The New Face of China: The Rise of Plastic Surgery

China is fast becoming a country of great transformation—and that includes its faces. With more than two million operations per year in 2009, China has jumped to take the third spot in the list of countries with the most plastic surgery operations. And this number is only expected to double every year.

So why the sudden rise in popularity? Plastic surgery is now the “fourth most popular way to spend discretionary income in China” according to China’s vice health minister, behind houses, cars, and travel. It seems as if having a certain “look” has become synonymous with wealth—and younger people are striving to get that look.

In the United States, women aged 35-50 are most likely to get plastic surgery, and the top three procedures are breast augmentation, liposuction, and double eyelid surgery. In comparison, Chinese girls who are only in middle school are already starting to get eye jobs. The top three procedures in China all focus on one’s face—eye jobs, nose jobs, and jaw line jobs. On the one hand, women in America are trying to look younger. And on the other hand, women and girls in China are just trying to look different.

Looking at the most popular procedures in China, it’s easy to make the leap that the people who go under the knife are trying to look more White or Western. Reading through the comments from some of the women who are doing this, though, it seems more like these women are falling prey to a new type of conspicuous consumption. After all, what better way to show off your wealth than to aim towards a certain beauty norm? One woman, Devil, explained that the surgery would make her “look more sophisticated and exquisite”—before making her boyfriend pay for the $6000 procedure. Another woman, who spent $15,000 of her savings that she would have use to build a Starbucks, instead dropped the money on surgery so that she could see what she looked like.

I would be fine with this if it weren’t the case that girls as young as middle school were already starting to get things “fixed”. This isn’t a question of a hare lip, or any feature that a girl might get teased about. And even women who are older and more set in their careers are throwing away their savings on a snap decision. After all, why own a business when you can look better?

Now, I know that the US is the capital of conspicuous consumption. We have our fair share of fast cars, big homes, and Botox and boob jobs. But it saddens me that the young girls are being drawn into it as well in China. In the United States, women under the age of 18 account for 1.3% of breast augmentations, 41.3% of ear surgery, and 6.8% of nose reshaping. For the past few years, reports have been questioning why younger and younger girls in the US have been getting so-called “adult” plastic surgeries.

In the end, it seems like China and the US aren’t so different when it comes to consumption after all. Both countries have been spending more money on big things like houses, cars, and now plastic surgery. While many people could likely sensationalize the Chinese surgeries as attempts to look more White, I think that both countries are again the same in that they are simply trying to achieve a certain set of norms. The fact that the Chinese norms happen to correlate with looks that might be considered White doesn’t mean that they are, in fact, trying to be White. Perhaps the lesson to be learned is that, with so many countries trying to move forward and modernize, deep down the goals are the same.

[Photo Courtesy of NY Times]

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