Being ‘Beautiful’ In China

 

A Chinese woman selling souvenirs by the river in the Hunan province of China. Photo Credit- Holly Lenny

A Chinese woman selling souvenirs by the river in the Hunan province of China. Photo Credit- Holly Lenny

There is an old Chinese says; “There are no ugly women in the world, there are only lazy women in the world.”

As of yet I have only visited two Asian countries, Thailand and China, both equally different to one another but both with the same perception of what beauty is about and that is pale skin. On my first trip to Thailand with blonde hair, blue eyes and nearly hitting six feet tall, I was a spectacle to many Thai. The staring was constant but the same reoccurring comment was “You are so white and tall. Beautiful!” I was a little taken aback as this was the first time I had ever been praised for my porcelain skin. To me these Thai women were equally as beautiful in my eyes; they had tan skin, big smiles and magnificently long, thick hair.

Summer's day in China and women are shading themselves from the hot sun- Photo Credit- Holly Lenny

Summer’s day in China and women are shading themselves from the hot sun- Photo Credit- Holly Lenny

During the summer of 2013, myself and a few friends were invited over to two different Chinese universities, one in the south of Changsha and the other in the north of Baoding. During the summer months as the weather becomes hotter, I’m somebody who enjoys a tanned complexion especially if I am baring my legs and arms as it makes me feel healthier and honestly, slimmer. I decided to heavily fake tan my body before I left to China hoping it would last the two weeks of my travels. It was the beginning of June and already the weather was hot and the humidity well into the nineties. Many women walked around elegantly attired in dresses and high heels, I did find it unusual that many of the women were carrying cloth umbrellas because there wasn’t a drop of rain in sight. I soon realised these umbrellas were to guard them from the sun’s rays.

My porcelain white-skinned friend, Mary. Everyone admired her white skin with envy. Photo Credit- Holly Lenny

My porcelain white-skinned friend, Mary. Everyone admired her white skin with envy. Photo Credit- Holly Lenny

 

Once again we were a spectacle as everyone gazed in awe at this group of foreigners, in particular my friend Mary (as you can see in the picture above) because her skin is porcelain white, not a freckle to be seen. As the week progressed my fake tan quickly began to fade and questions were soon being raised as how I could be exposed to the sun and become whiter. They were fascinated. Attempting to explain the term ‘fake tan’ it left many of the girls perplexed and I think confused.

I decided I would wait to buy sun cream in China, little did I know it would be such a task as nearly every moisturiser, lotion, sun cream, makeup, contained whitener. I have no problem with using whitener but in western media we are constantly being told how skin-bleaching products can cause cancer and many other harmful effects. This is where I begin to see the contradiction by western media. In North America and Europe having a bronzed complexion is one of the most sought after appearances both men and women strive for. Many people go to extreme lengths to become as sun-kissed as they can, even if this means developing skin cancer in the process through sun beds or simply wearing no skin protection while exposed to the sun. On the other hand, when we talk of Asian beauty; pale skin, large round eyes, a pronounced nose bridge, an angular jawline and a small mouth, it is reported with a cynical twist in western media that Asians strive for this alternative ‘perfection’. I too felt this sense of sympathy as I saw the supermarket aisles filled with products containing bleach in them. Then it hit me, how could I be feeling sympathy towards them without taking a look at myself. I had actively gone out of my way to alter my skin colour through fake tanning before I left Ireland. I was doing the exact same thing as Asians, altering my skin colour and who knows with what chemicals, although I was simply doing it in the opposite way.

Personally I see no difference between an Asian woman undergoing cosmetic surgery to achieve a double eyelid or a more pronounced, pointed nose bridge than that of a European woman undergoing cosmetic surgery for a rhinoplasty (nose job) or breast implants because in the end, no matter what the race, they are changing something to give them confidence. The only difference is westerners pity Asians at the revelation they have had double eyelid surgery, seeing it as ‘ethnic tweaking’ and due to their strong Asian characteristics, it is somewhat unacceptable. However, the average Beverley Hills woman who has quite obviously dabbled with cosmetic surgery, enhancing their breasts, lips injections, Botox, etc., is seen as boosting her confidence and ‘good for her if it makes her feel better’. Why the double standard?

A 'beautiful' Chinese woman by Chinese standards.

A ‘beautiful’ Chinese woman by Chinese standards.

 

Blair, a beautiful Chinese student I met while in China is currently in Ireland studying this year. In order to refresh my memory from six months ago and hear from an actual Chinese woman about what defines beauty in Asia, I sat down with her to discuss this topic. The one thing most people know about china is that it has one of the largest populations in the world, currently 1.3 Billion people. In the north of China people’s physical characteristics are different from those of the south of China. In the northern hemisphere people have a longer nose bridge, meaning their noses are more pointed, which is considered ‘beautiful’. This is due to the geographical position as they experience a colder climate. In contrast, in the south of China, which is the eastern hemisphere, people have a small nose bridge meaning their nose is flatter. This means many Chinese from the South go to great lengths to contour and highlight their nose to create a pointed illusion.

A model in a Chinese magazine

A model in a Chinese magazine

 

South Korea is seen as the ‘Mecca’ for Asian plastic surgery and this is a well-known fact that is encouraging many Chinese to make the trip over and experiment with cosmetic surgery. Blair has a few friends that have gone to South Korea for surgery essentially due to the fact that standards are higher for professional surgeons in South Korea in comparison to China. The ‘Korean’ look has now become the popular sought after look that many women are aspiring to emulate, although in fact this look is the ‘Western look’ that has been tailored as to what is considered beautiful in Asia. Blair let me in on the joke that is circulating around the cosmetic world that doesn’t seem to be different from other parts of the world, “Many people joke that all Koreans now look the same because they all have the same doctor” she giggled.

The influence of pop-stars in Asia has skyrocketed the tension for women to achieve beauty as they are influential to both men and women; men want to be with them and women want to be them. Many Asians pop-stars have gone under the knife to achieve double eyelids that create a wider almond-shape to the eye, including many other procedures, although eyes and nose surgery are the fashionable choice of surgery.  Blair revealed that just like Europe and North America, eyebrows are ‘in’ and shape and size matters. It is a similar tale to Goldie Locks, not too thick, not too thin, but in between and straight, no arches. I am curious to know what people’s reactions to cosmetic surgery are or whether they openly reveal they underwent a procedure but Blair is quick to admit, ” There is no point lying because it is obvious and people will know.”

Wedding Day pictures in China. A woman wears a red dress because in China red is considered lucky. Photo Credit- Holly Lenny

Wedding Day pictures in China. A woman wears a red dress because in China red is considered lucky. Photo Credit- Holly Lenny

 

After years of watching many reality television programs it seems as though western teenagers or twenty-something year olds are treated to the odd surgery as a graduation or birthday present, whether it is breast implants or to correct that unfortunate ‘broken’ nose they suffered as a child *cough cough*. In China though the process of cosmetic surgery runs a little deeper than vanity, there are businesslike economical reasons behind many of the cosmetic procedures. Blair tells me “Some parents are willing to pay for surgery because it makes you more employable. Looks are important for a job and to find a husband. If a child is ugly the parents will worry because if their daughter doesn’t get married no one will look after them.”

Another Chinese model in a Chinese magazine.

Another Chinese model in a Chinese magazine.

 

Thin is the fashionable body shape in China too and the pressures are similar, if not bigger, compared to Europe and North America. After my experience in China, shopping is nearly impossible if you are European or North American because the sizes for women are childlike. The largest sizes possible to find were a UK8 or US4. Blair sadly reminisces to me of an incident that happened to her as a child, something than too many young girls have experienced. One day her Aunt said her legs were fat and that there was no way she could leave the house with her. From that day her concentrated imperfection was her legs, wearing long jeans even in July when the weather can reach 40 degrees Celsius. As China is increasingly becoming more developed people are beginning to eat more, especially as a strong middle class appears leaving more disposable income for sweet treats, cosmetic surgery, beauty products, etc.,

As China is slowing becoming part of the globalised world western magazines are becoming an important part of women’s lives along with the Internet.  “I remember watching ‘Bride Wars’ and Anne Hathaway had brown sprayed all over her body. I went to the salon and asked if they could do this for me but to whiten my skin” Blair chuckled and I couldn’t help but either. It was then I explained this was the same spray I had been wearing when I was in China.

I will now finish with the old Chinese saying I began this piece with “There are no ugly women in the world, only lazy women in the world.” This quote has been actively implemented by the media to tell women that what they have are many imperfections but can be altered with cosmetic surgery, expensive beauty products, whatever it may be. In the end women are women, we all want what we can’t have. We will never be happy with what we have. In China with a population of 1.3 Billion people, the pressures are huge, everyone is fighting for their space and people will do whatever it takes to get that opportunity that could change their live to make them somebody of that 1.3 Billion.

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One thought on “Being ‘Beautiful’ In China

  1. Hello! I enjoyed reading your article and shedding light on this issue. The problem with ethnic tweaking is that it is not a minor surgical procedure used to simply correct a broken nose or offset feature. These procedures are popular because these women believe that the Westernized standard of beauty, primarily being Caucasian features, are more beautiful then their own. They are changing their features due to self-hate, not purely vanity.

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