Aaliyah Bilal b&w head shot

Face Like a Watermelon Seed: Black Women and Chinese Beauty Standards

“You have a face like a melon seed, high nose, long legs and eyes shaped like almonds.”

The two of them were seated on a velveteen chaise lounge, fastidiously made up in couture, with long, bone-straight black hair and red-stained lips— their faces white as talcum powder. A team of department store staff circulated about them, carting boxes of high-end shoes stacked up to their necks for them to try. Their phones cast a faint blue light onto their faces as they scrolled, distracted while the attendants removed the heels from their delicate wrappings and slid them onto the women’s feet. Occasionally they’d stop to look and, after a glance, either kicked off the shoes in disinterest or gestured for the pair to be placed in the keep pile before returning all focus to their phones. After 40+ years of opening and economic reform since the death of Chairman Mao, this is the kind of scene that has become ubiquitous in cities like Shanghai and Beijing, where it seems there are more Gucci stores than McDonald’s. These are the children of China’s nouveau riche— the well-coifed and well-tended, dripping with a blasé kind of privilege that only two generations ago would not only have been impossible to find in the PRC but roundly scorned.

I was in another section of the shoe department, trying on a pair of nude pumps when the women set their phones aside to look at me— to stare really. It’s something that I’ve grown accustomed to. In recent decades the sight of black people in Shanghai has become too common to feel special or unique, though it is unusual to see someone with my complexion shopping in a boutique such as this. The novelty of this encounter must have been what led one of the women to raise her phone and snap my photo. 

I would never have noticed if it hadn’t been for the sound of the digital flash, which roused my suspicion. Immediately I faced the women, my eyes wide and mouth taut with upset. 

Mainstream Chinese social conventions change quickly, and, on a rapidly expanding list of frowned on behaviors, snapping photos without permission has become taboo. 

It must have been the look of frustration on my face that caused her to turn away. She laughed into her hands out of embarrassment. That’s when her friend made the statement. 

In an attempt to diffuse the situation, the woman attributed time-honored characteristics which are exalted in classical Chinese conceptions of beauty to me. While the melon seed reference is one that can be traced to the Qing dynasty, almond-shaped eyes have been celebrated markers of beauty in Chinese women going back to the period of Warring States.

For the power they wield in this culture so sensitive to gestures of outrage by “foreigners,” they were remarkably generous in this instance, and I was grateful for their effort to temper the situation. In another probable version of events, they might have said any number of hurtful things. 

I was grateful to them, but not flattered.

Whenever I’m called a guazilian, I am always aware of the profound irony that runs through statements like this, which is why it’s nearly impossible for me to take them to heart. In pointing out the ways I measure up to a Chinese beauty standard, it’s clear to me that the real meaning is something different. My takeaway is always the same— that while I possess these individual traits, the way they come together in my person yields a less than beautiful composite.

I ultimately decided to buy the shoes. As I pulled out my phone to make the purchase, the attendant emphasized what the two women had said, nodding her agreement. 

“You really do have a face like a melon seed. Really.”

She looked into my eyes for a long instant like sinking a fishing line into a pond, hoping to latch onto the prize of my vain acquiescence— I sensed her sensing my need for confirmation. She looked at me only to find me looking back at her, a flurry of my own thoughts forestalling any polite reply.

I take the scenario and subject it to the scrutiny of the clique of girls who were my closest childhood friends. I imagine us as we were decades ago, sitting on the front stoop of our Suitland Road apartment building, going over the story of the women in the shoe department. We roll our eyes in unison. 

“I wish somebody would take my picture and not ask me first. She woulda been got stole…”

I see Gina, the biggest and tallest girl among us, saying this and all of us sitting and nodding, believing her every word. 

She was funny and beautiful with pretty bowed legs and endearing to all of us for the off-meter rhythm she made when turning rope for double dutch. But we’d also seen her punch Lisa McCall in the jaw for making fun of her weight. We watched her stand over Lisa, writhing on the sidewalk, and dare her to come up for more. When anyone said anything bad about Gina with no apology on offer, she was always sure to exact painful revenge.

When it came to these kinds of brazen displays of confidence, we were all crude imitations of her. But not even she compared to the reigning queens of our neighborhood— a group of women my sister and I called the Salt n Peppa Girls. We gave them that name because they looked so much like the popular 1980’s hip hop duo with their glossy, a-symmetrical haircuts, Cross Colour fashions, and oversized gold bamboo earrings. They drove up and down our block in a white Pathfinder, blasting TLC, Jodeci, and Bel Biv Devoe. The sight of them made all of us stop our games just to watch them pass and marvel at their style.

We’d wave, and they’d throw up a peace sign, grooving to the music blasting from their speakers that would swoon loud then diminuendo as they sped passed us headed further down the road.

The ease and the Eros of their bodies in motion remind me of everything I treasure about the physical appearance of black women, even though I was and remain too thin to measure up to this standard myself. They were shapely and fly, and, most important of all, they knew it. It was the confidence of these women, and millions like them, who turned America from a country that worshiped sick, underfed female bodies toward an open celebration of a roundness of physique.

These are the scenes that I take with me, that swim behind my eyes and tap into when the world fails to see me as I see myself. These are the images that I presume abide with many black women in this space (particularly those not born here) who see the scrutiny toward our bodies not as a definitive take on how beautiful we are but as a kind of self-revelation— a byproduct of the cultural myopia that is always linked to empire.

The scrutiny doesn’t arouse anger as much as curiosity.

The first time anyone called me ugly in China happened only a few months into my stay in Kunming. One day in mid-fall, two of my American colleagues at Yunnan University had invited me on a jaunt to the downtown Bird and Flower Market. It was a lush oasis in the concrete jungle, filled with all manner of houseplants, cut flowers, and small animals of every sort. I was admiring a canary in its cage when I felt a strange presence close at my side. I turned to look and noticed a middle-aged woman approaching me, heavily made up with curly-permed, red-dyed hair, her eyebrows drawn on at stark angles. She stood inches from me, and as she hovered there, I noticed her eyes darting about my face, taking in my features. I tried smiling to disarm her, and that’s when it happened. She didn’t actually say any words, but squinted her eyes and stuck out her tongue like the green Mr. Yuck stickers used to keep children out of bottles of dangerous chemicals. 

What bothered me most, aside from the fact that my colleagues said nothing in response to the incident, was the scene that followed. As soon as she’d made the gesture, she fell into the arms of a man who’d been standing in the background the entire time, watching the encounter. They walked away laughing, the man proudly wrapping his arms around my assailant as if she’d just done something important.

And perhaps she had, in the narrowest sense.

Yunnan is an enchantment— a place of great natural beauty, stone forests, sparkling rice terraces, and snow-topped mountains that stretch to the Himalayas— imbued with the spiritual resonance that Jerusalem holds in the hearts of Muslims, Christians and Jews. It is also a contested space, fraught with tense inter-ethnic discourses and all of their attendant conflicts. Ideas of beauty are heavily implicated in this dynamic. While there are abundant narratives— folk stories and songs— that exalt the beauty of minority women— within the larger discourse of the Chinese nation-state, these women are deemed exotic and “other,” beautiful but not in a traditional sense. One of my students made this idea very concrete for me. I will never forget the answer she gave to an assignment about her family origins. She wrote, 

“The minority situation of Yunnan… what a pity. But my family, we don’t have this problem. We are Han.”

I entered into this context with the mistaken notion that my own experience as a racial minority (albeit in a different country) would engender a sense of parity that would grant me special access to Kunming society. Still, no one seemed interested in forging solidarities around our similar oppression. The more pressing need I could meet was in my unique ability as Kunming’s one and only black female resident to lend a new sense of an aesthetic rock bottom. 

My presence in Kunming provided an opportunity for some local women to externalize narratives of second-class citizenship assigned to them by the dominant Han culture and dump accompanying feelings onto my body. In this environment, devaluation of my appearance served to regulate the self-concept of many. In the case of the woman at the Bird and Flower Market, her pointing to me as unattractive seemed in the moment to elevate her in the eyes of her male partner.

This is where my mind fixates— ridicule of lessors as a means of gaining the affections of men. It is a pattern that I’ve noticed so often— one that inserts itself so reliably— that whenever I try to entertain alternative ways of seeing, my mind naturally gravitates to this notion like the tide carries driftwood to shore. 

The alternative perspectives are many.

There’s a history of proto-feminist ideas in China, going back to Guo Maoqian’s 11th century poetic rendering of the Hua Mulan story, leading to the revolutionary era of the mid 20th century, and Chairman Mao’s edict, “women hold up half the sky.”

I can also look to my friendships with Chinese women. They are all very well educated and career-oriented; all of them reliably choose partners who at least appear to respect their need for autonomy. 

I want to resist the tendency to be reductive; it’s important to note the many examples of women who have created an alternative reality for themselves and bypassed conventions that place their concerns beneath those of men. It is equally important, however, to note the obvious educational and economic privileges these women often enjoy, highlighting that their experiences are not representative of the majority. As several metrics would indicate, at interpersonal and systemic levels, outcomes for women often continue to be overdetermined by the whims of the men in their lives— as real for Chinese women as it is for women all over the world.

False praise and ridicule— what are these but forms of longing?

A final anecdote:

In the mornings, before heading to campus, I liked to visit one of the many food vendors who set up shop in front of the Yunnan University Hotel. I’d stand in the long lines before one particular cart that was owned by a husband and wife team.

They made the most delicious scallion pancakes and prepared them with precision and speed that was captivating to watch. I loved to have mine with a thin layer of egg, sprinkled with sesame seeds, and served with a pouch of warm soymilk— a treat to warm my spirits before long days of teaching.

I liked to go there despite how obviously my presence disturbed the wife. The sight of me always seemed to distract her from her responsibilities. It was her job to fold the hotcakes into little triangles then bag the food. She handed it over to patrons with one hand and collected the money with the other. When I neared the front of the line, the wife would gaze at me, leaving the cakes to pile briefly in a neat little stack.

Her husband would break the trance, nudging her with an elbow, which was sufficient to return her attention to her work, but not before they’d share a few words. They spoke in dialect, so I never knew exactly what they were saying, but the wife’s utterances were always forceful, then she’d cut her eyes at me— a gesture that I’m convinced bears the same malign intent everywhere in the world.

When it was time to make my order, the wife would hand me my food. 

“Your skin…” she said on one such occasion, using Mandarin to be sure I understood. “It’s so white!”

This was, of course, meant as an insult. It might have landed harder than it did, if it hadn’t noticed in the moment the likeness of our skin tones. In fact, her coloring and that of her husband were only a shade or two lighter than my own. The wife had an angular face with high cheeks that blushed through her tawny skin and light brown hair to match her hazel eyes.

After experiencing this enough times, I tried my best not to take things personally. As had been suggested to me over and over, I was very likely the first black woman many Kunmingers had ever met. Being first meant carrying the burdens that came with it. At the very least, the jabs seemed to fertilize something between the couple. On some occasions, after the wife would speak, she and her husband made meaningful eye contact. Sometimes there was even laughter.

One morning, on my way to campus, I headed out of the sliding glass doors of the university hotel and noticed a large crowd gathered around the food vendor stalls and heard screams coming from the center. I approached, equal parts curious and disturbed, all the more so when I noticed it was the pancake couple fighting out in the open. The husband uttered all manner of curses as he circled his wife. His movements were slow and tiger-like. The sinews of his arms tensed, a long carving knife caught a ray of morning sun and glinted in his right hand. The local flower vendor had abandoned his baskets full of roses and made a shield of his body to protect the wife, though it didn’t stop the man from lunging.

The flower vendor tried his best, but the husband was agile and thrust the knife dangerously close to his wife’s torso. He missed by a few inches, then groveled more curses that were unintelligible to me. 

I paid the most attention to the woman. It interested me that she did not cry, but stood with her head tilted down, her body flopping about as the flower vendor tried to move her out of harm’s way. With the husband’s every lunge, she flinched, making herself small. I could feel her hope that his anger would subside enough to disperse the crowd and end her humiliation— I saw her placating a man who was trying to kill her in broad daylight.

Strong feelings welled in me then dispersed— the call to altruism felt American in a bad way, suspect and performative, overestimating its usefulness. I worried I would be blamed had I intervened, or worse, I would have gotten stabbed myself and what a show that would have been. How much like the spectating crowd I had become, I thought, how powerless we deemed ourselves before the realities of life in China. I continued on my way to campus, though I thought of the brown-skinned woman with the high cheeks and hazel eyes, trying to think of the possibilities. I imagine her standing in front of a mirror, blasting a favorite song while mouthing the words into a hairbrush. She makes eyes with herself, shimmies, tosses her hair back and forth— totally enamored with what she sees. Sometimes it’s the best one can do. Sometimes it’s enough.