When I moved to the country of blondes, I didn’t realise that I wasn’t one of them. As a child, you don’t know that you are what you see in the mirror – you simply think you look like the kids around you. So when I arrived in the Netherlands, I was sure that I was blonde and blue eyed as they were, which would have been very peculiar for a Chinese girl.
Soon after my arrival, I was hit by ﬁrst love. I had found the most perfect boy in the world, who we will call Humphrey. He was always the ﬁrst one to ﬁnish his maths exercises, and at an age so blissfully unbothered by hormones, that was the only thing that counted for my choice of mate. Humphrey didn’t feel that way. The only thing he ever said to me was: “Can you even see clearly with your slit-eyes?”
My parents actually offered to slit my eyelids next summer, which didn’t help the matter. We were in Shanghai, and one of my father’s friends, a top-ranking plastic surgeon famed for his double-eyelid surgeries, was there too. There was nothing particularly uncommon in this proposal: my mother, like many other Chinese women, had it done when she was young. For them, the wish for double eyelids was as customary as wanting to lose weight – it had been so ingrained in the beauty ideals of that society that most had forgotten why they even wanted it in the ﬁrst place. Besides, it’s much easier for a young skin to heal, and wouldn’t I want to look better for my new classmates at middle school?
Sadly, in middle school I discovered that it wasn’t just my face that was too Chinese. I remember a Gucci campaign that year that featured a model pulling down her underwear, revealing a patch of pubic hair shaved in the form of a G. This was indicative of how low we were supposed to wear our jeans at the dawn of the new millennium. However, such a low waist only looks good on a fourteen year old girl with razor-sharp hipbones protruding from underneath her well-filled crop top. I was just a fourteen year old girl. Not only did I lack protruding hipbones, but I didn’t have breasts or a bum either. While other girls waltzed through legions of boyfriends, I didn’t even bother to seek any attention from the opposite sex. I thought I was worth as much as the size of my hips, and that was nothing to be optimistic about.
Wallis Simpson once said: “I’m nothing to look at, so the only thing I can do is dress better than anyone else.” I discovered that I could impress people with fashion when I gave up on attracting boys with my body. A beautiful dress transformed me from the Chinese girl without hips to the cool girl with the gorgeous outﬁt. Slowly but surely, every wall in my spacious bedroom got ﬁlled with wardrobe racks – it barely ﬁtted a bed and a desk in the end. Optimism was my biggest talent: I saw potential in every single item; no shape or cut was too extravagant, no colour too bright -although I have to admit that I didn’t wear red, because I thought it made me look like I worked in a Chinese restaurant.
Then, suddenly, I saw a Chinese model featured in the campaign of a big fashion house – the ﬁrst of many to follow. As the Western world dipped into economic recession, Chinese customers became the big buyers. Last year, the Chinese market overtook the US as the world’s biggest consumer of luxury goods. Not only were Chinese models now fully incorporated into the fashion world, but the designs themselves started to take on elements of traditional Asian dress (perhaps partially to do with the rise of a league of American designers with Chinese roots.) And the fashion industry’s newfound interest in the Asian market wasn’t purely motivated by economics. The stick-like body type currently favoured on the catwalks can hardly be called realistic – but it does seem to bear more resemblance to an Asian build. Unsurprisingly, Diane von Furstenberg said in an interview that she loves designing for Chinese women, because “they are slim and have tiny waists.” C’est la vie.
It seemed like I had ﬁnally succeeeded in blocking out my Chinese looks, just as my natural face and form were becoming the norm. Undoubtedly, it is applaudable that the stubborn world of fashion has welcomed a foreign influence, albeit more out of economic necessity than any particularly moralistic tendencies. Nowadays, beauty and make-up campaigns always seem to feature at least one black and one Asian model (and I do wonder why it took these companies so long to realise that using models of different skin colours is more effective in illustrating how well a foundation adjusts to the customer’s skin tone than the previous method.)
Unfortunately, as time went on, it became clear that I’m actually not quite Chinese enough for this new look. The rising ‘far-east-ionistas’ portrayed in the media have even smaller hips and narrower eyes than I do. Successful Asian models like Liu Wen or Du Juan, with their single eyelids and impossibly high cheekbones, embody more of an idealised image of The Chinese Woman rather than a faithful representation. It’s a tired, age-old problem of fashion, reiterated in a slightly different context.
In light of this turn of events, I have since realised that the problem was never about my Chinese looks, but rather the existence and promotion of rigid notions of what constitutes ‘beauty’ in the media. We have to realise that a geographical shift of attention does not guarantee more inclusivity and should therefore be mindful that we’re not just swapping one paradigm for another. After all, we don’t want to get our breasts reduced or our eyes narrowed without remembering why we want it in the first place.
What we also shouldn’t forget is that fashion functions as an industry as well as an individual weapon. I have gathered an impeccable wardrobe in my efforts to distract from my Chinese looks, but I don’t use these clothes as disguise anymore. Instead, I use them to remind me that it’s not actually important what the kids around you look like – it’s about what you see in the mirror.