Mar 22, 2013 By Micah Steffes ,

Chinese Beauty Standards and the Pretty Problem

I'm riding the bus and I've been down this street a hundred thousand times before. I don't want to look out the window so I watch the people clinging to the poles, handles and headrests around me and am glad I have a seat. As we're lurching along toward the next stop, everyone is flinging themselves toward the door and the crush of the herd in the aisles makes me feel hot and sick. So I train my eyes on the advertisement under the plastic slip covering mine and every other seat in the bus and try to zone out.

The spokesmodel for Huamei Aesthetic and Plastic Hospital has beautiful cheeks. They're tall, pulling her face and her smile up gently so that her pleasant appearance spills over her lips and curves over the architecture of her face. But this is no Angelina-Jolie-type bone-structure. Those cheeks are round and smooth – they remind me of fruit. When I see an especially cute child, I often get the same impression. In fact, her eyes are a bit wide like an infant's. Her nose is the last thing I notice. It is not remarkable. It fades away into the general impression of her face. But it's a good nose. It's a universal nose. It's probably an expensive nose.

The driver slams the brakes and I'm jolted back into the world. I wonder if her beauty is a get-out-of-riding-the-bus-free card.

Maybe Lady Gaga was on to something

I'm from the US, land of the free, home of the brave and number one in the world for cosmetic surgeries. Vanity dominates the cultural landscape of American values. What could I possibly have to say about attitudes toward beauty that would be unique to the case of China? What could possibly save me from hypocrisy here?

To make a point here, I'll admit to my own vanity. I over-value physical beauty and it leads me to want to be pretty and to take actions that cost me time and money in order to improve my physical appearance. I have, in the past, spent well over 100 dollars on a cut and colour. But I recognise that while having a nice personal appearance (IE: hygiene and health) may help me in an interview, beauty alone says nothing about my skills or competence and I have faith that potential employers recognise that as well—especially if they want to avoid a lawsuit. In a tight job market, I'd rather spend my money on new experiences or more education to gain an edge (hence the fact of my being in China).

In China, a young woman's money may be better spent on a new face.

"Being good-looking is capital"

Awhile back, I read an article that stuck with me. Writer Paul Bacon lamented the plight of one "bucktooth girl," a young Chinese woman who was reportedly passed over by 21 potential employers in the space of a week, a problem thought by family and friends to be caused by her buckteeth—a problem for which the only remedy would be cosmetic surgery.

"The extreme reaction of some of her friends alarmed, but also slightly amused me," he writes. "Yet, as I read on through other articles, I began to see the issue of cosmetic surgery amongst female job hunters is no joke."

It's true. As China's numbers steadily rise to meet America's in almost all respects, it shouldn't come as a surprise that we're seeing the same with regard to plastic surgery. International cosmetics brands, taking the phrase "the future is a Chinese woman" to heart, are all clambering to get a firm grip on the Chinese market. Lancome's executives and the makers of Botox would probably agree: Chinese women tend to take beauty very seriously.

Theories are a dime a dozen here. The more interesting and convincing among them follow: the "Post-Mao Novelty Theory" (women taking on beauty as a personal project), the "Change Breeds Insecurity Equation" (women seeking to "fix" their insecurities through plastic surgery), and the insightful, but incomplete "Compressed Courtship Phase Conjecture" (women maximizing their chances of finding a mate while they are "still" young and beautiful). But Dr. Wen Hua, PhD, thinks she knows why we see this particularly among younger, job-seeking women. I caught up with Dr. Hau and asked to her illuminate her perspective on this.

"As an anthropologist, I think that it's important to hear the voice of those women and to understand—from the point of view of those women—the reasons behind their fears and choices," she explained. "Many Chinese women view an attractive appearance as a set of tangible and portable personal assets that are convertible into financial or social capital."

Or, as one subject in her 2008 study summarily surmised, "Being good-looking is capital." Here, the cliché "beauty is your duty," originally popularised by Vogue Magazine during the war effort, takes on new meaning — the job market is a battlefield. If you have any sense of duty toward yourself or your career, get thee to the doctor.

I wonder where this sense of deep insecurity comes from. I put the "it's all in their heads" theory to Dr. Hua but she doesn't think this a helpful way of looking at it. "To understand women's fear," she tells me, "we must understand gender and body politics in today's China as well as China's larger political economy. This is the context within which women's anxieties are grounded."

In laymen's terms, there is something real going on here, something big. But bigger even than biology? "From my point of view, beauty and the quest of beauty is more than a natural problem. It is related with both biological adaptation and social-cultural construction.

"[Beauty] can give them an edge in the job market, where occupational gender segregation and employment discrimination based on gender, appearance, height and age widely exist."

Maybe "Ms. B" really would get a bang for her buck if she went under the knife. Huamei girl probably thinks so.

To Bucktooth Girl: Selena Gomez wants to know, who says you're not beautiful?

As both a woman and a border-line hypocritical American here, I think my salvation lies in a tiny but important cultural distinction: in the United States (leaving aside the rhetoric of hygiene and "health") beauty is mutable and its inconsistency means it can only be a stand-alone virtue. In other words, under normal circumstances beauty in America can only be an end in and of itself.

Preference for youth and naturally large breasts aside, conflicting notions of what is beautiful arise all the time in America — people disagree about Julia Roberts' smile or Jennifer Aniston's chin or Amanda Seyfried's eyes or Bruce Willis' hair (or absence of it). Beauty, male or female, means vastly different things to different people.

On the other hand, white skin, a double-fold eyelid or a nose with a high bridge (Western-esque features, yes, but that's a different story) are almost universally considered most beautiful to a near-majority of Chinese. Mouth, teeth, chin—the smaller the better. A "goose-egg" shaped face is the sought-after standard in beauty to the point that surgery to "shave" down the jaw-line, a painful procedure that requires several sessions, is considered by many to be no more extreme than breast enhancement.

You may be thinking to yourself that I'm still in hot water here —"Women everywhere are victims of their own making," is a refrain I've heard before from our readers. The more sensitive among you may argue that while sad or even depressing, this is still only an issue of self-confidence, not body politics (or the body politic for that matter).  However, even when the pursuit of beauty is an end to confidence or admiration, when held against the Chinese situation, American beauty's most salient feature emerges: its relative worthlessness. In America, there are many accessible avenues to admiration and a myriad more to confidence. Importantly, that goes for men and women alike. I'm just not convinced that I could say the same for China.

The pretty problem

As an American woman, I can be rest assured that whether or not I am beautiful only really matters if I'm applying to work someplace that has a specific requirement (and knowable method of assessment) for beauty. Unless I'm applying to work at Hooters the difference between my standards and my potential employers' is irrelevant – or it  should be, both ideally (say most Americans), and legally (say our non-discrimination laws). That is, there is no set bar and the stakes are only as high as I make them.

In China, there is a bar. And ever since the reform and opening, the stakes have kept pace with the rate of change. Beauty is worth something here. And for Chinese women, especially young job-seeking women, not being pretty is a problem. 

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Keywords: Chinese beauty standards importance of beauty in China how to succeed in China Chinese women in the workforce

20 Comments Add your comment



Are the Chinese simply copying the cultural attitude of South Korea?

May 29, 2012 17:35 Report Abuse



... and Taiwan, and Japan, and and and ..

May 29, 2012 22:03 Report Abuse



you see, chinese people are not huge fans of dreams... after so many years of chaos we just want to live in peace ( and die in peace of course)

Mar 26, 2013 13:19 Report Abuse



Next time take a taxi, although the use of brakes won't be much different. Or go to somewhere that you'll need a mule to traverse dozens of kilometers. Then the bus will seem like a luxury liner.

May 30, 2012 03:00 Report Abuse


Different sometimes

Some industries in China are mostly staffed by women. Where women do the recruiting in China, being pretty can often work against you.

There is some balance in the universe, sometimes.

May 30, 2012 06:05 Report Abuse



I believe the numbers are different now. S. Korea is number 1 (I believe per capita). I wouldn't put this solely on America when countries closer to China still have a great influence in China's lives, even more so than America (S. Korea, Japan, Taiwan)

May 30, 2012 21:29 Report Abuse



...don't forget how much fun it is to be a girl

May 31, 2012 18:00 Report Abuse



Sorry, but your writing is really boring and insufficient.

May 31, 2012 23:13 Report Abuse



Actually, YOUR words and YOUR attitude are boring. In fact, they SUCK! *******.

Mar 23, 2013 14:54 Report Abuse



If they do suck (and if it is a fact), then they are not boring. Sucking can be very exciting, I'd say. After all, you did write it in all caps, and used an exclamation point... that just shows how excited you were. Imagine how others would respond to the sucking.

Aug 07, 2013 10:49 Report Abuse



rubbish article

Jun 03, 2012 02:27 Report Abuse


David Kingsman

I wonder why these articles always concentrate on the U.S as a rolemodel for or contrast to China?

As I understand, Chinese, especially the younger generation, draw their ideals of beauty from Korean soap operas, Japanese pop-music and such. Even though they might praise the "western-style" round eyes and pointy nose (, especially when speaking with a western person), I doubt anyone seriously prefers to look like a Hollywood actress. Actually it's quite the opposite, as most East-Asians consider western women to have somewhat masculine features.

{{ok, I admit this wasn't the point of the article, but I just had to say it ;) }}

What comes to the actual point of the article:

I'm running a fairly successful business here in Shenzhen, and from the point of view of a manager I have to say, It definately makes a different when it comes to appearance. We cater mostly to foreign companies, and as such most of our clients are foreigners (high percentage of them being from US and Europe). I've experianced first hand how the behaviour of our clients change when, say, received by a attractive secretary.

As clients visit our offices often, interacting with many of my subordinates, it's just common sense to hire beautiful office ladies. It becomes a prerequisite for successful business. And it is not just the male clients who become more lenient. As a matter of fact, I've observed that the change in our female client's attitudes are even more drastic.

We don't have a representitive office in US yet, but base on the expats living here in China I doubt that the business climate there is any different. So please, don't go shooting the horse before you've checked into it's mouth.

Jun 04, 2012 09:18 Report Abuse



I think Fox news is on to something, hiring all those pretty blondes.

Sep 09, 2013 04:33 Report Abuse



The latest beauty styles of the Caucasian (and not Caucasian) girls here in Canada has been... straight black hair. Are they emulating Asian beauty? In England I was amazed (amused) the most popular of beauty trends is to paint (actually stain) one's skin orange. I'm not making this up. I called them 'Oompa-loompas' if anyone else knows this reference. Were they emulating Asian beauty?
Another beauty technique common among Caucasian women is to draw a kind of 'sharp line' at the corner of their eyes. Emulating Chinese eyes? Caucasian women obsessively shaving their body hair? The American woman's love of silk and silky dresses and blouses?

Anyways, I suppose I'm rambling on but I have to say there is no accident many interns are pretty young ladies. Don't even suppose this is all to do with men. Often it is women who know to hire pretty women AND at the same time fire up all 'beauty standard' competition they can.

In the same way men like to build up big muscles to impress other men - I'd say 90% of women's beauty investments are really 'for other women'. Heck, men? Seriously.. we really don't even notice your hair colour or your shoes. We really have zero idea why this dress is 'hot' and that one is 'not'. It all looks the same to us. But we WILL see curves I promise you that!

Jun 09, 2012 11:48 Report Abuse


mediocre karaoker

if she gets a job
things get worse

Jul 17, 2012 06:01 Report Abuse



Beauty comes from within

Mar 22, 2013 00:47 Report Abuse



Very well written article. Makes one realize how all things in life are relative.

Mar 22, 2013 16:06 Report Abuse



I am starting to have difficulties in recognising who's who

Mar 25, 2013 19:36 Report Abuse



From personal experience, I also think that beauty really means a lot in China. However, there's an exception to every rule.

May 17, 2015 07:10 Report Abuse



I have a tall nose, long eyelashes, big eyes... But I am tanned and short... Yet I am hella' good looking for in this country!

Jul 17, 2015 15:33 Report Abuse