Monday, July 26, 2010

Cultural Standards of Beauty (did you know Mulan is considered ugly in China?)

I am fascinated by cultural perceptions of beauty.

One day when we wandered into a pharmacy I shocked Isaac when I showed him the face-whitening cream that is present everywhere in Asia. Face whitening? Yes, it's just a mild bleach for the skin, because in most of Asia people want to be whiter.

Natural Looks - Whitening Cream

That is in contrast to our country, which sells fake tanning creams and has tanning salons everywhere. When I mentioned this to the university girls I worked with, they were completely aghast. Another mentioned that she sees girls sunbathing on the beach in American movies and thinks this is crazy - why would we sit in the sun and let our skin get dark?

So funny. The other thing I showed Isaac in the pharmacy that really floored him was this:
Double Eyelid Tape detail 2

That's actually a popular product that gives the illusion of double-eyelids in imitation of Westerners. In fact, the most popular cosmetic surgery in China is eyelid surgery. That's something we never thing about here in the US - it's just something we have, and makeup gets caught in it. Lots of Asians think it's beautiful and wish they have it, which is just so ironic....

Actually, after arriving in China I concluded that while many Asians may want to be whiter and have double-eyelids, the West has a huge thing for the "Asian" look right now. The super-thin, petite figure that is so common in China is what the media in the US is pushing and what most girls wish they had. Westerners work to straighten their hair and get that sleek look that lots of Asians have naturally. The gorgeous skin tone of the Chinese is completely popular.

So... as I told my university girls, Americans think the Chinese as a race produce very attractive women. This pleased them all immensely and they said they'd like to move to the US!

I had a number of fascinating conversations with these university girls about beauty and who they thought was beautiful. I was told by my American-born-Chinese friends on my team that the Chinese women that American men in China date are generally not considered attractive to the Chinese. They always wonder why the crazy Westerner picked THAT girl. There seem to be two different standards of beauty. I was intrigued and so I started asking my university girls who they thought was beautiful. In my group they said sweet Flora is beautiful (on the right below, during her birthday celebration):

And indeed she is, but I think Christina is beautiful (on the far right, below). She said, however, that she is "too black".

I would point to various girls throughout the class that I thought were attractive and say, "Is she pretty?" and my girls would say, "Oh... she's just average."

They all thought Una was gorgeous:

Interesting, right? They said that very petite women used to be attractive in China, and a small mouth and small eyes were desirable. Now there is still a certain look that is similar to that that is beautiful, but wide eyes and a wide mouth are considered "sexy". Huh. They also told me that they all love the movie Mulan, but they think the character of Mulan isn't pretty at all. Hah! How funny is that?


They LOVE blond hair too. That's sort of predictable because it's so different to them. It's like they can't see around it, though. Everyone on our team with blond hair was considered so beautiful, and when I commented that this was because the Chinese love blond hair they were a little taken aback that I would think it was just because of the hair color.... and yet it was obvious that the hair color affected SO much of their view of people.

They LOVED this blond girl on our team and everyone wanted a photo with her. She WAS great!:

My girls and I even watched High School Musical together, and later I asked them about the main charachter and if she's beautiful. They responded that she's okay looking, but the blond girl is prettier.

Wow. I totally disagree...


I've been doing research since coming back to the US, and it seems that the look of Lucy Liu that we Americans consider to be exotically beautiful is sort of TOO exotic and too pointed of features for the Chinese.

Lucy Liu

They think the softened, perhaps more Western features of actresses like Gong Li and X are attractive:


and Zhang Ziyi.
zhang ziyi

I decided to let this comfort me that every look is beautiful somewhere! I've heard women from East Asia say that if they were considered ugly in their own culture, they're generally considered beautiful in the US! And many curvy American women are considered the most beautiful by Africans.

Strange how beauty is sometimes universal and sometimes VERY cultural.

Some of my other posts from my trip to China:
Flash Mob in China, Moments in China, Chinese Food Fight, Cultural Perceptions of the USA in China, The Great Wall, Hutong Life, Beijing Youth Hostel.


Jaimie said...

Yeah that's why the African American guys double-take me more than any other group of people.... except Mexicans. (Since we're grouping people here.)

Una IS gorgeous. I agree with them, haha.

Alice said...

Great post, Kacie. This is a really interesting topic. I knew the eyelid surgery thing is a huge deal; weird, huh? I am sad that Mulan is not considered beautiful--she saved China!! ;-)

caromac said...

This is so interesting! I've had a similar conversation with my Taiwanese neighbor, who took great joy in my blonde hair and was surprised that I'm not considered stunningly beautiful here. Haha. She said if I went to Taiwan, street vendors would give me free food all the time. I must go there! Also, three different African students have declared their love for my roommate within minutes of seeing her.
Living with international students is good for the self-esteem.

cclarebear said...

my chinese boyfriend (who has "western tastes" he claims) agreed with the chinese people in your post. he ranked lucy liu, gong li, and zhang zyi as 3, 2, 1. but he thinks they're all pretty (including mulan)

btw whitening cream is quite effective in fading freckles, i'm told.

Kacie said...

One of the guys on my team was half Chinese, half caucasian, grew up in Taiwan. He talked a lot about how his girlfriend (who is Chinese but studying in the US right now) is one of those rare girls that is beautiful in both cultures. My small group girls insisted on seeing a photo of her. They oohed and ahhed appropriately but when he walked away they said, "she's okay, and she's very dark".

I laughed at them, and told them her color of skin is gorgeous in America.

Rae said...

It is funny how the obviously artificialness of the blond hair does not factor into their determination of beauty. At least in my little sphere there isn't anything particularly attractive about being blonde unless one looks as if it is both natural and paired with a tan (so a fairly rare look).

I suspect that female beauty is more culturally relative than male, do you think so?

Kacie said...

hmm.. that's interesting. Female beauty more culturally relative? Perhaps. That'd be an interesting thing to research.

Jenny said...

Great post. Although I think it's wonderful that many Asian women, who might not be considered beautiful in their own culture, have attracted men from other cultures. However, it troubles me when I hear, as I have a number of times, Asian women talk about how they intermarried or want to intermarry just to have "beautiful" children. I've also know two who've complained when their children have ended up with dark colored or "almond-shaped" eyes, clear results of them being the mothers. Just goes to show that not being "beautiful" in one's culture doesn't mean that a woman won't hold her own daughters to those same standards.

joylfelix said...

I taught for a summer in Mongolia, and had this same discussion with my girl students - I had a tan when I came and they couldn't understand why I had done that to my skin. Why I hadn't worn a hat while hiking the Ghengis Khan monument etc.

I met a girl who was by our standards very beautiful, but they said she was too dark and too skinny, that too be beautiful in Mongolia she needed to gain weight and stay out of the sun (heavier is beautiful there because of the cold - skinny girls are more likely to be sick and to freeze). It's so interesting, the different perspectives on beauty!