This column is reprinted here courtesy of the Wall Street Journal.
In recent months, I’ve had an experience that every woman should have some time in her life: getting styled, made-up and photographed by China’s top fashion magazines. Such fun!
Last week as I was getting made up for Marie Claire China, I chatted with their make-up artist, Peng Wang, about what it’s like to have a job where he’s surrounded every day by China’s most beautiful women, the fashion models.
Me: Do you ever date the models?
Him: Not much.
Me: Why? Are they dumb?
Him: Not all of them. But…they’re 14.
He went on to explain that most models’ careers end by age 20, and certainly by 24 or 25.
I never have looked like a fashion model
Myself, I never have looked like a fashion model and I never will. They’re 1m 80cm; I’m not even 1m 60cm. They have creamy porcelain skin; mine is tanned from playing tennis outdoors. Their faces are full and round like the moon; mine is small and pointy like a cat’s. They’re age 14; I’m 43. Their bodies are like long and sleek like cheetahs. Mine has nurtured and birthed two little girls.
Fortunately I have a husband who loves my lady lumps. And fortunately I’ve never had a career which depended on being a teenager.
I do however live in a society where women are told that we’re only beautiful into our 20s, after which time we fade into irrelevance.
I was chatting about all this with Catherine Leung, a senior executive at Amazon China, when she observed that the challenge that young women now face is learning to find and love themselves in spite of all the pressure in their lives. Because we live in a society that offers very few female role models. Girls are not encouraged to be independent or strong. From the time they’re little, they’re instructed to listen, do as they’re told, fit in the mold.
Women who dare to be different
If you look at Catherine, or most other beautiful older women, you’ll find a fiery someone who dares to be different.
Ask China’s greatest beauty icon, Yue-Sai Kan, and she’ll tell you that all her life she’s done things that everyone else considers not normal∫ for a woman. Such as starting a globally recognized TV show, then starting and then selling a cosmetics empire. Yue-Sai concludes: ‘I have been successful in all, I think, because I was willing to ignore the rules.’
So I love it when I see a young woman dare to ignore the rules and start to love her own self. She holds up her chin, tosses her hair, and announces: ‘I matter!’
From a fashion standpoint, this statement sometimes is made with expensive logo handbags and accessories. She’s announcing to the world: ‘Because I’m worth it!’
But that’s just the start. Things get even more interesting when she goes beyond the logos to use her clothes to celebrate who she uniquely is.
When fashion becomes subversive
On the Marie Claire China shoot, beauty editor Erica Gao and I reviewed our clothing options before selecting the beautiful shimmery yellow dress pictured here.
In a world of grays and browns, the dress is a ray of sunshine. I love its jeweled neckline, and gold-studded edges. The dress is radiant and feminine and a little fancy, which is how I like to feel. So we chose this dress not because it’s from a famous brand, which it is, but because it reflects Joy.
Our photographer for the day, Shaoyuan Shi, is someone I’ve worked with in the past, and he always says that working with me is different than working with the models. Because rather than just selling the world an image, he’s showing the world the woman I am.
So, that day, he turned up the music, I danced and whirled, we all smiled and laughed, and work was fun, and fun was work.
I find that anytime I do a photo shoot in the fashion and beauty community, there’s this kind of frisson on the team. It comes from the knowledge that what we’re doing is slightly subversive, but it’s the right thing to do.
Because what we’re doing is collaborating to expire this notion that women come with an expiration date, and to expand society’s definition of beauty. It’s due time.
I’m beautiful because I think I am
When we’re girls, whether or not we’re considered beautiful depends on whether or not we conform to society’s conventions. That kind of beauty is doled out in a completely undemocratic fashion, in the form of pale pale skin and long long legs.
But when we grow up as women is when the rest of us get our chance. A chance to claim a more sophisticated sort of beauty. The French call it jolie laide, a wonderful contradiction literally meaning pretty ugly, but think of it as oddly beautiful.
Jolie laide offers hope for the rest of us. It represents a more interesting, more complex sort of beauty. Jolie laide says that a woman can be beautiful because she thinks she is, in spite of her oddities. Others who would not otherwise be drawn to her looks are yet enchanted because of who she is.
Lovely and amazing at every age
Now, in 2013, why not let’s start a conspiracy, among us ladies! To be jolies laides ,women who love our own selves, and who let that love shine through, in how we care for ourselves and how we express ourselves to the world.
Sure, we could simply do as we’re told and politely disappear as we hit 20, 25, 30. But that’s just what they’d expect. And what would be the fun in that?
No, instead, let’s be that ray of sunshine, dazzle the world, and show them, and show our daughters, what a woman looks like who is lovely and amazing at every age.
Because: we’re women, we matter, and now, we’re making culture too.
*This column was originally written by the author in English. Hear the author read this English column aloud by clicking here.
For more of the author’s behind-the-scenes photos from this and other fashion-magazine shoots, click here.