How apps are changing China's cosmetic surgery industry — one face at a time

WION Web Team
New Delhi, Delhi, India Published: Mar 12, 2020, 11:42 AM(IST)

(Representative Image) Photograph:( Others )

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China's cosmetic surgery industry is only second to that of the United States — in terms of the total number of cosmetic procedures performed.

One industry that has for long been on a boom in China and neighbouring countries is that of cosmetic surgery's. A growing number of Chinese women are using cosmetic procedures to achieve bigger eyes, higher cheekbones, narrower noses and skinnier legs — much in tandem with the West.

China's cosmetic surgery industry is only second to that of the United States — in terms of the total number of cosmetic procedures performed.

In pics: This teen has undergone 50 surgeries to look like her idol Angelina Jolie

Fuelled by rising incomes, the practice is not all about vanity. These women usually believe surgery would improve all aspects of their lives. While several seek to emulate a beauty ideal inspired by elements of the K-Pop culture, and the West, there also are women who succumb to the patriarchal ideology and look out for a husband, and sometimes, a better job, by resorting to a new "plastic" look. The practice has become so socially accepted in China that there are separate pageants for "artificial" beauties.

Chinese beauty app

(Pic courtesy: Web-screenshot)

In 2017, more than 16.3 million women in China underwent plastic surgery to achieve the desired look — a steep rise from 7 million in 2014. The total revenue from the industry in the country is expected to exceed 360 billion yuan ($52 million) by 2023.

Apps that help, and clinics that don't

Applications, like So-Young International and GengMei, have played a major role in sensitising people for such procedures. So-Young International, a Chinese marketplace and social networking app for cosmetic surgery, started in 2014 aiming to connect clinics with patients and as a community for people interested in cosmetic procedures.

So-Young's strong Nasdaq trading debut in May, 2019 had then reflected keen interest in China’s booming plastic surgery market -- well substantiated by Wu Xiaochen's beauty story, one of the many narratives to have emerged out of the cosmetic procedure industry.

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Wu, in the 16 years since that first procedure, had had over 100 surgeries, costing a staggering 4 million yuan (about $574,000).

Wu grew up in a middle-class family. She thought she wasn't pretty enough and felt insecure about her "small eyes and round face." So after her first successful procedure she said she had a facial liposuction -- followed by a facial contouring surgery.

She also had her nose bridge elevated -- all at 16. "Surgery has become like an addiction for me. Every two or three years, I have a few more procedures done," Wu told CNN.

One of the most requested procedures involves removing bulk from the face and body. Another is nose jobs.

Chinese beauty app

(Pic courtesy: Screenshot)

Another woman, Chen Yan, feared middle age dawning upon her, and saw cosmetic surgery as the solution.

She spent a whopping 52,515 yuan (S$10,704) in a quest for the perfect nose at Shanghai's private Huamei Medical Cosmetology Hospital.

According to a white paper published in 2019 by So-Young, women who go for cosmetic surgery are young -- more than half are under the age of 26 -- and are residents of the country's second and third tier cities.

The largest app to have helped women achieve the desired beauty standards is GengMei. It has 36 million users and lists almost 20,000 surgeons on its platform. It has an augmented reality feature that analyses a face and gives it a grade out of 100 based on criteria. It then makes suggestions for cosmetic surgery improvements.

Tencent backed So-Young has 2.47 million monthly active users and nearly 6,000 surgeons listed. It accounted for one third of China’s cosmetic treatment booked online in 2018, facilitating transactions worth 2.1 billion yuan.

To get the look they desire, many women undergo surgery, whereas others turn to reverse hyaluronic acid fillers. However, not all surgeries are successful. And these women are well aware of the horror stories of botched surgeries.

Chinese beauty app

(Pic courtesy: Screenshot)

Some of these clinics, associated with apps, use substandard fillers and anti-aging injectables with contaminants or fewer active parts than they should have.

"China's National Health Commission has identified 2,772 cases of illegal plastic surgery, during a year-long operation that started in May 2017. This led to more than 1,200 criminal prosecutions, according to a government release. The commission is considering establishing a blacklist of dangerous surgeons," a statement from the officials said.

Other plastic surgery platforms cashing in on China’s pursuit of beauty are Meituan (backed by Tencent) and Yuemei. 

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