Midday queues snake out to the street in an upmarket Shanghai neighborhood, but it’s not lunch at the city’s hottest restaurant that people are lining up for — it’s cosmetic “micro-procedures”, which are surging in popularity in China.
The “lunchtime facelift” and other “medical aesthetics” procedures are booming as a new generation of Chinese consumers grapple with the pressure to look good on social media as well as in person.
Kayla Zhang has never actually gone under the knife for cosmetic reasons, but she’s had laser treatments, injections and a thread lift — a barbed string inserted under the skin and pulled up to “lift” the face.
“I’m not changing my nose or my eyes, which would be an extreme change in my looks,” the 27-year-old told AFP, adding that she’s seeking a “better version” of herself rather than “a totally new face.”
Already popular in the West because they are less invasive and more affordable than traditional cosmetic surgery, micro-procedures — from laser facials and fillers to thread lifts — are fast becoming the norm in China’s cities where disposable incomes have jumped in the past decade.
The Chinese Association of Plastics and Aesthetics estimates, overall, the cosmetic industry will grow to $46 billion this year compared to around $6.5 billion in 2013.
Micro-procedures are now an expanding segment of that market, while traditional surgery’s growth rates slow, according to data from consulting firm Frost and Sullivan.
But a government crackdown looms over the boom.
The ruling Communist Party is pushing a broad campaign to “purify” social values, which includes taking aim at mounting youth pressure to go under the knife.
The government has banned industry advertising practices that contribute to “appearance anxiety” such as before-and-after images, and has levied tens of millions of dollars in fines this year over various infractions.
Model Li Li already gets monthly laser treatments to correct skin blemishes but admits she feels social pressure to continually fix her appearance.
After friends said her face was out of proportion she opted for a “chin filler,” which makes the chin more prominent.
“I went to get it immediately,” the 27-year-old confessed.
But Li and Zhang insist that micro-procedures — which can cost on average a third of the price of cosmetic surgery, according to research by Deloitte — are a less-invasive alternative to traditional surgery and are being unfairly stigmatized.
“Everyone had the same standard of beauty before, but now it feels like this norm is being tipped over,” added Zhang, who likens micro-procedures to skincare, but faster.
A decade ago, cosmetic doctor Yang Kaiyuan said customers often came to him with a picture of a celebrity, telling him: “I want to look like this.”
“Nowadays, people just hope to make slight improvements on what they already have,” Yang explained.
But the government is concerned by the rise in unlicensed, unregulated providers.
In 2019, 15 percent of the 13,000 licensed beauty clinics in China were operating outside of their business scope and only 28 percent of doctors in the industry were certified, according to iResearch.
Its report added that for every up-to-standard needle used, two unapproved ones were in circulation.
Earlier this year, a Chinese actress shared cautionary photos online of a botched operation that left her nose badly infected.
But Ken Huang, CEO at beauty clinic PhiSkin, says the societal factors pushing young Chinese to seek cosmetic adjustments to advance their careers or to boost social media popularity remain strong.
“Good-looking people will have more opportunities than others,” Huang said.
“If you don’t look good on the outside, even if you have an interesting personality, people might not get the chance to see it.”
Still in her twenties, Zhang already opts for monthly micro-procedures and will keep this routine until she feels her appearance leaves her “no choice but to go under the knife.”
She explained: “Then I may need stronger methods to be able to return to a younger state.”