Over the last few years, I’ve talked a bit about Chinese beauty standards and how they differ from America and most other “western” countries. Whether it’s skin whitening or the fact that I can be simultaneously fat and beautiful, sometimes it’s hard to wrap my head around the notions of Chinese beauty.
As a woman, I’m constantly surrounded by advertisements, products, and articles all teaching me how to be more beautiful. It can get pretty exhausting! From makeup to weight loss, lotions and creams to hair products, waxing, primping, push up bras, spanx, hair straighteners and blowouts… the list goes on and on. While I’m not saying that pressure isn’t there for men as well, there’s a lot more emphasis on the importance of beauty for women.
Living in America, I feel like I can’t escape it. I’m never thin enough, tall enough or flawless enough. My hair is too curly and frizzy, I’m too pale and I definitely don’t have one of those “thigh gaps”. I’m told this over and over whenever I turn on the tv, get on the internet or open a magazine. Even walking outside my house, I see billboards and advertisements telling me how I can make myself prettier.
So what happens when I move to China? A lot of that pressure disappears.
The Chinese Beauty Industry
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a huge beauty industry in China. Makeup, skin whitening creams, padded bras, hair dye, colored contacts and beauty face masks are just a few popular beauty-enhancing products. I’ve even seen special eyelid crease stickers! If you don’t have an eyelid crease, you can stick a little crescent-shaped sticker onto your eyelid and it will create a crease for you. Talk about uncomfortable! But I guess it’s a lot easier and cheaper than eye surgery.
If there’s so much emphasis on beauty in China, how is there less pressure for me?
Well, the main reason is that a lot of it doesn’t apply to me.
I already have white skin, creased eyelids, big boobs, hazel eyes, and brown hair. Also, I just look so different, I don’t fit into the Chinese beauty mold. People will stare at me regardless of how I look, just because I’m not Chinese.
“You Are SO Beautiful!”
In China, I get a lot of awkward compliments on my physical appearance. I’m usually complimented on my skin tone and complexion, but also on the size, shape, and color of my eyes. People also think my extremely curly hair is really interesting and beautiful. No amount of time at the salon will ever make a Chinese girl’s hair look like mine, so I guess it’s appealing because it’s so “exotic”.
PS- Have hair like mine? Here are some quick and easy tips for traveling with curly hair!
These compliments usually make me pretty uncomfortable though, because they often come from strangers. In the USA, I would never go up to someone (even a friend!) and say “wow you are so beautiful!” How do you even respond to that? I will say “you look nice today”, or “that dress looks really good on you”, but I would never go up to someone and say “wow, you are gorgeous!!” But it’s part of the culture in China.
One time, a woman went on and on for about ten minutes, telling me I looked like a traditional medieval beauty from a European fairy tale. It was a great compliment, but I could not for the life of me figure out how to respond after I jokingly disagreed with her compliments two or three times.
But You’re Also Fat.
It’s not all beauty pageants and glamor for me in China though. Unfortunately, living in China constantly makes me feel fat. I’ve seen this a lot with expats in China. Many of us will subconsciously lose weight just because of the comments we get on a daily basis about our bodies.
Firstly, let me preface with the fact that calling someone “pang”, or “fat” in Chinese, is not offensive.
That’s because “pang” and “fat” have different meanings. In China there are two body types: “pang” and “shou”. Shou refers to people who are skinny. Not just thin, we’re talking size “xs” girls here. Everyone else is pang. A lot of Chinese people use the word “fat” when speaking English as a direct translation of pang, but they are two completely different things. The problem is that most Chinese people don’t know this, which leads to a lot of cultural misunderstandings!
For example, yesterday one of my friends in my dance group was trying to describe a boy in the group to me because I didn’t know his name. She said, “You know, the fat one!!” There are absolutely no fat people in our dance group, and I had no idea what she was talking about. Eventually, I realized who she was referring to, “He’s not fat, he’s just big!!”
The boy in question was tall, broad-shouldered, and muscular, with thick arms and legs. He is definitely not fat! But in China, he’s considered pang because he’s not a thin guy.
Unfortunately, this happens a lot. Last year I had a student call me fat in front of the entire class. When I told the other Chinese teachers at my school, they replied, “Wait… so in America, you are not fat??”
I know I’m not fat, especially by American standards. I dance 4-6 days a week and I’m actually in pretty good shape, but I’m not skinny and I will never be skinny. It’s just not my body type. Even though I know that when Chinese people refer to me as fat, it’s their way of saying “curvy” or “average”, it still hurts my feelings! No one likes being called fat!
The Grass is Always Greener
Also, being on a dance team with a bunch of tiny Chinese girls doesn’t do much for my body image either. I leave my apartment feeling great, but when I see myself in the mirror next to all these extremely skinny girls, it makes me feel HUGE! It doesn’t help that they all wear booty shorts and crop tops!
I know I don’t ever want to be that skinny, and I appreciate my hour-glass figure, but watching videos of me performing with these girls is a real blow to my ego. I look so incredibly large compared to them!
I feel awkward wearing super short-shorts or crop tops when I perform, but the girls in my group always give me plenty of compliments. None of them have ever called me fat, and they all tell me my curves are really “sexy”.
I guess it’s a “grass is greener” type of thing. We all want what we can’t have. I’m envious of their perfectly flat stomachs and thigh gaps, and they want my boobs and butt. We can never have it all!
Have you ever felt this way in a foreign country? Has anyone ever made you feel uncomfortable by raving over your beauty or calling your fat?