Increasingly in many countries around the world, including China, people are resorting to cosmetic surgery to increase their personal appeal. They should be aware of the fact that surgery of any kind carries important risks and may result in a burden to the country’s public health system. In addition, it may not solve the problem it was supposed to solve.
In China, a growing number of people, including students, have plastic surgery during their summer vacations, in the hopes that it will not only improve their looks, but their job prospects as well. The costs—from approximately US$300 for a facelift to much higher sums—do not deter them, and many incur substantial loans to meet them.
The recent dramatic economic, cultural, and political changes in China have allowed an increasing number of women to enter the job market, but have also created anxiety in many of them who have to confront employers’ preference for younger, more physically attractive women. For example, a review study of the job postings conducted in 2003 showed that the large majority of them were only open to applicants under 30.
Women don’t forget the label of “shengnu,” or “leftover” women, applied to them by relatives, the state-run media, and society in general. These are women in their middle or late 20s who are still unmarried and who have to fight against society’s prejudices in order to be considered on an equal footing with men. For many public health experts, young people’s (mostly women’s) demand for cosmetic surgery reflects China’s transition from communism to a consumerist society.
During the 1990s, nearly a quarter of China’s workforce (approximately 43 million people) was laid off. However, more women were laid off than men and faced more discrimination than men when they tried to apply for new jobs.
China is now the largest market for cosmetic surgery in the world. However, when population is considered, South Korea may be considered the largest consumer of plastic surgery. The United States is also among the leading countries in use of cosmetic surgery, and so is Brazil, where women highly outnumber men as patients for these procedures.
In China, among the most common kinds of cosmetic surgery are eyelid surgery, nose jobs, and liposuction, particularly during summer break. However, the frequent use of another kind of surgery is worrisome: “leg stretching” surgery, which is rarely used as cosmetic surgery in other countries. It is important to stress, when used for purely cosmetic reasons, that it is a kind of surgery that involves risks such as bone infection, injury to blood vessels, and nerve damage.
One of the problems of cosmetic surgery is that it can easily become a psychologically contagious phenomenon. Lawmakers in the United States have tried to curb the abuse of cosmetic surgery not involving deformities provoked by congenital abnormalities, injuries, or disfiguring diseases by proposing a 5 percent tax on elective cosmetic surgery, a policy that could be followed by those countries with extensive abuse of this procedure.
All surgeries, including cosmetic procedures, carry risks. Those with a history of cardiovascular disease, lung disease, diabetes, or obesity have a higher risk of complications such as pneumonia, stroke, heart attack, or blood clots in the legs or lungs, warns the Mayo Clinic in the United States.
In addition, other risks include poor cosmetic outcome, scarring, nerve damage or numbness, infection, hematoma (a collection of blood outside of a blood vessel), death of tissues, bleeding, and problems related to anesthesia. Some lifestyle changes previous to surgery are important, such as quitting smoking, as nonsmokers heal faster and have less scarring.
A study on the effects of cosmetic surgery conducted in Norway found that female participants who underwent cosmetic surgery were more likely to have poorer mental health, including depression and anxiety disorders. The study also found that cosmetic surgery didn’t solve those problems and in some cases even increased them. Many experts believe that those who mainly benefit from these procedures are the medical professionals who charge large sums of money for performing them.
Dr. Robin T.W. Yuan, a graduate of Harvard Medical School and one of the top plastic surgeons in the United States stated, “It is clear to me that people are led as much today by media and celebrity as by our profession’s relentless marketing. Too often, I have seen people’s misconceptions lead to inappropriate, unsatisfactory, and even harmful surgeries.”
Cesar Chelala, M.D., Ph.D., is an international public health consultant and a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.