She asked me what I did for a living. When I told her I was a writer, she frowned and said a new nose could help me find a better job.
“Your nose is too flat. A well-shaped nose commands respect,” said the consultant. “Businessmen come in to get more prominent noses. And ladies have better chances in both career and love after their operations.”
I was in one of the biggest cosmetic surgery hospitals in China, located in the southern city of Shenzhen, where over half the population is made up of migrants from other parts of the country. Most of them are here for factory or construction work, but many long for better prospects.
A nose job costs around $2,900 at this hospital, which is a bargain compared to the average cost of rhinoplasty in the U.S. of $4,500, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. But when the average yearly income for urban residents in China is just $7,000 and the average monthly pay for a migrant worker a measly $40, a nose job would take years for most people to save up for.
Yet cosmetic surgery is an investment more and more Chinese women from all rungs of society are splashing out on, according to new research from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. And it’s not all about vanity. Those who go under the knife usually believe surgery would improve all aspects of their lives.
“The dramatic economic, cultural, and political changes in China have produced immense anxiety experienced by women, which stimulates the belief that beauty is capital,” said anthropologist Wen Hua, author of the recently published book Buying Beauty: Cosmetic Surgery in China.
The idea that beauty is capital “epitomizes the idea that good looks are the key to increased opportunities for social and career success,” she said. “Cosmetic surgery has become a form of consumer choice; it reflects in microcosm the transition of China from communism to consumerism with its own Chinese characteristics.”
Wen’s research focused on field studies in Beijing, interviews with 58 women from age 16 to 55 and analysis of Chinese media reports. She found that cosmetic surgery is less taboo in China than in North America, and is particularly popular among women struggling to find work.
Between 1993 and 2001, 43 million urban employees were laid off, amounting to a quarter of China’s total urban labor force. Women were often the first to be laid off and the last to be hired back, and when applying for jobs they encountered much more discrimination than men, said Wen.
A 2003 review of job advertisements found that among positions open to women, nearly 90 percent were open only to those younger than 30 years old. Youth is particularly cherished in a country where women who remain unmarried past age 27 are labeled “leftover women” by the government. Women who don’t meet minimum height requirements (usually set at 1.58 meters) are also often denied government jobs.
But these obstacles have not kept women from aiming high. A 2011 study by the Centre for World-Life Policy found that 76 percent of women in China aspire to top jobs, compared with 52 percent in the United States.
Ambitious women who turn to cosmetic surgery to gain an edge in the job market fuel a $2.5 billion-a-year industry in China that has grown at a pace of 20 percent per year, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. China is now the third-largest market for cosmetic surgery in the world, after the U.S. and Brazil, although when population is taken into account, cosmetic surgery may be most common in South Korea.
In China, the practice has become so socially accepted that beauty pageants have been held especially for “artificial beauties,” and vocational schools for flight attendants routinely herd students into cosmetic-surgery hospitals, said Wen.
Outside the hospital in Shenzhen, I met a woman surnamed Liu from a smaller city in Guangdong province who had also come from a consultation. She had glossy hair, a pointed nose, and a slim figure. She showed off her long legs in a miniskirt and platform heels.
“I’m thinking of getting herbal weight-loss injections,” she told me. “Injections are safer and cheaper than liposuction.”
In the past year, Liu, a 28-year-old administrative assistant at a financial company, had already undergone double-eyelid surgery and rhinoplasty at the hospital, which offers a mind-boggling range of procedures including some adapted from traditional Chinese medicinal practices. When I asked Liu why she chose to get cosmetic surgery, she said: “It’s just like applying makeup; everybody wants to enhance their beauty. A woman especially needs to work to maintain her appearance as she gets older.”
A daughter of struggling shopkeepers, Liu said she was barely able to finish secondary school and was lucky to find decently paid work. “I wouldn’t have been hired if I had been an ugly duckling,” she said. Liu is now worried she will lose her job once she gets older. She has taken evening classes in business management, but believes an attractive appearance is just as important as education.
Liu is aware of the horror stories of botched surgeries. Around the world, risky operations such as “leg stretching” surgery are rarely used for cosmetic purposes, but such operations are popular in China. In efforts to meet height requirements for jobs, men and women have paid tens of thousands of yuan to have their bones broken so that doctors could insert steel pins under the knees and above the ankles, but complications have left dozens of people crippled for life. China’s Ministry of Health has banned some risky cosmetic surgeries, but most private clinics for cosmetic surgery are widely unregulated.
Out of curiosity, I decided to visit a private clinic in Shenzhen. After an hour of walking in circles, I found the clinic on the 18th floor of a rundown residential building with drunk or drugged men sprawled in the hallways. A teenage boy greeted me at the door and sat me down for the consultation at a flimsy table while his father watched a soap opera a few feet away in the living room. The clinic doubled as their living quarters.
I inquired about liposuction treatments, but the boy mumbled something about the doctor being unavailable and to my horror, suggested that I get human placenta injections instead, vaguely explaining that placenta treatments are “good for women.” The injections cost about $1,630 per pack of five syringes and must be self-administered. I declined the offer and bolted out of the clinic.
“Cosmetic surgery is a choice and you have to make the best decisions for yourself and your family,” said Liu. “That’s what people are doing all over China today.”