Rebecca Kamm

Poking a stick at ladies' issues, pop culture, and other cutting-edge curiosities.

Rebecca Kamm: Cosmetic surgery to get ahead booms in China

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Changing you looks to get ahead is popular in China.Photo / Thinkstock
Changing you looks to get ahead is popular in China.Photo / Thinkstock

When you consider Western women's motivations for plastic surgery, employment doesn't tend to feature. With the exception of glamour models and actresses, whose careers might rely on levels of perfection Mother Nature simply can't deliver, cosmetic alterations are generally chosen for personal reasons. Or as "personal" as possible when you in live in an appearance-obsessed society, rather than a bubble.

In other words, plastic surgery in the Western world is overwhelmingly attributed to "vanity", for want of a less damning term.

Not so in China. As reported by The Daily Beast contributor Joanna Chiu, Chinese women are going under the knife in the belief it will help them professionally.

Chiu points to new research from the Chinese University of Hong Kong that shows women from all walks of life are signing up for surgery, that it's largely career driven, and that it's particularly popular among women struggling to find work.

Anthropologist Wen Hua, author of said research and the new book Buying Beauty: Cosmetic Surgery in China - tells Chiu:

"The dramatic economic, cultural and political changes in China have produced immense anxiety experienced by women, which stimulates the belief that beauty is capital... [This] epitomizes the idea that good looks are the key to increased opportunities for social and career success. 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."

One of those Chinese characteristics is China's exaltation of youth. As has been widely reported, single Chinese women are labeled as "Shengnu," or "Leftover Women", by their own government, and employer preferences mirror this distaste for 'older' female candidates: "Ladies have better chances in both career and love after their operations," a surgery consultant tells Chiu, who points to a 2003 review of job advertisements which revealed that among the vacancies open to women, only ten per cent or so were open to those over 30.

Despite this blatant ageism, "white collar" female ambition in China is notable: Women are graduating from universities at nearly the same rate as men, and 76 per cent aspire to a "top job". It's unsurprising then that career-driven Chinese women - stuck between a rock and a hard place in a country that devalues their worth - will alter their appearance to get ahead. Or that China's 2.5 billion dollar cosmetic surgery industry industry is reaping the rewards, increasing by 20 per cent every year.

A huge number of surgery patients are female students looking to enter the job market as beautifully as possible, Xinhua News Agency reports: Chen Rong, a recent Beijing University graduate who had a facelift last month, says: "I believe appearance is an entry requirement for some jobs. I want to make a good impression on my colleagues."

According to the piece, the Zhongda Hospital plastic surgery clinic in Jiangsu Province received about 200 facial surgery applicants within a week of the university summer holidays, of which about 70 per cent were students.

And at the Qinghai Red Cross Hospital in Qinghai province, head of plastic surgery Li Guimei says students have made up half her clinic's patient-base this summer: "A graduate visited my clinic for a nose job because he is about to start a job in South China, where people believe one's nose shape correlates with one's ability to gain wealth," she says.

Of course, it's easy to gasp and gawp at cultural divides, but sometimes those divides are lesser in actuality. There may not be such brazen ageism towards female job applicants in Western countries, for instance, but physicality matters when it comes to employment, whether we're aware of it or not.

Take this 2011 study by the London Business School published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, which found that "very thin" women earn almost $28,000 (NZD) more than women of "average weight".

Or this research into the "plainness penalty" by US economist Daniel Hamermesh, who found that people considered unattractive earned on average up to 10 per cent less than their "averagely attractive" counterparts. (Interestingly, Hamermesh also found that good-looking people tended to look for jobs in industries where their appearance would be an advantage, like PR and advertising.)

As UK sociologist Catherine Hakim puts it, "Erotic capital is the least understood personal asset, one that is completely visible yet at the same time overlooked."

In China's case, it's possibly more a case of understanding that "personal asset" all too well. Any lack of understanding there surely lies at the feet of the Chinese government, who - with no regulations in place to keep ageism out of the workplace - perpetuates the damage.

Follow Rebecca Kamm on Twitter.

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