‘Am I not Chinese?’: Model pushes back against criticism of her ‘slanted eyes’

Chinese model slanted eyes

A Chinese model at the center of an ongoing controversy about beauty standards and Western stereotypes in China has clapped back at critics taking a jab at her “slanted eyes.” 

Driving the news: The model, who goes by the professional name Cai Niang Niang, appeared in a 2019 ad for a local snack brand called Three Squirrels. Photos from that campaign recently resurfaced on Chinese social media, drawing criticism for its supposed negative portrayal of Chinese women.

  • The photos show Cai holding products from the company. One of them contained portraits of Mao Zedong printed on a bowl and a cup.
  • Critics reportedly argued that the photos were feeding into Western stereotypes about Chinese people, which, in this case, is having “slanted eyes.” Some also alleged that Three Squirrels violated advertising laws for using Mao’s images.
  • Some specifically criticized the company for making Cai’s eyes “more slanted” with makeup. Others allegedly called Cai “ugly” and even asked her to stop modeling altogether.
  • Despite the backlash, some encouraged tolerance in accepting diversity in appearances. “Beauty is diverse, and it may be limited and rigid if people restricted it to any particular form,” makeup blogger Wang Yifan told the state-run Global Times.
  • Dior sparked outrage in China for a similar controversy in November. The photographer responsible for the company’s ad is also Chinese, but critics argued that it was also trying to appeal to the “Western aesthetic.”
Cai Niang Niang for Three Squirrels. Image via Three Squirrels

What the brand is saying: Three Squirrels has denied accusations that the ad intended to “smear” Chinese women. The company also stressed that Cai’s makeup was done according to her facial features, without any intention to make her look “ugly.”

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  • Despite its explanation, Three Squirrels was forced to apologize. “Regarding the opinion that the model does not fit the mainstream’s aesthetic taste and makes the public feel uncomfortable, we are sincerely sorry,” the company said, according to the South China Morning Post.
  • Three Squirrels also vowed to remove web pages containing the controversial photos. However, the company did not address the allegations surrounding their use of Mao’s portraits.
Image via Three Squirrels

What she’s saying: Cai, who likely had no control in the making of the ad, was forced to respond to the online backlash on Sunday, claiming that it has become a case of “cyberbullying.” She questioned her critics and their authority to decide whether or not she can be Chinese.

  • “Am I disqualified to be Chinese just because I have small eyes?” Cai wrote on Weibo, according to SupChina. “I was born with these eyes and they look even smaller in real life. Does that mean I can’t be a model? Have I been offensive to Chinese people since the day I was born?”
  • Cai went on to call for an inclusive beauty standard that would welcome diversity and each person’s “unique charm.” She also pointed out that while she “totally” agrees with patriotism, “creating big problems out of normal matters has become a morbid obsession.”

Featured Images via Three Squirrels

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