Mainland Follies: Fashion giant accused of ‘uglifying’ Chinese women with freckled model

A screenshot of Zara’s Sina Weibo page featuring Chinese model Li Jingwen. Screengrab via Sina Weibo.
A screenshot of Zara’s Sina Weibo page featuring Chinese model Li Jingwen. Screengrab via Sina Weibo.

An ad for fashion behemoth Zara featuring a freckled Chinese model has sparked a good old fashioned social media showdown, with accusations of cultural insensitivity being lobbed on one side, and charges of body-shaming leveled on the other.

The ad, for a new range of cosmetics, shows Chinese model Li Jingwen appearing, ironically, more or less sans cosmetics, with her smattering of freckles on full display. The ad prompted an outcry among Chinese social media users, who, among other things, accused the Spanish company of “uglifying” Chinese women by depicting them with freckles.

Chinese tabloid Global Times quoted one netizen as claiming that “such pictures featuring an Asian model with freckles and an expressionless pie-shaped face mislead Westerners’ impressions about Asian women and can lead to racism against Asian women.”

(Expressionless, pie-shaped face? Ouch.)

One Weibo user was indignant that “they pick[ed] a freckled face on behalf of Asian females.”

However, the backlash to the backlash appears to be prevailing in the commenter crossfire, with numerous social media users — not to mention organs of the Chinese state — coming out in support of the ad campaign.

One Twitter user asserted that, “If anyone is causing a negative view on the Chinese it is those who have been describing the model as ugly due to her freckles.”

Another asked: “Can someone explain to me why featuring a beautiful, unphotoshopped Chinese model is offensive to China?”

Yet another acknowledged Western brands’ missteps in their marketing to China — Hi, Dolce & Gabbana! — but said the latest outcry was a bit much.

“It’s one thing to be sensitive (and many Western brands are indeed tone deaf in their China communication) but this is just insecurity,” the user said.

Now, one could argue that a bunch of (mostly Western) internet users aren’t really the final arbiters of what is or is not considered offensive in China, and one would be right.

Enter China Daily, the state-run English-language newspaper, which had a message for those accusing Zara of “defaming the Chinese,” declaring in a headline, “Don’t be so sensitive!”

“It might be understandable that those who complain about Zara’s new advertisement might do so to prevent the nation’s image from being hurt,” the China Daily editorial reads. “However, their deeds show over-sensitivity and a lack of cultural confidence.”

“Cultural confidence is just being promoted by the leadership of this country, and tolerance is an essential part of it,” it continues. “Only when we learn to tolerate each other in terms of aesthetic, will cultural confidence be owned by everyone.”

The China Youth Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Youth League of China, asserted that the prevalence of photo retouching apps, which make it possible to eradicate blemishes with the touch of a finger, had made it more difficult to accept natural looking skin, the Shanghai-based website SixthTone reports.

“Some people can accept Li’s unique beauty, but others interpret this as ‘humiliating China,’ and these contrasting reactions are an indictment of our ideals of feminine beauty,” the outlet was quoted as saying.

Responding to charges it had “uglified” Li, a Zara spokesperson told media outlets that the photos represented a global aesthetic, and weren’t meant to denigrate anyone.

The spokesperson added that Li “has always looked like this, her face has not been photoshopped, she was photographed naturally.”

The BBC, meanwhile, reports that the tides on Weibo have begun to shift, with many applauding Zara’s decision not to photoshop Li.

So, looks like everyone learned a valuable lesson in “cultural confidence” after all.

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