Fashion retailer Zara has sparked widespread debate in China by publishing photos of one of the country’s top models without retouching her freckles. Li Jingwen, who models under the name Jing Wen, appeared in a seemingly innocuous campaign promoting cosmetics for the Spanish brand. But after Zara posted images to the microblogging platform Sina Weibo on Friday, social media users began vociferously debating her freckles — and the definition of beauty in China, where spotless, pale complexions are often regarded as more attractive.
Some users claimed that Zara had “uglified” Jing by offering an unflattering and unrepresentative depiction of Asian women. Others suggested that the retailer’s choice of a freckly model had “defamed” China, just months after Dolce & Gabbana faced significant criticism for a campaign showing a Chinese model struggling to eat Italian food with chopsticks. “After seeing this ad I have decided I will not buy any products from Zara,” said Weibo user Moshiwuchang, “not because I think the model is ugly, but because you are discriminating Asians’ view of beauty.
“I’m sorry, we Asian women don’t have freckles,” wrote EvelynYoung_23. “Even if we do, it’s a small number of people … You must have tried very hard to find such a model.” But most comments appeared to defend both Jing and the campaign. A number of users celebrated Zara’s depiction of the model’s natural complexion.
“Every person has different understanding of beauty and we don’t have to have the same view of aesthetics,” read a post from a Weibo account named TheChineseModels, “but we need to be open with different faces.” “Li Jingwen is thousands of times more beautiful than those faces that have been retouched,” said user saxaK, while Amy_xuhui implored: “Please don’t live in the filters, isn’t it good to be real?” At the time of publishing, a hashtag for the Zara campaign had appeared in more than 55,000 Weibo posts and been read more than 500 million times.
Several of the country’s state-owned newspapers — which are often known for criticizing Western companies for supposed transgressions in China — also spoke out in defense of the campaign.
An editorial in China Daily blamed the criticism on “over-sensitivity and a lack of cultural confidence.” The article, published under the headline “Zara ‘insulting China’? Don’t be so sensitive!” urged readers to “tolerate each other in terms of aesthetic.” Another party mouthpiece, China Youth Daily, said that international fashion brands often use freckled models, explaining that “according to Western mainstream aesthetics, the public is even fond of faces with an appropriate amount of freckles.”
A spokesperson for Zara responded to online accusations via an interview with Chinese digital news platform, Pear Video, saying: “(This) is what she looks like, and the photos haven’t been retouched. They were taken in a natural state.” Jing, who has been a regular fixture at fashion weeks in recent years, has modeled for the likes of Tommy Hilfiger, Prada and Calvin Klein. She has previously spoken about feeling self-conscious because of her freckles, telling Vogue in 2016 that she “always tried to cover them” in high school. Freckles remain a relatively rare sight in China’s fashion and advertising worlds. Notions of beauty are more often associated with smooth, flawless complexions, and skin-whitening products are widely available in the country.
Photo retouching is also common on social media, with popular apps like Meitu and BeautyCam allowing users to remove blemishes and even out skin tones. China’s largest e-commerce website, Taobao, currently lists thousands of different “freckle-removing” creams. Vendors on the site also stock laser pens, liquid nitrogen treatments, supposed natural remedies and other products claiming to eliminate freckles and blemishes.