Take Three on “The China Body Image” (yes, I am streamlining things here, albeit for my own sanity) contemplations then, and this time around I took it to the wide streets and humble hutongs of Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Taiwan. In other words, I started a groupchat (on Whatsapp, for those aching to know).
Flimsy fact: I was recently accused of being “provocative” in saying that no short man should ever go for a three-piece, especially not one made up of the heftier fabrics. Be that “I plead guilty to writing this and simultaneously yet unintentionally judging a certain body type” as may, I am sticking to my guns (and not the overly-bodybuilt ones either — oops, I did it again) on that slice of fashion intuition. It goes without saying that, one, rules are indeed made to be broken; and two, this is indeed a very judgmental society we’re all happily and block-heeled skipping around in. And three, I don’t care about “body types”; to each their own outfits. Some more suitable than others – we all have our satanic style blunders. God knows I don’t wear pastels; they make me look like a sickly rag left hanging out to dry in the toxic Beijing smog. Come to think of it, lace also doesn’t give me too much panache… Goodness Grace (Coddington), the burdens of blunder I must bear.
Firm fact: China makes for a thought-provoking and incendiary case study here. In a society where women used to have their feet bound to make them more appetizing to the opposite sex as well as to (mere minutiae, to some) literally keep them off the courtyards; in a society where men and women alike dressed in unisex apparel masterfully created in His (Mao’s, that is) Image; and in this 2015 society where Mr. Perfect who owns the car and the house makes for the ultimate accessory, what do Chinese women, from designer to runway stomper to Jane Wang, now make of “The China Body Image” as upheld by the general Chinese-and-affiliated public? Moreover, is it a realistic street-smart one or just a good old-fashioned photoshopped ideal? Image versus mirage.
Smoke and Mirrors
Right before the 2015 Met Gala, a topic I already touched upon for What’s On Weibo so I gladly refuse to go through that again, Vogue.com featured a Chinese model looks tutorial starring six of China’s biggest runway hits and their homegrown beauty secrets. Liu Wen (刘雯) “loves to boil the fruits of the Chinese soap-pod locust tree in water and use that as shampoo”; Xiao Wenju (肖文君 ) refers to her dad’s home-brewed pork bone soup as “beauty soup” and described the ultimate body image in her home country as having “big eyes and a high nose—that’s the classic beauty” ; Qin Shupei (秦舒培) carries suitcases crammed with Yunnan Province’s pu’er (普洱) tea wherever she goes; and Sun FeiFei (孙霏霏) believed “smooth skin, beautiful bright eyes and a feminine smile” are the No. 1 Chinese beauty ideal. Common denominators in their style portfolios? Facial masks (fact: we all slap these (non-whitening) on three times a week here), the sensational former-Chinese-but-now-Singaporean actress-slash-muse Gong Li (巩俐); and “mom”.
Their replies present an innocent enough image (no, I wasn’t expecting any Chekhovian clutches to surface – it’s unlikely I’d even catch on to those), but are the raw egg masks and snake oil treatments in fact not just exotic-sounding smoke and mirrors? My eye always immediately wanders to the “white skin, big eyes and a high nose” remarks when referring to the Chinese beauty ideal, aka a far photoshopped cry away from the Asian look book. Au naturel still doesn’t seem to do very well in China nowadays.
Fashion, Females and Fan Bingbing
Au contraire. China has taken plastic surgery to entirely new levels, with getting some minor things done on your afternoon off now referred to as “mini-plastic”. Enter the groupchat. Females talking about fashion and body image is one way to set tongues wagging, but throw actress Fan Bingbing (范冰冰) into the mix and it becomes lethal (i.e. the groupchat blows up). Actress Angelababy (楊穎) recently threw the mother of all “it wasn’t me” fits and sued a Dalian-based clinic for claiming they had in fact given her those often looked-for-in-China facial features, including a pointy chin and big eyes. Case dismissed. Enter Fan Bingbing, the blinking beauty beacon for many Chinese women out there. As one HR friend, one in banking and one traveling the world added: “Chinese women tend to favor what are in fact photoshopped Fan Bingbing images. Love her, but it’s not real. Let’s hope we [Chinese] don’t wade into South Korean plastic surgery territory, creating a world in which everyone looks alike. How lackluster would that be?!” Nevertheless, Fan too cannot escape the plastic surgery search party: Eyelids, nose, chin and breasts have allegedly all received a boost or enhancement of some sorts. Given that Fan is worshipped by Chinese women worldwide as a divine creature floating in a league of her own, the appearance here viewed as the pinnacle of The China Body Image is in fact closer to a mirage.
The groupchat cavalry concurs: Big round eyes, a high bridged nose, pointy chin, thin, thin and, again, thin – these sum up The China Body Image ideal. As Singaporean (the only non-Chinese participant in this game) self-confessed beauty-lover Adeline put it: “My 30-something white collar single girlfriends are mostly after the same thing, despite moving in very different circles: The perfect nails and that brand bag brought back from abroad. Thank you very much. Oh, and throw in the guy with the house; accessorizing, you know. Sorry for sounding superficial, but it is what it is.”
Then the designer marching band waltzed in.
More about the Designer Opinions in Part II.