China’s Beauty Revolution — Deng Xiaoping Deserves Some of the Credit

Rather than discuss again the state of Chinese private equity and billions of dollars in capital flows, this blog will turn now to an even weightier topic. Pretty women. Specifically, the increasing abundance of them in China.

To my eye,  Chinese women have undergone a spectacular makeover over the last 30 years every bit as dramatic as China’s economic growth and modernization. I first came to China 32 years ago, as a graduate student. At the time, China was still partly under the leaden pall of the Cultural Revolution, which had officially ended five years earlier. College girls dressed like soldiers, wore no makeup and kept their hair short, often in stumpy pigtails. Army caps and threadbare canvas sneakers were considered fashion accessories.

Coming to China in 1981 after four years at university in the US, a fair amount of it spent chasing coeds, Chinese college girls seemed adorned mainly for calisthenics and bayonet practice. I duly kept them at a distance. Just as well, since had I fallen for a Chinese girl, it would likely have brought her nothing but ceaseless political browbeating and struggle sessions from her peers and professors. Chinese girls were not to be fraternized with. The thought barely even occurred to me. Instead, I fell under the powerful spell of my very glamorous Italian female classmates, including one who became, for a brief time, a famous Chinese movie star and perhaps the most lusted-after woman in China. She finished her studies, left China when I did in 1982, and ended up marrying one of America’s most famous movie actors. But that, as they say, is another story.

What a difference 30 years of hypertrophic economic growth can make.  Deng Xiaoping is not short of praise or recognition. But, to his list of titanic accomplishments must be added that he did more to beautify Chinese women than any man who’s ever lived. He liberalized not only the economy, but social attitudes and unwound the straightjacket that had bound women’s fashion for decades. For, that he deserves the eternal gratitude of every man living now in China, myself included.

The magnitude of this change in women’s appearance, over the last 30 years, cannot be overstated. If there is another aspect of China’s modernization that created so many benefits, so much net happiness, with few if any offsetting disadvantages, I don’t know of it.

Women in China today have opportunities to express themselves in ways that were unthinkable a generation ago. This runs not only from the clothes they wear and ways they style their hair, but also including the many elements of accessorized femininity, all of which were basically unavailable 30 years ago. There was no make-up, no proper skin creams, no sunblock, no perfumes, no nail polish, no hair dye, no properly-engineered underwear. Chinese girls looked a lot like toy soldiers because they were wearing clothes and underwear designed to neutralize rather than accentuate their curves.

This is absolutely no longer the case. To choose one example, on my short walk home from the subway, I pass through a 50-meter long underground mall with five different underwear shops, all selling domestic brands, and all very far down the “skimpy spectrum”  towards the sexiest things for sale in a Victoria’s Secret. The customers cross all age barriers. There is a popularity, as well as exuberance in China to the buying of sexy underwear that I never saw elsewhere, including Italy. It is also much more of an everywoman’s activity in China.

From the little I can tell from glancing at the age of the customers in these underwear shops, Chinese mothers are almost certainly the world’s largest market for sexy underwear. As for the fashions that are more visible to casual onlookers, Chinese women generally display a sense of style, of trying to look their best, across all ages and income levels.  The most popular clothing comes from domestic brands no one outside China has heard of, not the famous Italian or French fashion houses. Chinese brands know how to design clothes to flatter the way Chinese are shaped.

I have one friend, who started and runs one of these larger domestic female clothing brands called Ozzo. He has over 400 stores across China and caters to middle class women over 30. He sees virtually unlimited capacity for growth for his brand across China.

While beauty is in the beholder’s eye, it seems to me an objective reality that women in China are more attentive to how they look in public than at any time in recent, as well as probably ancient, history. This is true from the smallest farming village to the largest metropolis.

My sense is that colors here are brighter and more varied than you see commonly in US and Europe, where women tend to wear black. It’s apparently meant to be “slimming”. That isn’t a major concern for the majority of Chinese women, from what I can tell. Food is plentiful, and appetites are large. I’ve personally yet to run across a Chinese women who engages in the self-mortification ritual known as dieting.

One small downside. Chinese women are smoking more than they used to. But, the number of women smokers is still a miniscule fraction of what it is in Europe and the US. One reason more Chinese women don’t smoke is they know it damages the skin.

I travel within China more than just about anyone here, excepting airline pilots and government officials. Along with all the new buildings, roads and the new sense of national pride over the last three decades, this focus among Chinese women on looking and dressing well is the most emphatic statement of how far the country has come.

I can already hear the “feminist critique” of what I’m writing here, to wit, that to beautify is to tyrannize, and to “objectify” — a word I still can’t quite define. But, the best proof of how much Chinese women themselves appreciate the changes, appreciate the freedom now to spend more of what they have to look their best,  is how very few Chinese women have rejected all this and stay dressed as Mao once obliged them to.