It was the fall of 2015 when, just minutes into my first university lecture in central China, I found the eager eyes of thirty, all-female students transfixed on me, each one anticipating my response to a seemingly simple question:
“Professor – what beauty traits do YOU appreciate most in a woman?”
It is not the focus of this commentary to share exactly where my mind went upon hearing the question, but I admit it was difficult to get past the simple and often sexualized notions of beauty that many a Westerner has been trained to fixate upon when it comes to women.
Flustered, I proffered several innocuous statements about personalities and hair, wishing I had paid more attention to the flair and finesse by which Lumiere the candlestick had wooed his broomstick babe in Beauty and the Beast.
In the end, my response left the girls in the classroom decidedly unimpressed, if not woefully dispirited, and I quickly shifted the discussion to more palatable topics like pairing Chinese cuisine with Colorado beer.
Since that traumatizing event (for both me and the students), the topic of beauty has emerged in more than one conversation with my Chinese friends. And little by little, I’ve become privy to the depth and precision by which Chinese women, in particular, apply a range of “criteria” to distinguish between who is beautiful, and who is not.
What are these beauty criteria? The following is a short list of traits according to which, for good or ill, many individuals in China have gained recognition as the paragon of pulchritude (or not) among Earth’s most prolific people group – the Chinese. The first five in the list can be applied to either men or women, while the final four usually pertain to women only.
- Sunflower seed-shaped face
- Apparently, rounded above with a pointed chin is more desirable than Frankenstein-topped and lantern-jawed.
- Big eyes
- New smart phone apps now exist to help girls digitally augment their eyes in social media pics so that, after some additional face-shaping per sunflower seed specs (above), little is left to distinguish between the girl’s actual appearance and E.T.
- Double eyelids
- In China, being able to flirtatiously flap your eyes beneath an additional eyelid fold (which many Westerners have) makes all the difference when seeking to attract that special someone.
- High bridge on nose
- The further out the bridge of your nose extends from your face, the more attractive you are in China. If this is true, my dad could have done some serious modeling here (his large nose had every caricature artist in Paris frothing for a chance to sketch his portrait several years back).
- Lighter skin
- The basic rule is this: stay out of the sun and apply sundry creams as often as possible to keep skin supple and scintillating.
- Long, thin legs
- Smart phone apps like the one for eye augmentation mentioned above can also digitally extend your legs. Elephant to giraffe in seconds (or so I’ve been told).
- Water snake waist
- Doesn’t every woman want a waist the width of a water snake? This criterion is based on both Medusa-type myth and modern Asian cartoon.
- The 50 kg rule
- Nope – it doesn’t matter how tall you are. As long as your weight is under that 50kg mark (110 pounds), you can attain super-beauty status.
- Small feet
- This was common for centuries up until about 100 years ago and naturally led to a variety of social/health concerns (link: https://www.theatlantic.com/china/archive/2013/09/the-peculiar-history-of-foot-binding-in-china/279718/). While foot-binding is no longer in, smaller feet are still considered more attractive.
This list is by no means exhaustive, and it should not give preeminence in people’s minds to physical beauty itself, which I consider a mere distraction to the entirety of traits – physical and non – which simultaneously comprise and veil the mystery of true beauty. I instead hope that the list provides Westerners new perspective while exposing the laughable lengths to which we as humans will go to make comparisons between ourselves.
Truth be told, it is not likely that mere awareness of these criteria will put any of us on par with Lumiere’s poetic panache when traveling through the so-called Middle Kingdom. However, the list might provide wondering Westerners with additional guidance should they ever find themselves – as I did two years ago – suddenly asked to discuss their views of beauty by a gaggle of girls in central China.