Today my class got around to discussing the different standards of beauty between the East and the West.
According to tradition this got started when one student asked me “What do you want your girlfriend to be like?”, but was quickly redirected to more general terms by one student who wanted to know what Westerners thought about Asian people’s attractiveness as a whole. I Baidu’ed (Chinese Google) Liu Wen and Du Juan, two of China’s major models at the moment, and explained that these women were very successful models in the West. “We don’t think they are beautiful here,” was the reply. Why? “Their eyes.”
On the surface this comment can easily be construed as self-abasement, but digging a little deeper revelaed that the reason the eyes were such an issue is that they’re nothing special – there’s nothing exceptional about looking like every other Chinese person. “We think women with big eyes are beautiful,” said one girl. So it’s sort of half-logical, half-self-deprecating.
Turning to the two boys in class, I asked “What do you look for in a girl?” The first guy said, “the whiter the better.” When he said it in Chinese, the girl behind him translated it as “fairer,” so no, we’re not talking about a racial policy here. The other guy, who’d declared it “too early” to be discussing this, concluded by the end of class that he might want to be a monk. When I flipped the script and tried to speak to what Western women (as a whole?) might think of Asian men, I simply said that masculinity here was definitely coded differently, but that “there’s still a way to act like a man and a way to act like a woman.” “In America, men don’t want to wear small clothes because they want to feel big and strong. Here, many men who are small have no problem wearing tight clothes, or small clothes. That’s a difference.”
“In America,” I concluded (well, I don’t know if this was my conclusion or not, but it’s become my conclusion to this mini-essay, so…yeah), “we’ve had to actively discuss this issue for like, a century.” In China, people weren’t concerned about standards of beauty so much during the Cultural Revolution. We’ve had Hollywood and singers and images for generations – Vogue is more than a century-old. Here, there definitely seems to be a “white is right” mentality when it comes to selling things, ironic considering that some of the biggest names in the new wave of American fashion design – Alexander Wang, Jason Wu – are Chinese. Whether or not that’s simply because of the novelty of white features or a subconscious self-loathing, only time (and consumer dollars) will tell.
No, not every woman in China looks like this, actually.