Making up Beauty in China

Handheld wooden mirror
The Chinese women doing my makeup considered me the real beauty — while I believed them far more beautiful than myself. 

“Beauty” could barely describe the two girls hovering over me for a makeup session two weekends ago. Both had smooth black hair reminiscent of a calligraphy brush dipped in black ink, eyes the color of pu-er tea and lips more brilliant than the fiery red pomegranate blossoms. Their smiles illuminated the entire room.

But in their minds, they weren’t the real beauty. I was.

“Look at her eyes! So big!” one of the women squealed, after powdering my face.

“Her nose is so straight,” the other sighed. She then squeezed it gently a couple of times, giggling like a schoolgirl.

But when they moved to my eyes – and specifically, my mascara – the excitement waved over the room in sudden tsunami fashion. “Her eyelashes are curved. Can you believe that?” Several women from outside rushed in to take a peek. A makeup artist next to me and even her client pulled the curtains back and lunged their heads to admire my lashes. “She doesn’t even need an eyelash curler!”

Laying there on the table, I felt like some sort of model woman from another world on display – and given my sweltering palms and the way I kept crossing my feet, it wasn’t an easy job. If anything, I didn’t understand them at all, or the way they told me “you’re so beautiful” the moment I sat down next to them, before going over to the makeup room.

“But you’re so beautiful!” I pleaded to them in Chinese, hoping somehow my words could powder over their mistaken interest in me. “In the US, people love women like you.”

One of the women winked. “An Eastern beauty, right?” She said it so casually, as if she didn’t really believe in it.

Could I blame her? Growing up, people knew me more for brains than beauty. I swatted away words like “lovely” and “gorgeous” as something that I just couldn’t wear, as something that never fit me. Which is why I thought these compliments didn’t even fit me now. When the women finished, and I looked in the mirror, I almost didn’t even trust that what I saw really was, well, me.

I couldn’t help thinking about that makeup session for days, long after I had rinsed away all of the powder, mascara and lipstick. If beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, when will we – whether this American or a Chinese woman doing makeup in a salon – finally behold the beauty that is our own?

P.S.: To understand why those Chinese women admired my Western features, read the section “Do You Think I’m Pretty” in this article on Understanding Chinese Women.

Western women, have you ever been told — to your surprise — by Chinese that you were beautiful? Chinese women, have you ever been surprised by Westerners who praised your beauty?

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31 Replies to “Making up Beauty in China”

  1. Loved this post – so honest! I can relate to being known for being smart, rather than beautiful growing up, but then coming to China and being seen as very exotic and possessing a lot of what they desire (very pale skin, ‘high’ nose).
    When having my makeup trial for my wedding here, the woman commented constantly on how beautiful I was and how easy it was to make me up. I asked what she meant, and she explained that my features were distinguishable naturally, so she just had to enhance them, while she said that Chinese women had faces flat like paper, so she had to do a lot more ‘magic’ to make their eyes deeper, noses higher, and so on.
    While I still don’t think I would go so far as to call myself beautiful, with age and more time spent here, I am at least learning to appreciate my own features more.

  2. It is the same for my wife and me. In our home in the US I am Joe Average and everyone says she is an absolute beauty. But here in China she is considered Plain Jane, but all her friends keep telling her how handsome I am and how jealous they are of her.

  3. Laying there getting make up done like that and improving your ego is a what? A weekly occurrence? You have to tell us what you were doing there!? If I were there they would have said similar things: 他肚子怎么那么大!

  4. Once again, great post! I love reading about your experiences in China.

    I went through a similar experience during my very first time in China; I was complimented by this very beautiful Chinese woman who said I had such great skin, eyes, body, and hair. I could not believe it. I was the one who, growing up in Canada, had such a hard time finding a boyfriend because I was considered the bookworm type (and here I am now with a Chinese boyfriend)! My hair gets frizzy all the time for no reason and my skin tends to burn from the sun after just 10 minutes of exposure.

    I have always envied Asian women for their features, especially eyes, hair, and body (as so many other Westerners). I told this lady she was the one who was beautiful, not me; she shyly blushed from the compliment, but politely refused it.

    It’s too bad Chinese women have it so hard in their own country. I can’t even imagine having to go through any types of surgery and applying makeup on a daily basis just to conform to the norm of “beauty”.

    On another note, because I think Asian women are far more beautiful, I asked my boyfriend why he doesn’t have a Chinese girlfriend instead. Wouldn’t it be the ideal for a Chinese man? His answer? He thinks they look like they are his sisters/cousins and is not at all attracted to Asian women. Anyone else had the same response from their Chinese boyfriend/husband?

  5. @Nathalie, some Chinese women are also very attractive to me, but basically is that they do not need to put too much make up. Some Chinese women have a good natural beauty. And I think because of the cultural difference or maybe the confidence problem, if the women is confident, she is inner and external beautiful. But I think some Chinese males do not have Chinese girlfriends, it depends on their personality, in my ideas, the independent and gold hair female is very natural beautiful. This depend on people, some Chinese don’t not era but coffee, but some are other way around.Right? Humanity is truly important.

    @Kelly Some Chinese women are really thinking that the high nose is standard of beauty. But somehow, I do not discover that they are themselves very pretty to many ladies from other countries. This is a very interesting stuff because people are in the pursuit of perfect beauty!

  6. @Nathalie I had a similar converesation with my boyfriend… He said the same as what Kelly wrote earlier, that westerners have more distinguishable facial features whereas Chinese women have flatter faces. As you also wrote, he has mentioned to me several times about how Chinese/Asian people have the same hair and eye colour.

    The whole thing makes me feel decidedly uncomfortable, especially as I hadn’t particularly noticed the difference between face shapes before he mentioned it. And I think it’s a bit of an odd thing for a Chinese man to say, with him being Chinese…

  7. This just goes to show that different people and different cultures have different ideas of what is beautiful. I guess it all boils down to wanting what you don’t have that the other has. Ah, how strange the human mind works!

  8. @Kelly,
    yes its true that most Chinese women have faces flat like paper. But at the end of the day, its confidence that makes people look beautiful, regardless of racial background.

  9. I just wrote a post kind about this… but in my case being a Black American… when they did my make up for my wedding photos…(which i had to provide to them.. since they didnt have my color) .. they were surprised at my beauty….. in the case of my White american sisters…. they see your beauty right off… before they start to make you up…. but… in my case .. it is first assumed that I am ugly because my skin is darker… but after they finished my make up… they were totally flabbergasted…. they all looked at me … and called others into the room … to say… wowwww…. she is …beautiful…
    I think it was the first time .. they realized that darker skin can look beautiful too… even my students saw my wedding photos and were shocked that black can be beautiful… so… although my confidence is very high.. by nature… living in china for me.. can do the direct opposite…and bring me down.. but .. when I showed them that beauty can be in other colors… I knew i changed some of that traditional thinking…. Thanks for a great post…

  10. It’s absolutely a case of wanting what you don’t have. Maybe because we see ourselves everyday and don’t think anything special, whereas someone new and different is exotic? And yes, different standards of beauty come into play – someone in the world thinks you’re beautiful even if you yourself do not.
    And @sam – I totally agree with you. Confidence plays a HUGE part!!

  11. PS – Jo, I’ve only seen the couple of wedding photos you’ve posted so far, but you look absolutely stunning! As a pale white girl, I wish I had skin as beautiful as yours. 😉

  12. I have very curly hair and in ireland almost all girls want straight hair and use straightners and what not. Most people don’t like curly hair, but when I went to China everyone loved my curly hair and were amazed by it. My boyfriend always says he hates it when I straighten my hair its funny lol

  13. curly hair VS. straight hair, it must be very interesting. Many Chinese girls like curly hair, because it shows more mature. But straight hair can also show their elegance.

  14. To build on @lifebehindthewall’s comment by taking it in the opposite direction: When we first started talking babies, my wife said if we have a girl, she wants her to have pale skin like mine, pale being beautiful here. For this redhead Kiwi bloke, “fair skin” means “fairly good chance of skin cancer”, and besides, New Zealand is fairly typically Western in that we value tanned skin (why, given our skin cancer rates, I don’t know). And now everybody comments on our daughter’s beautiful pale skin, while I think, “Yep, and she’s going to cost us a small fortune in sunblock”. So while @lifebehindthewall has managed to pleasantly surprise and educate (good on you) some about the beauty of black, I’m still trying to persuade friends and family that pale is problematic. I don’t think it helps much that Chinese uses 黑 for both black and dark and 白 for both white and pale.
    It’s also funny how some Chinese comment on how Western men only go for the ugly Chinese women. I don’t think they quite realise how radically different the beauty ideals are.

  15. “It’s also funny how some Chinese comment on how Western men only go for the ugly Chinese women. I don’t think they quite realise how radically different the beauty ideals are.’

    You know what I think it’s funnier?The fact that most western people are so quick to point out that most western guys who date asian girls tend to be fat,old or ugly but they seemingly oblivious that most asian girls who date these western men are not that attractive either(at least form my standard).

  16. It’s to do with the exoticism. If you live in a country where you’re used to seeing the majority of the people of a certain race, the exoticism will eventually wears off. Then you’ll find that 90% of the people are either average or unattractive. It’s the same where ever you go. But having said that I think every ethnicity are attractive in their own ways. So comparing Western and Chinese beauties is like comparing apples and pears.

  17. Kelly is right–we always want what we don’t have. Like Sarah, my hair is super curly. My roommates in Hong Kong paid hundreds of US dollars to perm their hair, while I spent countless hours trying to straighten mine. When I was in China, my former sisters-in-law would sit next to me and compare who of them had skin closest to mine (I’m so pale, I always burn before tanning). Also, I always wished I had a flatter nose, not unlike my Chinese friends. Now that I’ve been back in the US for a decade, I’ve learned to accept my uniqueness and wouldn’t want to look any other way. I think people are attracted to the opposite, which is why western men have a field day in Asia. It goes the same for western women, too 🙂

  18. I would like to add that it is also partially colonial and cultural. In India, the same parameters (pale skin, lean figure, big eyes, aquiline nose) are considered beautiful too. For some reason, people think that white people look better and everyone else falls in after that, which is quite ridiculous to me. Instead of embracing their skin color women here spend tons of skin lightening creams, and why wont they? They would be hard pressed to find a guy if they did not. So this entire issue has a sombre and dark side to it too. I thought that I wouldnt have to face this attitude as my boyfriend is not Indian, but much to my surprise, the Chinese have exactly the same belief and he constantly obssesses over my eyes and eye lashes (this one honestly took me by surprise), nose etc while I keep hearing that my skin color is a definite negative in the package. I am happy the way I am and I love my skin and wouldnt change it even if I had a choice. But I think its a long way before Chinese or Indian people will accept that beauty comes in all colors

  19. I have a chinese bf for almost two years now. I’m half english and first nations. When we first started dating he always told he thought I was beautiful. Now I don’t feel as beautiful as I use to when I was first dating him. I found porn on his computer accidently, I wasn’t snooping. All the women were chinese and japanese. I was so hurt. I felt maybe rather date someone of his own race… I dunno.. I guess I’m just paranoid…My selfesteem has been on the back burner since. Although he tells me he loves me everyday. I also noticed he has a lot of pretty chinese women on his page. Maybe I should just let em go…but I love him too much.

  20. Dawn, don’t worry too much about the porn. It’s pretty common with guys in China, and the Asian stuff is what they have access to. Or maybe they feel more comfortable and less voyeuristic with Asian porn. Who knows. I had to deal with this issue in my marriage and knew it had nothing to do with me or how I looked. For so many years, it was completely forbidden in China. Now with the internet and globalization, many people in China are curious about porn. I even had a professor friend in Hong Kong who was from Ningbo. He kept porn tapes (back when people used VHS) in his living room bookshelves! If you love your boyfriend, talk to him about this stuff.

  21. Thanx Susan,
    Yeah he did tell me porn was banned in China. I guess it’s just guy thing no matter what culture, it just hurts my feelings though. I guess I gotta realize why he choose me over the chinese girls he could of been going out with instead of me. They were pretty. I see all asian people as beautiful. Obviously I even have a chinese boyfriend. But why do some go for us non- asian women like myself, it’s interesting… Maybe it’s I thinks there beautiful for looking different from me, and they do like wise on us non- asians.

  22. I think a lot of your angst comes from that fact that you dont think you are beautiful. Your confidence is a little low.. you have to remember that he picked you and he is with you … so that must mean something… when i ask my chinese husband if he things this girl or that girl is beautiful.. he always says “Yes, they are beautiful .. but they are not ..mine.” Build up your confidence baby…. there are beautiful people in all sizes and all colors…. and you need to believe you are one of them.

  23. I want to see a picture of you with all your makeup!
    I know how you feel though I never liked my big nose until I got lots of compliments on it from my Chinese friends! 🙂

  24. Dawn – this is a super late reply but you are white and native indian? you sound like you would be totally gorgeous. What a great mix! Don’t be so hard on yourself 🙂

  25. fantastic blog, I’ve been reading a few entries but I found I can really relate to this post and the many readers’ comments too!

    I’ve lived off and on in China (studying/ teaching/travelling etc) for around 3 out of the past 5 years and I’ve had similar experience to everyone here. I grew up, not really known for good looks back home in Australia, but have actually almost stopped traffic or caused bicycle accidents by walking down the street in China and attracting stares..(i actually feel guilty recalling those!) ..i guess the main thing people love other than the usual traits of being tall, slim, tbig blue eyes, tall straight nose is that i’m actually so pale I seem to ‘glow’ white..

    I find it so perculiar (but often nice too!) to be in a place where everyone around u praises and worships the physical traits u have, which ur own society makes u feel ugly and embarrassed of.. I’ve lost count of how many Chinese girls I’ve tried to explain that in Australia pale people are NOT attractive, and that we will spent hundreds of $ on going to beauty salons to tan our skin and get a ‘sexy/ healthy’ glow.. they just cant comprehend why!

    I too have a chinese bf for the past 5 years, and like several other readers commented also find the chinese women offering the constant compliments/praise to be the true beauties!! I think perhaps it’s cos we find Asian characteristics quite attractive in the first place, otherwise it would be strange to date with someone you’re not physically attracted to, wouldn’t it?

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