In Racked, Noël Duan — a former beauty editor — reflects on the lives of her mother and her laolao (maternal grandmother) as she examines the differences between the definition of beauty in America and in China during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, where an “unadorned woman was a symbol of liberation from a patriarchal capitalist system.”
In second grade, when I was assigned an essay about my grandparents, I mistakenly wrote about how soft my laolao’s hands were — I just assumed they were that way because of how soft-spoken and small she was. “This is a beautiful essay. I’ll translate it for Laolao,” Mom said after reading it. “But you should know that her hands aren’t soft at all.” Laolao’s hands, as Mom explained to me, are calloused and blistered and rough from years of raising her three children and her children’s children while putting food on the table, from hand-pulled noodles to congee, no matter how little money the family had. In later years, when visiting China, I watched Laolao’s hands peel and bleed from years of hand-washing her children’s — and grandchildren’s — clothes in industrial-strength lye soap, cooking dinners for extended families every night, and mending worn blankets to keep her husband warm in the brittle winters of Western China. Who had time for beauty when there was a family to feed? Laolao always made sure we were already eating before she sat down at the table herself.
In America, we make the mistake of confusing a beautiful face for virtue — the “What is beautiful is good” fallacy. But women who grew up in the Cultural Revolution were taught the opposite. It’s dishonorable to be beautiful, because how hard in a patriarchal society do you then have to work? It’s frivolous and wasteful to have beautiful things, because why wouldn’t you save the money for something else? And if you happened to be beautiful, you had to serve utility as a dancer or actress.