- Federica Giampaolo
Miss Shaanxi and changing beauty standards in China
Beauty pageants, make-up tutorials, Douyin trends, and advertisements about plastic surgery or speedy weight loss have been sprouting all over the Chinese Internet. As Wen Hua states in her 2013 book Buying Beauty since the 1980s and particularly starting from the late 1990s and the early 2000s, female beauty has become a form of capitalization and one of the most lucrative businesses, which goes by the name of 美女经济 meinü jingji (beauty economy). Beauty standards not only boost the economy and serve as a political means for the state, but they also affect the minds of young Chinese women and the way society perceives female bodies.
Beauty pageants, especially, are considered fundamental because their display of “typical Chinese beauties” (thin waist, symmetrical face, pale skin, etc.) can help promote the domestic tourist industry and fashion brands. Due to the ongoing changes Chinese youth have been facing, mainly thanks to social media platforms, one could notice how societal values regarding beauty standards have been constantly challenged.1
Miss Shaanxi storms the Internet upon challenging unrealistic beauty standards
In April 2021, comments about the contestants of the recent Miss Shaanxi beauty pageant stormed social media due to their unconventional bodies. Some of them didn’t look as skinny, tall, and pale as the other contestants, whose bodies fit the contemporary beauty standards.2
Discussions about social pressure and beauty standards opened up and showed changes in how Chinese young people face these topics. On social media platforms like Weibo and forums, a heated debate emerged between two opposing sides: the first one heavily criticized the contestants for having “terracotta warrior-like bodies” (像刚出土的兵马俑 lit. “like the terracotta warriors just unearthed”), and the second instead defended the young women by stating that confidence and health are the expressions of a woman’s beauty.3
Many screenshots showing the mockery aimed at the young women competing have spread around the Internet, and they certainly haven’t been ignored by netizens.4
A great variety of blog posts and articles discussed the topic and recurrently wondered: “When did we become so rigid and one-sided about girls’ bodies?”
The Internet as a remedy to “appearance anxiety”?
On the one hand, it is impossible to determine whether the beauty standards are already changing. However, the Internet has helped users realize that their self-image issues are actually a collective phenomenon. Subsequently, full-hearted discussions around beauty standards and the recent appearance anxiety (外貌焦虑 waimao jiaolü) phenomenon have been opened.
Netizens also started sharing images showcasing the extremities one might have to go through in order to reach an “ideal” body. Such pictures display extreme plastic surgery operations and the consequences a body may run into due to the dangerous methods used to look perfect. A few examples could be the partial removal of one’s calves or the suffering from teeth corrosion caused by unhealthy food habits.5
It is no secret that the path towards standardized beauty is not a playground, and its consequences are no longer being ignored. In fact, despite beautifying methods and tips still coming up when searching 变美 bianmei (becoming beautiful) as either a hashtag or a video title on social media, they nevertheless are always accompanied by content about the struggle that the search for beauty comes with. For example, in videos like “为什么你总觉得自己不好看？这可能是一种病” (“Why do you always think you’re not good-looking? It might be a disease”) published in 2020 on the video platform 哔哩哔哩 (Bilbili), the author Wang Chaichai explains that people–especially women–find themselves ugly because of a complex of inferiority that society instills in them.6
In a capitalist and technological society where means and social values differ, the notion of beauty and how people perceive their bodies will also change.7 Of course, it is impossible to state whether the beauty standards are on the right path for either drastic or gradual change, but the awareness of the digital world is already making a difference.
What is certain is that the discourse on beauty and beauty standards changes alongside society. The latter seems now to slowly shift toward "feeling good about oneself and that everyone has the right to feel attractive, but also not to blindly follow internet celebrities’ trends because it will cause you to lose yourself, and it's not worth it."8
References / To go further
Wen Hua, Buying Beauty, Hong Kong University Press, 2013, p.138-162.
潇湘晨报, 夺笋啊！“陕西小姐”选美选手被吐槽像出土兵马俑，网友：自信健康就是美, 百家号, 22nd april 2021, https://baijiahao.baidu.com/s?id=1697734607805311339&wfr=spider&for=pc
小椰子专栏, 全网群嘲的“陕西小姐”选美比赛：成年人的自虐现场，我不敢看, 163.com, 25th January 2021 https://www.163.com/dy/article/GARJ9S180548ACD7.html
潇湘晨报, 夺笋啊！“陕西小姐”选美选手被吐槽像出土兵马俑，网友：自信健康就是美百家号, 22nd april 2021, https://baijiahao.baidu.com/s?id=1697734607805311339&wfr=spider&for=pc
王柴柴, 为什么你总觉得自己不好看？这可能是一种病, 哔哩哔哩, 21st August 2020, https://www.bilibili.com/video/BV1GK411M7Gy?from=search&seid=5254603252207941786&spm_id_from=333.337.0.0
Meng Zhang, “A Chinese beauty story: how college women in China negotiate beauty, body image, and mass media,” Chinese Journal of Communication, 5:4, 2012, 437-454.