By Jasmin Sun
A young woman sits in the waiting area of the Shanghai East Plastic & Cosmetic Surgery Clinic, flipping through the latest issue of Marie Claire’s China edition. She looks through page after page of skincare product advertisements, each boasting the face of a fair-skinned model, complete with doe eyes and a nose bridge high enough to, well, thumb a nose at the average Han Chinese face.
The ads hark back to a period of plastic surgery obsession that first gripped the whole of greater Asia nearly a decade ago. The number of Asians who, under the unstoppable soft power of Hollywood movies and TV shows, wished to remake themselves to look more Caucasian became, and still is, a culturally loaded issue. Since then, China’s aesthetic ideals have changed to include wider eyes and longer noses, features not typical of the race.
However, as Nancy Etcoff posits in Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty, beauty is evolutionary. The prevalence of Hollywood might have turned the Western ideal into a universal standard of beauty, but as the word “China” becomes synonymous with the term “emerging superpower,” the country is slowly redefining its own modern version of feminine beauty.
“Young women are beginning to strive for a modified, yet traditionally Chinese look,” explains Ni Huili, a doctor at the Shanghai East cosmetic surgery clinic. “They feel that a strictly Western look is too exaggerated and very unnatural.”
Ni says the face most young Chinese women visiting Shanghai East hope to emulate is Chinese actress Fan Bing Bing. One look at a photo will reveal that the actress has eyes much larger than your average Chinese woman. In this case, the contradiction between request and rationale might be explained scientifically.
According to a report released in 2005 by the University of St. Andrews in Fife, United Kingdom, women with higher levels of estrogen were found to have more attractive faces. The female sex hormone leads to larger eyes, reduced size of the nose and chin, and increased thickness of the lips.
MAC makeup artist K.K. Huang says that wanting bigger eyes might also just be a way of achieving an age-old Chinese ideal rather than a way to emulate the Western face. “Chinese women traditionally like to be seen as having a smaller face,” he explains. “Bigger eyes can make the face look smaller overall.”
But the idea of viewing those with larger eyes and higher noses as having “more Western” features might not be the right way to look at things, says advertising company Young & Rubicam’s creative producer Fan Xiao Xiao. To her, the argument boils down to the haves and have-nots within the average population’s pool of physical attributes. Standout facial features, like popular Chinese actress Fan Bing Bing’s eyes, are precisely what make celebrities and models worthy media subjects.
“Chinese people don’t want to have larger eyes to look more Western,” Fan says. “They want to have bigger eyes simply because they feel they look better. It’s like how the average Western girl isn’t going to be as thin as the model chosen for the advertisement is going to be.”
Perhaps the one beauty feature that has most strongly defied Westernization is the Chinese penchant for fair skin. Despite the appearance of tanning salons in some of the country’s larger cities, most women still choose to avoid bronzing at all costs—carrying umbrellas on sunny days and wearing modified versions of legwarmers on their forearms to keep them from tanning.
There are numerous theories for why Asians share a cultural preference for lighter skin, but the most common rationale is that a lighter complexion is associated with wealth and higher social status. Those with a better education could stay out of the sun while those from lower social classes, like laborers and farmers, would have had to work outside during the daytime heat.
According to Huang, the obsession with pale skin isn’t going away anytime soon in China, especially now with the popularity of South Korean soap operas and their fair-skinned stars. Plus, he says, “pale skin looks healthier and more flawless than skin that’s tan.”
Huang’s point is well taken, especially considering Unilever’s decision on June 13 to expand its business in China by fivefold. Unilever is the world’s second-largest consumer goods company, and markets products like Pond’s Flawless White across Asia.
But could the combination of China’s increasing prominence and redefinition of its beauty standards turn the Chinese face into the modern universal beauty ideal? “It should,” says Shanghai native Estelle Zhou, 27. By looking at top runway models like Liu Wen, whose international popularity has earned her campaigns for retail brands like Gap and Lancôme, “I think it already has.”