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How Social Media Fuels China's Growing Love of Cosmetic Surgery

Image by TeeLamb. CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Image by TeeLamb. CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

In less than two decades, cosmetic surgery has surged exponentially within China. The medical procedure has been transformed into a consumer product, thanks to a plethora of advertisements that preach a standardized Asian beauty and social media marketing strategies that build a community “empowering” women to change their face and hence their life.

According to the estimations of China's cosmetic surgery industry, there were 140 million potential cosmetic surgery customers in 2014. One out of every thousand faces have undergone either major or minor surgical treatment and two out of every thousand have considered going under the knife.

‘Not only changes your life, but your inner self’

Confucians believe that spiritual upbringing is more important than looks. But that idea has given way to the reigning view among young Chinese that your looks can determine your fate. According to popular thinking, by tweaking your facial features, be it nose or eyelids, your life will also become more beautiful.

Stories of how a changed face ushers in a brighter future have been shared again and again on Chinese social media among young women:

美丽的外表,带来的不仅是生活的改变,还有自我的改变,祝福亲,美丽生活,美好人生

A beautiful appearance not only changes your life, but your inner self. Be blessed, enjoy a beautiful life and future.

以前都说,心态年轻,才能让外表保持年轻,这固然没错,但年轻的心态下必然是因为每天的心情都很美好,不管是生活在什么样的环境中,让自己心情好的方法很多,其中,欣赏自己一定是一个重要的且不可或缺的要素,你说一个一照镜子就心情不好的人,怎么可能生活的乐观,还能保持心态年轻呢?所以,年轻的心态和年轻的外表是相辅相成,互相影响的。
看着自己越来越年轻、越来越漂亮,谁还会管这是人工的还是天生的,至少我现在是很快乐的

People often say that staying young at heart can make you look younger. While it's certainly true, you need to have a good mood to keep yourself young at heart. There are many ways to maintain your mood, but what's most necessary is the ability to appreciate yourself. If a person looks into the mirror and feels bad, how can that person be optimistic about life and stay young? So staying young at heart and your appearance go hand in hand.

Watch yourself become younger, more beautiful, who will care whether it is artificial or natural? At least I am now very happy.

Similar assertions are found on soyoung.com, a cosmetic surgery service platform that allows users to upload their photos and share their surgical experience in an online diary. The platform is run by a cosmetic surgery service agency to promote the elective procedures; it connects both domestic and overseas doctors and hospitals directly with their clients and enables users to have online medical consultations and make appointments.

Within two years, the online-to-offline platform has accumulated more than 600,000 registered users and facilitated 2,000 cosmetic surgery facilities in reaching out to their clients. There are at least a dozen other similar platforms that help the industry to promote their medical services.

The power of social media marketing

Beautiful models in advertisements reinforce a standardized Asian beauty — white skin, double eyelids, tall and straight nose, oval-shaped face, big breasts, long and slim thighs. And mobile apps that allow you to modify your looks only intensify the temptation of obtaining that “desirable” beauty.

The idea pushed by the beauty industry is that there are no ugly women, but lazy women who don't make the surgical changes necessary to conform. But these surgeries aren’t always successful, yet there aren't any similar social media platforms dedicated to sharing experiences of botched procedures.

An investigative report from a Hong Kong-based news platform, the Initium, revealed that the cosmetic surgical industry uses potent social media marketing tactics to suppress complaints and create a herd mentality among potential clients.

According to the anonymous patient of a famous surgeon in the report, her doctor was involved in a bone-shaving surgical error that led to a serious disability in a different patient. Despite this, the doctor's social media marketing team managed to convince her and other potential clients that the news was just a malicious rumor spread by his competitors. Before the source decided to undertake the bone-shaving procedure, she joined the doctor's patient group on social media platform QQ. The positive comments and the excitement and readiness of the patients in embracing the surgery made her forget the potential risk that she would be undertaking.

Victims’ voices neglected

Most victims of botched cosmetic surgery are unwilling to share their painful experience because they rarely gain public sympathy. The following comments under lifestyle blog Shanghaiist's report on a series of protests in Seoul, South Korea, by victims of botched surgeries are rather typical:

I don't have sympathy for people who fall for these ‘super cheap’ schemes. Ok plastic surgeons aren't as qualified as real surgeons, but it still takes a lot of hard work and training to do it, if people are being cheapskates about it and trying to save money by using dodgy surgeons then they are hurting the honest ones who learn how to do it properly and are good at it. I hate cosmetic surgery by the way, but the principle still stands. China probably suffers more than any other rich nation from this attitude of ‘why waste money on paying someone who actually knows what they're doing.

People are born with a certain look and defining features. Are they denying their parents looks? There's a difference between surgery after an accident to repair cosmetic damage and this. This is just pointless and detrimental.

Even when victims are courageous enough to face public scrutiny and tell their stories, their voices are often drowned out by the profit-driven social media marketing business. The imbalance of information reflects the adverse effects of China's current Internet governance policies, which encourage the growth of online businesses while suppressing the development of virtual communities, such as those dedicated to feminist, consumer and citizen right issues, that can genuinely empower ordinary people to speak out.

Ayo Awokoya also contributed to this post.

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