An Unattainable Ideal: The Struggle for Beauty in China

By: Archer Carr-Engler, Lily Goodman, and Lena Venkatraman


中文的总结

中国人有一句成语:先入为主。这个说法的意思是,最先看到的给人们最深的印象。一般来说,最先看到的是一个人的外表,所以人们要重视自己的外貌。随着中国的发展,人们对美丽的标准一直在改变:在中国,有的时尚是从古代演变来的,有的是改革开放以后从西方国家的影响来的。今天,对美丽的追求在不同年龄的中国人身上都有反映。年轻人为了达到理想的外貌在他们的外表上下了不少功夫。中青年的上班族也在乎他们的外在条件;有的看重外貌甚至到做整容的程度。最后,老年人也关心外表,特别是他们的子孙的外貌。为了更了解这个很有趣的情况,请您继续看这个博客,想一想您自己会怎么回答人类社会的一个永恒的话题:美丽是什么?


How Does Beauty Affect Different Age Groups in China?

A Chinese model struts down the runway.

Chapter 1: Millennials

Throughout the busy metropolis of Beijing one will find attractive impeccably dressed young Chinese men and women seemingly obsessed with unattainable beauty standards. For young women, the definition of beauty includes creamy white skin, big wide eyes and stick thin figures. Although not equally pressured by society to attain an ideal physical image, young Chinese men also strive for beauty ideals opposite their own physical attributes such as tall slim figure with feminine characteristics. Chinese youth are in particular influenced by beauty standards promoted in the media. Ad campaigns flaunting the latest beauty products, luxury brands and clothing display stick thin models with white skin and wide set eyes. Many young Chinese feel pressured to take drastic measures to reach this essentially unattainable standard of beauty.

Contrary to popular belief, much of today’s idea of Chinese beauty standards have been adapted from Asian history rather than western practices “Some standards of beauty have not changed for thousands of years.” An example of a Chinese beauty standard that is hard to attain would be having white skin. Before researching about Chinese beauty, I thought that the reason why Chinese people wanted a fairer complexion was due to a heavy presence of Western people in the media. I was wrong because having white skin is an old Chinese beauty tradition. An article from NinChinese states, “Having white skin is an old Chinese beauty standard that stems from Ancient Chinese traditions. In ancient China, only the rich people had a white skin because they did not have to work in the fields like the peasants did.”

Although young Chinese men strive for unrealistic beauty ideals, the standards set are far more difficult for young Chinese women. Chinese men are often influenced by Korean-pop culture and Japanese anime culture. In this media, Asian men are often portrayed with a feminine looking image that young Chinese men strive to achieve. For instance, Western men often work out to gain muscle whereas Chinese men try to maintain a slim non-muscular figure. An article from The Harvard Crimson states that Asian men, “who hold to the Confucian ideals [exhibit] a tender exterior and a strong inner will.”

There are far more standards that young women need to conform to in order to attain the ideal standard of beauty in China. The pressure to attain these standards is not only created by ads, but also the constant reminders of the ideal beauty standard from family, friends and employers. For example, attaining white skin. An article from CNN states, “Almost half of Asians aged 25 to 34 years use skin whiteners.” During an interview with a Beijing Normal University PHD student, she said, “the whiter skin the better.” Her statement shows how important white skin is to Chinese society. There are many other examples like this which plague young Chinese women with the burden to achieve these unrealistic standards.

With media usage at an all time high, it is almost impossible for Chinese media users to scroll through their feed without being influenced by pictures of beautiful people. Additionally, Chinese culture imposes an intense pressure on young people to be beautiful. These influences make young Chinese people the age group that is most affected by this struggle to attain these unrealistic beauty standards in Chinese society.

Beautiful flight attendants pose for a picture in their standard uniform and makeup.

Chapter 2: Workers

Throughout the world, studies have shown that being more beautiful directly correlates to an higher hourly income at jobs. With one of the highest cosmetic surgery rates in the world, many working people in China see achieving certain beauty standards as a necessary step in employment. While more beautiful people tend to have an easier time finding work in all occupations, the Chinese service industry is even more competitive. Certain jobs, like being flight attendant, working at a hotel, or being a real estate agent, have requirements of specific uniforms and make up. Some even have requirements for the body type of the employees. For example, to work as a flight attendant for China Southern Airlines, women must be under twenty five years old, be between 152 and 175 centimeters, have straight legs (not bow-legged or knock-kneed, not wear glasses, have no scars or blemishes visible on the skin, and must fit within the restricted weight-to-height ratio. While sixty years ago these same restrictions on body characteristics were enforced in the United States, nowadays they would be illegal and considered employment discrimination. Since many Chinese people, especially women, have to worry about body image and beauty to find work, plastic surgery procedures are often done to improve chances in the job market rather than for pride and confidence.

Interviewing working people in Beijing, we discovered more about the relationship between jobs and beauty in China. Many people admitted that they thought it was wrong to hire someone because they are more attractive, though most did not seem to think it is morally right. Multiple people showed this by responding, saying that it is not fair that someone qualified for a job may be beat out by a less qualified but more beautiful person. Despite this consensus, discrimination based on physical beauty when searching for jobs is still a major issue in China.

Work discrimination and beauty standards in China affect the lives of women more than men. Occupations that have height and age requirements for women have caused many to consider more serious methods of achieving a certain image. When asked about methods used for becoming more beautiful in our survey of people in Beijing, of the fifteen female respondents between the ages of 30 and 44 years old, four said they have received cosmetic surgery before, five use face whitening creams, and six said they would consider surgery in the future.

In conclusion, working people in Beijing see beauty in a different way from young and old people. They also deal with beauty in a different way. While outside beauty for teens and young people can often be sought after to fit in and be more comfortable in their bodies, for Beijing’s working population, beauty has almost become a necessity in order to secure a future.

Elderly Chinese parents compare photographs of their single children at a marriage market.

Chapter 3: Elders

Beauty is a concept rarely associated with the elderly. After a certain age, people tend to care less about physical appearance than they did in their youth. But for Chinese elders, beauty does matter — when it is that of their children and grandchildren.

It is not unusual to enter a Chinese home and be greeted by the host’s elderly parents; in many Chinese households, three or more generations of family members reside together. In fact, according to The Atlantic, 70 percent of children in Beijing receive primary care from at least one grandparent, allowing working parents — particularly mothers — to devote more time to their careers. Because of their closeness with their younger family members, most Chinese grandparents are deeply invested in their children and grandchildren’s future success, especially in marriage. In the past, a good marriage had the potential to lift an entire family out of poverty, so Chinese elders prioritize their descendants’ marriages — and their appearances.

For many Chinese parents, the thought of their child remaining single into his or her late twenties or thirties — and thus becoming a “剩男” or “剩女,” a “leftover” man or woman — is unbearable. Some even visit “marriage markets,” parks where parents display their child’s picture and basic information, hoping to meet another parent with a suitable match. In marriage markets, first impressions are everything. Many Chinese elders thus encourage their “aging” children, as well as their grandchildren, to strive for beauty, as it could improve their chances in the job market or dating pool.

However, the way Chinese elders define beauty is very different from how young people do. In a Chinese article detailing marriage standards in each decade from the 1930s to the present, the ideals of the ’30s, ’40s, and ‘50s — when today’s elders were young — contrast sharply with current ones. According to the article, in the ’30s and ’40s, marriages were only considered respectable if conducted by a matchmaker and approved of by the couple’s parents. As young people themselves had little say in the matter, they didn’t consider whether or not their fiancé conformed to their own standards of beauty. By the 1950s, marriage represented for many an opportunity to escape a life of hardship in the countryside. The ideal man was referred to as “老师能干,” meaning honest and capable. These traits, along with wealth and class nature, were most important — appearance still did not figure in.

Yet by the ’90s, women had begun to search for wealthy and employed “帅哥” — handsome men. Furthermore, by 2014, while men hoped simply for a trusting, cheerful wife willing to do housework, women had a long list of precise requirements for a potential husband. According to the article, the ideal man should be between 172 and 182 centimeters tall and between 65 and 85 kilograms in weight, have an ordinary hairstyle, earn three to ten thousand yuan per month, and know how to cook, among multiple other conditions.

The contrast between past and present marriage standards — and what they say about the definition of beauty — is striking. Today, Chinese people place emphasis on an individual’s physical beauty as a major determinant of his or her value; in the past, a person’s chances of marrying well depended on his or her status, economic situation, and, most importantly, moral character. It seems that, although Chinese aesthetic standards have changed as the country progresses, Chinese elders retain the unique ability to look beyond a person’s outer appearance to find beauty.


What is Beauty: A Documentary


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