Western Beauty, Eastern Faces: Beauty Development in China

Western Beauty, Eastern Faces: Beauty Development in China
Oct 11, 2010 By Susie Gordon , eChinacities.com

The first time I went shopping for face cream in Shanghai, I was accosted by an eager sales assistant brandishing a new product. This cream, she assured me, would render my skin as white as a dove. I cut a hasty retreat, discouraged by her vigorous sales patter almost as much as her message. Skin whitening? As a (very) white girl from rainy England, my life’s mission has been bronzing, tanning, and buffing my skin until it glows. Whitening cream? No way. But for millions of Chinese women, being paler is just as important. For them, dark skin is a mark of manual labour – lives spent working outdoors; to be pale is a sign of sophistication and wealth.

It isn’t just skin tone that divides women from the East and West. The ideal body shape, too, is different. While women in Western countries are desperate for slim, toned physiques (think of the multi-billion dollar diet industry and liposuction business), Asian girls are flocking in their millions to plastic surgery clinics for breast enlargements. Some even go so far as to subject themselves to painful leg lengthening surgery in a bid to be taller.

The fact that so many Chinese women are resorting to cosmetic surgery to appear less Asian may seem incomprehensible to some, especially if you consider the timeless appeal of the Asian woman. Quintessentially exotic and perfectly proportioned, the Oriental female is an attractive, mysterious, and appealing figure. I, myself, have felt stocky and ungainly beside my petite Chinese friends. I would gladly exchange my wide jaw, long nose and broad hips for their elfin features and slender physiques.

But despite the appeal of the Asian look all over the world, Chinese women are still compelled to “Westernise” themselves in order to fit with what they see as the fashionable ideal. This is why the number of plastic surgery operations in Asia is increasing by one million every year. Women want bigger breasts and wider eyes, making breast augmentation and blepharoplasty (creating a fold in the upper eyelid to emulate Caucasian features) the most popular procedures. Botox is used to slim down plump cheeks, and muscle carving makes chunky calves sleek.

Such is the popularity of cosmetic surgery that a special beauty pageant has been created for women with scalpel-enhanced beauty. The Rén Zào Měi N? Pageant (人造美女), meaning pageant of ‘man-made beautiful women,’ was established in 2004 by an 18-year-old girl who had been disqualified from a mainstream beauty pageant because of her surgery. This is all the more interesting when you consider that the first government-sanctioned beauty pageant took place only two years earlier.

Another controversial but highly popular form of entertainment is the television show “Lovely Cinderella.” Modelled on Fox TV’s “The Swan”, the show is filmed and produced in Changsha, and transforms ordinary women into “beauties” with plastic surgery makeovers.

Liu Yajuan was a contestant in the first series of “The Swan”. She has no qualms about using surgery to emulate beauty ideals. “Everyone can be beautiful,” she said during the show. She also hinted that China has come a long way from the strict Mao-era, during which cosmetic surgery was viewed as being against “the people.” “In the past, we thought that a woman was beautiful as long as she could work in the field. But that has changed.” Indeed.

So is China’s plastic surgery boom merely a reaction to years of repression, during which cosmetic enhancements gained popularity in the West, or is it a sign of something more sinister – an attempt to emulate what they see as Western “superiority” when it comes to looks? At the most basic level, we always want what we can’t have. If you were born with curly hair, the chances are you’d prefer it to be straight, and vice versa. By the same token, a woman with narrow eyes and small breasts will most likely yearn for wider eyes and a larger bosom. But on the other hand, there is an institutional bias in China towards occidental looks: many women believe that they have a better chance of being hired the less Asian they look.

It’s not difficult to see why Asian women may have an inferiority complex when it comes to their looks. Despite being universally admired for their clear skin, wide-set eyes, and youthful appearance (something anthropologists call ‘neoteny’) they are grossly under-represented on the global fashion scene. Out of the panoply of female celebrities from all ethnicities, there is only a handful of Chinese – actresses Lucy Liu, Gong Li, Zhang Ziyi, and Bai Ling. Until the catwalk debut of Shanghainese model Du Juan in 2006, very few Chinese models reached world acclaim, mostly due to a lack of height and sharp “modelesque” features.

But, as China’s world reach continues to grow, and as the fashion and entertainment industries become more and more accepting of diverse looks, Chinese women will have more role models who look like they do, and will hopefully be less inclined to “Westernise” their looks.

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Keywords: Chinese women breast enlargement china Western Beauty China Surgical Enhancement Cosmetic Surgery china China Chinese Beauty


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Can't believe that spelling arguments come before discussion of a very important issue in China. If you look at advertising hoardings in China you will hardly ever see a truelly Chinese woman they are nearly all "western". Great role models for young Chinese women and very sad. "White" skin is highly prized by women because that is what men want. Women also want to look as far away from a peasant as possible. Many despise them. It may not have happened in China yet, but in Korea operations are performed on the roof of the mouth to sound less Asian and more American. Imagine! Vanessa,you are correct, but who cares. Pity you got sucked into trivia rather than giving your perspective on this article. Only 9dragonking has attempted any analysis of the article and it is food for thought. Well done.

Jun 05, 2013 10:58 Report Abuse