By Katara Ziegler
*Disclaimer: This piece is written from the perspective of a Chinese, cis-female identifying adoptee residing in the US. It is representative of the author’s views only.
I walked slightly behind my group of friends, and the difference was remarkable. No one shouted at me to choose their taxi service. I was offered to wait for the next cable car so that I didn’t have to sit with the “gringos”. They welcomed me with open arms, complimenting my hair, even though my friends spoke the language when I could barely utter a phrase. This wasn’t even in Asia.
Being a Chinese adoptee, sometimes I feel double the pressure to be “beautiful” by both Western, white, and East Asian beauty standards. Oftentimes, these standards clash with each other. For example, it’s not possible to be both entirely fair skinned and entirely tan. According to a study by Choe et al., when comparing 26 facial features between Korean American women and North American white women, 24 were significantly different, and of those, 9 were considered to affect attractiveness.¹ Even though I am Chinese American, I would assume these discrepancies translate to how we view beauty in each face, and as such, it is not possible to appear ideally attractive when following both Western and Eastern standards.
In accordance with societal standards, how we look has a huge effect on how we view ourselves and how society views us.
As of 2016 in South Korea, 709 of 760 companies required headshots, similar to what you would find on a passport or photo ID, as part of job applications. Even though a recent law restricts application questions, such as what high school an applicant’s parents attended, to promote the idea of “blind hiring,” the law does not restrict requiring headshots. At roughly 1 million plastic surgeries per year in South Korea, the country’s society is pushing unhealthy ideals upon its citizens.
On a personal level, sometimes I feel insecure because I don’t feel that I look “Asian enough.” The italics above are an account from when I travelled to Bolivia for ten weeks. It was heartwarming that the community members we were living with, and locals we were interacting with, treated me like one of their own even though I couldn’t communicate. However, it left me feeling lost. It made me question whether I was 100% Chinese if I looked like I belonged in a South American country. It also made me question, if I ever went back to China, whether I would be welcomed similarly or not.
Broadly, ideal East Asian characteristics describe features that are “sweet,” “gentle,” “soft,” and “delicate,” whereas Western features tend to be more “sexy,” “toned,” and “angular.”
The two standards of beauty tend to focus on a few major categories: eyes, skin colour, and weight.
One of the most notable stereotyped features is the eye. Asian eyes have the stereotype of being smaller and slanted. This shape is usually due to the eye being a monolid and having a strong epicanthic fold.
In East Asian beauty standards, it is considered more beautiful to have wider, larger eyes, which many try to achieve through double eyelid surgery to create an eyelid, or supratarsal, crease. One plastic surgeon claims to perform 500 eyelid surgeries yearlyvii. A popular product that transforms monolids to double lids without the need for costly surgery is eyelid tape, with video tutorials for the product peppering the internet. A great resource for learning more about the features that make up eyes is YouTuber Kento Bento’s “What Kind of ‘Asian Eyes’ Do You Have? (Test Yourself)”.ᵛᶦᶦ
I have double eyelids (Fig. 5), but they also happen to be slightly hooded. Hooded eyes are when the skin folds over part of the eyelid. I wasn’t even aware that eyelids were different until middle school. One of my monolidded? friends loved to put makeup on her friends, but when she got to me, she wasn’t sure how to proceed because of the hooded feature. Additionally, my eyelids get incredibly puffy sometimes, becoming a monolid (allergies, crying, just because), and all of my friends were Caucasians who had double eyelids all the time. I remember starting to get into makeup and watching videos by beauty bloggers saying things like “this will make your eyes look smaller” or “if you have this shape of eye, this isn’t a good look for you.” That’s when I realized that maybe I should watch beauty videos created by Asians, like Tina Yong or Michelle Phan. For an empowering article on loving Asian eyes, see the resources.ˣ
While some features are desired by both beauty standards, such as smooth, acne free skin, one major difference is skin colour. See every Neutrogena advertisement on television and the recent trend of the 10 step Korean skincare routine.
There is an old Japanese proverb that goes 色の白いは七難隠す (iro no shiroi wa shichinan kakusu)xi. It roughly translates as “whiteness (a pale complexion) conceals many flaws”. However, with interpretation it means that a woman with fair, white skin is beautiful even if she has other flaws or is not otherwise attractive in the facexii. A similar proverb, 米の飯と女は白いほど良い, goes, “with both rice and a woman’s skin, white is better.”ˣᶦᶦᶦ
I tend to be decently tan because I tan in mere hours, and I enjoy outdoor activities, like hiking. My skin colour has never bothered me besides dictating what colours I find look most flattering on me example here could be charming. The only problem I have is in foundation makeup. As my tan fluctuates, my base makeup tends to look more or less similar to my skin tone. Another reason this hasn’t been a problem is that tan skin is desirable in Western beauty. Here in the States, it is very common to go to a tanning salon, invest in a spray tan, and lay outside covered in tanning oil. Friends tend to compliment me on being tan and my ability to tan. It makes me wonder how I would be viewed going to a culture where lighter skin is preferred.
It feels like the grass is greener on the other side. Many Chinese women who tend to have darker pigmentation want to be lighter and many Caucasian women want to be darker.
Historically, pale skin has always been revered in Chinese culture. During the Han Dynasty, courtly women were considered more beautiful if they were lighter.ˣᶦᵛ Lighter skin was also associated with a higher socioeconomic status because it meant women didn’t have to work in the fields.ˣᵛ,ˣᵛᶦ Additionally, lighter skin was thought to reflect/indicate purity and cleanliness. Inversely, darker skin was associated with crime, dirtiness, and poverty.ˣᵛᶦᶦ
Figure 7: Model Gigi Hadidˣˣᶦ (left) and actress Liu Yifeiˣˣᶦᶦ (right) portraying the difference in ideal skin colouring.
Currently, some people in Asian countries today go so far as using black market products to bleach their skin in an attempt to lighten it. In China, 40% of women use some type of whitening product.ˣᵛᶦᶦᶦ These products are on the black market because they often contain dangerous and illegal levels of chemicals, such as mercury. According to Hamann et al., 6% of products they were able to purchase in the US contained mercury levels above 1000 parts per million (ppm). To put that into perspective, typically only 1 ppm is allowed in cosmetics.ˣᶦˣ Mercury inhibits melanin production and has been found in skin lightening soaps, creams, and eye makeup cleansing products. However, at high levels, mercury can cause dermatologic and neurologic problems.ˣᵛᶦᶦᶦ For more information, see Resources for a video on black market products in the Philippines.ˣˣ
General Body Shape
According to the Body Mass Index, I’m on the borderline between overweight and obese.
Some body traits are considered attractive by both standards, even though the ideal body shape is different overall. One similarity is a preference for taller height. Leung et al. found that winners of the Miss Hong Kong beauty pageant tend to have been taller and thinner than the average Hong Kong woman. According to the Hong Kong paper, contestants after the 1980s averaged ~5’1/2” tall while the average woman’s height was significantly different at 5’1/8”.ˣˣᶦᶦᶦ
However, current Western trends portray women as fit and toned, even if that means they aren’t necessarily the thinnest, whereas in Eastern Asian trends, women are preferred to have smaller frames.
Li Bingbing Kate Upton portray their society’s respective body ideals. Li Bingbing has a slimmer frame whereas Upton shows off her muscle in the photoshoot. Body inclusivity, welcoming bodies of varying shapes, sizes, and colours, has become more accepted in the US with the acceptance of bigger-sized models, such as Ashley Graham. As Asian models and larger body sizes have started to become more mainstream in Western media, new model Taylor Tak has entered the scene. However, Tak has found limited opportunities for modelling within East Asia and typically is hired in countries such as Australia.ˣˣᶦᵛ
Figure 8: Taylor Takˣˣᵛ (South Korean model, left), Ashley Grahamˣˣᵛᶦ (Western model, middle), Li Bingbingˣˣᵛᶦᶦ (Chinese model, right), Kate Uptonˣˣᵛᶦᶦᶦ (Western model, bottom)
Now, I am no model myself. I hate using scales. Whenever I weigh myself, I feel bad about my body and the number I see, so I’ve stopped using them. A number doesn’t tell you how healthy you are. It’s a flawed system, like the Body Mass Index (BMI).
Recently, I had a Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis (BIA) done. This test measures fat mass percentage, cellular health, cellular energy, and cellular hydration. My university offers the test for $50. From light research, anyone can take it, for a cost sometimes covered by insurance, at specialty fitness or nutrition facilities. The test itself takes less than five minutes. Electric pads are put on the hand and foot to send a painless electrical current through the body, the machine prints out the numbers, and from there it’s mostly interpretation of the numbers.
I decided to pay for this test because I got curious about if my weight was really all fat like the BMI would have me believe. Often fitness bloggers or competitive athletes discuss how they have, say, 15% body fat, which is something the BMI can’t tell you. Additionally, BMI also varies by ethnic groupˣˣᶦˣ, which I was unaware of until very recently.
Overall, the BIA told me that I am perfectly healthy, contrary to being “obese”. I learned that roughly 29% of my mass is from fat. With general healthy percentages for women my age ranging from 21 – 33%, this means that while I could lose some fat weight, I’m still healthy.ˣˣᶦˣ It also put my cellular health, energy, and hydration above average. However, even the interpretation for these numbers varies greatly. For one, these number ranges change based on gender. Additionally, someone who is a professional athlete with a nutrionalist is most likely going to have a lower percent fat content than someone who goes to the gym a couple times a week, and someone who weights in a high weight class for wrestling may have a much higher fat content while still being healthy. This isn’t something I would concern yourself with unless your doctor recommends it, you’re curious, like me, or you’re trying to reach a goal and think this knowledge could help. For a more in-depth explanation of what BIA is and what it measures, see the Resources.ˣˣˣᶦ
Figure 9: Picture of my leg (flexed v. unflexed)
Sometimes I wish my legs looked long and lean like Li Bingbing, but I’m glad that I am healthy and muscular, even if that makes my legs look more bulky and boots impossible to fit into.
Fetishizing the Asian Physique
Last summer I was in Cape Town, South Africa, with friends, and we decided to go out. Within thirty seconds of leaving our Uber, someone cat-called me. I knew it was directed at me because I was the only Asian of our group and because he called me a “Korean beauty”.
To be clear, I do not think it inherently negative to be drawn to a certain race over another, but the issues are in the stereotypes arising from the sexualization. I have many friends who prefer dating one race over another, but it usually is not purely due to physical attraction. There are many other factors, such as being able to relate through culture. I define the fetishization of a race being when the stereotypes are taken one step further by sexually idolizing them/us?.
The italicized section above is an experience I had last summer. I am proud to look Asian, but in that moment, I felt ashamed. I didn’t want to be called out because I looked different than my Caucasian friends. I wished I could hide my Asian features to avoid behaviour like that. I want to be able to dress in a qipao or cheongsam and feel proud and beautiful without fear of being hit on because I fit someone’s fantasy.
Fetishization of Asians is nothing new, and arguably, it is a growing trend as globalization increases. Common derogatory terms that describe people who prefer Asian women sexually are “yellow fever” and “Asiaphile”. Persistent sexual stereotypes of Asian women include terms such as “exotic”, “china doll”, “geisha”, and “submissive”.
Every year, one of the world’s most prominent pornographic websites releases statistics on the most searched terms. In the past five years, “Asian” and “Japanese” have been in the top 20 searches globally. From the image, you can see that every Asian-related term rose in popularity from 2017 to 2018.ˣˣˣᶦᶦ
Looking at this statistic makes me uncomfortable at best. That I would be singled out and deemed sexy just because I am some type of Asian is disgusting. Another term I left uncensored was “Ebony”, which is typically searched when desiring content featuring African subjects. I included this term to show that it is not only Asians who are sexualized in this manner.
Why It Matters
Every body type is beautiful. Whether you are naturally thin or curvy or hold your weight in your lower body or are athletic, you are beautiful. Whether you have monolids, double eyelids, dark skin, medium skin, light skin, you are beautiful. Whether all or none of these apply to you, you are beautiful.
On a wider note, besides broad trends, I don’t know much about specific beauty standards in East Asian countries, like what is the most desirable eyebrow shape. Because I live in the US and have more Caucasian friends, I think I am more aware of trends happening here, like intense contouring. Probably less than 10% of my friends are Asian, and only one of my close friends is first generation from China. Beauty isn’t something we ever really discuss besides occasionally working out and thrift shopping together. I think this is partially because it’s not a naturally comfortable topic because neither of us wear makeup or thought much about beauty growing up and now in university it’s taken a backseat.
However, right now, I’m working on clearing up residual acne scarring and my general face, not for any person or society, but for myself. I’m currently giving a few Korean beauty products a try to see if they work better for my skin than products offered at beauty salons such as Sephora.
One day I hope to feel like I belong in both western and Chinese cultures because I have connected in ways more than skin-deep beauty, such as through food and language and relationships. I hope to take back what it means for me to be and to look Chinese.
Katara Ziegler is a quirky, optimistic senior (on the path to super senior!) at the University of Colorado Boulder studying Mechanical Engineering. Adopted from Sichuan, China in 1998, she’s based in Colorado with her parents and dog. She loves languages, food, and tinkering.
With gratitude to Mahli Knutson, who helped to edit this piece.
Mahli Knutson lives in Vermont with her mother and older sister. She is an undergraduate senior studying International Politics and Economics at Middlebury College. She is interested in learning new languages and human rights advocacy, and in her free time, she plans cultural events with her college Japanese Club.
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xxxi For more on BIA (https://www.biodyncorp.com/knowledgebase/body_model.html)
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