Ugly or Beautiful: The Mysterious Case of the Pageant Winner

Lately, there has been a bit of a viral reaction back here in China to the winner of the Miss Michigan beauty pageant, an American woman with Chinese ancestry. The decision was met with utmost confusion and sometimes the most vile demeanour. To put it bluntly, many a Chinese netizen seems to feel that the winner of this beauty contest is uncontestably ugly. So what happened here?

After looking at some pictures of Arianna Quan, I couldn’t help but feel not in the least surprised at this reaction. I have long since made the experience that when it comes to beauty standards, the Chinese public (often including my husband) and I do not see eye to eye. For example, my salivating over Jay Chou has been met with incomprehensive head-shaking from Chinese friends countless times, while whenever Mr Li will point out a “pretty girl” in his books, I would find myself wondering whether I needed glasses.

Utter heartthrob Jay Chou

After years of the both of us studying the types of Chinese women foreign men (and myself) generally seem to find attractive and comparing it with the local beauty standard, we have definitely come to the conclusion that in many cases (naturally not all of them), someone considered the height of beauty in one of our cultures is regularly seen as less than desirable in the other. But why does this happen?
Arianna Quan, I think, is a rather good example of culturally defined tastes and how exactly they differ between China and “the West” (in the most liberal sense of the word).

Below are traits I find attractive about her:

-Her dark skin

-Her tall statue and great figure (I mean look at those ladies!)

-Her very mature and adult sex appeal (enhanced of course by the dramatic make-up)

-Her eyes

Many Chinese netizens compare Quan to Mulan

Dark Skin, Light Skin

I don’t think it’s a secret anymore that in China “light is right”. The whiter a woman’s skin the better. Some say this is because peasants have dark tanned skin from working under the sun all day, and so being white is associated with being rich and high class. Others just see it as another form of racism, the idea that “white skin” is desirable because Chinese society tends to treat Caucasian foreigners preferentially.

The obsession with white skin is so ingrained that active measures are taken to stop the sun from even getting anywhere near one’s skin, such as sun umbrellas and full body condoms. The face swimming masks that were a hit two summers ago and made everyone look like mass murderers are another classic. More concerning though are the countless whitening products containing bleach, from face wash to creams to make-up.

Swimsuit Serial Killer?

In my native countries and I believe in the US also, on the other hand, we strive for exactly the opposite. We love that tanned healthy glow and will risk skin cancer just to look like we live at the beach full time. Hence, Arianna Quan with her effortlessly dark skin is already ahead of us in that respect.

Great or Overweight?

Next up is dear Arianna’s body. Her height and her weight in my books are an unattainable ideal. She is slender but has curves. Marvelous.

Yet by Chinese beauty standards, as shocking as this might sound, she would probably be considered way too large. A general rule of thumb in China is that if you pass 100 jin, so 50 kg, you are fat (and this goes for women who are 1m50 to those who are 1m85). Fan Bingbing, at 60kg and a more than average height, is considered “China’s fattest super star”.

In addition, if your legs are anything more than matchsticks, you should be worried, and if your waist is larger than an A4 paper held vertically, it’s off to fat camp. This is evidenced by many social media trends including the aforementioned A4 paper as well as holding an iPhone to your knee caps, or trying to reach around your own body with one arm.

A4 Paper Waist and iPhone Knee Challenge

In general, being fit, trained or muscly is an idea that is only just emerging. The majority in China still prefer women to be as frail and fairly-like as possible. This also includes not being tall. Naturally this only applies to women, while for men, there is no upward limit – you go scrape that sky, Yao Ming! Again Arianna fails to strike a chord with Chinese observers.

Mature or Old? Appealing to Different Tastes

For me personally, Ms Quan is a very sexy persona simply because she has something mature and demure about her. She is confident, a quality that I believe in the West is seen as very appealing. However, what is defined as “sexually desirable” in China, is something very different. Many a conversation with Mr Li has confirmed my impression that what we might see as sexy, is often much too brash and too full on in a Chinese context.

The standard concept of what is desirable here are women who try to look as young as possible, as there still is a strong concept of age devaluing women, and as child-like and “cute” as possible. Big doe eyes, a high-pitched voice and general dependency seem in many cases to be the way to a man’s heart, or rather his trousers, in China.

Pretty? Eye don’t think so

Arianna’s eyes are another point of contention. One reason why in the past my taste for Jay Chou was met with much disapproval is simply because he has small eyes. Now to me, this is actually something that makes him more attractive. I admit it might be down to my exoticising Asian features. In China, however, the larger the eyes the better. What I might think of as bulgy and frog-like, many Chinese I speak to would find incredibly attractive.

While I am generally not a fan of beauty contests, especially since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I have generally found in many discussions with Chinese friends that we would disagree on exactly the above points.

How about you? Have you found the same to be true?

Finally, I would like to leave you with a great read on this exact topic by Echo Tang.

2 thoughts on “Ugly or Beautiful: The Mysterious Case of the Pageant Winner”

  1. The beauty standards in China are always shocking to me. Years ago we went eating with family friends in xi’an and they had their daughter with them (22 or so back then). Later my mother in law told my wife how beautiful that girl was with her wonderful white skin and big eyes…well let’s just say that it was approx 1cm of make up and tons of tape for the eyes plus the contact lenses for bigger pupils…oh and ofc the standard fake nose. Really really don’t understand it and often in Chinese tv shows and movies the actresses look so emotionless as they can’t even move their faces properly anymore due to surgery overdose!


    1. That description fits perfectly – it’s such a shame to see all the young women do this to themselves – in the end they all look like identical ghost dolls – when they were usually beautiful to begin with!

      Liked by 1 person

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