Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder

Olivia Wang
Beauty standards ultimately contradict what we all claim to value: diversity. We are all born to be different, so why are we going to such extremes to look the same?
Olivia Wang

What does beauty mean to you? Depending on where you are from and the culture that you are immersed in, the standard for what is beautiful varies. As a Chinese American, I have been exposed to two cultures whose perception of beauty differs dramatically.

I go to high school in the US, and many of my classmates are spending a great deal of their summer at the beach. Besides swimming, they devote hours into lounging under the blistering sun, all in an attempt to acquire that “vacation glow.”

The desire for a bronze complexion during summer time is not a new trend among Westerners. Tans are widely advertised on magazine covers and beauty products as a sign of health, and even if it means (ironically) getting burnt, many will still risk days of pain and peeling for a slightly darker complexion. A few even turn to artificial lotions or sprays when their genes prohibit this wish.

Being ethnically Chinese, I naturally have a brown skin tone and tan relatively easily. While I consider this to be a privilege (especially among my white friends), the same could not be said for the locals.

Upon returning to China recently I am reminded of a conflicting standard. If you haven’t already noticed, Chinese people adore porcelain-white skin.

When I travel back to Shanghai, well aware of the humidity, I pack only my summer attire: tank tops, shorts and flip flops. While I feel appropriately dressed like this out on the streets, my fashion is often the anomaly. Most pedestrians are in long pants, sleeved shirts, visors; I have even seen umbrellas out when there is neither sun nor rain. All this to avoid picking up the slightest tan.

For a long time, I wondered why people went to such extremes to avoid this form of vitamin D. Like most norms, Chinese people’s desire to be pale is rooted in history. In ancient China, light skin indicated the privilege of staying indoors during the daytime, while a tan complexion often suggested that one labored outside in an undesirable profession. Simply said, darker skin was synonymous with the underprivileged. Today bai fu mei (white, rich and beautiful) is still sought after by many.

An effortless peek at Chinese advertisements of cosmetics, models, and everything else portrayed as “beautiful” will showcase skin tones lighter than any natural shade. And when beauty products boast names such as “Olay Natural White,” “Garnier White Complete,” or “Pond’s White Beauty,” all of which are advertised by our favorite supermodels, the message is clear: the fairer the skin, the better your life.

In the US, I am complimented for my ability to tan well, but not necessarily here. These two contrasting cultural beauty standards have left me confused as to what I want to look like or, rather, should want.

Frankly, no one culture is right or wrong. Beauty is a subjective term that only we can define. Unfortunately, we rely on a whole society to define it for us instead of giving meaning to it ourselves. But continuously seeking approval from society will never result in a happy ending. Once you have a Californian tan, what’s next on the “checklist”? Tina Fey, an American personality, names a few in her book Bossypants: “Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a button nose, hairless Asian skin, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, and the arms of Michelle Obama.” Beyond unrealistic, beauty standards ultimately contradict what we all claim to value: diversity. We are all born to be different, so why we going to such extremes trying to look the same?

The author is an intern at Shanghai Daily.

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