What is Beauty? Case in Point: the ‘China Campus Model’ Controversy

With this post, I am about to take somewhat of a bold first leap into issues that are socially and culturally controversial. I have not spoken directly about such topics ever before on my blog, but I have thought about it and see no reason why I cannot write unequivocally on issues that I feel so strongly and clearly about.

From September to October of 2012, a beauty contest was organized in China by the name of ‘Campus Model’, by the China Campus Model Network, which aimed to find the ten most beautiful college students in the Hubei province of China. So far, so good. But what irked netizens in China and consequently worldwide soon after is the particular well-defined criteria they had enforced as qualification to enter the competition. This included the following, now much-talked-about and controversial, diagrams, of allowed physical proportions:


and of allowed breast configurations for entrants:


From what I read and watched, it appears that in order to qualify for the competition, a participant’s nipples could be no more than 20 cms apart, among several other rigidly defined criteria. Now, there was a lot of hue and cry over this matter, to which it is not my intention to contribute. I just want to draw your attention to several common forms of reaction that followed this piece of news. Standard, civilized, sane reactions and outbursts by the literate, thinking, progressive world. I need to do this to be able to present the points that I finally aim to make. So here’s some of them:

  1. “Why more than 20 centimetres? I honestly don’t know who came up with these figures,” said a user on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.
  2. “How can beauty standards include breast distance? Do they take women as toys?” Judging women by such rigid criteria is so ‘out’!” said TV personality Yang Lan on the microblog.
  3. ‘In addition to considering traditional measurements like chest, waist and hips, the contest also said the space between candidates’ pupils should be 46 percent of the distance between their pupil and their ear.’
  4. @无语_2012: “Why is a university selecting a beauty queen?”

source: Daily News, Beijing Cream

Take a look now at the following YouTube video from which I learnt about this whole affair in the first place. This is a popular video channel which voiced their criticism and ridicule for the competition. Listen especially to the points that the female host makes:

My point, through this blog post, is not so much to criticize the original competition, as to criticize this kind of response and in general the whole deal that has been made of this incident by ‘progressive, forward-thinking’ society. Yes, you heard that right.

As I make my points, I shall always be talking about female beauty contestants, but only because of this particular context. My points will mostly extend easily to male beauty competitions, so I encourage you not interpret some of my statements as being sexist.

So, there are several aspects to the reasons behind my stand, and I shall start with the current top comment below this video, because it  hits the nail very near the heart of what I wish to convey:


I do not know exactly in which sense the OP meant this comment. Perhaps he/she meant that there goes on unjust discrimination even for American beauty contests, which is never exposed or publicized by the organizing body. However, I choose to believe that they meant something deeper: that every time there is a beauty pageant, anywhere in the world, in any spirit, with any sort of rule or criteria, there is, unavoidably, as a direct necessity of such a program, an evaluation of the bodies of several contestants against some fixed ideals that are either decided in advance or left to a panel of judges. I seriously doubt whether in such cases TV personality Yang Lan (comment 2 in the numbered list) expresses outrage over treating women as toys. Where does she choose to draw the line? Does it even matter where she chooses to draw it? I don’t see anything about hosting beauty competitions to gauge contestants against some pre-decided, inflexible ideals of beauty in our heads as anything short of a nonsensical treatment of humans on the pure basis of their bodies minus the persons they are: exactly what Yang Lan hastens to call a ‘toy’.

Oh wait, let me correct something about beauty contests being only about physique. Nowadays they also have a personality, knowledge and intellect assessment round.

Cute, huh?

I regard that as a modern, hastily politically corrected version, in which the intellectual assessment is still insignificant in importance compared to the core objective of choosing the best-looking person. In fact, I find this whole concept of introducing such a round in a beauty contest absolutely hilarious. Because if you’re at all interested in intellect to any degree, then why is it a beauty competition in the first place? Do you expect intelligence and personality to naturally follow beauty? Well, sorry about this, but reality check: that doesn’t happen. Take a look at an example here:

Beauty and brains are independent parameters. Worse than independent, actually. There is often a negative correlation between the two. I don’t mean to sound prejudiced or biased when I say that. I am not saying that beautiful girls cannot be smart. However, if I look at the average contestant in a beauty pageant, who is generally even otherwise obsessed with how she looks (you know that’s very true, don’t become all proper suddenly), and spends great lengths of time amending and chiseling various facets of her face and body to approach the unwritten general standard of beauty, that doesn’t leave a lot of time to do real smart things. And to do smart things, to be smart, to think about, discuss and make an impact on matters of intellectual weightage, requires effort, dedication, and years and years of time. A human being, in general, has to choose what they wish to do with their life, at least with their youth. Without speaking from narrow-minded prejudice, even from raw statistics and common sense, I can bet you that most entrants in serious beauty competitions do little else of impact with their time. Before you retort to this, please present me evidence of the contrary. And if you have followed my argument so far, you will realize that a couple of non-examples will not help your case. It is your task to conclude from evidence that at the time that most women enter themselves into serious beauty contests, these entrants are also engaged in something of serious intellectual impact.

So anyway, at this juncture, when you are throwing in this round at the end, you are making a laughingstock of the whole idea and agenda of a beauty contest. If you decide to look for one thing, and be honest about exactly what you are looking for, I am prepared to let you be (well, not entirely, but at least for the time being, for the sake of the argument). And if you are somehow ashamed of being progressive humans and holding beauty contests, that is in no way remedied, my friend, by slapping a personality and intellect assessment round at the end. You have found the inherent problem, which I must laud you for, but that is a ridiculous and bird-brained fix to it. It does not fix the core problem that you are here essentially to judge bodies. It only serves to aggravate the stupidity of the whole idea.

Another point that the female presenter tries to make in the video is that the rules for this competition seem to be laid down too precisely for her (or most others’) comfort. I mean, she’s okay with the very common ‘hourglass shape, no fat, considerably sized and pleasantly shaped boobies and booties, symmetric face, smooth complexion, thin eyebrows, beautiful hair, adequate height’ criteria, but not okay with ‘nipples must be 20 cm apart or under’. This is what comment 3 in the numbered list also mentions. ‘Traditional’ measurements are okay. Not these new, exactly-defined ones. What exactly is the point here, sorry? That vague, but nevertheless very-much-there criteria are fine, but you are not allowed to be precise about it, for you run the risk of degrading the idea of civilized humans?

Let’s talk about American beauty pageants. I don’t know if their rules are written down explicitly anywhere. (I’m assuming they’re not, otherwise I don’t see what’s so outrageous about this Chinese incident.) If these are not, then the competition must be left up to the subjective evaluation of a panel of judges or of a larger population via public vote. How do you think that evaluation happens? Don’t we, in our heads, match those bodies to the perfect ideal that has been fed to us by various social and media channels through our lives, and choose the bodies and faces that best fit this standardized idea? In other words, the evaluation is not really as subjective as you might think. If every person had very different opinions of what good-looking is, including beauty contest judges, I find it surprising that these contest applicants, and the winners, are usually so gorgeous. Gorgeous according to me, according to my friend, according to a random guy on the street. According to most viewers of that show (otherwise the program will be laughed off and won’t run after a while). The success of such programs hinges crucially on the fact that our idea of beauty is much more standardized than we might like to believe. It is a separate debate as to where this shared idea of beauty comes from, and I have often wondered about it, but the point of relevance at the moment is that the facial and bodily features that rock my goat is not hugely different from what rock yours, barring of course some fringe tribes and micro-civilizations that anyway do not participate in this commerce of modern media. And it is this same, very standard, ideal, to which bodies and faces are pitted against by the so-called ‘subjective’ evaluation, in what these shocked presenters in the video might regard as a more correct and sensible beauty contest. Just because the parameters are not written down does not make them vague; they are deeply and clearly etched in everyone’s mind. They have developed over years and generations and are reiterated and reinforced every passing day that we are exposed to modern media. The message does not change with every iteration. The beauty sold by the face cream ad is the beauty in the hair removal ad five minutes later, which is the beauty in the tummy-trimming ad in the newspaper the following day. It’s the same image of beauty, over and over again. There is no variation allowed, because that will be a commercial failure. That is, of course, in the long run logical and convenient from the commercial point of view, if different arms of industry reinforce each others’ campaign. Then there’s a single goal to motivate people towards and everything is greatly simplified and business has a happy day. A new product then has only to uphold that single image of beauty. And the more that different products and brands uphold that image, the more this single image strengthens. A vicious cycle. And we conveniently choose to not speak about the long-lasting scars that this leaves with us.

Look now at that woman who’s presenting this video. She looks pretty to me, and I suppose to most others. And it is, I hope, a no-brainer that one of the topmost parameters for the selection of hosts or presenters on TV or online channels must be the pleasantness of their faces. Her job depended on fitting this standard ideal. She has make-up on. She did her hair. What is the function of this, I ask. It is to correct and enhance her already existent prettiness in order to approach even closer to that ideal. And she knew that that’s the reason she put on make-up or shampooed her hair. If she looked like the following, she would not be here at the presenter’s desk today expressing her shock at definitions of beauty that degrade what it means to be civilized humans:


She sat there in the studio of her progressive, forward-thinking channel, of the modern enlightened civilization, with her standard pretty face with additional make-up helping her approach closer to the standard, and she said: ‘You’re not only discriminating against and degrading all the people in this pageant, you’re also discriminating against all women because you’re saying that if you do not fit these specific stereotypes, you’re not beautiful, and you do not fit the typical image of what beauty really is.’

I was in fact taken aback by the awkwardness of the whole situation as she said this. You are this close, I thought. A few more words down that line and this would have been hilarious. For me, though, the irony was complete at that point, and I decided to write this post.

So I was talking about this ideal of beauty that’s embedded in our collective psyche. So entrenched is this idea in fact, that, for example, I can whip up a quick list of what we’re supposed to find beautiful (I already listed some). So can you, no matter whether you’re a girl or a guy. And yes, those are still the parameters that these contestants in more ‘correct’ contests are judged against. There is nothing vague about this. In fact, as far as this incident is concerned, I even deem it an improvement over the otherwise senseless bs, to lay down, once and for all, concrete markers on what is supposed to be beautiful. As the top commenter there rightly said, that is just honesty. That is not brushing the issue under the carpet. And in this particular context, I actually feel a sense of admiration for the organizers of Campus Model.

I believe that in their zeal to voice their shock, most of the responders, and particularly this video duo, have got some of their reasons mixed up. They are not entirely clear on the list of reasons they find this idea so outrageous, or on the separation between their reasons, and so lightly spring from reason to reason with every sentence. One of these reasons, as I gleaned from the commentary, is probably that the criteria imposed by China Campus Model Network are arbitrary. They are disturbed, for example, because they cannot figure out where that 20 cm came from, or that, according to them, such criteria have no bearing on the final perceptible beauty that is registered by the statistically averaged human mind. Very disturbing indeed, yes? These two presenters even spend some time deliberating upon this particular issue (mostly cracking jokes). They do discuss some sane points regarding this arbitrariness issue, and she does mention at some point the very valid argument that even without such arbitrarily set criteria, a general beauty pageant is a degrading idea in itself. But I wish to dwell on this matter a bit more deeply than that.

I think you can already see where I might want to go with this arbitrariness issue. Yes, I wish to know how the currently accepted conditions of beauty are not exactly as arbitrary as the ones these people are so shocked and angered about imposing. I understand that a raw number such as 20 cm between the nipples might come as a sudden shock and may sound very arbitrary at first glance, so let’s ease you into it with an example that’s easier to digest. If I told you that applicants for the beauty contest need to be at least 5 feet tall in order to enter, would you be as enraged as in this case? Aren’t such conditions actually found in many beauty contests? And even if I turn very politically correct and host a beauty contest with no entry restrictions, it shall still be ensured, by the very nature and purpose of the competition, that the bodies and faces that do not conform to that outrageous imposition, will anyway be weeded out in the process of the competition, upon evaluation against that implicit mental beauty standard. A mere advance assertion of the rule does not appear very shocking or outrageous to me at all. Again, all it is, is honesty.

Now you may still contest that ‘not more than 20 cm between the nipples’ is not a standard criterion of beauty. Not as standard anyway, according to you, as ‘no less than 5 feet between the head and feet’. And I ask you, and I ask the presenters in the video so jubilantly waving their flag of progressive, rational thinking, as to where exactly they found the logic and comfort they have in adhering to the more standard criteria of beauty. How do they argue, I ask, that the second criterion above is not as morally and rationally illogical, as the first? Just because we are going with a certain configuration at this point in the cultural history of the human species? Because she herself has been able to subconsciously imbibe this particular notion of beauty over years and is now familiar and comfortable with carrying it? Is it just a well-dug zone of comfort and familiarity that is arduous and disturbing to climb out of? Are they trying to say that what has been repeatedly fed to our heads by money-mongering businesses is the only possible criterion, and therefore the only ethical demand, and that which has not, therefore invades upon human dignity and womanhood, and hence deserves to be butt-thrashed publicly? Is that the whole point of their agenda?

And once again, as they were joking about the arbitrariness of that ‘20 cm’, I winced inwardly and thought, ‘You were this close. This close to the ridiculousness of it all. And you stopped just short. Oh, the irony.’

Anyway, the only comment in the numbered list that I found myself wholeheartedly agreeing with was number 4, presumably by a Chinese student on twitter. He’s right. The function of a university is to promote thoughts and ideas, and hopefully aid in breaking out of the shackles of standard, nevertheless illogical, thoughts and ideas imposed through previous generations and fed through various channels on a daily basis. Also, like I said before, intellect and ‘beauty’ are independent parameters at best. Colleges are for the first. Not the second. This is my final, unequivocal statement. The whole idea of a ‘Campus Model’ tries to mix these up in a way that I greatly dislike.

Anyway, I think I have exhausted all that I wanted to say on this topic. But yes, I am really looking forward to your comments and feedback on this issue. So please take the time to leave a little comment, especially if you find yourself disagreeing with my viewpoint in any aspect.


4 thoughts on “What is Beauty? Case in Point: the ‘China Campus Model’ Controversy

  1. An excellent point often missed. Just yesterday — or technically, very early this morning — I was speaking to someone else about the the political dream of creating socially alienated, unevolving stable systems. He immediately named the USSR and China as excellent examples. It was only when I asked whether he’d consider the USA one did he say of course, he would.

    The gloss of some personal liberty is what helps create the most efficient manufacturing models for conformity, because instead of ‘revolutionising’ social systems, these merely concretise the ideals already extant in society — irrespective of the factual errors and class/caste/gender/ethnic/sexuality biases built into it — and then begin the homogenising process of eradicating contesting ideas. (Which is why, for example, most religions are far more intolerant and closed to debate in institutional practise than they are textually.)

    I cannot, however, share your pleasure in the Chinese model-hunt’s ‘honesty’, for it is not honesty the way I think you interpret it. It is not as if they said, “Well, to hell with double-standards. If we’re going to accept parameters in generic ideas of female physical appeal, then we will go all out and quantify it to the T”. That, I could applaud, even if I contemtuously disagreed. They did this because this appeared perfectly all right to them. As normal as, for example, of the traditional way of measuring a man’s social worth by fixing very minutely the parameters for his income, the make of his car(s), the location and nature of his properties, the power of his professional and social position, the excellence and wealth of his wife’s family, the youth and shapeliness of his mistress(es), the number of his male children, and so on. This behaviour, in my opinion, deserves a raised eyebrow, not applauds.

    • Thanks for your comment. Especially in the context of your last paragraph, I quite agree with you. When I lauded them, it was a sort of মন্দের ভালো sort of appreciation, in the sense that if a politician declares before his tenure exactly the extent to which he is going to engage in corrupt activities and steal public money.

      • Quite the analogy 😐

        I just wanted to point out, however, that the model used in the image is distinctly unChinese in her appearance. Interesting, is it not? A certain ethnic angle to aspirations of perfection in female beauty too.

        • Also, if you look at Chinese beauty pageant winners in recent times, or more generally, what is hailed as beautiful, it’s trending towards the more globalized, common notion of beauty (by that I mean principally western). They are taller, their eyes are larger etc. Basically a cut-down on all the usual departures of the average Chinese from the western ideal.

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