Editor’s Note: Karoline Kan is a Beijing-based journalist and an editor at China Dialogue. She’s the author of the upcoming book “Under Red Skies, Three Generations of Love, Loss, and Hope in China.” The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author.

Beijing, China CNN  — 

I always felt self-conscious about my freckles. Growing up in China, they were a rare sight on TV and in magazines. But could showing freckles in public really be considered a shameful act that contaminates my country’s image?

It’s a question I’d never considered until this week, when fashion retailer Zara sparked widespread debate in China by featuring a freckled model in a campaign for a new range of cosmetics.

Some social media users slammed the Spanish brand for “uglifying” Chinese women. Others accused Zara of misrepresenting Asians – and even of outright racism. A hashtag for the incident on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging site, had appeared in more than 55,000 Weibo posts and has now been viewed more than 500 million times.

ZARA's beauty campaign on Weibo sparked a debate on Chinese beauty standards.

“We Asian women don’t have freckles – or only a small proportion of us have,” read one of the most “liked” comments. “(Zara) made such an effort finding a model with freckles, like searching for a needle in a haystack.”

The comments were reminiscent of the recent criticism facing another Western brand, Dolce & Gabbana, which experienced online backlash for a series of promotional videos showing an Asian model attempting to eat Italian food with chopsticks. While much of the anger was directed towards the label’s co-founder, who was accused of sending racist messages (an allegation he denied), many people also suggested that the Italian brand had intentionally chosen an “ugly” model in order to insult China.

Those irritated by Zara’s campaign may hold the stubborn belief – not uncommon in China – that freckles, small eyes and dark skin are unattractive. To these netizens, Western brands that use models with these traits are presenting a negative image of China. And if you point out that Westerners think these models are beautiful, it may only make things worse: Brands are then accused of forcing Western aesthetics on Chinese people.

Jing Wen pictured during Prada's 2018 Resort Fashion Show in Shanghai.

With a surge in nationalism and patriotism under President Xi Jinping, many in the country are eager to define beauty on their own terms, not those imported from overseas. It has almost become an issue of “cultural sovereignty,” a commonly used phrase which dictates that only Chinese people are qualified to say, among other things, which Chinese women can be considered beautiful.

So why are people so sensitive about how they’re viewed in the eyes of the West?

At school, almost everyone here learns the term used to describe China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: “Sick man of East Asia.” Although the phrase was first used in relation to the corrupted and collapsing Qing dynasty, it was soon interpreted to be a discriminatory Western depiction of Chinese people’s physiques. The image associated with the term was that of a bony opium-smoker with pale yellow face and eyes full of laziness.

Resentment towards this characterization has contributed to extreme sensitivity and even paranoia around how Chinese people are portrayed. To have Westerners depict us in a way that’s deemed unhealthy or ugly-looking touches a nerve.

As one Weibo user commented under Zara’s campaign photos: “Does it mean that us Asian women all have dull eyes and have faces fully covered by freckles?”

A singular definition of beauty

What’s ironic is that, while many people are easily irritated by Western standards being “forced” on China, they despise some of the physical features – such as small eyes and dark skin – that belong naturally to many East Asians.

Chinese photographer Chen Man shot this portrait, entitled "Chinese Medicine" in 2012 for i.D. The series depicted China's ethnic minorities.

The mainstream beauty standard in China is one of a fair and freckle-free face, big eyes and high nose bridge. While some of these ideals, such as fair skin, have been popular among Han Chinese (the country’s majority ethnic group) since ancient times, others, like large eyes and a high nasal bridge, are more commonly associated with Caucasian people.

Yet, this beauty standard continues to prevail in the country. Advertisements for cosmetic products, from both domestic and international brands, boast of their ability to whiten skin and remove freckles. Even food and drink ads, for products like coconut juice, claim they can whiten skin.

In China, before posting photos on the social network, many women use photo beatification apps to smoothen and whiten their skin, and enlarge their eyes. It’s also common for anxious young women to have their freckles removed by laser, or, going to more extreme lengths, surgically enlarging their eyes and shaving their facial bones.

Fair, spotless skin is often associated with being elegant, pure and even healthy. Freckles, meanwhile, are denounced as dirty, ugly and a sign of ill-health. One of the more absurd comments I’ve heard, from someone promoting traditional Chinese medicines, was that freckles “are a reflection of endocrine system disease.”

Chinese app Meitu adds colorful, caricature-like features, such as bigger eyes, tear drops and accessories like feathers and flowers, to photos.

This singular definition of beauty can create problems for those who don’t fit within it. I grew up thinking my freckles were hated by most people. I had been self-conscious about them since third grade, when a music teacher bluntly asked me: “Why don’t you try to remove your freckles?

“I know you can do that by drinking some herbs medicines and using the laser machine,” she suggested. I’ve heard similar comments in China, time and again. They aren’t meant be malicious, but the message is clear: freckles are ugly, and you might as well remove them for your own good.

It was not until in college that my attitude changed, and it took another few years before I learned to truly love my freckles. I believe they make me unique and beautiful.

Karoline Kan

Slow move toward diversity

The idea of a having single beauty standard is especially bizarre for a country as diverse as China. With 56 officially recognized ethnic groups, beauty here is rich and varied. While Han people often adore angelic, freckle-free faces, other ethnic minority groups, such as the Dulong people of Yunnan province, traditionally prefer dark skin and even face tattoos. And while in Han culture often sees pale and weak-looking women to be beautiful, women in Inner Mongolia are considered attractive if they’re good at riding horses.

Thankfully, the strict definition of beauty is slowly loosening. Take singer Wang Ju, who challenged stereotypes when she rose to prominence last summer through the TV singing competition, “Produce 101.”

She is neither fair nor tall – and is noticeably curvier than other women on TV. But Wang took the country by storm, proving to be independent, confident and, to many, beautiful. She has since attracted a huge fan base, inspiring widespread media debate around beauty and the need for diversity in China.

Only when there are open discussions will change follow. And this is where we see something positive emerging from the Zara incident. After the initial backlash, more and more tolerant, positive opinions emerged. People voiced support for a campaign that celebrates diversity, and praised the model, Jing Wen, for being brave and confident enough to show her natural look.

Chen Man portrait 2
Chen Man: 'Tech and art must go together'
03:07 - Source: CNN

Even the state-run newspaper China Daily offered its support, with an editorial accusing online critics of “oversensitivity and a lack of cultural confidence.” Another paper, China Youth Daily, said that rather than Zara being anti-Chinese, it was “those who attacked the Chinese model for her looks who are the ones really insulting their compatriot.”

Hopefully Zara’s campaign – and the debate it stirred – can help change attitudes toward freckles. And, in time, I hope more Chinese women can learn to love themselves, regardless of whether they meet conventional standards of beauty.