Mon 18 Oct 2010
While we travel, Toby is often focused on UNESCO world heritage status, religious affiliation to sights, or the best angle to photograph beautiful landmarks. I, on the other hand, get lost in cultural observances and norms. Lately I've been thinking about how a culture defines beauty. I think the first place to do the research is in the media. The face plastered on the billboard will likely be the one presented as Ideal. So right away I thought I had a grasp of what is considered beautiful in China. For women, it is fair skin, large, doe eyes, perfect teeth, and shiny hair. In other words, what most women are not. Isn't that the same all around the world? In times that promote high-fat, convenience food, thin is in. In lean times of hardship, curvy women are valued. If lower-class work has you in the sun, fair skin is better. If lower-class work has you indoors, glowing tans are better.
My thoughts were confirmed by a local guide who took the time to have a heart-to-heart with Toby, myself, and two other Westerners. We realized the desire to be fair skinned is the reason that women ride their motorbikes in the 40 degree heat with a long-sleeved shirt over their outfits. Using umbrellas to provide shade is the norm, and women will avoid the direct sunlight like the plague. Don't get me wrong - I think that the majority of Chinese women are beautiful, but by having such a narrow definition, especially regarding things you can't change without plastic surgery, conveys the wrong message, and immediately excludes all of the golden-skinned minority women in China.
For men, the norms were harder to crack. I observed several groups of men. The upper-class men dressed preppy and some grew their fingernails as a sign of not having to do manual labour (according to one source). The younger men were hipsters, with stylish hairdos that rivaled the women and brand name clothing.
In the Tibetan highlands of Jiuzhaigou, Toby and I met a young lady while out for a walk in a quiet village. She greeted us, and gave us a thumbs up. We couldn't understand her Tibetan, but grasped the meaning behind her gestures and facial expressions. She said I had a nice straight nose (straight finger over her nose with smile) and she had an ugly flat nose (finger pressed her nose down with frown). She said my skin was beautiful and white (pointing to me, then her white shirt and smiling) and hers was ugly and red (pointing to her cheek, her red sweater and frowning). My jaw dropped, and the only response I could come up with was to thank her. In hindsight, I wish I hadn't thanked her, because I was, in effect, confirming her delusion that I was beautiful and she was not. I wish I could have conveyed to her that I thought she was beautiful, asked to take a picture of her, or something.
I scanned my thousands of photos for a picture of a minority woman, to illustrate their beauty and contrast their features with the pictures above, and am embarrassed to say that I didn't take any. My shyness, or lack of guts, really let me down in this area. So I Googled for pictures and found this one, but the accompanying website was blocked. Perhaps outside of China you can see the true beauty of its people a little more clear.