When it comes to physical appeal, Chinese and Western standards vary wildly

By Yin Lu Source:Global Times Published: 2016-3-30 18:13:01

Western and Chinese standards of beauty differ on a number of points, including their opposing views on tanned skin and athletic builds for women, or "scruffiness" and facial hair for men. Photo: IC

Steven Fell (pseudonym), a Canadian in his 40s, has lived in China for over a decade, and understands a lot about the culture. But one thing he still finds himself unable to agree with his Chinese friends about is what counts as beautiful.

"I've noticed that Chinese care a lot more about having white skin," he says. "[But] there is nothing unattractive about a darker complexion for most people I know." Another major point of disagreement when it comes to Chinese and Western standards of beauty is eye shape. "Chinese women also seem to believe that so-called double eyelids are more attractive. But I think many Western guys, including myself, find women with the more stereotypically Asian-looking single eyelids to be very exotic and attractive."

Fell is not alone in his confusion. As the world becomes increasingly connected, clashes between different national and cultural standards of beauty have become more commonplace. In China, this manifests itself through confusion on the part of Westerners unable to understand Chinese standards of beauty, and vice versa. Sometimes it takes a positive form, as with the worldwide popularization of Asian actors and actresses, and sometimes less so - as with the much-remarked-on phenomenon on the Chinese Internet of expat guys dating "ugly" Chinese girls, as well as the widespread notion that international brands often choose Chinese models that the Chinese public doesn't find attractive.

But either way, it provides a fascinating window into how cultural and national backgrounds affect modern - and continually shifting - standards of beauty.

While Chinese beauty ideals are largely focused on the face, Westerners are more concerned with the body. Photos: IC

Differing perceptions

While everyone, like Fell, has their own preferences that may or may not run up against dominant standards of beauty, there remain overarching trends in terms of what different cultures find beautiful. Among the most up-to-date experts on these preferences is Greg Hodge, the British CEO of international dating website beautifulpeople.com, which, since its 2004 launch, has racked up 900,000 members worldwide.

The site has drawn an increasing number of Chinese members, with the total standing at 7,589 as of this month.

"No one person can define beauty for a nation or community, and beauty is subjective," he said. Those who can define beauty, according to beautifulpeople.com's modus vivendi, is a group of your own peers, which is why the site - which promotes itself as a dating service exclusively for beautiful people - requires that applicants be "voted in" by their peers in order to be allowed to join. 

In the course of moderating those votes, Hodge has picked up on several tendencies among people from different countries. For example, he said, many of their Chinese members tend to downvote features generally considered attractive by Westerners, including tanned or darker complexions, strong features and athletic builds for women, and the disheveled, unshaven look, excessive facial hair or an overly muscular physique for men. The same doesn't necessarily hold for how Westerners view Chinese members.

"Broadly speaking, Westerners find the petite figures and flawless skin of the Chinese beautiful. Chinese beauty is mysterious, exotic and enchanting to many Westerners," he said. "I personally find Chinese female beauty exquisitely feminine. Attractive Chinese women look like they are hiding a great mystery behind their eyes." 

Hodge believed that one of the biggest differences in Chinese and Western standards of beauty is how they view women's body types.

"Western women can be considered beautiful if they have athletic, thin, plump or even somewhat overweight bodies, whereas what is considered a beautiful feminine body in China is much more narrowly defined as simply being thin or having an hour-glass figure," said Hodge. "Many of our Western female members would not be voted into the site by Chinese men."

Pursuing the Chinese physical ideal

While beautifulpeople.com might be geared more toward facilitating hookups than sociological research, the sheer volume of their data - nearly 12 million applications - means they've been able to draw some pretty solid conclusions about what different nationalities find beautiful. And according to Hodge, Chinese men and women, like everyone else, have their own unique standards.

"Chinese women prefer their men clean-shaven with a more polished and groomed appearance compared to US women, who are more receptive to men with a rough-and-ready look - jeans and T-shirts with a five-o'clock shadow," he said. "Chinese men prefer their women to look very submissive and innocent, almost like porcelain dolls, as opposed to Western men who are more inclined to women who project a more confident, strong or sexualized beauty." 

These preferences bear out in the plastic surgery industry, where the popularity of procedures varies according to regional standards of beauty.

According to Cao Jiwu, the president of the Guiyang Huamei Aesthetic and Plastic Hospital in Guiyang, Guizhou Province, among the most important things for Chinese women is face shape.        

"We Asians love V-shaped faces," he says. "Look at all the celebrities. They have pointy chins, small jaws, broad foreheads and mellow cheeks, which makes them look sweet."

According to Cao, one of their most popular packages is one designed to make the patient's face slimmer by injecting botox into the jaw muscles to make them more slack, and using either hyaluronic acid or a prosthesis on the chin to make it pointier. Some women even get liposuction on their chins and injections to make their foreheads bigger. "I see young women lining up at our hospital's department of noninvasive procedures for face-slimming injections all the time, which proves it's a trend in the wider society."

The idea is to make your face look as sweet as possible. "[Chinese people] don't like European-style faces. If you look at Hollywood movies, a lot of the actresses' faces have sharper lines."

By contrast, Cao says that expat clients - of which he's had a few over the years - are more likely to ask for breast enlargement or liposuction of the body.

"In short, when judging beauty, the major difference is that Chinese people start with someone's face and then move on to the body, while Westerners start with the body, then move to the face," Cao said. This, he said, is in part because Chinese people are more conservative about showing their bodies in general.

The mutability of standards of beauty

However, Cao thinks that Chinese standards of beauty are evolving, influenced both by the West and, to a greater degree, by its neighbors, Japan and South Korea. "Just look at Chinese actors and pop stars," he said. "They are following the trend from South Korea."

However, he also points out that in metropolises like Beijing, a growing number of middle- and upper-class patients are asking for procedures related to their bodies. "While in second-tier and third-tier cities, only about 20 percent of the patients want to operate on their bodies, in first-tier cities about half of them are willing to do so."

Cao pointed out that dating often plays a big motivation for plastic surgery. "There's a new trend for girls and young women to get plastic surgery after high school or college graduation, either to help them find a good job, or for dating and marriage purposes," he said.

Of course, for those interested in dating across cultures, competing standards of beauty are something to keep in mind. For instance, one interesting thing that Cao says he's noticed, is that Chinese women who have been educated overseas or are in relationships with Western men are more likely to request breast enlargement and liposuction.

"They ask for their [breasts] to be as big as possible, while usually, Chinese women just ask that it look natural."

Hodge agrees that, as cross-cultural dating grows more common, people's perceptions of beauty are slowly starting to change, noting that even their site is starting to see a greater diversity of looks.

"Chinese perceptions of beauty are changing; just look at some of your most famous fashion models: Xi Mengyao, Liu Wen and He Sui," he said. "Most of them do not fit the stereotypical Chinese ideal of beauty but the younger Chinese generation do find them appealing and they boast wide international appeal."

It's a trend that Westerners like Joslyn Stabile, a 20-something student and model who lives in Los Angeles, are in favor of. Stabile, who joined beautifulpeople.com in 2013, is no stranger to the appeal of Asian men, as evidenced by her enduring crush on Chinese-American actor Harry Shum Jr., who she says has a "great smile, awesome hair, toned body, and the ability to dance to anything." 

It's people like Shum who have helped establish alternative standards for Asian attractiveness based on their natural features. Stabile believes it's "a real shame" and "sad" when young Asian people try to make themselves look more Western through makeup or surgery. 

"Asian people are beautiful and ethnic-looking to Westerners, which is much appreciated in Western culture," she said. "Asian women should embrace their beauty."

Newspaper headline: Eye of the beholder

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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