Mirror mirror on the wall

“I am in such a hurry,” my roommate says to me one morning, cigarette in her left hand,  head literally hanging in the sink trying to get off the cleanser.


She had a rough day at work the day before, and even after coming home immediately started working on another article she needed to finish before twelve that night. But not before her one hour lasting skin care routine. She finally sat herself down in front of her laptop at almost midnight. At least she wore a face mask. “It’s to keep my skin fresh while I’m working.”

Last month she went on a trip to Korea and literally deprived the country of every face mask it owns. They have different functions too; less visible pores, prevent deeper wrinkles, hydrate, brighten, whiten… “Why?” I ask, while holding up 10 packets in front of her face. “The quality in Korea is better, it’s best to buy in bulk” she says while rubbing in her face with a toner, or maybe a moisturizer, or maybe wrinkle cream. She goes to Korea regularly to buy beauty products.

Unrelated: It’s not uncommon. Many Chinese are skeptical about anything “made in China,” and who wants to go abroad to travel anyway? You go abroad to buy. I find it interesting, by the way, how uninterested a lot of people in Beijing are in travel. They want to go abroad for work or study or just for buying plain.. stuff, but exploring the world? Nah.

Despite being in such a hurry, she has the time to put on layers of skincare products. Occasionally, in the evening, after cleansing and moisturizing, there’s also this soft electrical brush to make your skin more elastic. Or at least that’s what I think it does. Four layers of whatever is in those bottles for the night, a face mask every other day, the brush every other 3 or 4 days, and some anti-wrinkle cream. For who knows what. And of course layers and layers of make-up in the morning, while already having flawless skin. Her sister is exactly the same, despite having a completely different background. Her facial routine takes one hour. Her make-up routine takes another hour. It includes colored lenses and fake eyelashes. I applaud her patience.

“I’m so scared of getting old” my roommate says.

In a society where nearly everyone is materialistic and extremely focused on the physical; it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this includes female appearance.But it goes beyond simply materialism.

It’s applauded. The sole reason my roommate takes care of her skin is to hear other people say she looks young for her age, that she looks 22 instead of 30. To have men pursue her for her looks. To hear on a daily basis how pretty she is. To hear she looks prettier than other women. It’s ingrained in their way of thinking, there’s peer pressure and fear involved, and it’s encouraged by men. Don’t get me wrong; women from all parts of the world deal with this, but the pressure is much higher here. I get criticized too.

The other day a man asked me how I take care of my skin before I go to sleep, because I have fine lines near my eyes and it worried him because ‘I’m only 26’.  “I keep it hydrated because the air in Beijing is really dry” I said.

His reaction: “But then how do you stay young forever?”

“I don’t know, how do YOU stay young forever?”

“I don’t have to,” he says, “I’m a man.”

A shiver went down my spine realizing the deeper implications of that answer.

Here’s what someone told me about gender roles in China’s urban society:

“It’s what we, men and women, have been thought from birth. How we view men and women is part of our education system. But it’s been getting better. No, actually, it’s been getting more complicated. Urban women are getting more and more independent, and men are lagging behind because they refuse to acknowledge that things are changing. They appreciate a woman’s ability to take care of herself, but at the same time they can’t accept it. The problem with the so-called leftover women is not the women, it’s the men. It’s our fault for not recognizing and accepting change. If Chinese men don’t want to be alone forever, they’ll have to adapt too.  But well, forget about that. We still have our parents to worry about first.”

Food for thought?

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