Obsession with appearance has pushed various industries into overdrive
By Li Xiaoyang  ·  2021-06-21  ·   Source: NO.25 JUNE 25, 2021
A plastic surgeon offers advice to women interested in face-lifting procedures at a hospital in Beijing on May 11 (XINHUA)

To make herself look and feel pretty in summer dresses, 20-something Hepburn Zhang, an employee at an Internet company in Jiangsu Province, has committed herself to consuming light meals only for lunch and dinner since May. Additionally, she adheres to a strict three-times-a-week workout routine at the gym. These combined efforts have helped her shed 3 kg in one month.

"I often buy light food from salad stores. Many of my young colleagues maintain similar habits to keep fit," she told Beijing Review. Of course, a young woman pursuing beauty like her also views cosmetics as an indispensable part of life. According to Zhang, her annual spending on cosmetic products averages around 7,000 yuan ($1,093) in recent years.

Like Zhang, more and more Chinese people, including both women and men, have attached growing importance to their physical appearance, for they believe a better appearance can help them gain the upper hand in both career and life. The quest for a more desirable body shape and better appearance have driven various beauty-related industries, including gyms and all things exercise, health foods, makeup and cosmetic surgery.

Shaping bodies

Due to improving living standards, many Chinese find obesity to be an emerging challenge. Instead of meat and carbohydrates, they now shift their preference toward lighter meals and meal replacements such as energy bars and diet shakes to keep slim and save time on dining. With little oil, salt and sugar, light meals are easy to cook and are low in calories and fat yet high in fiber, which can be nutritive and make people feel full more easily. This type of nutrition now on sale across restaurants, stores and gyms has spurred on a new craze.

According to a survey by Beijing Youth Daily released in June, 84.5 percent of around 1,500 respondents would like to keep consuming light meals for the purposes of health and fitness, in which those aged between 20 and 30 make up 88 percent. A total of 85 percent of the respondents willing to uphold their newfound habit are female.

Xiao Ju, a university sophomore, has found light food to greatly benefit her health. "I kept eating light meals like salad for one meal every day of a month, which has eased my spleen-related asthenia as well as my depression," she told Beijing Review.

Healthy food chains such as Element Fresh and Wagas have become a common sight in many cities in China over the past seven years, providing an exceptional option for those favoring a healthy diet and willing to try out some Western-style light dishes. Chain retailers such as Luckin Coffee have also adopted several light food products into their assortment to ride the tide. Aside from regular offerings, plant-based meat has garnered attention. Starfield, a China-based artificial meat food developer has cooperated with nearly 100 food chains such as Heytea, a milk tea chain, and fast-food chain Dicos, making its products increasingly known among consumers.

The demand for meal replacements has also soared. Data from Tmall, an e-commerce platform of tech firm Alibaba, showed that domestic consumers spent more than 3,000 yuan ($468) on average on meal-replacement products per year in the period from 2018 to 2020. According to

iiMedia Research, China's meal replacement market was worth around 47 billion yuan ($7.3 billion) in 2020. Euromonitor International, a market research provider, projected that the market can reach up to 120 billion yuan ($18.7 billion) in 2022.

Better looking

Along with increasing disposable income and changing social trends, the quest for a better-looking physique through makeup and cosmetic surgery, too, has gained popularity among Chinese consumers in recent years, including not only women, but also an increasing number of male clients.

Many cosmetics brands have invited male celebrities to act as their ambassadors, attracting both female fans and more men hoping to look smarter. According to iiMedia Research, China's cosmetics market reached nearly 400 billion yuan ($62.5 billion) last year, and is expected to exceed 500 billion yuan ($78.2 billion) in 2023. In 2020, the market of male cosmetics in China reached around 8 billion yuan ($1.2 billion) as men showed a growing appetite for skin care products and cosmetics such as eyebrow pencils and concealer.

The cosmetic surgery market has also swiftly developed. Data from cosmetic surgery platform GengMei showed that it reached 197.5 billion yuan ($30.5 billion) in 2020, accounting for 17 percent of the world's total. In the next five years, China is expected to become the world's largest market, worth more than 400 billion yuan ($62.5 billion).

According to market consultancy iResearch, men occupied some 30 percent in China's cosmetic surgery consumption in 2020. Data from SoYoung, a Chinese online platform for medical cosmetic services, showed that many males of the post-2000s tend to have cosmetic surgeries such as facial bone reconstruction, whereas post-1990s men prefer comprehensive eye and nose surgeries. Men born between 1970 and 1989 mostly opt for hair transplants and face-lifts.

Rising anxiety

While the hunt for beauty has brought about great business opportunities, problems in the industries and distorted views of beauty have become increasingly prominent.

The benefits of light meals come hand in hand with complaints about high prices and bland taste. Some brands have also exaggerated the effectiveness of their products, wading into the pool of false promo. As many medical experts suggest, light meals do not always hold a low calorie count. Eating light foods for extended periods of time may even prove harmful.

The quality of food is another problem. Half-cooked light meals gone bad may make people sick. "Light food producers should improve the quality of their products through improving packaging and cold chain transportation. The authorities also need to work on improving industrial standards," Wang Jing, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, said.

The exaggerated pursuit of a pretty appearance may also cause physical and psychological harm. The cosmetic surgical procedure to obtain elf-like ears, which mean protruding ears, has recently become a frenzy among some young people in a bid to make their faces look smaller. However, the surgery can cause infection and skin necrosis through the use of hyaluronic acid. As young and pretty looks and slimness are widely promoted as beauty essentials, many people have developed different levels of anxiety regarding their appearance and have suffered from body shaming.

According to Wang Zhiping, a psychologist working at Hunan Provincial People's Hospital, the exaggerated pursuit of beauty is often caused by the blind following of fads and a desire for receiving compliments due to a lack of self-confidence. "For people who fail to adjust their mindset, it is necessary to seek [professional] help from psychological institutions," he said. 

(Print Edition Title: The Business of Looking Better)

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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