Ask Mei

Beauty in China

Why do Zara’s and Vogue’s models spark controversy in China?

Beauty in China

The recent controversy over Zara’s cosmetic ads and Vogue’s choice of a ‘unique-looking’ model has rekindled the debate on what is considered beautiful in China. Many netizens alleged that the Spanish brand’s choice of a heavily freckled girl showed insensitivity to its customers or even worse that it was intended to “uglify” the nation. Others fumed that Vogue’s choice of model Gao Qizhen was another insult because she looked like a “scary ghost”. Zara defended its campaign by talking about different standards of beauty but I wonder if its marketing team was aware that the Chinese word for freckle is ‘bird dropping’ and that this skin feature isn’t normally celebrated in a Chinese context.

The so-called uniqueness of Gao’s looks in the Vogue campaign lies in the unusually wide space between her unusually narrow eyes. One girlfriend of mine commented to me: “I just don’t see Gao as beautiful at all although I can respect her as a person. A fashion publication is supposed to showcase the beautiful things of life and it should respect the general public’s aesthetic tastes. The choice of an unusually ugly person in such a prominent medium is likely to be out of ‘political correctness’ and it’s just hypocrisy.”

My own view is that Confucian influences extolling harmony and peace give the Chinese a preference for rounder and smoother features. Translating that into female looks means an oval-shaped face, smoother facial lines (pronounced cheek bones are undesirable – they’re considered to be knives that cut into husbands’ lifespans, according to old wives tales), unblemished skin (the paler the better as it symbolises purity and is a marker of social class), bigger eyes and smaller mouths.

Aesthetic tastes have evolved since the country began its economic reforms in the late 1970s and with the wide usage of smartphones and social media today the pressure to look good has never been greater, especially among the young. “Pale, rich and beautiful 白富美” (for women) and “tall, rich and handsome 高富帅” (for men) are the newly coined phrases to describe the most sought-after styles. As a result, cosmetic surgery is booming, even among teenagers as we reported in WiC441. Few people are asking for a look like Gao Qizhen, however, even if Vogue considers it edgy.

I believe that Western society’s greater respect for equality and individualism (plus its litigation system) have contributed to its more neutral attitude to how people look. For instance, you won’t find many job descriptions in the West that require applicants to be of certain height and weight, whereas such specifications are commonplace in China, even for lower skilled workers like cleaners and security guards.

That’s also why you see older flight attendants of different shapes and sizes on Western airlines instead of the almost uniformly tall, slim, young and pretty women on Chinese carriers. And ‘political correctness’ has not really evolved in China (you only have to listen to what people routinely and unguardedly say about race and looks). Indeed, the average Chinese would probably understand ‘politically correct’ more to mean saying the right things about the ruling Party.


Mei attended an elite university in Beijing in the late 1980s and graduate school in the US in the early 1990s. She has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China, both in the media and with global investment banks, where she has honed her bicultural perspective. Email her a question at [email protected]

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