A few years ago, a 21-year-old Chinese woman sought cosmetic surgery to look more like Jessica Alba and made headlines around the world, but the pursuit of altered appearances for pragmatic reasons is much more common in China.
China now ranks third, just behind the United States and Brazil, in the number of cosmetic operations performed annually, according to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.
The most popular procedures—eyelid surgery, rhinoplasty (nose job), and jaw reshaping—are not meant to fend off the effects of aging, but to give young people an advantage over their peers.
For the nouveau riche in China, getting a more aesthetically pleasing face is the last step in their reinvention. Ever since the country introduced a hybrid state capitalist model in the late 1970s, the economy has grown exponentially and so has the ultra-rich class. Kevin Kwan’s popular new book, Crazy Rich Asians, portrays the emerging Chinese elite as decadent to the point of frivolity. “They are everywhere, buying everything in sight,” he writes. “If there’s a designer label, they want it.”
Just as the Chinese one-percenters seek to purchase status and prestige in the form of custom-made crocodile-skin Hermès Birkin bags, they see beauty as a commodity. For the young, especially, an attractive face offers an edge in both the increasingly competitive job market and the cutthroat dating field where women are considered “leftover” (not marriageable) after age 25.
But what does it mean for this year’s army of seven million new university graduates? It means that getting ahead is not based on merit, but on looks. While it’s true that a world-class education is highly marketable anywhere, job applications in Asia often require a photo of the applicant, giving the genetically blessed and surgically improved an unfair advantage. And there are fewer jobs for new graduates in China than there have been in years, upping the competition to new levels.
The obsession with physical appearance at work may be difficult to understand, but Chinese youth see it as an investment in their futures. For the first time, upward mobility is a possibility, and if it takes a new face to climb the corporate ladder, so be it. They are eager to embrace what modern technology and medicine have to offer, whether it’s an iPhone 5 or a more perfect nose.
Perhaps they will outgrow their new money philosophy of excess. In the meantime, it’s important to note that plastic surgery is not without its risks. Permanent numbness, infection, and even death are all potential side effects. For most people, good hygiene, makeup, and a positive, confident attitude can do wonders, without the need to alter their faces.
Ideally, one day China’s new graduates won’t need to resort to such drastic measures to get ahead.
Vivien Chang recently graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from the University of British Columbia.