I’m a Chinese Beauty Anomaly

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.

Chinese Beauty Anomaly

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.

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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. 

Chinese beauty

“momo” kissy face with my Chinese friends (aka duck face)

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.

Asian beauty face masks

Sometimes I try out Chinese beauty products for fun. I put this on and couldn’t stop laughing!

“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.

Chinese beauty standards

Check out that eyelid crease!

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!

Chinese beauty standards

No more ice cream for me!

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??”

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!

unnc shuffle ladies

Spot the fat one

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? 

Comments

comments

About Richelle

Expat, traveler, and spicy food lover, I've spent the last few years living in China and traveling around Asia. In my spare time I enjoy salsa dancing, exploring night markets and stuffing my face with street food.

35 comments on “I’m a Chinese Beauty Anomaly

  1. Richelle, I am thoroughly enjoying your blog. Thank you for sharing your adventures in China. I have already learned so much from you and love your style of writing. And yes, you are beautiful!

  2. I love the dancing, very sexy!

    It is hard to get your head around, Chinese can be very objective about beauty where I find Westerners are often pretty subjective, like we can literally point out beauty in anyone. The amount of Chinese friends who have asserted that their other half is ‘not beautiful’ or ‘not very handsome’, whereas I feel beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

    They see your features as objectively beautiful, white, round eyes, high-bridged nose. Yet I recently pointed out to a Chinese friend that if you look at international models, they often share pretty Asian features – lower-bridged nose, wider gap between eyes, and she agreed, so…

    • Thanks Sarah!
      I totally agree. Last year I was talking about how to describe people in English, and I showed pictures of a range of models of all different skin shades so we could practice describing skin color in English. Everyone gasped over the very pale blonde model and told me she was by far the most beautiful. They were shocked when I told them that all of these women were models and I picked them because I think all of them are beautiful. They even told me the red-haired model with freckles was ugly!!

  3. I’ve hinted to my Chinese friends that it would be better if they refrained from calling me fat. I’m a runner and I workout a lot and they also tell me my muscles are gross, which also doesn’t make my day. its so frustrating to be considered beautiful and yet feel bad at the same time because I’m not 80lbs and don’t have perfect Asian skin. I can laugh it off like 90% of the time, but sometimes things get under my skin

    • that’s so true. In America being fit is celebrated. I mean most women don’t want to have 6-pack abs, but being in shape and athletic is celebrated. Not so much here! Although the girls on my dance team are all in really good shape. But it’s definitely not the norm.

  4. Hi! I’ve been reading your blog for a few months but never commented ~

    Poor you, I get how you feel when you compare to the other girls :( I’ve never been to China, but I went to a Japanese school (here in Argentina, normal primary and secondary school that just happens to have been funded by Japanese people) and a lot of people were either Japanese or Chinese (born here or in those countries). So yeah, it’s not easy to be 1,67 cm and be taller than the other girls that are 1,50 @@ And be even as tall as the guys (the tallest were 1,70, 1,72 cm… not much of a difference : /)
    But I try to think that there isn’t much you can do, and remember that it’s THEIR ideal image, and THEIR body type (because how could you be that tall and have the same legs as them?). And if you know that you’re curvy and not fat at all, then it’s ok ~
    And great video!

    • Thanks so much for commenting Camilla! I always love to hear from new people :)

      I definitely agree that it’s their ideal beauty image and not mine. It’s funny because a lot of Chinese girls that I think are gorgeous are not considered beautiful in China. They’re either too tan, or they have angular faces, or too-narrow of eyes. I think they’re gorgeous and exotic, but their beauty isn’t appreciated here. I tell them to go to America and everyone will think they’re so beautiful!

  5. This is a perfect explanation of what it’s like! I especially like how you say you’re outside the mold – it’s so true. And hating to be called “pang” even when you know it doesn’t imply what “fat” does in English. Sooo with you!

    • Yeah, I think a lot of westerners are really overly-sensitive to the word “fat”, so it’s hard to get rid of that notion here. I took me so long to realize that pang and fat aren’t the same thing!!

  6. Oh, living in Japan, I totally feel you on this one! To make matters worse, I gained a lot of weight after coming to Japan (mostly from a huge change of lifestyle – I went from a job that I had to walk a long time to, and stand at, for 8 hours a day, to one that I bike ten minutes to, and then sit at a desk for). I feel like there’s also way less room to have a regular lazy day with your appearance in Asia. If I come to school with messy hair, no makeup, or in an unfashionable yet comfy outfit, teachers ask if I’m sick.

    On the other hand, like you said, I get a lot of random compliments. Students are always going on about my big, grey eyes. Teachers have said I look like Mona Lisa, or Venus. It can totally be embarassing, but sometimes it doesn’t hurt the old ego :P It’s a weird combination of not fitting in, and standing out in a good way, that’s for sure!

    • I totally agree Annabelle! I think China is a little more relaxed with fashion and makeup (a lot of girls don’t wear makeup here), but the body issue thing is exactly the same. I gained some weight last year because I lived in the countryside and couldn’t walk anywhere. I didn’t want to run outside because of the pollution and there were no gyms anywhere near me. I, unlike most Chinese girls, need to exercise to keep a good figure, so dancing 4-6 days a week this year has definitely helped me look and feel better.

  7. Hi, really interesting blog, Richelle. I’ve certainly found Asia, and in particular Thailand, to be very caught up in beauty potions that claim to be able to do just about everything to make you “beautiful”. Also throughout Asia – Bali, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam – I’ve had the “big lady”/”big sizes this way” kind of comments. I was a bit thrown at first but like you, agree it’s cultural and Asians are typically of very petite frames. Of course I’m “pang” by comparison!

    On the flip side when I had bleached blonde hair and travelling through Bali, I was approached by some Asian tourists with their camera. I offered to take their photo for them but as it turned out they wanted mine. Apparently they adored my hair and light skin, which completely took me by surprise. These women were glamorous yet they thought my look was interesting. Grass in greener, as you say. Anyway, great blog x

    • Thanks so much Hannah! I agree, shopping can be the worst. Especially at bargain malls where everything is one size only. I’ve had people literally shoo me out of their stores because nothing will fit me. I’ve tried to develop a thick skin, as a girl it’s hard! At least western guys have the excuse of being too tall and “manly” for Asian clothes. We’re just to big… not fun. As for the hair, the love blondes here!!

  8. Something like this happened when I was in Kathmandu. One day a hotel employee (who was also the brother of someone in our group, he got us a good deal) said something like “you’re looking fat this morning!” to me, and I just… didn’t know what to say! Logically, I know he meant something like healthy, well rested or what my mom would call “bright eyed and bushy tailed”. But at the moment it felt like such a judge-y, personal remark!

  9. Fascinating article Richelle. :-)

    I’ve encountered a similar thing living here in Fiji. By Australian standards, I’m much too big and too pale to be considered beautiful. But here in Fiji, big bodies are hot. The Fijian word for sexy, “uro” actually directly translates as “fat”!! People literally say to each other, “Hey fat!” meaning “hey sexy!” It’s kind of awesome. Add to that my pale skin, green eyes and reddish hair are unusual and exotic, and I’m considered really pretty by loads of Fijians.

    It’s really hard to know how to react. I honestly just feel confused when people compliment my figure and my pale skin, because by my Australian beauty standards, these are two of my least attractive features. I’m even considered “slim” by Fijian standards – a few weeks ago, my friend’s mum told her that she should “be nice and slim like her [me]” – that would NEVER be said about me in Australia!

    It’s also translated to loads more street harassment than I’m used to. Every morning walking to work, I get up to half a dozen comments from men on the street, such as “hey sexy” and “morning lovely”. Again, not something I get in Australia, and it’s hard to know what to do. (I usually just ignore it.)

    I think it’s really great to be reminded that beauty is not fixed but varies from culture to culture.

    Thanks again for the great read. :-)

    Martina

    • Wow that’s crazy! I definitely agree, my skin is far too pale in America but the Chinese girls love it here. I always find it fascinating what is considered attractive in certain cultures. One of my African friends always comments that I’m too skinny, and yells at me to eat more! I guess beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. I am sorry about the street harassment though, that’s never fun.

  10. You’re so right about the “shou” and “pang” differentiation – it’s either or, there’s no in-between. Before becoming pregnant, I’ve always been on the “shou” side, not because I wanted to be skinny, but rather because I have a hard time gaining weight. I don’t think it’s healthy to be too skinny. Working out has helped.

    I always found that curvy was sexy and my husband thinks so too. Being called out on your appearance all the time can be nerve wracking. It’s very common for Chinese to call other people out on their appearance, which can be hard – especially for women (I find women generally have a harder time accepting their bodies the way they are).

    Great post!

    • Thanks Ruth! Yeah, I definitely agree that discussions surrounding appearance can be sensitive for most women. We’re so overly-sensitive about it in America, it’s hard to come here and have things pointed out to me. We’re even subtle about compliments!

  11. Weight is just a number, and you are so much more than a number. Please ALWAYS remember that! (Yes, I’m putting on my “motherly” hat right now ;) )

    You are obviously a very pretty, smart, and talented young lady, and those students are very lucky to have you at their school and we (your readers) are very lucky that you have decided to share the stories of your adventures with us.

    Keep writing! I’m not sure I’ll ever get to go to China (not sure I wan’t to actually, with all the pollution and rudeness) but it certainly is fun to read about it on your blog.

    • Thank you so much for all your kind compliments! I definitely try not to get too caught up in weight numbers and judge my health based on how I feel and how my clothes fit (I haven’t had a scale in over a year!). Sometimes it’s hard not to compare yourself to others, but I’m working on it!

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  14. Oh man I can relate on so many levels. Although I am 100% Taiwanese, whenever I go back to Taiwan they always tell me I look like a foreigner or that I don’t look 100%. Then I get the, “Wahh your skin is so dark! You need to use some whitening products!” comments. Then growing up in the US I was always constantly called fat by my mom/grandparents/familyfriends -_- I’m definitely not fat buuut it definitely sucks when you’re being compared to girls who are sticks! It’s interesting how normal it is to call someone fat in Asia, I actually noticed it’s the same sentiment in Costa Rica. In Spanish they call each other “gordo/a” or “gordito” as a cute nickname and it’s normal to be like, hey you know Jose the fat one? So interesting all of the cultural differences and similarities – especially when it comes to looks. But hey it must be nice to be constantly reminded of your beauty! :)

    • My Japanese friend has the same problem. Her family is constantly calling her fat and she’s so tiny!! It’s just funny how different the beauty standards are depending on where you live.

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  19. As the other comments also show, You only get complimented on your beauty in China because you are white. I’d love to see an article on that on your blog.

  20. Good read!
    It´s also funny for me, although I´m not a girl ;-)
    My wife is chinese. She´s a very fit sportsgirl but with 177cm so she doesn´t fit in any of the chinese moulds.
    Making it worse, she lives with me in germany, which translates to having fun outside in the summer. Of course she´s getting dark and she really hates it. (Lucky fo rme, she enjoys the outside lifestyle with bars and restaurant, strolling around in cites, etc)
    When she goes back to China, after one week, she´s fed up. One part is the gossip and ideals chinese have and do not hide about it. One part is her being looked at with open mouths and eyes, people telling her she´s pang of black or hen gau, or whatever…
    She´s a beauty queen in my eyes (And in most other people´s eyes here), but at home she´s treated like a peasant.
    BTW. Same for me. I´m 197cm average looking here, but there people like my looks.
    The grass is greener is also the way we use to describe it and talk about it ;-)
    Have a good time, keep safe!

    • Wow I feel so bad for your wife! I had a Vietnamese-American friend in China, and it was the same with her. She chopped all her hair off into a bob and I thought she was super cute, but all her coworkers said she ruined her good looks by chopping her hair (even though it looked amazing!) and when she went to Southeast Asia with us, all her coworkers berated her for getting a tan. it’s ridiculous! I also had a guy friend who was athletically built (muscular, but not super defined) and everyone called him “fat”, even though he could’ve bench-pressed two of them without breaking a sweat! hahaha

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