China is such a fascinating country with centuries of rich history and culture. As globalization and western media have increased their influence in China, the ideal of beauty has increasingly become Caucasian.
Traditionally in China, women with lighter skin are said to be more beautiful and precious than the ones with darker skin. In the past, women avoided sunshine because those with darker skin were thought of as field workers. Today, light skin is still associated with class and many beauty products marketed in China lighten the skin tone.
The western ideals of beauty are blonde, thin, and blue-eyed just like Scarlet Johansson. These are the ideals that the western media pushes to the world through their choices of magazine models, brand ambassadors, billboard models, actors and pop stars. There is this notion that ‘blondes have more fun’ that most Chinese people are trying to pick, and they worship blondes. These harmful media ideals have become unquestioned norms in the Chinese people’s mind, and they believe being light skin, blonde and blue-eyed makes you more beautiful than the darker counterparts.
It’s not surprising to find an advertisement of Emma Watson in Beijing advertising skin whitening products. This will easily sell since they used a standard definition of beauty for a model to market their products. These western models with their large eyes, light-colored hair, and elongated noses represent the Eurocentric ideal of beauty, an ideal naturally and ethically unattainable by the majority of the Chinese people.
There is an increasing trend of western superstars gracing the covers of Chinese magazines and also marketing the European brands in China. Intimacy and intermingling of the Western and Eastern cultures is observed in the use of western models for uniquely Chinese cosmetic products. The clear message in such advertisements can be directly translated to mean, ‘If you are Chinese, use this product and you too can easily look like the western model.’
The Roots of Western Beauty on Chinese People
Way before western colonization, certain aspects of western beauty ideals such as fair skin were already ingrained into Chinese society. The Chinese people have historically valued fair skin and associated it with class and wealth. On the other hand, the Chinese people associated dark, tanned skin with poverty and were forced to perform manual labor outside under the sun. As Marianne Bray states, ‘White complexion was seen as noble and aristocratic….only those rich enough could afford to stay indoors.’
The tedious quest for western perfection among Chinese people was seen in the 16th century when Western traders came to China for opium and spices. This was when Western beauty was introduced to Hong Kong. The Chinese people were further influenced by theater, ballet, and Hollywood starlets through travel and media. The major cities in China, for instance, Hong Kong, Beijing, and Shanghai, have a high influence of the western beauty ideals and display this through employment and billboards. These cities have a very high population of expats and quite a strong western influence in beauty standards and fashion.
The blondes are highly coveted among the Chinese people. When you are blonde in China, you will feel like a celebrity since the Chinese people will give you the ‘uncomfortable Asian stares’ or even run to you and request photos (less likely in larger cities). The Chinese people also believe that blonde western kids are darn beautiful, and they will keep requesting for photos with them.
Pressures to Look White
Unfortunately, the pressure to look western is quite rampant in China. Most women view beauty as the key to being very successful in job applications since in some cases job applicants are obliged to submit their photos alongside the resume. This makes people feel judged quite harshly based on the first impression of their face.
For instance, the image of Maybelline brand cosmetic advertisement in one of the Hong Kong’s local magazines represents a model with blonde hair, pointed nose, pouty lips and large eyes which is an ideal representation of Caucasian beauty. This type of image subconsciously tells the Chinese people that this is how they are supposed to look so as to ooze sex appeal and spark a man’s interest. A survey carried out by William Jankowink indicated that Chinese people ranked Caucasian models of either gender as more attractive compared to their Chinese counterparts.
The Chinese people based the attractiveness on lighter hair color, the whiteness of the skin, wide and deep set eyes and angular noses which are traits rarely found with Chinese people. This study also pinpoints this obsession with western features to be the underlying reason more young Chinese people are resorting to plastic surgery. In 2009, the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery ranked China third in the world as the country with the most plastic surgery procedures after more than 2 million plastic surgeries were performed that year in China. The numbers keep rising each year.
Clearly, globalization is a double-edged sword. It’s ignorant to think that globalization promotes diversity since we are exposed to different ethnicities and races around the world but fail to acknowledge how the same globalization can easily perpetuate structural violence, for instance, the unrealistic western ideals of beauty onto hair and skin color. The Chinese people’s obsession with blondes is real, although can be quite dangerous for it harbors the notion, ‘anything less blond is less beautiful’. Maybe it’s time the Chinese people focused more on acknowledging that diversity is beautiful, and you can be comfortable in your own skin regardless of how dark or light your skin and hair color is.