Exotic or idealized? Is It Time to Reject Both? | Haiyun Lu | 4 Min Read

Two years ago, Dolce & Gabbana lost its entire Chinese market overnight due to an ill-run ad. The ad featured three Italian products: pizza, cannoli, and spaghetti.  Just hearing the names of the three delicious Italian foods, you would think, how bad it can be, right?

Well, allow me to explain.

The background and props in the ad used the stereotypical red to negatively reinforce a westerner’s impression of “red China”.  From the model’s dress, lighting, room décor, and tablecloth to pizza and spaghetti, everything was bloody red.  It felt like being in an emergency room when everything bled around you instead of being in a fancy restaurant to enjoy a luxury meal.  The model awkwardly used chopsticks to eat everything as if she had never held chopsticks before.  She poked and pierced at the pizza, tried to pick up a piece with her chopsticks instead of her hands, and only got warned that the cheese might fall off her plate.  Adding to the insult, the ad called the Chinese national treasure – Chopsticks, “little sticks.”  The worst part of all was that the model had no personality.  All she did was smile at the camera, shrug her shoulders, and eat awkwardly.  A stereotypical submissive Chinese woman!  Chinese consumers were outraged!  They boycotted Dolce & Gabbana overnight.  

When I read that piece of news, I felt a sense of empowerment and satisfaction.  China is no longer a place any foreign business can just enter with prejudice and unchecked pride.  Chinese consumers demand respect for their culture, otherwise, a company can easily lose 1.5 billion potential customers.

About two weeks ago, I read another piece of news regarding angry Chinese consumers that boycotted Nike and the Apple Watch Series 7.  Why?  Well, according to Dao Insights, consumers view the models in the ads as more of the “exotic” type, which only fulfills a westerner’s taste of Chinese women, but not up to their “idealized” standard.  

In Nike’s ad, the model has the typical slanted eyes, and when she smiles, one can only see two lines cross her face.  Her skin is kind of yellowish, her expression is dull, and the worst of all is her Ancient Chinese hairstyle. Nothing upbeat and modern.  I can understand how and why Chinese consumers could be offended here. 

Now for the Apple Watch Series 7 ad.  The model has long black hair that is flowing in the wind.  She looks lively and energetic.  A big smile crosses her face.  Apparently, she has slanted eyes as well.  Therefore, viewers can see two lines on her face instead of big shining eyes.  Her skin color has a shade of tan.  She looks healthy.  She also looks like a normal Chinese girl on the street.  Reading about how Chinese consumers feel disrespected and offended by this ad made me concerned about Chinese consumers’ beauty standards in modern China.  How that idealized view to have radiant porcelain skin, double eyelids, slim body… has negatively impacted Chinese girls’ body image and self-confidence.  

In many Asian countries, people prefer a woman to have pale skin, big eyes, and a slim body.  It results in so many women chasing beauty after plastic surgery and the booming cosmetic industry.  They mainly use whitening skin products and rarely are willing to expose their skin under the sun.  Even in the hot summer, after applying layers and layers of suntan lotion, when they go out, they still wear long sleeves and a hat.  Some of them even hold an umbrella over their heads.  That outfit would extend to a beach as well, even when women dip themselves in the ocean on a hot summer day.  Although they wear swimming suits, their faces are covered in full masks.  

Sadly, in this commodity economy, beauty has become a product.  Female aesthetics have appeared commercialized.  A woman’s subjective feelings and her own personal characteristics seem to be less valued than the pursuit of “idealized” beauty.  

Ironically, throughout history, the Chinese always preferred a plump woman as it was a symbol of fertility, wealth, and good health.  China has 56 different ethnic groups; people come with all shades of skin color and all shapes of eyes.  As in the western media, consumers demand a diverse representation of the human race in ads.  Businesses are slowly responding to that outcry and beginning to use models of different races, ages, and body types.  Remarkably, a Chinese lingerie brand, Neiwai, has been taking on the toxic beauty standards which permeate in media and empowering Chinese women to have a healthy relationship between themselves and their bodies.   

I wonder when there are going to be enough women around the globe collectively saying “no” to the current toxic beauty standard;  no to being “exotic” nor “idealized”.  They would dress according to their own liking, act based on their own interests, eat as their own taste buds guided them, and embrace their own styles confidently.  No one is humbled by the commercialized beauty standard.  We live, laugh, and love according to our own heartfelt desires.  We raise our daughters to have a healthy and intimate relationship with their bodies.  

You may also be interested in reading Haiyun Lu’s other two articles in this series:

Haiyun Lu

Haiyun Lu, a Chinese language teacher at the University School of Milwaukee (WI), is also a writer, blogger, trainer, curriculum designer, meditator, and Co-Founder at Ignite Chinese.

3 thoughts on “Exotic or idealized? Is It Time to Reject Both? | Haiyun Lu | 4 Min Read

  1. Thanks for speaking the truth, I recently saw an Arab TikTok lady cry over not being represented well in the premier of Spider-Man movie, she was more privileged than any other considering she was not paying. She didn’t even recognize she was privileged among others. Representation is not always front- row only. Thanks for a very informative article of biased beauty standard, the need for more diversity in representation.

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