It has been a momentous summer for women in China: the nation sent its first woman into space, 22 came home from London with Olympic gold and now one has been declared as the greatest beauty on Earth.
Last weekend, 23-year-old model and music student Yu Wenxia was selected from a field of 116 contestants in the oldest of the global beauty pageants to become Miss World.
Just the second winner from her country, the lovely Ms. Yu is by Chinese measures the ideal beauty. Quiet, fair-skinned, with huge eyes and long lashes, she aspires to the perfectly respectable career of teacher. No political activism or grand statements here; her online bio says she follows her dreams with a smile. And despite her impossibly tiny figure, she claims to love jiaozi , or traditional Chinese dumplings.
Women have come a long way since the early days of communism, when they were clad in drab Mao suits and, as the proverb went, held up half the sky. With their country emerging as the world's great new economic power, Western ideals are taking hold, for better and for worse.
China is the world's fastest-growing market for luxury goods; images of Caucasian women stare down from billboards advertising everything from clothing to perfumes. These increasingly imported standards of beauty mean whitening creams and weight-loss gimmicks are growing in popularity to help women keep their skin pale and their bodies trim. Plastic surgery is on the rise, and there has been an explosion of eating disorders.
“This is a problem … in all cities in China in the past 10 years,” says Freedom Y.K. Leung, a psychology professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, noting that advertising has gained the same grasp on young women's insecurities as it has in the West. “They're basically following in the same footsteps.”
But embracing the West has not provided an escape from more traditional cultural expectations, either.
Even the feats of this summer reflect women's struggle, and the suspicion that can come with success. China's Olympic gold came amid accusations of match-throwing and banned substances. The space flight of Major Liu Yang made the news pages as much for her decision to delay having a child as for her career accomplishments. And suggestions that the Miss World title had been fixed began almost as soon as Ms. Yu received her sparkling crown.
The competition was held in an unlikely site for a beauty contest: Ordos, a remote and polluted city in China's Inner Mongolia known equally for its mining wealth and its vast streets of empty buildings, a planned-city experiment gone awry.
China also played host when it first won the competition in 2007, but it has done so six times in the past 10 years, so over-exposure may be a greater problem for organizers than favouritism.
“I wouldn't say that there was a huge amount of interest in this beauty pageant,” observes Vogue China's celebrity editor, Angelica Cheung, who is impeccably dressed, with a trademark asymmetrical hairdo.
“Fifteen or 20 years ago, when they first appeared in China, of course everybody was so excited to see this novel thing, but now there's such a surfeit of different beauty pageants that I think people are a little bored.”
Her disdain is not misplaced. China's beauty circuit has become well-worn; the southern province of Guangdong alone has at least 10, with names such as “Beauty in Flower City” and the “New South Silk Road.” This week, a pageant for dairy cows made headlines for their attendants, young women in bikinis.
To reach the finals last week, Ms. Yu won the Miss China World competition, which was held June 30 in Beijing and required that she be at least 5-foot-5, between 18 and 28, and unmarried with no children. She also had to submit a selection of photos: a head shot along with images depicting her daily life and some that were more “artistic.”
Lesser and shadier competitions have been accused in local media of requiring private nude-modeling sessions for judges and providing a hunting ground for rich men seeking mistresses or wives. And, as in the West, young women can become professional pageant contestants, doing the circuit until they win or get too old.
“Every year, so many beautiful girls compete, but most of them are unable to make a name for themselves,” Dong Dong, who placed third in a Top Model of the World pageant last fall, told Yangcheng Evening News. “It's easy for the girls to get depressed and feel anxious.”
As for gender equality, the pitfalls of pageant life are a far cry from China's ancient days of foot-binding and royal concubines. But the expectations raised by communist-era rhetoric haven't been realized – and by some measures have even lost ground.
Consider the first woman in space. State newspapers trumpeted that Major Liu, a 34-year-old air-force pilot, would be allowed extra water rations for washing, a separate bedroom and the use of basic cosmetics. However, she had to defend her decision to postpone motherhood after it was reported that authorities would rather launch women who already have a child, for fear that radiation exposure may impair their fertility.
“I love children and life,” she told the Xinhua news agency. “Being a housewife and spending time with the family is a type of happiness – but being an astronaut perhaps is another type of happiness that not everyone could have.”
Major Liu is hardly alone in facing a double standard. Although anyone seeking a job in China can be asked to submit photographs with their résumés, women are more likely – whether applying to be an office assistant or a flight attendant – to be required to meet weight, height or age guidelines.
Even advertisers say they must walk the line, and be careful to strike just the right balance: The women they portray must be successful, but not too successful.
“Ten years ago, family was more important; men preferred wives who cared more about family, who are gentle and caring,” explains Zhao Yihe, vice-president and general manager of Charm Group, a leading ad agency. “Now it's more balanced, a combination of personal character and traditional virtues.”
“However,” he adds, “strong women also need a family to attach to – they need a balance, [the ability to] return to their families.”
All this leaves the average young Chinese woman facing the same angst about love, marriage and career as her Western counterparts, complicated by a conservative culture in which premarital sex or even dressing too suggestively are frowned upon.
“Modern Chinese women have a lot of pressures,” says Yang Yunxia, 21, during a lunch break from her sales job in Beijing. “In the past, there was a saying: ‘A woman who has no talent is virtuous.' But today society prefers women to have their own careers.”
Ms. Yang prefers a natural look, and is reading a book called Detail Is The Key To Success, but she says her friends and colleagues employ the latest weight-loss gimmicks and cosmetics in their quest for a man, believing that “the perfect woman is one who has family and a career.”
Whatever her long-term ambitions, the new Miss World will spend the next 12 months catching planes. This week, she was in Beijing to collect a British visa before leaving for London, the pageant's home base.
From there, if what previous Chinese winner Zhang Zilin experienced is any indication, Ms. Yu can expect a year of minor celebrity and travel, followed by a reasonable career in modeling. The year after taking the crown, Ms. Zhang lent her voice to the 2008 Beijing Olympics soundtrack and now regularly graces the pages of China's leading fashion magazines.
Meanwhile, back at Vogue, Ms. Cheung maintains that more mature women are “too intelligent” to believe that glamour alone is enough.
“Modern-day women are really women like me. We work, we want a career, we want a family. I want a glamorous life, but I also want a real life. It's the ‘Want it all, have it all women.'””
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