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China and Skin Whitening

Today’s post comes from Claire, who is by nature a linguist with a special passion for Mandarin. She loves dressmaking and rock climbing but has yet to find a way to combine the two.


Reading about body image and the relationship between your own body and your ‘ideal’ body (and the difference between the two) reminded me very much of some research I did in China a couple of years ago.  It is very easy to feel physically alienated in China – I’m taller than the average woman in the UK, with huge feet and ginger hair.  It was certain that in China my physical features would not only be noticed, but scrutinised and commented on.  With so many people in a short space in China there is very little sense of personal space, and it wasn’t uncommon for strangers to touch my hair and my face to see if foreigners’ skin and hair was as soft as they’d heard!  Some were disappointed.

Such an everyday acknowledgement of your physical appearance means that you think more about what is physically desirable and important, and led to a few frank conversations with near-strangers about what we liked and disliked about our own bodies.  As often happens, I moved from a casual observer to a note-taker and eventually to a researcher on physical beauty and its importance in China, particularly about the importance of fair skin in asserting your place in society.

I think it’s important to first paint a picture of modern, urban China.  Today’s cities have seen an enormous rise in the number of university students and therefore the number of graduates entering the workplace and looking for well-paid office jobs.  In addition, migrant workers with little to no education flood in from the countryside to take up roles in manufacturing, construction and (often) sex work – ‘blue-collar’ roles that pay minimum wage.  With no welfare safety net and the burden of elderly relatives (bear in mind the one-child policy means that a single child can end up caring for two parents and four grandparents), competition for the top jobs is fierce, and the gap between rich and poor is huge and ever-widening.

Against this background, women are routinely sidelined.  Despite the years of high communism in which women could and did achieve the same status as men, the new capitalist society presents a sort of wasteland: in the world of big business over communism, what role do women take?  As a result there is increasing pressure, levied mostly against women, to perform as well as to look beautiful.

We have seen this in the UK where an older, male newsreader is seated next to a younger, female newsreader.  However, what we do not often see is an open request for such beauty to be written into the job description.  As an example, a friend of mine had a three-month trial period as a receptionist and secretary at a law firm in Beijing.  After her trial period she was told that she had performed well but that she was not beautiful enough for them to take her on full-time.  Similarly, Peking University in Beijing requires that all students are over 5’1” tall to enter.  Job adverts routinely ask that women workers ‘are over 165cm tall and weigh less than 55kg’ or ‘must be under 27 and single’.  Whilst the heightism is often applied to men too, the requirement for women to be young and beautiful is especially strong.

In speaking to friends in China, I discovered that one of the critical factors for considering someone ‘beautiful’ was the fairness of their skin.  In fact, it’s often said that ‘being completely white can cure a thousand uglinesses’.  As you might expect, it reflects a job indoors in an office; it separates your work from that of the migrant labourers who work in the sun and tan brown, with the result that many whitening creams often sell their product as a return to the skin’s ‘natural’ state protected from the elements.  This is interesting as many of the products contain hydroquinone, an ingredient banned in the USA and the EU as a major carcinogen.

1 An advert showcasing the ‘natural’ beauty of the very young

**Skin colour charts

However, I also noticed a clear connection between whiteness and femininity.  Traditionally, a woman’s sphere was inside the home and a man’s was outside.  As late as the 1920s, the best compliment about a young lady was “I don’t know about her; I have never seen her”, and as a result, extremely fair skin is a feminine trait.  This has knock-on effects to do with gender presentation: whilst men tended to also desire fairer skin, their ‘ideal’ skin tone was 3 or 4 shades darker than the colour that women desired.  Also, whilst whitening creams for women are considered a way to return women to a ‘natural’ state, it is only acceptable for homosexual men to use whitening creams.  There is even an insult, xiao bai lian or ‘little white face’ to refer to ‘nancy boys’.  So the beauty expectations on women are greater than those on men.

2 The Von Luschan chromatic scale – a poor history but useful to allow interviewees to choose their own and their ideal skin colour.

It would be easy to presume think that I’m just setting out to prove that I have ‘better’ skin than Chinese women just because I’m Caucasian, but, whilst white women might have skin that is desirable, Caucasian women are generally seen to be ‘loose’ women – sexually permissive and lustily hungry.  This is clear in many of the adverts used around China: where an advert ‘sells sex’ a Western woman is used, but the Chinese models are presented as far more demure.  I have heard (but couldn’t substantiate this) that the government censors adverts with Chinese women presenting a bust over a C cup, but permits any size cup for a caucasian woman.  Sorry, I’d love to provide the reference but the Chinese government isn’t very open about what they censor and why!

3 Typical Western women in fashion magazines and their panasian counterparts

And, just in case you forgot the other social pressure on women to look good, have an amazing 6-part advert!  It sounds silly, but each is about 30 seconds long and it’s well worth watching.

Part 1:

Magazine is open: Getting married…in 7 days!

Voiceover: “All-new Pond’s ‘completely flawless whitener’; 7 days to revive true love

Part 2:

Amy thinking: “I’ve only got 7 days”

Voiceover: “Removes moles, freckles and dark spots” …. “be flawlessly white in 7 days”

Text: “I still love you”

Part 3:

Text 1: “I still love you”

Text 2: “Wishing you all the best”

Text 3: “I never want to see you again”

Voiceover: “Creates a cool, cloudy-white skin”

Paris advert: “A seven-day romantic trip”

Part 4:

Voiceover: As above

Part 5:

Text: The 7th day

Amy:7 days;  he’s finally returned to be with me!

Voiceover: As above

Part 6:

Voiceover: As above

Text at end: 7 days to revive true love, will you be next?


Role Models

Today’s post on Role Models comes from Hannah, who is an artist & maker living in the  Scottish Borders.  She blogs regularly for Cameo Curio.




Welcome to ‘Role Models Week’ on Gingerbread Feminists.

The idea for role models week arose while watching E4’s Sorority Girls.  One of the girls was asked by a panel who her female role models are, and she struggled to think of a single one.  It set me thinking about why we have role models and what functions they perform, and whether we’ve outgrown the need for them.

I thought I’d kick of the week by doing a little celebrating, a little brainstorming, and posing some questions.

So let’s start by celebrating.

In a grateful nod to the suffragettes, who embroidered the names of their female role models onto their banners, I decided to do some not-very-scientific research and collect names of women – famous, fictional and familial – that my peers (both male and female) call their role models for one reason or another.  I’ve embroidered these onto a panel as my way of celebrating inspiring women.


While researching my collection of names for the embroidery, I was also able to form a gallery of words – some complementary, some contradictory – which might give us clues as to what a role model is.  The dictionary definition is ‘any person who serves as an example , whose behaviour is emulated by others’, or anyone who occupies the social role to which the individual aspires.

This collection of words is my no means definitive or complete.  I’d be interested in which words ring true and which words you’d add to the collage.  I’d also be interested in whether you think gender is important?

Studies have found that there is a correlation between role models and higher levels of civic engagement in young people.  Positive role models are also linked to self-efficacy, and the ability to believe in ourselves.  A role model is not necessarily the person you’d like to be, but an example of a person who has a clear sense of what is important, lives their values in the world, and shows how success is possible.  [see the Changing People blog for more info]

I also wanted to embroider the names as a way of reclaiming the term ‘role model’ for women as a liberating & celebratory term, rather than a shackle of responsibility or a matronly cloak.   I’ve read several articles recently questioning the suitability of certain women to be role models for young girls.  There are many things young women in the media spotlight can do to invite criticism of their suitability: too skinny, too sexual, not wearing pants, drunken behaviour, not being talented enough, etc etc.   I also saw Beyoncé criticized for wanting babies as well as a career (and therefore being labelled as a ‘faux feminist’) [see here].  In one article (I think November’s Vogue) Rihanna complained that she had never asked for the role model label, and did not wish to live her life as one : has the term ‘role model’ become one more way for society to judge the behaviour of young women in the media spotlight?

I definitely find value in recognising the role of the women we encounter – in ordinary life or through the media – in forming our worldview, values and aspirations.  And there is also value in asking questions about how famous women will influence young girls.  But I wonder if the term ‘role model’ has become a little musty and dusty and dull.  How can we brighten it up a little bit?

Some links: an article about why we need female role models in the run up to the Olympics

A blog post about whether gender is important

an article about Rihanna’s crotch-grabbing

an article about whether young female pop stars have a responsibility to their audience

Beyonce: villain or role model? – the Campaign for Real Role Models

Friday round-up

Some great articles doing the rounds this week.

On good old Auntie Beeb, there’s an article asking ‘Is it acceptable to call someone ‘babe’?’  Apparently, bus drivers in Brighton and Hove have been told not call female passengers ‘babe’ after a woman complained.  The article gives an even handed overview of terms of familiarity used up and down the country for both sexes, and makes the point that a lot of the acceptable/unacceptable debate hinges on the tone of the familiarity, and the context in which it’s used.  However, most of the people quoted in the article make light of the possibility that women might genuinely feel uncomfortable being on the receiving end of some of these titles.  So what do you reckon?  Is it acceptable to call someone ‘babe’?  Or – perhaps the real question that arises from this article – is it acceptable to object to being called babe, without being criticised for overreacting or having no sense of humour?  As Dame Edna might ask, what do you think, possums?

The Olympics are drawing nigh, and soon we will all be watching people on’t telly performing amazing feats of strength, endurance, skill, accuracy and grace.  Over at Sportscarton (one to watch), there’s a great article about the real Olympic legacy. What will be the real Olympic legacy for women, when women’s sport receives a tiny proportion of the funding that men’s sport receives, and an even smaller amount of television coverage?  Will the Olympics make a difference to the way we invest in and report on women’s sport?  Go, read, discuss!  (And then scroll down to read the post about gay women’s experience of sport – haven or hell?)

Finally… over at the National Catholic Reporter… (Look, don’t laugh – I discovered this week that, based on my internet searches, Google puts me in the demographic bracket of a 65+ year old man.  This is why.)  Jamie L Manson has an interesting article about ‘Guns and Poses’ – violent women in the movies.  Very often, I am depressed by how two dimensional female characters in film are.  I don’t know whether to be more or less depressed that, when women do make an appearance, they tend to be wreaking violent retribution on men who have hurt them.  What’s this new trend about?  What does it say about how we think about ‘strong’ women, and strength in general?  Who would you say is a strong female character in a film you love?

That’s all from me!  Bon weekend!

Social Justice and Foster Care

Today’s post comes from Lee, who works in the social justice/charity sector in America. She is a gregarious introvert, passionate about stories, social justice and people. She is an aspiring trapeze artist. She’s also terrified of dinosaurs.


Alright.  So two of my best friends are foster moms.  They went into foster care with the intention of not adopting the children who would come into their home.  So these kids would come, live with them for anywhere from a few days to months and ideally go back to their birth families.  Without getting into their personal lives or their kids’ lives, this has been hard.  They have watched kids come into their home, be returned home and then come back into the foster care system.  Needless to say they are attached (and so am I!)But the point of this post isn’t to tell their life story, but its the social justice questions that it brings to my mind.  As I have watched my friends walk this journey, I am constantly impressed by what they’re doing, but I am also constantly forced to put the ideals I claim to believe into practice as I watch them being lived out on a daily basis.

What is our responsibility as a society to take care of these kids and return them to their families?  Not all parents are good, not all foster parents are good.  But in the case of my friends, they are amazing foster parents.  Any kid who comes into their home will loved, nurtured, taught and cared for.  Plus they have the privilege of being employed, financially stable and having strong family and community support.  So, in reality, if a kid was raised by their biological parents vs. foster parents, they might have lack access to activities, experiences, education, etc. simply because of issues of socioeconomic status or privilege.

I am absolutely not supporting that children should be removed from a home simply due to poverty, there are government and nonprofit programs in place to ensure that a child has access to food, shelter and education.  (And those are definitely not adequate, but that is a conversation for another time.)  However, these are kids who have been removed for some other issue and I have such a hard time accepting the fact that we (social services, case managers, judges, society) are sending a child from a better environment back to a sub-par environment.  But if the system believes it is safe for a child to return home, then I choose to trust people who are in a position of authority and believe they have the best interest of the parent and child at heart.

Which then leads to my next question:

How do we balance the needs of parent and child?  I have seen the emotional turmoil, confusion and stress of a two-year-old when he doesn’t understand why mom comes and goes.  Or who will pick him up from daycare or who’s house he is sleeping at.  I’ve seen how his behavior changes because he doesn’t understand why his life is in turmoil.  Simply in terms of comprehension, it might be better for him if his life was more stable.  But that would greatly impact his relationship with his biological parent.  And if his biological parent is willing to do the hard work required of her by the social service system and prove she can be a good parent, then it is in her best interest to have the opportunity to continue her relationship with her child.  Also, the foster child has bonded with his foster parents and when that relationship ends, that is only another layer of confusion for the child.

How do you begin to balance the needs of a child, who can be impacted for the rest of his/her life, with the needs of the biological parent, who has an attachment with their child, with the needs of the foster parents, who are making a significant sacrifice to temporarily raise a child?

I have so many more questions about this topic and adoption in general.  The issues that come with foster care and/or adoption of older kids?  What about the social justice and legal questions of international adoption?  What happens (or what should happen) if an adoption fails?  What types of issues should a child be removed from home for?  But I will leave it at this:

The deeper I watch my friends wade into the mess that is the foster care system, the more questions I have and the more my social justice ideals are challenged.  But what I do know is this, that I haven’t never known two more kind-hearted people, who are willing to put their lives and dreams on hold to make a difference in the lives of a few kids.  And while there are amazing challenges, there are also incredible joys.  I have seen the beauty that comes from loving children who have been broken by outside situations.  I have seen a family expand to include foster parents and biological parents and the result is kids who have even more people to love them.

The reality is, we are all part of a greater human community and it is our responsibility to care for each other.  While the foster care system might be messy and painful, it is a true image of how we should and do care for one another.

We make the road by walking…

So, we’ve got the ball rolling on the Gingerbread Feminists blog. However, there are still questions about how to make this the bet kind of space for conversation. I want to have this discussion on the blog because how we create this space and how we conduct our dialogue is as much of an important issue as any of the other topics that might be raised. How we are communicating with each other is as important as the content.

So, here are a few questions for starters:

What kind of space can Gingerbread Feminists be?

How can it be an open and a safe space? I don’t believe this is an either or situation (i.e. freedom of speech vs political correctness), so I’d love to hear some thoughts on how to create both.

Do we need a sense of guidelines for contributors?

What does it mean for this space to be feminist, pro-feminist and feminist-questioning?

Do we need a clearer sense of why this space exists and what it is about?

Feminist Cred

 Today’s post comes from Clare, who blogs at Apocalypse Bakery. She’d like to offer you a cup of tea and some cake, but is still waiting for technical advances to make that possible through the internet. Clare spends most of her energy on community transformation, theology, baking and sewing, and gets it back through cuddles, comic books and cups of tea.


I’ve never really understood street cred, probably because it’s not about understanding but more about having…and I’ve certainly never had any. Or any kind of cred for that matter, probably because I worry so much about fitting in and being accepted that I’m just left standing there with my mouth open.  Sometimes I feel this way about feminism – as soon as I talk about being a feminist I wonder if I’m being checked out for my ‘feminist cred’. I wonder if I’m ‘feminist enough’, what aspects of my life might be scrutinised or dismissed because it doesn’t quite match up to the ‘feminist gold standard’ that I have created in my head. For the most part, I think this is internal control; I monitor my own credentials for belonging to any movement or group as I always wonder if I’m good enough to be there, to wear the badge. At the same time I think it is because like other feminists or pro-feminists, I’m working on what feminism means in my own context, how it relates to my other beliefs and actions, and how to relate to other people who own that name for themselves.

Feminism is a wonderfully varied movement, not just in the historical progression of first, second and third wave feminism, but also in the ways that people have different ways of understanding what feminism means to them.  Being aware of the diversity of feminism has, I hope, lessened some of the feelings about judging whether other people are really truly feminist or not. There will always be ways in which this is questioned: can you be a feminist and be married, religious, right-wing, or male? I struggle a lot when feminism becomes an excluding discourse, or when there is a sense of needing to prove that you are worthy of the title, that your brand is as powerful as the rest.

However, I’m also aware of where feminism can be an overly including discourse. I’ve been in plenty of conversations where a woman has said she isn’t a feminist, only to be asked if she supports equal pay and if she does, she’s informed that she is, in fact, a feminist.  I struggle with this just as much – I don’t want feminism to be about the lowest common denominator; I don’t believe feminism is reducible to just a single issue or to the experiences of being female in today’s society. We cannot confuse a part with the whole. I also don’t want to call others feminist who don’t want the label just because they happen to be pro-feminist on certain issues as I think this can be a way that criticisms and concerns about areas of feminism and feminist ethics are sometimes avoided or dismissed.

I want feminism to be personal – I want to recognise that people have a different way of relating to feminism, different understandings of what it means to them and different ways of carrying out those practices. But I do also want it to be about some kind of safe, bounded community with a sense of belonging where questions can be well asked about what is important. I don’t want feminism to become so general that the term verges into meaninglessness.  I also don’t want to see feminism being so individualised that it no longer connects to systematic and social issues; we risk diminishing connection to the world by making feminism a purely therapeutic, private exercise. I don’t know…perhaps I’m just being contrary for wanting this kind of balance, for wanting a deeply personal and radically political feminism, one that is inclusive and has distinct identity, one that has strong theoretical roots and a practical outworking?

I think there’s also a huge amount to be said for understanding that feminism is not a monolithic thing, particularly when it comes to a sense of feminist consciousness. It’s interesting to see the reaction to writers, artists or celebrities who have been thought of as feminist when they produce work that is judged as potentially demeaning, or less-than-feminist in some way. Professing feminism doesn’t mean that we all agree all the time, or that all of the things we say have reached some ideal standard – especially the standards that we set for ourselves.

Jean Vanier – the founder of the L’Arche community – talks about how even the most loving and accepting of people can have unloving or even negative reactions to people who are different to them – noting the number of people he’d met whose caring or accepting consciousness did not extend to his friends with developmental disabilities. In this way, any one may have blind spots in their consciousness – whether in responding to people who are different to them, or areas of speech, language and action that a sense of feminist/liberative consciousness has not reached. Ultimately, I think you probably can’t figure this out until you say or do something that brings light to these kinds of reactions. But we should never be so afraid of judgement that we fail to act or to open our mouths. Yes, we should think through what we are saying first, but the fear of not being feminist or radical or caring enough should not keep anyone from speaking up or acting out.

I realised the other day that I’m likely to say ‘female minister’ about a clergyperson who identifies as a woman, yet I’d be less likely to do the equivalent and say ‘male minister’  – showing that I probably still see certain roles as male and women as the exception.  And yes, there have been numerous moments in which I’ve judged someone else for their comments or actions when they claim to be feminist/pro-feminist. And I’m sure there will be many more moments like this too.

I’m also aware that sometimes I tend to see feminism as an overarching system that can incorporate other gender, sexuality or race based movements rather than recognising something like womanism, queer theory or mujerista theology as standing on their own terms.  I am the white, middle classed woman who got into feminism as academic theory, and, yes, the criticisms of feminism ignoring the oppressions of race, class and sexuality hit home, even if I’m pushing my practice, creating change in the communities I work in, and dialoguing with people who have a different take on feminism. And my blind spots do come up as I meet people different to me – it’s something I’m working on.

What I’m saying is that my critical consciousness – like other people’s – is still a work in progress when it comes to gender, sexuality, race, ability, age, class and poverty.

I really don’t think that I’m aiming for perfect gold standard of ‘complete feminist attainment’ namely because, as I’ve said above, feminism is a wonderfully broad and diverse set of ideas and practices. Rather, I think open dialogue and self-awareness set us in good stead for both finding our blind spots and for figuring out our own perceptions of the boundaries of what we mean when we are talking about being a feminist. I think we must be continuously engaged in these practices of consciousness-raising – in ourselves and kindly with others – or else we risk resting on our feminist cred.


I think this is a rather long winded way of inviting feminists, pro-feminists and questioning-feminists to join in a conversation about what all of this means. Its my hope that we find safe spaces that are also open enough to ask questions and to get things wrong in the knowledge that our critical consciousness isn’t quite there yet. I want spaces that are diverse enough for ‘my feminism!’ to matter as much as ‘your feminism!’ without loosing sight of a movement that is bigger than our individual views and experiences.

Please join me in this work, discussion and dialogue aren’t much fun on your own.

I’m in Slow Club

Hannah Longmuir is an artist & maker living in the  Scottish Borders.  She blogs regularly for Cameo Curio.


After Frances’s excellent post about her New Year’s Resolution to take the 2012 bull by the horns, I’ve been having a think.

I’m fully into making things happen, and many of my goals for this year involve moulding my own future – like working on making my business plan robust.  This year I want to take things up a notch, work hard for success, never take ‘no’ for an answer.

But yet, I’m subscribed to a Slow Club.

This doesn’t necessarily mean doing things slowly, or getting less done in a day.

It means that I’m subscribed to a way of living which embraces reflection and togetherness, which treasures the slow, and which is mindful of detail.  I’m subscribed to a way of living which aims to make quality connections.  I hope for my business ethos, my art work, my crafting and my relationships to reflect this commitment

Often the Slow Movement – whether slow food, slow art, slow money, slow cities – is a reaction against, & an intentional separating from, fast paced society.  I’m not really into that.  I don’t see being in Slow Club as negative lens for viewing society.

Saying that, I think that taking time to notice, valuing the inherent history in a re-usable item, and enjoying things that unfold slowly over time, can be a powerful vehicle for change and a strong political comment.  I also think it might be a way for me to be a woman in business making my own way through.

I think my 2012 is going to be about noticing.

About watching things emerge.

About being open to surprises and opportunities.

And I think I might be amazed by the things that happen.

Some interesting people to look up who are connected with the slow movement or who’ve written interesting things about living slow: John O’Donohue, Tim Slowinksi, Michael Kimmelman.