Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

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Coming to terms with height, size, curves and beauty ideals in China

Walking tall
 
A slight exaggeration of how I feel in China sometimes.  
One thing I struggle with living in China is my size. Living in a country of 1.3 billion people, you would think there would be a diverse range in sizes and heights in China. I’m 1.78 meters or 5’11 and compared to most Chinese women, quite tall. There are some tall Chinese women but most of them don’t have the same physique or curves common among women from other corners of the world. This has led me to be very self-conscious at times of my size and physique. Sometimes people may meet me while we’re sitting down. Suddenly when we both stand and we’re walking, there’s a brief moment of confusion and then clarity as they take in the fact that I’m actually a tall person. This especially surprises Chinese men. Attending a conference in Beijing last October, I befriended a couple of nice male colleagues from China and Pakistan. Following the conference, the three of us decided to visit Tienanmen Square and suddenly for the first time as we were walking around, my new friend Mao saw me in a new light and said, “Oh, you’re quite tall.” Meanwhile, I’m reenacting the scene in my head from the classic Frankenstein movie when he realizes for the first time that he’s different and exclaims in agony, “I’m a monster!”
At times I feel awkward as a tall woman and when I spot another tall woman, whether a foreigner or Chinese woman, I feel a sense of kinship and I want to reach out and cry, “Sister! We’re not alone!” I often wonder where my tall Chinese sisters find their clothes and on the odd occasion, I even spot the tall woman with a tall mate. This brings a smile to my face because I suspect a lot of the time, some of my tall Chinese sisters may be seen as more freakish and abnormal than myself, a foreign woman from a faraway land where it’s more common to be tall. The Chinese girlfriend of an American friend of mine is quite close to me in height. Tall, beautiful and elegant (and a yoga instructor to boot!), it was mentioned that Chinese men would barely give her notice or overlook her (or in her case, underlook her). In researching my last blog posting about dating and courtship in China, I stumbled upon a point rating system of various aspects single Chinese women should possess in terms of being attractive and datable and it helped make sense of why this lovely woman may have been previously overlooked (or in her case, underlooked). Here’s a look at the height factor in the rating system:
Height:
165-172 (10 pts); 158-164 (8 pts); 172-174 (6 pts); 155-158 (4 pts); 174-176 (1 pt); the rest 0 pts
With this rating system, women clearly should also not be too short either. The right height seems to guarantee that a woman will not overstep her boundaries nor be lacking in stature (my height isn’t even on the scale, so 0 points for me here. Booooo).
 
Chinese beauty ideals of long ago: Bound feet. From Wikipedia.
I wonder whether the idealism of a middle or smaller size and stature is also deeply seated in Chinese history. After all, well into the 20th century, daughters of wealthy families as well as the first born daughters in poorer families had their feet bound so that they could be brought up as ladies. This ancient practice tightly wound and bound the feet of young girls so that they would not be able to grow further. The tight, small feet were always wrapped and resembled lotus buds when covered in ornate, pointy silk shoes. Such feet were even erotic since they would rarely be revealed. Additionally, it was very difficult for these women with bound-feet to move or be actively involved in any activity without the help of other family members, servants and especially men. Being practically immobilized, these women also could not partake in many social activities or politics, banking and other work where women should not have been heard during those times. True, perhaps there were taller women with bound feet but their stature couldn’t have been that great either if they were limited in their movements and mostly restricted to chairs (and perhaps the feet binding stunted the growth in the rest of their body as well).
Today, the smaller more petite women in China (and of course in other parts of the world too!) may still be symbols of allure, vulnerability as well as be seen as “fragile” beings who know their place. Taller women, however, will be at eye level or taller than their male colleagues, friends and mates and may look down on him figuratively and literally. Even if the man with the taller woman is comfortable in his own skin and with his manliness in spite of his taller companion, there is still the societal views and hurtful comments of others to contend with.  Can you imagine the “spectacle” of a taller woman walking with a shorter man, whether the two are friends, colleagues or in a relationship? In a country where saving face is so important, you can only imagine the talk.
On the other hand, maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Tall woman are not seen as monsters as much as unattainable. Chinese-American author Ha Jin helped me realize recently in one of his short stories that we tall women don’t need to feel like we’re oddities but that perhaps secretly we’re envied and revered for our height. Marjin, a male character in Jin’s story Broken pined for the attention and even the recognition of the tall female basketball players at his work camp. Ha Jin describes the idealized tall woman as seen through the eyes of Marjin.
                “She looked healthy and sturdy, with a thin, white neck, her hair coiled like a pair of earphones. If he were to marry, he would have a tall wife, so that his children would be taller than himself and would have no difficulty in finding a spouse when they grew up.” (Ha Jin, 2000).“He admired her long fingers, large feet, shapely bust, and strong legs. Whenever her team played on the company’s sports ground, he would go and watch. He liked seeing the girls in blue shorts and red T-shirts. He felt attracted to almost every one of them. If only he were four inches taller.” (Ha Jin, 2000).
Thanks to this different and fresh perspective, I feel I can now walk taller and more proudly when I’m in China and other parts of the world where I tower over others. It has also made me grateful to my Chinese friends, especially my Chinese male friends who walk unfazed next to me and help me feel more accepted in my host country in spite of my uncommon proportions.
Curves ahead
In addition to my height, I am also self-conscious of my curves while I’m in China. Occasionally I may see taller Chinese women but I rarely encounter curvy Chinese women. Am I imagining things when I write on the blackboard with my back to my students and suddenly hear snickering in a quiet classroom? Is it in my head or are they laughing at my larger than normal behind? Should I let it get to me in a group yoga class when I tower over everyone else and the mirrors on all walls magnify my hips and 3D rump? Is it crazy that I am comforted by Sir-Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby got Back” to remind me that curves and larger butts are embraced and loved at least in other corners of the world?
I do realize that even though I am quiet self-conscious of my body proportions, most women and men probably struggle with some aspect of their body. I applaud fashion magazines in the US and elsewhere that now use curvy, plus models and women of all different proportions to represent the full spectrum of sizes. Some magazines are even refusing to air-brush and photo shop models’ and celebrities’ blemishes and flaws. However, I think China and probably other East Asian countries have a long way to go before they take such steps in their fashion magazines and on TV. Images of waifish, emaciated models are splashed all over the magazines on newsstands, on TV and just in day-to-day life. Airlines, the high-speed train company and shops recruit women who are under a certain age, attractive and very trim (what a throw-back to the 1950’s!!). Surely many of my students and friends must also feel overwhelmed and it is no wonder if we feel self-conscious about some parts of our bodies.
 Modesty and beauty ideals
 
Too busty and indecent for modern China? From MSN Auto.
When it comes to modesty and what parts of the body are revealed and concealed, it’s quite strange and contradictory in China. Recently while visiting me in China, my sister confessed to feeling a little insecure with wearing a modest t-shirt by US standards but low-cut in comparison to what she had observed Chinese women wearing. “None of the Chinese women are showing any skin above their chest. All of their shirts cover them all the way to their neck. I feel so immodest here.” Before my sister had mentioned it, I had never noticed it. Then Vivian, my Chinese tutor, had pointed out that a lot of foreign, Western women wear tank-tops, and strappy, low cut shirts. I have wondered, if we’re not at a bar or a nightclub, how are we women perceived if we show a little cleavage and bust? The denouncement of some loosely clad models at the 2012 Beijing International Automotive Exhibition by the Capital Ethics Development Office would indicate that a lot of the local Chinese folk don’t look too kindly to such attire and dressing. Dubbed the “breast show” by many, the auto show featured models who stirred up a lot of positive and negative attention by wearing very low cut and revealing dresses. Critics of the show and the models’ indiscretion said that “China’s traditional values as well as society’s tolerance of such behavior” were not being considered (Thaindian News, 2012).
Perhaps Western women showing skin and some bust while walking around Nanjing or elsewhere in China may be slightly frowned upon. But perhaps some locals may expect it of us and may believe that we inherently have loose ways. Chinese women, however, who show some bust and skin on the upper part of the body are probably more likely to be abhorred as it is seen as an affront to Chinese culture and values.
On the other hand, how can one explain the ads in taxi cabs for breast enlargement? If showing some cleavage and breast is considered indecent, why would Chinese women want to increase their bust size? At the same time, how can one explain the contradiction of so many beautiful, leggy Chinese women walking around in short skirts, shorts and in tall heels? Living on a college campus, I’m surprised by how many young women I see donning such short attire above their legs while still covering up most of their upper part of their body (and if any of my male colleagues are reading this, I know you are smiling and nodding your head right now). I’m not the least bit offended by the leggy ladies- just surprised.
 
How influential are Western beauty ideals?
For an entire generation now, China has been open to the outside world. The generation born post 1980 has grown up exposed to movies, TV and fashion from outside of China as well as foreigners who bring ideals of beauty and fashion from abroad into China. On the one hand, this has slowly helped create a younger population that may be open to different ideals of beauty and even more tolerant of and liberal with the parameters of modesty. On the other hand, I believe this has created entirely new parameters of beauty ideals which have now set the bar even higher than the preexisting traditional Chinese ideals of beauty. This generation of younger people must be even more self-conscious of their flaws than previous generations. Now there are young women and men complaining about their weight and their shape thanks not only to the onslaught of global fashion magazines but also with the arrival of American- styled gyms and fitness centers as well as weight loss programs (which probably came shortly after the arrival of foreign fast-food chains). In the subway stations of larger cities, life size posters of famous Western models and actresses promote expensive European cosmetics that make you look younger, more refined and whiter. Foreign supermarkets and drugstores are well stocked with Oil of Olay and Nivea moisturizers with skin-whitening agents in them to keep skin white (heaven forbid people think you ever spent time in the sun working outdoors). Opticians are well stocked with inexpensive blue and purple tinted contact lenses. Hair salons and stylists are ready to dye customers’ hair blonde and other lighter colors and are up to date with the latest styles, many of which seem like outrageous dos inspired by 1980’s British pop-music bands. When I look around me and see young men and women squeezing into tight clothing, talking about skipping lunch since they’re on a diet, longing for breast implants, donning crystal blue tinted contacts and press-on eyelids and blonde-dyed hair and skin-whitened faces, I question whether I as a foreign woman am contributing to the problem of self-consciousness rather than being a victim myself.
 
Skin whitening moisturizer for men. Whiter skin is a status and wealth symbol. Photo from J. Calderon
Size matters: Finding clothes
In addition to being painfully aware and conscious of my height and curves while in China, I am also frustrated with the ironic challenge of finding clothes or shoes in my size. The obvious irony is that so many of my clothes that I stock up in the US are actually made in China. I sometimes think it would be great to cut out the middle man and just go directly to the factory where my clothes are made, thank the women and men who have left their faraway village in Central China at age 17 to take on this crappy job of toiling to make my clothes, take them out to dinner and then strike a bargain where I buy directly from them and pay them a suitable salary for their time and handiwork. But alas, most of those clothes are boxed up and put on the next shipment to Seattle to help fit the masses of women my size in the US.
A typical saunter into a clothing or shoe shop goes something like this (I’m going to call it a saunter because I don’t actively go on shopping sprees since it’s pretty pointless). I eye a cute top or pair of pants or shoes in a window and then have a little glimmer of hope that just maybe, on the odd chance they’ll have that XXXL waiting just for me- because obviously the shop too hasn’t found the large woman of their dreams to offload the XXXL item onto yet. On seeing desired item, I gingerly approach the shop attendant and ask in broken Chinese, “Hi, do you have big sizes?” which is typically followed by the loud, screeching response of “Meiyou!!!” which means “Don’t have!” Sometimes all I have to do it walk into a shop and before the words can even get out of my own mouth, comes the ubiquitous “Meiyou!”. However, I do have to give credit to some shop attendants. Many of them are very well meaning and want to help. Shopping for a bra one day, I think they were in the depths of the back store room with mining hats for about 15 minutes wading through cobwebs to try to retrieve a rare size. Another time, I happened upon a sidewalk sale of outdoor clothing (the new trend among the growing wealthy class of Chinese). I had an entire coterie of sale attendants running around picking out possible shirts that would fit me. Yes, an entire team serving my needs going through racks trying to find the odd XXL shirts just for moi. I have to say- I felt pretty special- like I had my own personal style team working for me. One of the members of the team was even delegated to the men’s section where she found a nice pair of XXXL men’s cargo pants for me. I’m happy to say I walked away with a nice purchase that day with two new tops and those men’s pants (that I even got complements on in Seattle- so good job team!). Another day recently, I successfully found a shoe store that had overstock of some shoes for the US market. Women’s shoe sizes 9, 10 and 11. When I spotted “the one”- yes, the pair of shoes waiting just for me- the exact style I was looking for and in my size and the only pair, a little tear rolled down my cheek and Etta James’ song “At last” rang in my head (On an interesting note, I saw yesterday the same pair of shoes at an outlet store in Virginia being sold for about twice the price I paid for them in China).
What has also saved me was my friend Lucy’s discovery of British department store Mark’s and Spencer’s in Shanghai where there seems to be an abundance of “normal” size clothing and lots of other tall, curvy laowai women stocking up on underwear and bras before returning to their remote cities in China. Recently a friend Ellie also recommended a tailor in Nanjing who has since made a couple of clothing items for me. I will be bringing back catalogs of clothing from the US and will have him design my outfits for the fall. Oh, what’s that LL Bean? You’re out of the denim Western skirt size 12 until October? No problem. My tailor Mr. Chen down the street will whip one up for me when I get back to the neighborhood.
Being comfortable in my own skin
 
Coming to terms with my unique size and proportions.
With an added ego boost of being surrounded by fellow tall and curvaceous women back in the US this summer, I feel ready to face another year as the tall American lady in Nanjing. I’ve also come to terms with my height and curves. Even though I strive to eat well, exercise and live a healthy life, my body is inevitably going to take the shape and form that is its destiny.  I’ve got my age as well as my genes to thank for that. With family this summer, I realized that the tall and curvy proportioned body I inhabit is a gift from my mother as well as my father. I see pictures of fellow Merkens’ women- my grandmother, aunts and female cousins (and now nieces!) and get emotional thinking about our distinct form and our connected kinship. I’m comforted by this and it makes me feel close to these incredible women in my family- even if I’m on a distant continent and experiencing my unique body and its imperfections alone there. I’m going to try and embrace my figure now and flaunt it rather than hide it.
One last silver lining to all of this is that I am in the position to be a positive role model to some of my students when it comes to promoting self-awareness and body image. One day one of my students reminded me that I had previously told her not to worry about her body image and weight when she had contemplated skipping lunch and dieting. I suppose I had told her that as a woman, it’s inevitable that the body will begin to change and take on womanly features such as childbearing hips. I must have told her that she can look at her mother and know that will likely be her destined form. “Isn’t your mother a lovely woman?” I must have asked her.  Realizing these things, she became more comfortable in her own skin. She said, “I thought before I was too fat. Now, I am ok. I changed my mind because of what you told me.”
Amen to that.
Further Reading and Perusal:
About steps US teen fashion magazine Seventeen has taken to not photo edit models’ pictures:
About young women from across China who come to the city in search of work in factories:
Chang, L. (2008). Factory Girls- From Village to City in a Changing China. New York: Spiegel and Grau.
Images and commentary about recruitment of flight attendants in China:
China Daily. (2012, June 08). Beautiful flight attendants of Chinese airlines.
Rating system for the ideal Chinese men and women:
Fauna. (2009, April 21). Leftover Men &Leftover Women Rating Surveys. From China Smack.
Short stories about segments of Chinese society by Chinese-American author Ha Jin:
Jin, H. (2000). The Bridegroom- Stories. New York: Pantheon Books.
For more insight into Chinese people’s obsession with skin whitening creams and ligh skin:
Levin, D. (2012, August 3). Beach Essentials in China: Flip-Flops, a Towel and a Ski Mask. From New York Times.
Interviews with some of China’s last bound-foot women:
Montlake, S. (2009, November 13). Bound by History: The Last of China’s ‘Lotus-Feet’ Ladies. From Wall Street Journal.
Chinese cultural ethics clashing with the images of busty Chinese models at the Beijing car show:
More on foot binding:
Wikipedia. (n.d.). Footbinding.

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