Would you rather… Chinese Communists or Princess Barbies?

I’m co-hosting the preschool’s variety show/graduation ceremony this week. My job is to translate and say their host script in English. I can live with, “Children all have this beautiful desire in their hearts, to grow up and wear camouflage uniforms just like Uncle in the People’s Liberation Army, loving the Party, loving the country, and being a brave person!” But I think a small part of me will die inside when I have to say, “Look, everyone! Here comes Princess Barbie!”

Conspicuously Curvacious Tianjin, China

(Wrote this when we lived in Tianjin, saved it for a rainy day.)

Believe it or not, there actually is a cultural angle to this; it’s not just about ogling scandalous public depictions of women.

Earthquake Memorial
Behold! Tianjin’s public celebration of curvacious (foreign?) women in windswept, soaking wet, clingy dresses who like to pose as if they’re on the cover of trashy women’s fashion magazines– er, I mean– memorial to the Chinese mothers who suffered in the devastating Tangshan earthquake in 1976 that killed over 200,000 people:

I pass this earthquake memorial on Nanjing Rd. every day on my way to work. It’s one of three statues; the other two are what you’d expect: a baby-rescuing soldier and a worker. The exaggerated woman is conspicuously… not so historically accurate.

Ever since I first noticed this memorial I’ve been taking a second look at the public statues I come across. There are statues of women all over town, and except for a larger-than-life soft porn series of Rodin knock-off statues along the Hǎihé near Liberation Bridge, exceptionally (read: unnaturally) proportioned nudes in the Italian concession area, and a random nude holding a hoolahoop in the middle of a roundabout (no idea what that’s about), most of them aren’t supposed to be sexual, or at least you wouldn’t expect them to be sexual. But– well, you be the judge.

Nankai University
What is the first thing this statue makes you think of?

And be honest; don’t say Moses and the 10 Commandments.

This not-Moses-and-the-10-Commandments statue is at Nankai University.

Tianjin University
This next statue is inside the main entrance of Tianjin University:

It commemorates the school’s centennial anniversary and I assume it’s supposed to be celebrating women’s education, but she’s not only exceptionally — oh what’s the Chinese word… 丰满, it’s also — how can I put this delicately… unnecessarily detailed?

This is the opposite of the Communist statue depictions of women, like at the memorial near Tianjin’s Liberation Bridge (right). Gender equality is part of the message, but equality in the traditional Communist images essentially means desexualization/masculinization, with short hair and form-obscuring army uniforms. Of course, masculinizing women in the name of gender equality certainly isn’t unique to China, and conflicting public images of women are found in Mao-era China, too. (For more about Mao-era depictions of women see: Iron Women and Foxy Ladies.)

Neighbourhood elementary school
Even across the street from our apartment complex, this elementary school teacher (right) has apparently just been swimming in the Haihe, in her clothes.

Sex in China
China sends extreme, conflicting signals about sexuality. I realize that the statues in these photos aren’t necessarily extreme (especially compared to the previously mentioned soft porn statues). But they are examples of sexualization/objectification where you don’t expect it: of earthquake victims, monuments to women’s education/advancement, primary school teachers. What I’m trying to highlight is Tianjin’s seemingly split-personality when it comes to sexuality. Many social norms are still far more conservative than what you’d see or hear in the average the U.S. or Canadian public space, yet at the same time in other areas public sexuality and sexual behaviour seem more liberal and tolerant. Depending on where you look, China can have less or more public sexuality than the post-Sexual Revolution, pornified West.

Our old apartment building had a “massage parlour” on one side and a kindergarten on the other, which was right next to a KTV bar and bathhouse — both with prostitutes — which was down the street from a sex toy shop. And we lived in a pretty nice part of town. It seems like every three or four block radius in residential areas will have at least one sex toy shop and no shortage of places hiding prostitution in plain sight. If I went to the top floor with a sling shot I could probably hit a trashy massage parlour.

But parents and teachers and young couples can’t talk about it. When sex is in the textbooks, teachers often tell the students to read it at home, and it’s never discussed in class. Even in Bright Future classes (the foreigner-led, explicit sex ed initiative at Tianjin University), we’ve seen students often switch to English for uncomfortable words when speaking or writing. (For more about Bright Future see: Sex, drugs, and Tianjin University students.) One of a few big reasons Chinese premarital pregnancy and abortion rates are so high that Chinese non-resident and new immigrant populations skew their host countries’ abortion rates is because old taboos against explicitly acknowledging sexuality and sexual behaviour hinder attempts to directly address or educate regarding those behaviours. In other words: people are kept dangerously ignorant about sexual basics, they aren’t called out on their flagrant, irresponsible behaviour, and (girls especially) lack options, skills and vocabulary for resisting when pressured for sex they don’t want to have.

It makes sense to me that these extremes of flagrant behaviour and non-acknowledgement — of sexualizing earthquake memorials and elementary school teachers but avoiding sex ed in the home and classroom — counter-intuitively exist side-by-side, but it’s still sometimes surprising to see them in close contrast.

More about sexuality in China:

Spot the Differences: before & after “piastic surgery”

For the last few months, I’ve not been able to go anywhere without this guy making eyes at me. But now “Dr. Health Piastic Surgery”, which has the most ubiquitous advertising in our area of Qingdao, has a new campaign.

How many differences can you see?

Because the beauty industry loves you. Manufacturing unnecessary and unnatural dissatisfaction and colonizing women’s bodies for profit makes everyone happier.

More on Beauty in China:

Beauty standards: China vs. the West – define “fat” and give three examples

I’ve blogged before about my rural Tanzanian language tutor who wanted a fat wife because to him skinny women were unattractive. But in Western nations, there’s no such pro-fat social conditioning. Not to take away from how harsh and unfair popular Western beauty ideals are to women at all — this isn’t a “Who’s worse?” kind of comparison — but China does it with it’s own twist: harsh beauty ideals with Chinese characteristics, if you will.

Here are two articles worth comparing — one from an Asian American visiting relatives in China, and one from a self-described “fat foreign girl in China”. Both face unfair expectations, but their difference in ethnicity results in different experiences.

“Fat for an Asian:” The Pressure to be Naturally Perfect
“I’m not fat — by American standards. I am considered slightly chubby for an Asian in China. I’m 5’1” and about 100 pounds, [...] I try not to talk about it, though, because the moment I do, someone always says, “Shut up, you’re Asian. You have genetics on your side.” That’s the problem — Asian girls are suffering from body image issues and eating disorders because they try to hold themselves up to the expectation that Asian girls are naturally slim. ”

The Joys and Sorrows of Being a Fat Foreign Girl in China
““Foreigner” was one of the first words in Chinese that I learned. “Fat” wasn’t the second word that I learned in Chinese. It was probably the third or fourth. It came in somewhere after “hello,” “thank you” and “I don’t understand,” but before “How much does this cost?”.”

It’s no secret that beauty standards are different in China. In addition to some particular preferences being different, Chinese standards are very specific, and there are less options. People also seem to take an “objective” attitude toward beauty, rather than a more relativistic, individualistic outlook along the lines of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” You also need a much lower BMI to qualify as fat.

More on Beauty in China:

Colonialism’s new frontier: Western beauty ideals plague China and the world

I’m riding in a 4×4 with Sweetbert, my Tanzanian language tutor out in the sticks of rural Tanzania — no electricity, TV, internet, nothing, except the odd battery-powered handheld radio. Local entertainment, from what I can see, mostly involves the occasional regional drumming-and-dance competition and getting drunk on village brew banana beer. We get to talking about women, and when I mention that North American men like skinny women, he busts a gut laughing, literally can’t stop. “A beautiful woman must be FAT!” he exclaims between uncontrollable giggles, incredulous, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, as if finding thin women attractive was the most counter-intuitive thing he’s ever heard and can barely even imagine. A few years later he gets married and sends a photo of him and his ‘fat’ wife, of whom he is very proud.

Meanwhile, Western beauty ideals have metastasized throughout every media-saturated corner of the planet. We’re all well accustomed to a large daily dose of visual B.S., but that doesn’t mean it smells good, or that it’s healthy. Criticism is piling up in the West, from “Health Warning” label legislation to movie-style rating systems for manipulated photos. According to the speaker quoted below, our malignant Western beauty ideals are also compounding body issues in the already patriarchal beauty cultures of China and the rest of the world.

It’s no secret that Western beauty ideals rule in first- and second-tier Chinese cities. Of course, traditional and modern Chinese culture has plenty of its own ideas about which faces and bodies and postures, etc. are attractive. But walk through any mall and count the number of ads that use Caucasian models. The highest beauty ideals in China are Western. And the highest beauty ideals in the West require surgically and digitally altering the bodies of underfed, underweight, unhealthy women.

I’m thinking about this because of a recent speech at the UN Commission on the Status of Women, which opened fire not at oppressive patriarchal traditions of 2nd and 3rd World cultures, but at us, calling out our societies for our hypocrisy in criticizing foot binding and female genital mutilation, and for the cancerous effect on women that aggressive Western corporate marketing has in societies around the world, specifically including China. I’ve excerpted much of it below, but the whole thing (not long) is worth a read. Regardless of how much you disagree, it’s a fantastic conversation starter. Emphasis from the original.

Susie Orbach Speaks at the UN Commission on the Status of Women

. . .what has been overlooked have been the vicious body practices that girls and women have come to take on themselves in the west in the mistaken belief that they are doing good for themselves. . .

The west congratulates itself on its distance from Eastern practices of foot binding which constrained and limited women. It fails to see the links between toe operations carried out now to enable women to fit into the latest 4 inch high heels.

The west smugly criticises FGM while sanctioning labiaplasty and the remaking of the genital lips which has become a growth area for cosmetic surgeons.

The west makes appeals about famine victims in the southern hemisphere but has failed to notice the voluntarily insane food practices that exist in their own countries.

The west hasn’t noticed that these are forms of violence and constraint for women. . .

. . .the engine which feeds the tyrannical hold that beauty exercises on girls and women’s energies, dollars and sense of self. . .relates to those industries which grow rich on creating body distress and body hatred in girls and women. . .

The beauty companies, the fashion houses, the diet companies, the food conglomerates who also of course own the diet companies, the exercise and fitness industry, the pharmaceutical industry and the cosmetic surgery industry combine together, perhaps not purposefully or conspiratorially, to create a climate in which girls and women come to feel that their bodies are not ok. They do this through the promotion of celebrity culture, through advertising on every possible outlet from billboards to magazines to our electronic screens, through the funding of media outlets which can only exist because of their economic support. . .

As immoral and unethical as the activities of these companies are in and of themselves, the economics of growth as we currently conceive it depends upon their extending their markets. L’Oreal’s growth rate in China is 26%. They achieve this not by marketing their lipsticks and hair products to Chinese women per se but by marketing the western body as the body to have to Chinese women. They and the other beauty, fashion, media companies promote the western body to the new economies as a way of finding a place to belong in the maelstrom and confusion of modernity.

Alongside the disseminating of western ideals of beauty to Asia, Africa and South America, is the export of the consequences of these ideals: body hatred and body anxiety. This is the emotional fallout from the endeavours of these industries and the basis on which they make their extraordinary and obscene profits.

. . .They are mining bodies as though they were a commodity like coal or gold. Women’s bodies all over the world are being designated as profit centres.

As the western ideal becomes plastered over the globe we bear witness to the loss of indigenous bodies. This is a new frontier of colonialism. Mad eating is normalised. Western style bodies are revered and local bodies are swallowed up as fast as demise of local languages. [Link]

I wonder what my Tanzanian language tutor would think. Then again, they were selling skin-whitening creams in East Africa, too.

Related China & Beauty stuff from the blog:

Related stuff from the web:

Brutal Chinese honesty: “fat guy underwear” edition

When it comes to talk about bodies, the Chinese play by a totally different set of rules. They are often brutally blunt by Western standards. And North Americans are often way over-sensitive by Chinese standards. Personally, I think they both have a point. But either way, any North American coming to China can expect to eventually be hit with direct comments about their appearance that no one except mean schoolyard bullies would say in their home countries — except usually the Chinese aren’t intending to be mean. We’ve had plenty of our own humourous and tear-producing encounters with this aspect of Chinese culture, and some are listed at the end of this post.

Anyway, an American friend of ours in Tianjin just shared this picture of a pack of men’s underwear over Facebook, which she took in a shopping center near her apartment. Whether this particular example reflects typical Chinese talk about bodies or merely a lack of translation skill, it’s a fine anecdote for illustrating this particular painful (to North Americans) cultural difference:

The Chinese on the package says (mouseover for pronunciation):

轻柔舒适三角裤
Fat guy, pure cotton, soft, snug briefs

Who says there’s no honesty in advertising?*

(*But then why isn’t he wearing the underwear in the picture?)

We’ve both written on this kind of thing before: