I love learning about different cultures. For various reasons, I have a particular interest in the People’s Republic of China (“PRC”). A while back I watched a fascinating documentary on the country. It was part of the Discovery Atlas series, which apparently features vignettes of people in different parts of the planet to give viewers a sense of the culture of a particular land.
The episode I watched was called Discovery Atlas: China Revealed. It was released in 2006 and is narrated by actor James Spader. I found it fascinating and would highly recommend it. I watched it with my children; we all enjoyed it and learned a lot. In particular, to continue with the themes of recent blog posts, I would like to focus on a few aspects of the documentary that I especially found interesting.
The film described how there is huge competition for professional jobs in the PRC. And the film noted that such job competition was particularly difficult for women. To explain the situation, one woman, who went by the Western name “Eliza,” was interviewed along with her boyfriend.
In the interview, Eliza’s boyfriend noted that getting a good job in the PRC was not dependant entirely on one’s professional qualifications. With Eliza standing next to him and listening to everything he said, the boyfriend explained that if there are two female candidates with the same qualifications, the better-looking candidate would get the job. I felt rather humiliated for Eliza because the clear suggestion was she was not good looking. And it was a strange suggestion because to me Eliza looked quite lovely. The narrator then explained that with such intense competition, aspiring professionals do whatever they can to get a leg up on fellow job-seekers.
The documentary then followed Eliza’s consultation with a traditional Chinese medicine expert who noted her dehydrated skin and the impact stress was having on her appearance. Eliza then went for more extreme measures; she visited a plastic surgeon. The documentary then followed her decision to get a number of cosmetic surgeries.
This was mind-blowing to me. These were expensive, painful and time-consuming surgeries. Moreover, any surgery involves serious risks, including death. It was tragic to me that anyone would feel compelled to devote such resources and take such risks just to improve one’s appearance. And it was particularly tragic when the pressure was attributable to trying to get a job in an office that would not appear to have anything to do with one’s appearance. Eliza was not applying for jobs as a model or actress.
One of the surgeries Eliza elected involved changing the shape of her face. Another involved a controversial procedure to create more of a crease in the eyelid to give Eliza’s eye more of a European appearance. These were surgeries with huge repercussions and would completely alter what this young woman looked like.
Eliza explained to the filmmakers that she knew that she had classical Chinese beauty, but she said that was not enough. Without any sense of irony, Eliza noted that the surgeries would make her look more like a “Barbie doll” and such dolls are so “lovely.”
I’m not even sure where to start. The documentary was fascinating, but this portion of the film was one of the most depressing things I’ve ever viewed.
To American ears, it would be easy to look down on Chinese culture for such blatant sexism. It would be easy to take the superior attitude that such things could never happen in the U.S. I’m not sure that is true though. We may just be less open and honest about it.
Several years ago, Barbara Walters did a report on 20/20 about the role of appearance in how people perceive others. Studies showed that we make judgments on people based on their appearance. We are drawn to make favorable judgments about attractive people, harsher judgments on people who are not attractive. There was a part of the report about job interviews. Attractive people did better with the same qualifications than less attractive people.
I think I have seen such subtle attitudes play out in the course of my professional life as a lawyer. I’ve known female colleagues with great credentials and talent, who are obese or have very visible acne scars, and somehow never get a good legal job. I’ve always suspected that their appearance had something to do with it.
I’m no longer in practice and am now an academic. Even before I stepped into the classroom, I was well aware that female profs get judged (at least in part) based on their appearance. I had heard that through the grapevine, e.g., from trusted female advisors and at a new professor conference. Many of us feel the need to powder our noses, put some lipstick on and/or comb our hair before stepping in front of the class. We know our appearance is scrutinized—much more, I suspect, than our male colleagues.
Over the semesters I’ve been teaching, I’ve had countless student comments about the shorter (or longer) length of my hair and details of my jewelry. I even have had students feel at liberty to ask pretty personal questions like whether I color and/or perm my hair! I was visiting with a female colleague not long ago, and we laughed that we both avoid mid-semester hair cuts if at all possible. We have learned through past experiences that such changes are too distracting to students. We now limit our hair cuts to winter and summer breaks.
I had heard over and over in various ways that course evals are in part a reflection of snap judgments at the beginning of the course, and such snap judgments are disproportionately influenced by physical appearance. Repeatedly, I’ve heard female profs half jokingly say they’ve considered plastic surgery. I don’t think the American women who’ve said that to me really mean it. But I think it is telling that in the 21st century anyone even makes jokes of that kind. In the United States, we may think we’ve come a long way, baby, and the status of women here is vastly superior to their status in China. I’m not sure that we necessarily are light years ahead in this area.
Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.