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This social network is where China’s plastic surgery fans share their nose jobs

Getting a nose job is no longer taboo for many in the younger generation in China, who have grown up on a TV diet of surgically enhanced celebrities. 

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 April, 2018, 6:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 April, 2018, 7:05am

Mian Duo considers herself to be quite pretty but what she really wanted was to be beautiful like her idols on television. So three years ago, she hopped on a plane to South Korea to have her jaw and cheekbones broken.

For seven hours, Mian laid unconscious on an operating table in Seoul’s upscale Gangnam district while a doctor surgically removed parts of her cheekbone and jaw through incisions in her mouth. The remaining pieces were then pushed to create a “softer facial contour”, fixed in place before the incisions are sutured up. The recovery took six months. Two years later, the former Sichuan Airlines flight attendant – she stands 1.65 metres tall and weighs 41 kilograms – opted for breast implants and went up two sizes to a C cup. 

Now 28, Mian looks like an actress in the Korean dramas she likes to watch. Her friends call her a “goddess”. 

Inside China’s cosmetic surgery craze

“I wanted to make myself happy, to look like the celebrities on television,” said Mian, who provided a glamour photograph of herself for publication before changing her mind, saying the clinic that operated on her owned the copyright. “The biggest change is that I’m now more confident of myself.” 

Mian Duo, who is based in Chengdu, is not her real name, but her handle on the popular Chinese social network SoYoung, which helped arrange the interview. Though she has shared more than 400 photos with her 174,000 followers, she declined to give her birth name so that her family does not find out what she is doing.  

I wanted to make myself happy, to look like the celebrities on television. The biggest change is that I’m now more confident of myself
Mian Duo

Like Facebook for plastic surgery, SoYoung is the largest of a handful of specialist social networks – Gengmei and Yuemei are two competitors – dedicated to providing a platform on which clinics and doctors can find customers and its 30 million users can find like-minded people to share their experiences. 

On the SoYoung website and app, many openly discuss a topic that is still considered a taboo in certain parts of Chinese society. Attitudes, though, are changing, particularly among the so-called Generation Z of youths under the age of 23.  

“The younger generation – those born after 1995 – is no stranger to the concept of cosmetic surgery,” Jin Xing, 39, founder and CEO of SoYoung, said in an interview. “They can’t afford it now, but when they have a job or qualify for a credit card that allows for instalments, they will be unstoppable.”

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Over 53 per cent of SoYoung’s users are born in and after the 1990s. To this group, whose oldest members turn 28 this year, plastic surgery is just another luxury item that they are willing to spend on, like a branded handbag, the latest iPhone or overseas travel, Jin said.

Besides increasing affluence, social media has enabled the sharing of beautified photos, while the popularity of celebrities who have plastic surgery are also influencing the views of what is acceptable, according to Zhao Jianhua, an anthropology professor at University of Louisville.

It has almost become accepted that beautiful people are naturally entitled to an easy life
Zhao Jianhua, University of Louisville

“Many people, especially the younger generation, are unapologetic about their ostensible favouritism toward beauty,” said Zhao, whose research interests include social change and the fashion industry in China and East Asia. “It has almost become accepted that beautiful people are naturally entitled to an easy life, and those who don’t take advantage of their own beauty, but resort to their talents, are incomprehensible.”

When it comes to cosmetic surgery, the top motivation for Chinese women is to please themselves, according to a survey last year of 200,000 users by SoYoung. Just two years earlier, the biggest reason was to meet or gain an advantage at work.

Chinese students having cosmetic surgery to aid job interviews

China is now the third-largest market for plastic surgery, or medical cosmetology market as Jin calls it, and will lead the world in terms of growth, according to a 2017 report by Deloitte. The market is expected to grow 25 per cent annually and be worth 300 billion yuan by 2020, according to Citic Securities. 

Jin, whose mother was a cosmetic surgeon, came up with the idea for SoYoung on his first trip to South Korea, where people undergo cosmetic procedures at more than five times the rate of China, according to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons.

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As he wandered along Apgujeong-dong in 2013, a street in Seoul packed with plastic surgery clinics, the Heilongjiang native believed that Chinese consumers would soon have an immense appetite for the industry. 

“It struck me at that time that China’s cosmetic surgery industry would be a huge opportunity, because what South Korea looks like today would be the China of tomorrow,” said Jin, who has undergone hair transplants and received Botox injections and wrinkle fillers. 

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In 2014, Jin started SoYoung in Beijing as a marketplace that connect clinics with patients and a community for people interested in cosmetic procedures to share their knowledge and experience. Users can post texts, photos and videos of their experience, watch explanatory videos and live-streaming content featuring clinics and doctors. They can connect and interact with other users or doctors for advice or consultation. When they make up their minds, the users can purchase procedures directly on the platform.

SoYoung now has more than 7,000 clinics and hospitals and 25,814 licensed doctors on the platform, which Jin estimates covers more than 95 per cent of China’s cosmetic service providers approved by the authorities. The company sends staff to the 351 cities that it operates in to verify the qualifications of clinics and doctors applying to join the platform, and to inspect how clean those premises are.

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While the site is free for consumers, SoYoung charges clinics and doctors a fee for advertising and listing their services, and a commission for the transactions. It also sells insurance plans to consumers that will cover any botched surgeries, according to Jin. The complaint rate is less than 0.1 per cent, lower than the industry average, according to the company. 

To stay on the right side of the moral police in China, which have been known to clamp down on practices that run counter to acceptable “socialist values”, Jin says the company tries to promote a “rational attitude” towards plastic surgery and discourages users from following fads. 

The rise of DIY plastic surgery in Asia: smile trainers to nose lifters

SoYoung has boosted its gross merchandise volume, a measure of sales, by threefold in 2017 from a year ago to more than 6 billion yuan, with an average transaction value of 3,000 yuan. The most popular treatments are Botox injections, wrinkle fillers and “skin boosters”, making up about 30 per cent of the transaction volume. 

The company closed its latest round of funding in March, with a total of 600 million yuan raised in its Series D led by European investor Apax Partners and Chinese private equity firm Orchid Asia.

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Jin’s next step is to introduce a concierge service possibly later this year for overseas surgery trips that includes visa applications, flight and hotel ticketing and even translation services. SoYoung has so far connected users with clinics in South Korea, Japan, Thailand and Singapore. The land of K-pop and tear-jerker dramas is the most popular overseas destination among SoYoung users.