Pursuing a better self? Girls seek beauty under the knife
Updated 10:56, 28-Jun-2018

Driven by financial freedom, South Korean pop culture as well as online and offline peer pressure, more and more Chinese people are going under the knife in the name of beauty. 

And they’re not shy about it. Many are open to sharing details of their surgical makeovers with family, friends and on social media.

Cosmetic surgery is becoming big business in China. In 2014, more than seven million operations were conducted. The burgeoning industry was valued at 400 billion yuan (62 billion US dollars) the same year, and that is expected to double by 2019, making China the world’s third largest country for plastic surgeries after the US and Brazil, according to the China Association of Plastics and Aesthetics.

To find out more about attitudes towards the booming industry, CGTN interviewed two girls - one a plastic surgery veteran, and the other, a new hand who has recently had her first cosmetic operation. Follow our cameras to learn about their rationale for seeking beauty under the knife, and glimpse how far the cosmetic business has forged its way into Chinese culture.

Yiran waiting for her surgery on liposuction.

Yiran waiting for her surgery on liposuction.

The veteran

With one of her eyes still congested days after her latest cosmetic surgery, 26-year-old Yiran said that she is still recovering from the operation but feels no pain.
Yiran may be young in years, but she is a cosmetic surgery veteran; she struggles to remember how many operations she has undergone since her first 10 years ago.
“My classmates would always call me ‘Bing Bing’ (a type of Chinese pancake) and point at my big face, and how could I bear that!” exclaimed Yiran. She was so self-conscious that she eschewed the popular ponytail – she wanted to use her hair to hide her face. 
Yiran have gone through dozens of plastic surgery procedures, including some repair work for the same parts during ten years. 

Yiran have gone through dozens of plastic surgery procedures, including some repair work for the same parts during ten years. 

The youngster dieted in the hope that her face would shrink, but in vain. Her body thinned, her face remained unchanged. Eventually she turned to cosmetic surgery in a bid to turn her life around.
And after going under the knife to have the outline of her face reshaped and nose altered, Yiran was so enamoured by the results that she went back for more. Again and again. She has now undergone dozens of operations, big and small, altering nearly every part of her body.
“I don’t think I’ve got into a habit of cosmetic surgery, though many people do describe it as addictive,” said Yiran. She explained that the repeated surgeries weren’t all simple attempts to improve: some were repairs to defects left by previous surgeries, while others were to make her features symmetrical after other operations.
The 26-year-old is now almost unrecognisable from her former self. So is she happy? Yiran insists that she is - looking in the mirror now makes her smile, and she acts as an unofficial ambassador for the industry online.

The newcomer

Han Meimei, 28, may be older than Yiran, but she is a novice when it comes to cosmetic surgery. The brand manager at a publicity company in Beijing has recently undergone her first operation.
“It is undeniable that the world is always merciful to good-looking people, while harsh to the ugly ones,” Meimei opined, reflecting on a painful breakup with an ex-boyfriend who directly criticized her appearance.
28-year-old girl Meimei is getting ready for her first experience in facial plastic surgery. 

28-year-old girl Meimei is getting ready for her first experience in facial plastic surgery. 

The 28-year-old is eager to be seen as more attractive, but remains unwavering in retaining some of her distinctive, natural features including the single-fold eyelid. She insists she has no interest in looking like one of the many Internet celebrities known for their stereotyped high-arched nose, big eyes as well as narrow and sharp jaw.
When asked about whether the risks of infection or defect from the implants she has had placed in her jaw concern her, Meimei said: “I would rather accept the surgical risks than my unloveliness.”
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Inner beauty

Yiran and Meimei have different experiences in chasing physical perfection, but agree that an appealing exterior is only meaningful if accompanied by inner beauty.
“We can never change our fortune simply with the superficial improvement of appearance but an empty brain” said Yiran, who now learns Italian in her spare time and intends to go abroad for further study. “I hope a good looking face will help me achieve more - along with my intelligence,” Meimei added.
Yiran and Meimei are just two of the millions of Chinese women who have pursued beauty at the blade of a knife, despite the potential surgical pitfalls and failures that have made frequent splashes on Chinese social media.
“It is the same as when we would steal our mother’s high heels as teenagers, we consider cosmetic surgery as one of the most effective ways to add appeal when we reach a certain age,” said Meimei, in a nod to the surging acceptance and popularity of the artificial beauty-seeking fashion.
Meimei was never alone on what could have been a scary journey. All three girls that she shares an apartment with have also had some form of surgical makeover.

Normal practice?

HSBC research suggests social media is a major factor in the normalisation of cosmetic surgery in China. Smartphone apps offering “virtual plastic surgery” by enhancing photoshave opened the door to platforms which match potential patients with appropriate clinics.
Chen Xiao, chief operating officer of one such platform, backed Meimei’s anecdotal evidence that cosmetic surgery is becoming common practice in China.
She said that the number of active users on the platform surpassed 10 million in 2016, and added that many of the post 90s generation have at least considered plastic surgery.
Particularly popular are so-called “micro” surgeries, such as botox injections and facial fillers, which are now seen by many as a regular beauty care step. A hyaluronic acid filler that enhances facial contours, reduce wrinkles, and firms the skin is widely used.
“The popularity of the industry can also be observed by the fact more and more customers are open to sharing their cosmetic surgery experiences online,” Chen added.
Yiran has already become an Internet celebrity as an outspoken proponent of cosmetic surgery, and Meimei happily posted selfies on social media during her recovery period
Chen added that most of the staff at the platform have undergone dozens of cosmetic surgeries, and some of the current workers are previous customers. “In my world, I’ve never seen a girl who has not received any plastic operation,” she claimed.
A girl is live-broadcasting her face-changing process online.

A girl is live-broadcasting her face-changing process online.

Risky business?

While positive about the promising outlook for the industry, Xue Zhiqiang, a senior cosmetic surgeon at the China-Japan Friendship Hospital in Beijing, warned that those seeking beauty through a surgery must carefully weigh up the risks and side effects.
Unlicensed institutions should not be considered, he emphasized. Those longing to change their looks via surgery must only undergo procedures performed by professionals in hospitals or eligible clinics.
And Xue added that “cosmetic patients should assume a proper self-recognition as well as appropriate expectations in order to see a satisfying surgical outcome.”  Disappointing surgical outcomes often result from the mismatching of a patient’s expectations with the surgeon’s practical capability.
The cosmetic surgery industry in China is still in its early days, but technological advances and greater affordability are contributing to fast growth among the selfie generation and beyond. 
As Yiran and Meimei’s stories show, going under the knife in pursuit of greater beauty is increasingly accepted and celebrated in China. 

Video: Tian Yi, Zhang Dayu

Story: Cai Mengxiao

Special effects: Zhang Wanbao