More Than Skin Deep: Chinese Youth Increasingly Favor Plastic Surgery

Posted on February 29, 2012

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To us Chinese, “face” (mianzi, 面子) is something we will fight to death to preserve. “Giving face” (geimianzi, 给面子), or showing respect, is expected in any social interaction. On the other hand, “losing face” (diumianzi, 丢面子) is perhaps one of the most disastrous things that can happen to a Chinese in a social setting.

Yes, we Chinese love our “face.”

In the past, this love for “face” was largely metaphorical. In recent years, however, to Chinese, especially young Chinese, the importance of “face” is becoming more literal than ever. With the growing appeal of entertainment and celebrity culture, Chinese youth seem to be increasingly obsessed with good looks. The employment and gender inequality has given rise to a culture that disproportionately values outer beauty, especially in young women.

A reality show featuring "artificial beauties" was canceled by media authorities in 2007.

The lure–and pressure–of having a beautiful face and an attractive figure has motivated tens of thousands of young Chinese to go under the knife each year, spending millions of dollars of cool cash for a hot look that they hope will bring them, if not fortune and fame, at least job opportunities and love. According to Phoenix TV (ZH), China has become the third biggest market of plastic surgery in the world after the U.S. and Brazil. From 2009 to 2010, 3.4 millions of plastic surgery procedures were conducted in China. In 2010, the plastic surgery in China was already a 300 billion yuan ($47.7 billion) industry that employed more than 20 million people. The industry has a 40% annual growth and its suppliers boast a staggering 60% annual growth in sales.

Besides those who undergo plastic surgery in China, other Chinese chose to do it in South Korea, a country with the world’s highest per capital rate of cosmetic plastic surgery. According to the statistics from the Korean Embassy in China, in 2011, Korea issued 1,073 visas (ZH) to Chinese citizens who would travel to Korea in order to undergo plastic surgery.

The burgeoning celebrity culture in China feeds young Chinese’s curiosity and interest in plastic surgery. News, gossips and speculations about celebrities’ faces have become popular topics online, often accompanied with before-and-after photos for comparison.

Recently, Faye Wong, the legendary pop icon who is known for her unique style and uncompromising attitude towards media, is at the center of speculations. Gossips about whether Wong has gone under the knife to fix her nose and chin are circulating wildly online and getting mixed reactions from fans. Some are surprised that even the unearthly “goddess” of pop has resorted to plastic surgery, something that only lowbrow (su, 俗) celebrities seek. Other fans, however, respond with understanding and respect. “Online on-lookers love meaningless gossips. Whether or not the icon Faye Wong has undergone plastic surgery is none of anybody else’s business,” a fan wrote on Weibo.

Nevertheless, plastic surgery is almost an open secret in the entertainment circle. Many aspiring young men and women won’t hesitate to spend money and go through painful procedures to change their looks so that they have better chance in their career. This trend compelled Beijing Film Academy, the number one film school in China, to announce before its entrance examinations this year that students who had tattoos or had undergone plastic surgery would be disqualified for admission. “The changes in their faces or other parts of the body, and the tattoos too, might affect their performance when they are trying to depict a figure in a play,” Wang Jinsong, deputy director of the Performance Institute of the academy, told China Daily.

The popularity of plastic surgery, however, isn’t just among those who work in entertainment. Gender inequality and employment pressure for young women have forced some of them to consider plastic surgery seriously. It is almost an unspoken rule that some employers tend to hire female employees based on their looks more than their educational and professional merits. “They may not say it openly, but during the process they will pick the prettier one,” a college graduate, who had her eye lids worked on told Los Angeles Times.

Sadly, the great value society puts in women’s looks has created image issues for many young women in China. Although society respect strong, intelligent and capable women, many Chinese men still consider physically attractive women who are less capable than they are more desirable than otherwise as their partners. In the first-tier cities where single women outnumber single men (7:1) and where young people have more disposable income, as many young women feel great pressure to have good looks and a slim body more than anything else, plastic surgery looks more and more like a viable option to happiness and security to young women. In a recent post on zhuansoo.com, an online community for Chinese students who are interested in studying overseas, the author asks, “Should female students go and study abroad or save the money to get plastic surgery?” According to her, almost all male students who responded to a post she came across had said that they would choose a pretty girl who was only interested in beauty, shopping and fashion as their girlfriend over a plain-looking but academically successful girl. “Is face really that important?” the author is confused.

However, image is not only an issue for young women. More and more Chinese government officials, both men and women, are also rushing to go under the knife so that they will look younger, thinner, and more attractive. Caring more and more about their image, these official hope that plastic surgery will improve their popularity among the public and hide the signs of aging.

As more Chinese are willing to invest in their looks each year, health experts have warned the public of the risks related to plastic surgery, especially in a country where poisonous milk power and fake cooking oil are not rare cases that scare the public on a daily basis. In fact, in the past ten years, on average, 20 thousand cases of medical malpractice claims were filed each year, which amounted to a total of 200 thousand faces destroyed in China. In 2010, a reality show starlet died from a medical accident during a plastic surgery procedure, which raised the awareness of the negative impact of the craze for artificial beauty on Chinese youth’s mental and physical health.

Recently, on a special topic page on Weibo, netizens are asked whether they will choose to undergo plastic surgery considering its benefits and risks. The topic became one the most popular on the website, which has received 3,419,100 responses.

Although most of those who responded still prefer “natural beauty,” they are also open to surgery, being aware of the risks. However, now, one may take more caution and think twice before she/he lets anybody cut open her/his face or body: “if you’re to undergo these procedures, you must first verify the source of the products and whether the service provider is a professional institution so as to reduce the risks,” as a netizen warns.

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