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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?

Friday Catch-Up

Two of my favourite things: feminist theory on male gaze and comic book heroes. Even better when combined, as in the above send-up of some the Avengers promo material. Source, K-Bo, who likes cookies and drawing – perfect. 


‘I’m Feminist Enough To..’

Nice to know that as a new blog we are in good company. ‘I’m feminist enough to…’ is a blog dedicated to redefining feminism for women of colour worldwide. Can’t wait to see what comes of it.

Sexist Sherlock?

If you haven’t already read this, the debate is still going on about the sexism in the most recent series of Sherlock on the BBC.  We’ll have some thoughts here about it on Monday.

Mirror vs the wall

Great video featuring Autumn of the Beheld talking about her fast from mirrors, and the argument about whether mirrors or facebook wall enable you to be more in control of how you construct your self-image.

Equal Pay Settlement

Women who have been paid less than their male colleagues in Edinburgh City Council received a multi-million pound equal pay settlement this week.  News articles here and here.


Just for giggles…Obama Sings Gaga


Have a great weekend everyone. 





Get up, get going, take control.

I’ve never really made resolutions before. Usually I can’t think of anything that feels sincere, that I would actually keep to for any length of time. I like to think that I have willpower, but I can only really apply it to something that seems worthwhile to me, and I don’t see the point of declaiming “I will eat nothing but salad this year!” when I know that’s never going to happen.

But this year is different. I know that no matter what happens this year, by the end of it so much will have changed. So though I have no idea where I’ll be living or what I’ll be doing, I want to make the most of it.

My resolution is inspired a quote from one of my favourite authors:

“If you trust in yourself…

and believe in your dreams…

and follow your star…

you’ll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy.”

Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men

So that’s it really. Some might see this as a little depressing, but I think it’s a reminder to me that if I stopped sitting around daydreaming all day, I might actually be able get something done.  And if there’s something that makes me feel better in life, it’s a sense of achievement.

In 2012 I will get up, get going and take control of my life.

Or at least have a bloody good go at it.


Frances lives in Edinburgh, and loves food, fashion, fire engineering and other things starting with ‘f’.