How Young Women Have Changed in China: Education and Beauty Standards
by Rayna Daley
Over the past two decades, young women in China have made significant progress in terms of their role in society and how they are defined, a change which began greatly with the increased education of young girls. From having little to no educational opportunities in the mid 1900s, the average length of Chinese women’s education has increased to 8.6 years and the gap between men and women’s education averages just 0.7 years; the proportion of girls in schools at all levels of education is gradually on the rise, suggesting that boys and girls now have equal opportunities to education. In 2013, China’s National Bureau of Statistics indicated that the net rate of enrollment of girls in primary schools reached 99.77 percent, 0.02 percent higher than that of boys. Rural women have also begun to play an increasingly important role in China’s workforce, taking part in the reform of the rural economic system. Data indicates that, as of 2010, around 3.5 million rural women across the country had participated in green-certification training, accounting for 40 percent of the participants. Women’s federations at all levels have also organized various training sessions on farming technology, entrepreneurship, and other skills; women now have the opportunity to be educated in every field that men are, and the numbers of working women, from farmers to CEOs, continue to rise. In the past five years alone, Women’s Federations at various levels have trained over five million rural women and one million women engaging in entrepreneurial endeavors. Due to this increased emphasis on women’s education and their greater role in the workforce, how a woman is defined and treated has changed immensely. Today, they are seen as more economically and politically powerful than ever before. However, there are still several differences that set them apart form their male counterparts; with these higher political and educational expectations also comes higher expectations regarding beauty standards and how they present themselves in society.
Even as the role of women changes, China’s young women continue to live under a great deal of pressure to fit the idealized image that society has created for them in terms of beauty and how they carry themselves. Though every culture has its own beauty standards and expectations, many of women’s beauty standards in China are very different from beauty standards commonly found in Western cultures. While in America, for example, dark, tanned skin is something to strive for, Chinese women strive to have white, pale skin. They will often use skin-whitening products to achieve this standard of beauty, which is perceived as a symbol of high social status and wealth; it shows that she has the status and wealth to stay indoors instead of working outdoors in the sun and heat. In contrast, in America, tanned skin shows that she can afford the luxury of going on expensive vacations to tropical places, where she can relax and tan in the sun. It is interesting to see how these starkly different beauty standards in the two countries are exemplified through selfies from popular teenagers and young women, who are highly influential in terms of beauty standards (Fan Bingbing and Kylie Jenner, pictured right).
Though these standards are quite the opposite, there are also beauty standards that China has in common with Western cultures such as America. One example is having fuller lips. In China, fuller lips are thought to bring in good luck and be attributed to a warm and expressive personality. In contrast, those with thin lips are perceived as colder and more calculating, qualities that are not typically considered attractive in women. Many women in China also seek to have a “double eyelid,” a trend which is greatly influenced by Western cultures. In Chinese culture, large eyes are thought to be more feminine and innocent, and align with the traditional expected qualities of women–submissive, obedient, and feminine. Hooded eyes with no crease, called monolids, make the eyes seem smaller, and thus are often perceived as unattractive. Around 50 percent of the Chinese population is born with monolids, and of these people, many choose to get eyelid surgery to “correct” it, a majority of them young women. The trend is so common that China accounts for 12.7 percent of all plastic surgeries in the world; this shocking statistic demonstrates just how much pressure society’s beauty standards can put on young women, and the extent to which they will go to achieve them. Another beauty standard in China that puts an exceptional amount of pressure on young women is being thin. While this is seen as a beauty standard in several countries, it is especially prevalent in China and highly sought after by young women, as thinner women are often perceived as more delicate. This standard, like many of the others, shows that much of the pressure that is put on young women in China stems from the traditional gender roles that still are still quite prevalent in China’s modern society, despite the recent changes that has been made in terms of gender equality.
This idea that more traditional gender roles are still quite prevalent in China is greatly exemplified through China’s One-Child Policy. For centuries, China has always preferred male heirs, so when China’s One-Child Policy was implemented in 1979, it caused a lot of problems for female infants, which were often abandoned or neglected. This skewed the male-female ratio in the country, meaning girls grew up in a male-predominated society. They were expected to be married-off at a young age, which created a great amount of pressure in terms of their image and how they presented themselves to men. This idea is also exemplified in terms of their clothing; Chinese women were expected to dress very modestly and uniformly for much of history in order to show their innocence and “obedience.” It wasn’t until the 1980’s with women’s political and educational reform that women’s clothing became more westernized and it became more socially acceptable to show more skin. The pictures below demonstrate how conservative young women were expected to dress over the past century. The clothing trends and beauty standards that young women and teenage girls in China follow is greatly reflective of the societal pressure that is put on young girls and women each day, even as their status continues to improve and they become more and more empowered.
Top Left: Qing Dynasty Era (1700s-early 1900s), Top Right: 1920s-30s, Bottom Left: 1960s-70s, Bottom Right: 1985.
Young Chinese Women: Stars & Style Icons
See if you can find the names of some of the most influential current-day young women and teenaged girls of China.
CHRISTINE LAU DILRABA DILMURAT FAN BINGBING GUO PEI LAN YU LIU YIFEI MASHA MA TANG WEI UMA WANG VICKY CHEN VIVIENNE TAM YANG MI ZHANG ZIYI ZHAO LIYING ZHOU DONGYU ZHOU XUN