CHINA/CULTURE - Beauty standards at a crossroads.
There is much talk of the world’s centre of gravity moving East, and it is perhaps in the unfairly-labelled ‘frivolous’ beauty industry that it is fastest to meet popular culture. So-called ‘Beautistas’ worldwide are adopting a multi-step daily regimen of double-cleansing, serums, oils and essences layering, face brushing and sheet mask applying, inspired by the modern-day rendition of century-old Korean and Japanese beauty rituals. Sephora cannot be fast enough to stock Korean cosmetics in its European and American stores, as niche k.Beauty players proliferate. It seems that the days when the West believed that Chinese women were all getting double-eye lid surgery to look more like “us” are long gone, now we want to look like them (and how we imagine they look), glass doll skin, straight glossy hair and long limbs. Even our obsession with tanning is becoming maligned. Coco Chanel may well have help popularise sun exposure as a privilege of the idle leisure class in the early 20th century, but today a mix of health concerns and the explosion of faking-it alternatives make the deep tan distasteful.
White, thin and beautiful.
In China, the mass migration of rural peasants into factory towns and the explosion of the white-collar middle classes have brought people indoors without changing the cultural preference for pale skin. Even as the affluent embrace exotic travel, outdoors sports and weekends away, skin shade barely changes. Even Mao wasn’t successful at changing that preference, his exaltation of strong women working the fields with ruddy cheeks and a sun glow did not survive his passing.
Foreigners would be deeply mistaken for thinking that the desire for pale skin is an obsession with the West. On the contrary, it is deeply rooted in Chinese classical tradition. Flawless pale-skinned beauties have been the dominant female representation in classical Chinese texts and artworks, representing both the beauty but also the character associated with the scholarly classes. For author Wen Hua in Buying Beauty: Cosmetic Surgery in China, "(...) fair skin is not only about beauty but also refers to the female gender character of softness, pureness and tenderness, and infers a woman's status and sophistication." There is also activism in the Chinese modern-day obsession with pale skin, which marks a realignment to pan-Asian values. Skin-whitening beauty products explode, American and European brands who were puzzled, if not downright resistant, to such products have had to follow suit and propose entire lines dedicated to their Asian clientele. For Perry Johansson,"White skin no longer signifies class and wealth in a domestic context but is now also used to construct identity in a globalized culture. Instead of signifying identity in relation to an internal other, it now constructs a difference with an external other, namely the West. " And if you are curious about the popularity of double-eye lid surgery in the region, it is not an attempt to look more Western, but rather denotes the value placed on large eyes as an expression of character in Confucean tradition.
Pale skin is only one tenet of Chinese classical beauty trilogy of "bai shou mei", the “white, thin, beautiful” of fair skin, slender bodies and sweet smiles. The Chinese classical tradition had women confined to the domestic sphere, away from the sun, labour and any form of athleticism. Where Mao was unsuccessful at popularising the sun tan, he left - out of economic necessity - a strong legacy of women working alongside men in the workplace and in social life. The subsequent transition to a market economy (especially in the context of the one-child policy) forced China to value its daughters. Today Chinese women outnumber men in university graduation, enjoy one of the highest full-time employment rate in the world and even make significant appearances in the C-suite and billionaire lists. Intriguingly, these same Chinese women in positions of strength and empowerment in their professional lives still feel they have to display the languid and rather meek traditional beauty canons. Hyper competition at work and on the marriage “market” in a country of over a billion people favours the “white, pale and beautiful” in appealing to a prospective boss or husband. Beauty cam applications further enable this ideal (if only on social media) by whitening the skin, enlarging the eyes, and elongating the limbs. It has become notoriously very rude to share an unedited photo of friends or colleagues. Modern decency requires heavy doctoring before sending.
Dark, sturdy and brash.
The friction between Chinese women economic standing and demands on their physical appearance is creating space for new standards to emerge. The female sports revolution is underway. Whilst Chinese ladies have traditionally been fearful of exercise and “bulking up”, running, hiking and yoga are exploding in the large metropolis of the Eastearn sea board. Athleisure is the fastest growing fashion segment, and whilst we are yet to see a Chinese cosmetics brand leading the beauty revolution, a new wave of Chinese premium athleisure niche brands is appearing, designed specially for the Chinese body and positioning an active lifestyle and healthy living as a status symbol (see this Jing Daily article here). Mass media representation are also starting to change.
Enter Wang Ju. The 25 year-old contestant of the reality TV show "Produce 101', has burst into the cultural landscape with a bang. The show is searching for a new girl band and the contestants are usually sweet and cute, choosing saccharine pop anthems. In comparison, Wang Ju is fierce in her fashion and music choices and outspoken about her independence and ambition. As per "Ayawawa, Wang Ju, and China’s Confusing Female Role Models" excellent article by Wang Qianning on Sixthtone.com : "Wang appears to have struck a chord with China’s growing cohort of young, highly educated urban women, who see traditional beauty standards as restrictive and unattainable. By voting for her, Wang’s fans are placing a certain amount of faith in the emergence of a new brand of female role model. Seeing someone they can relate to rise to success has bolstered their sense of empowerment". Wang Ju is unapologetic about her self-confidence and has overtly stated her personal ambitions and desires, away from the patronage of any male figure. In doing so, she becomes the voice of a generation of rather emancipated Chinese ladies who, studying and working in big Chinese urban centres away from their families, are able invent and reinvent themselves. They control their appearance to project a “girl power” aesthetics more often found in New York or London and hereby earn a cosmopolitan cultural citizenship as a 'modern' Chinese woman. I am excited to see how educated, successful and financially independent Chinese ladies embrace a new aesthetics, gathering ideas from a cosmopolitan “cultural supermarket” made available through the internet, travel, books, and other media and creating their own Chinese interpretation (Gordon Mathews in Global Culture/individual Identity). For author Wen Hua, Chinese girls from small-town traditional environments are emulating that look to attract the independence and self-confidence they perceive of their emancipated peers.
So perhaps it is not surprising that when earlier photographs of a whiter and thinner Wang Ju appeared online, Wang Ju promptly replied that she had changed her style and appearance on purpose to break away from the more societally-accepted look that no longer fitted her idea of beauty. She has subsequently earned the nicknames “Juyonce,” “Nicki Minaju,” or “Juhanna”. Chinese social media has rallied around her, and whilst this was not sufficient for Wang Ju to make it to the show's finale, she may well herald a more diverse representation of Chinese beauty, away from either canonical Asian or Western beauty cliches. Already, we are seeing a more assertive attitude to diverse types of beauty representation, with slang mocking “plastic beauty”, “essence of actress face”, and even “catfish face”. New beauty role models are appearing that value cool and edgy, over traditionally pretty, specially when it is achieved through norm-conforming cosmetic surgery embodied by the wang hong, or internet celebrities. When intense competition in the job and mating market has made a pretty face central to turning a quick buck, the emergence of “unusual” beauty faces signals the coming-out-of-age of Chinese women. The excellent Jing Daily article on “Noble Face” (here) quotes Yu Xiao Ge, former editor of Harper’s Bazaar China who is leading the charge against standardised beauty: “Many women lack confidence. They change their styles to fit men’s expectations because they still rely on their husbands and male bosses. Everything will change when more companies are owned by women, when they have their own financial freedom. It is a very serious problem regarding the economy, women’s confidence, and also societal pressure.”
In doing so, she signals the incredible strength and success of urban Chinese women. I have met and worked with many of these kick-ass ladies in my few years in China, and now working for a Chinese company. Those are friendships and work relationships that I deeply cherish.