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Trading Faces

With China’s internet celebrity economy burgeoning, more women are undergoing cosmetic procedures to achieve an appearance they hope will yield considerable profits

By NewsChina Updated Nov.1

I’d rather be identically beautiful than distinctively ugly.” It’s a common refrain for many of China’s young women.  

A pair of wide double-eyelids, an arched nose, a round ­forehead, a pointy chin, straight brows and fair skin make up the prized internet celebrity face. 

The ubiquitous look has crept into every inch of society: on live-streaming websites, countless pretty and nearly identical women sing, dance or just eat in front of their fans; on e-commerce platforms, products may vary but the models look like they were cast in the same mold; and the public is increasingly inundated by billionaires and film stars and regular women with uniform faces.  

With the internet celebrity economy thriving amid the rapid growth of livestreaming websites and applications since 2014, more young Chinese are placing their appearance above all else as the key to success. Unlike other plastic-surgery-obsessed cultures such as Japan and South Korea, in China, plastic surgery has not been simply seen as a way to gain self-esteem or increase one’s romantic prospects – it’s an investment that can directly yield monetary benefits and buttress a career.  

Wanghong Economy 
Like their western counterparts, Chinese internet celebrities, known as wanghong, achieve fame on social media and in online ­communities. They share their lifestyle, experience, and opinions on their platforms, interact with followers and guide them to shops, products and other services. In the West they are referred to as influencers. 

Livestreaming has expanded at a breakneck pace in China since 2014, and having a pretty face is an asset that can earn one huge profits. Good-looking people, whether male or female, can generate considerable traffic just by singing or dancing in a real-time video, or simply interacting with the audience. These celebrities – most are not professionals – use livestreaming as an effective tool to market their shops or products and convert fans into real cash.  

This internet celebrity economy has incubated a standard female face of prettiness with featureless features: a pair of large oval eyes, conspicuous double eyelids, a V-shaped jaw, a high nose and fair skin.  

The quest for this distinctive look has lined the pockets of plastic surgeons around the nation. China has the world’s fastest-growing plastic surgery market, with a growth rate six times faster than the global average, according to SoYoung, an app focused on the industry. In 2017, an estimated 14 million Chinese people had some form of cosmetic surgery, up 42 percent year-on-year, according to China Money Network. And that’s not counting Chinese medical tourists who go abroad for surgery.  

In China, the demographics of those seeking cosmetic procedures skew young massively. According to SoYoung, patients under the age of 35 account for 96 percent of the total. Half are under 25, in marked contrast to US figures that suggest three-quarters of ­consumers are over 35.  

Obtaining an internet celebrity face is quite simple, according to popular cosmetic surgery blogger Pink Bear, who lays out the standard procedures on Twitter equivalent Weibo: “Create a pair of double-eyelid creases, arch the brows and open up the eye corners, sculpt a high nose bridge, grind down the jawbone into a pointed V-shape, plump the forehead and inject it with hyaluronic acid and fat so that it looks round and soft.” 

Some clinics offer an internet celebrity package, consisting of double-eyelid creation, eye-corner-opening, a nose job, a chin implant, lip injections to create a parted flower petals shape, jawbone grinding and Botox injections. One can have a totally new face for the price of around 100,000 yuan (US$15,600).  

Bought and Paid For
Teng Lu’s plastic surgery journey began in 2013 when she was just 18. Teng was moonlighting as a model for online shops on Taobao, China’s biggest e-commerce platform. Shortly after she started, she realized the women in the industry all looked beautiful – and that this beauty was bought and paid for. This fueled Teng’s desire to perfect her own. 

Teng is an attractive woman with a pair of big bright eyes and ­natural double eyelids. But she prefers Caucasian-looking eyelids with a conspicuous crease, and feels her own lids are not dramatically double enough.  

To have a satisfying internet celebrity face, Teng chose a plastic surgery studio over a certificated hospital because she believed the ­latter would be too concerned about safety and stop short of giving her the dramatic effect she desired. 

She came across an online ad for a plastic surgery studio that offered cheap procedures and decided to try it. The operation, consisting of double-eyelid creation and eye-corner-opening, was priced at only 10,000 yuan (US$1,500).  

But the studio turned out to be a private bedroom in a shabby apartment, with a regular bed for an operating table and an ordinary household lamp to light the procedure. Teng had no idea whether the surgical instruments had even been sterilized.  

“I was so reckless. It was a gamble. I kept telling myself that so many other patients had successful operations so I would not be the one who had bad luck,” Teng recalled.  

One week after the operation, the Caucasian-looking eyes she had hoped for had not materialized. But the effect was nonetheless dramatic – a pair of red, swollen eyelids and a scar in the corner of her left eye. The surgery had been a complete failure.  

“I broke down. I wasn’t ugly before, but the operation ruined my looks. It was like a sharp knife cutting deep in my heart,” Teng recalled bitterly. Depressed, she hid at home for three months. She would later discover the examples of success on the ad were achieved through Photoshop – a common practice among illegal plastic surgery clinics and studios.  

In recent years, more and more women who have been disfigured by botched operations carried out in unlicensed beauty salons or ­cosmetic surgery clinics have rushed to hospitals for restorative work. And the cost of repairing their botched faces are typically far higher than the price of their initial procedure.  

The price for a nose repair procedure ranges from 60,000 yuan (US$9,370) to 120,000 yuan (US$18,740), Tina, a surgeon at a Shanghai-based plastic surgery hospital, told NewsChina.  

Shi Lei, a maxillofacial surgery expert at the Plastic Surgery Hospital of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, is known for her skill in creating double eyelids. Nevertheless, she told our reporter that last year alone, one-third of her work was “repairing the failures of others.”  

“You can’t imagine how hard the restoration work is! Those unskilled internet celebrity face-makers only know how to open up the eye corner – they don’t know how to repair it if they fail,” Shi said.  

“Barbie eyes,” a new term used in the industry, has become a trend among beauty seekers. It refers to extremely large oval eyes, and ­usually involves a controversial procedure called lowering the lower eyelid (LLL) or lower eyelid shortening.  

Imported from Japan, the novel procedure is designed specifically for Asian women who desire large Caucasian-looking oval eyes. It requires removing approximately four to six millimeters of the ­subciliary skin (one-third to two-thirds of the lower eyelids) and shortening the lower eyelid retractors. 

“This is a risky procedure which can easily have complications. The crux of the problem does not lie in the operation itself but the ­techniques of the surgeons,” Shi explained.  

The procedure is not scary as it sounds, Shi claimed, but ­complications are largely due to the malpractice of the quack surgeons in unlicensed cosmetic surgery clinics. Many patients who ­undergo the procedure wind up with swollen and inflamed eyes, double vision, scarring or an asymmetric appearance. 

Not all patients are suitable subjects for the procedure – only those with a narrow, long, upward eye shape, Shi explained. But ­unscrupulous surgeons are unlikely to pass on that information before they’ve cashed their check.  

Distorted Vision
“Barbie eyes, petal lips – cosmetic surgery clinics create plenty of marketing terms, creating false hopes that you will be a goddess after you undergo their procedures,” Pink Bear told NewsChina.  

“Livestreamers who found success early on gave their followers an illusion that the [internet celebrity] industry is all about beauty. So many immature girls got obsessed with this illusion and thought they could make a fortune by changing their face,” Pink Bear said.  

This is used by the plastic surgery clinics in advertising that employs provocative language: “If you hesitate to spend money on your own face, what makes you think that men will be willing to spend money on you? The more beautiful you are, the more your chance of being loved.” 
Pink Bear has written a number of posts about the risks of ­unnecessary procedures. She hopes her followers can have a healthier sense of beauty. To her disappointment, many internet users still ask her how they can get an internet celebrity face.  

Teng Lu

Shi Lei says China’s plastic surgery era has just begun. At an ­international academic seminar Shi discussed with Japanese cosmetic ­surgery experts the current internet celebrity face mania in China. The Japanese doctors told her a similar phenomenon occurred in ­Japan thirty years ago.  
In the 1980s, the most popular face in the Japanese beauty ­industry was the Hollywood celebrity look. Japanese women longed for faces with double eyelids and an arched nose bridge. Almost everyone wanted to look like Audrey Hepburn. This obsession with ­Caucasian facial structures lasted a decade until the Japanese sense of beauty returned to the Asian norm, alongside rising national pride.  

“In the past 20 years, Japanese cosmetic surgery patients have ­become more reasonable. Many know exactly what they want when they come to a clinic. They don’t seek a significant change but just some tiny adjustments which make their face look better ­without ­being noticed,” Shi said, claiming that this is a healthy attitude ­toward plastic surgery – making improvements based on one’s own ­individual features. 

But this natural-style surgery faces resistance in China. “Can we call it medical negligence if one’s face looks so natural after the procedure that it’s like they never had one?” one plastic surgery recipient wrote online. 

“The internet celebrity face mania is chaos which comes from a socially-distorted sense of beauty in the era of livestreaming. It is further fueled by illegal plastic surgery clinics,” said Li Bin, the ­president of BeauCare Clinics, a Beijing-based cosmetic surgery ­corporation. “Those internet-celebrity-face-making clinics are ­violating the basic principle of plastic surgery – it is basically an act of medical treatment.”  

A veteran industry player who entered the sector in the 1990s, Li told NewsChina that the industry has been slow to mature over the past two decades.  

“Compared with the past, today’s products have improved and techniques been refined, but the ethics of the industry have not – in some cases they’ve degenerated. Due to many corporate players’ long-term pursuit of short-term interests, our society’s sense of beauty has made little progress in the past two decades,” Li said. 

Teng Lu, who had suffered a failed eye procedure, later had a successful correction procedure in hospital. Now she has the pair of Caucasian-looking big, bright eyes she so longed for. The ­experience did not scare her away. Instead, she has become a plastic surgery addict, undergoing regular injections of the facial filler hyaluronic acid as well as Botox, she has come to resemble a kind of Eurasian Barbie doll.  

A cosmetic physician tattoos a customer’s eyebrows

Her new look has brought success in her modeling career, more job opportunities, and, she says, 10 times as much money as she used to earn.  

“If I didn’t do this job, I wouldn’t have had the nose job or injected my chin with filler. But everybody [in the internet celebrity industry] does it. You can’t avoid the influence,” Teng said. 

Some of her old friends believe her face looks unnaturally pointy but she ignores them. To Teng, though her face might seem artificial in real life, it looks great in front of the camera. 

 “I have to make money in this industry. Most of the time I do my work in front of the camera,” Teng said. “It’s a price I have to pay.”