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Subverting Chinese Beauty Standards

Whiter skin is an industry and consumer obsession, but changing attitudes and lifestyles initiate a re-examination of skin colour and representation of women in China today.

Skin is a highly valued aesthetic standard for the Chinese. A 2019 Ipsos report revealed that 67% of Chinese interviewees consider skin to be the most important component of a woman’s beauty. More specifically, it’s pale and fair skin which is the preferred ideal. The saying, “white complexion is powerful enough to hide many imperfections” or 一白遮三丑, speaks volumes about Chinese attitudes to skin colour. In ancient China, tanned skin was an indicator of outdoor manual labour, less desirable and signified a diminished social status and unfortunately, we are still experiencing a hangover from that today. In the world’s second-largest market of cosmetics and beauty, whitening continues to be a real focus for the majority of consumers. And, while foundations for darker shades may be hard to find, products peculiar even for the Chinese market would be especially eye-opening for western consumers and marketers - ever heard of edible capsules that ‘lock’ the whiteness from inside your body?

Chioture Hydrating High Definition Foundation Advertisment & Judy Doll Long Lasting Foundation Swatches
Chioture Hydrating High Definition Foundation Advertisment & Judy Doll Long Lasting Foundation Swatches

Historically in China, people with naturally darker skin colours are considered “exotic”. Demographically, Han people - the overwhelming dominant ethnicity - do not tend to have dark skin, though there does exist a spectrum covering a range of skin tones as any society. As modern communications began, television, magazines or Chinese celebrities further perpetuated this standard acting as the only beauty references people had access to. But, attitudes are changing. More recently, an increase in mediums have shaped a new information pool allowing cross-cultural influence to permeate geographical borders. Exposure to western types of beauty and make-up styles and changing fashion and music culture have helped to decentralise traditional beauty ideals. For Emily, a 26 year-old consultant based in London, this clash of ideals first took place in university when her foreign friends in China asked why the girls on TV were so pale. “My French teacher genuinely thought the pale-looking presenter was ill. Now that I’ve lived in London for seven years, it’s my parents’ turn to be shocked at how dark my skin turned. It’s just natural because I’m very outdoorsy, but at the same time I don’t want to challenge their aesthetics. Sometimes I even send them filtered photos that make me look slightly whiter.” In addition to increasing influences and hobbies, people have more options when exploring their bodies and identities today, adopting new trends and experimenting with enhancements such as tattooing and plastic surgery - skin colour is just one part of that conversation.

Shifting Attitudes

These shifts are starting to show in some of the most influential of media establishments, a sure sign of things to come. Last week, Conde Nast appointed 27 year-old Australian-born Chinese Margaret Zhang as editor-in-chief of Vogue China. Once the face of Clinique’s #FaceForward campaign, she revealed how her well-tanned skin colour was frowned upon by more traditional Asian standards, and commented as being “kind of dark” by many people in “very high places and from big corporations”. The unapologetic editor-in-chief is an encouraging spokesperson for a more globalised vision among the younger generation. Similarly, when Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty launched in China, a tanned Chinese girl called Naomi Wang 王菊 was featured in the campaign. Dark-skinned and fuller than the traditionally “ideal” figure, Naomi’s journey started on a Chinese talent show which put her appearance front of discussion, making her open to judgement from an entire nation. A heated debate then ensued over social media about Chinese expectations of beauty. Now, with 10.3 million followers on Weibo, she’s become a figurehead for increasingly diverse standards of beauty and has in turn helped push conversations forward.

Naomi Wang 王菊 by Fenty Beauty, 2019
Naomi Wang 王菊 by Fenty Beauty, 2019

With a growing popularity in fitness and wellness, people are starting to pay more attention to healthier lifestyles. An increasing number are challenging the adage of “pale equals beautiful”, simply because being white is no longer regarded as being healthy. Qiong, a 27 year-old lawyer from Shanghai experienced a shift in attitude towards her own skin colour, “I have dark skin and it used to bother me when I was little. But nowadays, since becoming more of a gym-goer, what other people think of me doesn't matter as much as it did before. Plus, I think it looks good to have wheat-coloured skin as it looks healthy.” She currently spends most of her leisure time sweating in the gym and has minimised her skincare routine to non additive formulated products. “Less is more! I don’t buy into fancy marketing, nor do I wear heavy makeup. Non additive products are natural and makes your skin healthier.” Qiong is not alone, since Covid-19, 61% of female consumers say they wear makeup less frequently and 20% of them spend more time on skincare (Mintel 2020). Being the best version of oneself - in this instance - means investing time and money into sports, travelling, quality food and natural cosmetics. This along with changing perspectives on skin colour repackages health as a holistic lifestyle for modern Chinese women today.

Women-Only Exercise Class at SUPERMONKEY Gym, Shanghai
Women-Only Exercise Class at SUPERMONKEY Gym, Shanghai

Need for Representation

It is overdue for brands to accommodate and engage with women of colour on a global level, and in China these failures are mirrored by the lack of choice for people of darker skin tones with particular requirements. “As an Asian, I normally don’t have problems choosing a foundation. There was one instance I couldn’t find my shade with a certain brand and that put me off them,” Emily says. The market needs to adapt fast to cater to consumers and help encourage more diversity. Thankfully, some brands are helping break this into the mainstream by collaborating with ambassadors who challenge traditional standards of beauty in Chinese and Asian culture. SKII’s Beauty is #nocompetition campaign featured realistic portraits of female talent from different fields, expressing new interpretations of beauty through inspirational people from different backgrounds.

#NoCompetition Campagin for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics by SK-II, 2020
#NoCompetition Campagin for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics by SK-II, 2020

Being able to embrace one’s own skin tone on a personal level is about authenticity and confidence too. “Sometimes people ask: Why do some brands choose ‘not-that-beautiful’ Chinese models? Well, I’d say to them, a woman is someone who pleases herself, and advocating pale skin is a symptom of the male-gaze,” Sherry, a 32 year old marketer from Beijing shares her perspective with TONG. “I work in a culturally-diverse place, sometimes I feel responsible for explaining different ideals of beauty to my colleagues on both oriental and occidental ends. My natural darker skin colour is a symbol of my identity.” Qiong agrees that beauty is rooted in confidence and acceptance, “I have many friends with paler skin and we don’t judge each other based on this. I really like the person I see in the mirror, my skin colour represents who I am and it looks great on me.” Therefore for many, rather than fitting into a homogeneous ideal, the deliberate decision to never alter this aspect of identity is a statement of choice in itself.

So what’s next? Change takes time, but industries as old as beauty must align with consumers if they are to stand the test of time. Skin colour today brings so many new meanings, and with it comes the opportunity to create a more inclusive reality with diversity to match people across the spectrum of skin tones. While mainstream demand still predominantly uphold traditional views and practices of having pale skin, shifting attitudes and new lifestyles are gathering pace.

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