressions. I really appreciate the freedom and accuracy in terms of many talented photographers using all kinds of visual languages to tell relevant stories and express their own ideas, which help their works become more accessible. As for visual journalism of the future, I look forward to more innovative visual practice that could break away from the visual “norms” constructed by the media and photographers today, and continue to resonate with people in an increasingly divided world.

»It’s like extracting my social self out of my body. In this sense my intention to use the project as a therapy or experiment worked.«

Yufan Lu
Some more questions....
Where does the pressure to undergo cosmetic surgery come from?

There’s internalized pressure to become beautiful in a socially recognized way the face is considered to be the image of the self, and I think doing cosmetic surgery is like making oneself a social mask, a way to “fix” one’s identity. There’s also practical pressures, for example I read in the news that a woman who signed a contract with an Internet celebrity company was required to do cosmetic surgeries before she could actually appear in front of the camera. What surprised me is that the woman just accepted the terms like that. Traditionally Chinese people believe that every hair and bit of skin is received from our parents, and one must not injure or wound the body, but now people would undergo cosmetic surgeries not only to reconstruct themselves, but also out of economic reasons.

The work is a personal project. Has your opinion on cosmetic surgery changed?

I think it changed unconsciously. Like a lot of people who would go through cosmetic surgery, I used to look into the mirror focusing on the “deficiencies” of my face. At a point I realized that I’m not that obsessed any more. It doesn’t mean the project is some magic surgical knife that makes me confident about my look all of a sudden. It’s only that I know these “deficiencies” are stubbornly coded by our society and internalised into my own perceptions it’s like extracting my social self out of my body. In this sense my intention to use the project as a therapy or experiment worked.

Different tools to measure a face. © Yufan Lu.

What beauty ideals are cosmetic surgeries based on? Are they Western beauty ideals or rather Chinese ones?

My work shows mainly Chinese beauty ideals, or Asian beauty ideals. For example, Chinese cosmetic surgeons like to suggest double eyelid (and they specifically standardized the eyelid width: 4-6mm is natural style, 8-10mm is “European style”) and whitening injection (I read in a book that people prefer white skin because in traditional agricultural society white skin meant that you are wealthy and that you don’t have to work in the sun). There are also influences from South Korea’s beauty standards, not only because of the introduction of South Korean pop culture but also because many cosmetic surgeons in China are drawing experience from South Korea. There are also economic reasons, like the Internet celebrity fever in China.

Do you think that beauty apps and social media like Instagram, TikTok and others have increased the trend for cosmetic surgery?

I think so. I think they strengthen social stereotypes regarding what “beautiful” is. Especially since technology has become so advanced that people can apply beauty filters during live broadcasting gradually it becomes unacceptable to show one’s face without the filters. In this way cosmetic surgery is like adding a real-life filter to one’s face. I think it’s an example of how people are affected by their visual representation.

Was there a special moment during your work that is important to you?

I think a special moment was when I felt like I had divided myself into two by using my own face to do the project: one is a desperate cosmetic surgery patient who tries to look for a cure, the other observes from the outside like it’s someone else’s issue.

© Yufan Lu.

Your work seems to be a long-term project, how does it continue now?

I began working on the project in 2018 and I have just ended the shooting process. My next plan is to make a photobook from the project. I designed and made a dummy by myself, but it sort of got stuck at this stage I’m trying to look for opportunities to cooperate with book designers or publishers.

Curated by Moritz Lehmann

© for all photos by the photographers
© for videos Lumix Festival Hanover, if not indicated otherwise.

*1991 in Beijing, China
Yufan Lu completed her studies in 2017 with an MA in Photography and Urban Cultures from Goldsmiths, University of London. Her work addresses the urban, particularly urban identities, the relationships between people and places, as well as the exploration of their emotional states.


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