Why size is everything in China
By Patti Waldmeir in Shanghai with additional reporting by Yan Jin
Published: June 22 2009 17:02 | Last updated: June 22 2009 17:02
Big eyes, big noses, big breasts and now humungous Hummers – China seems to be indulging an obsession with size, just when the rest of the world is learning the virtues of moderation.
In Shanghai, for example, business is booming on eyelifts, noselifts, chestlifts and other surgery aimed at enlarging classically Asian narrow eyes, flat noses and unobtrusive mammary glands. At the Shanghai Time Plastic Surgery Hospital, Dr Liao Yuhua says business is up 40 per cent since the end of last year – not despite the global economic crisis, but because of it.
Half her business is job-related: “Many of our customers are white-collar workers, many have lost their jobs, so they have time to execute their plastic surgery dreams,” says the retired paediatrician, whose genially wrinkled face and ankle socks that bag around her feet hardly seem like anyone’s clichéd view of a plastic surgeon. “They want to be more competitive when they go for the next interview,” she says, adding that famously pushy Chinese parents are very “supportive” of this trend.
Several brought in their children to make appointments straight after China’s strongly competitive national university entrance examinations earlier this month. “Parents hope that their kids can be more competitive in job hunting,” she says, admitting that as an employer, she would “recruit a prettier nurse with the same qualities as one who wasn’t so pretty”.
Graduates leaving college this year are facing one of the toughest job markets in years, and women – who make up three-quarters of Dr Liao’s patients – find it particularly hard to land a job. According to a study recently by the Centre for Women’s Law and Legal Services of Peking University, published in the Chinese press, one in four women surveyed said they had failed to get a job because of gender, a fifth said salaries were cut if they became pregnant and 11 per cent lost jobs when they had a family.
Dr Liao says plastic surgeries have grown by 15 per cent a year since the fad really took off in China about five years ago. But China is hardly alone in using disposable income on facelifts – and even justifying the cost as a career development expense. In the US last year, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, cosmetic procedures rose among all groups except Caucasians; procedures among Hispanics were up 18 per cent. But the age profile of consumers of plastic procedures – and the parts of their bodies they want fixed – differs greatly from the US to Asia.
At Dr Liao’s hospital, the top two procedures are so-called double-eyelid surgery – which inserts an extra crease in the eyelid to make the eyes appear larger – and inserting a bridge in the nose, using a part of the rib. “Oriental people prefer bigger eyes and bigger noses – everything they don’t have,” she says, chuckling at the irony that, in Chinese slang, westerners are called “big noses” (and it is not necessarily a compliment). Her clients are mostly aged 25 to 35 – whereas half of all plastic surgeries in the US are for patients aged 40 to 55.
Bigger eyes are relatively cheap: from RMB2,400 ($350, €252, £213). Bigger breasts cost RMB60,000 (and clients must sacrifice a piece of thigh).
Zhou Jin Feng is one of the clinic’s satisfied past clients (blackhead removal). This time the 31- year-old nurse – clean-cut yet hardly a wanna-be movie star – wants a double eyelid and more pointed chin. “Young people these days want to be pretty, it’s important for their self-esteem, mainly for job hunting,” she says. Dr Liao says many of her patients are doctors, nurses or teachers: “Beauty is very important for communication in such professions,” she says.
Dr Liao can remember when plastic surgery would have been seen as bourgeois decadence of the first order. Now she thinks it is just a natural consequence of the wealth effect. “When the basic needs are met – a car, a house, food – what shall we do with our extra money? Spend it on beautification.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009