The westernisation of Asian beauty


Pamela AndersonWhile on a holiday recently I had my first pedicure. I was in Hong Kong, in someone's 15th floor apartment-turned-salon, watching a Steven Segal movie on the wall television and avoiding the disparaging glances my pedicurist shot my way as she shaved away several kilograms of my dead foot-skin.

A young Asian woman entered the salon and asked, in English, how much it would cost her to have artificial eyelashes implanted. Struggling in English, the beautician informed her that she wasn't able to perform the procedure that afternoon and that she would have to book ahead, shoving a flyer in the woman's hand. 'How much to just remove my eyelashes, then?' she persisted.

'Ouch!' I almost said aloud. Remove? Eyelashes?

I was struck by the realisation that not only do many women of all ethnicities spend a great deal of money on painful procedures in the name of beauty, but they do so to look like one woman: Pamela Anderson. That ridiculous wide-eyed, straight-nosed, enormous busted white woman maintains international currency as a beauty standard, despite our knowing better.

Feeling significantly lighter from my pedicure treatment, I headed straight to the internet café to read up on cosmetic eyelid surgery, blepharoplasty. It's a popular cosmetic procedure some East Asian women (and men) pursue where the eyelid is sliced and fat removed to add a fold in the lid, which has a 'widening' effect on typically 'Asian' eyelids.

The desired result strives for a more 'western', less 'Asian' appearance.

We know that in many Asian cultures paleness as an indication of class and beauty predated colonialism. But whiteness, western-ness, arrived as a beauty standard with colonisation — and with a racialised imbalance of power which favoured Europeans.

So why would an Asian woman want to look like Pamela Anderson? Probably for the same reason white women do: there's a globalised beauty standard that is gendered, racialised, and hierarchical.

Whether white people choose to participate, challenge, or opt out of their prescribed cultures, whiteness — like any other marker of speciality — is entrenched in a complex history of manufactured power. Whiteness is equated with normativity and privilege; whiteness, western-ness, is the index. It remains the 'us' to a brown 'them'. Just turn on any television station other than SBS and try to find a program that reflects the way ordinary (read: diverse) viewers at home look.

It's distressing to think of women altering their physical markers of ethnicity to conform to such an arbitrary notion of beauty. More distressing is that, like cosmetic surgery, we describe it using the rhetoric of choice. As though a female could wake up one morning and, free of cultural coercion, invent what femininity means, and choose to spend $10,000 to attain it.

This perception of autonomy as merely the right to mutilate one's body without any regard to the historical hierarchy one is born into is insulting. If an Asian woman living in the west who solicits eyelid surgery is exercising 'choice' and 'autonomy' over her body, she is doing so only to conform to an ethno-centric norm and so escape prejudice based on her physicality. Similarly, a white woman does it to conform to a gendered, damaging beauty standard.

Outside the west there are other, more optimistic ideas about plastic surgery. Residual from wartime, surplus Iranian surgeons earn a living by trimming the Aquiline snouts of the middle-classes in Tehran. If rumour is to be believed, a bandage pulled across the bridge of one's nose is something of a status symbol in urban Iran.

One Iranian artist, Shirin Aliabadi, plays with the idea that affordable cosmetic surgery 'democratises beauty'. If the luck of birth dictates that one's nose and chin meet where one's mouth is supposed to be, why shouldn't one correct it and join the ranks of beautiful people?

Here, I'm ambivalent. I know that beauty is bound up with race, gender and power, but it appears so transcendent and desirable that almost nothing could convince me to stop wearing lipstick and ostentatious outfits. But I cannot forget that women keep paying and paying to belong in the world.

I know that women as the primary consumers of the beauty industry are still conditioned to identify with their bodies above all else, and that the small number of women lucky enough to escape or transcend this do not set the standard. 

Ellena SavageEllena Savage edited the Melbourne University student magazine, Farrago, in 2010. She writes essays and fiction. 

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, Dolly Parton, Pamela Anderson, beauty, cosmetic surgery



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Existing comments

Why do you sit in judgement on Pamela Anderson and call her "ridiculous"?
Have you never seen the lengths middle class Ialian women go to during summer to achieve a suntan that is truly brown rather than tan?
Maybe you should watch a few more TV programs - I can think of plenty of examples of "ordinary" people.
bill | 04 February 2011

I'm interested that you see 'whiteness' as a beauty standard. I take it you must be referring to 'Western-ness' or 'Caucasian appearance', because I find a tan is still considered a marker of attractiveness. Even with the skin cancer rate as it is, this hasn't altered - there's just been a move to spray tanning.
MBG | 04 February 2011

Why get so worked up about one's appearance in today's society. Beauty is only skin deep. I find it strange why so many women use cosmetics and procedures to make themselves feel self-confident. Worry more about the beauty of your Soul and turn away from this vainess. Life is short but your soul is immortal and it is the most important part of living as each of us faces our own Private Judgement at the end of our years. A beautiful Soul will enjoy the eternal joys of Heaven. A Soul, only concerned about this world and who forgets God, will endure the eternal pains and loss of God in Hell forever. Strive for the beautiful Soul throughout your lives. Don't become pre-occupied with what Society calls physical beauty. It vanishes quickly but a Soul can be kept most beautiful throughout life and be very pleasing to God which brings eternal beauty and happiness, joy and the Beatific Vision for eternity. An example of a beautiful Soul is St. Therese, "the little flower" with her powerful energy and sensitive spirit turned toward God and love, instead of keeping herself happy. At 15, she entered the Carmelite convent in Lisieux to give her whole life to God. She took the religious name Sister Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. Living a hidden, simple life of prayer, she was gifted with great intimacy with God. Through sickness and dark nights of doubt and fear, she remained faithful to God, rooted in His merciful love. After a long struggle with tuberculosis, she died on September 30, 1897, at the age of 24. Her last words were the story of her life: "My God, I love You!" The world came to know Therese through her autobiography, "Story of a Soul". She described her life as a "little way of spiritual childhood." She lived each day with an unshakable confidence in God's love. "What matters in life," she wrote, "is not great deeds, but great love." Therese lived and taught a spirituality of attending to everyone and everything well and with love. She believed that just as a child becomes enamored with what is before her, we should also have a childlike focus and totally attentive love. Therese's spirituality is of doing the ordinary, with extraordinary love. Therese saw the seasons as reflecting the seasons of God's love affair with us. She loved flowers and saw herself as the "little flower of Jesus," who gave glory to God by just being her beautiful little self among all the other flowers in God's garden. Because of this beautiful analogy, the title "little flower" remained with St. Therese.
Trent | 04 February 2011

You'll find the demographic of most asian country's see tan or brown skin as poor and indigenous. White or pale skin can create the look of glamorous, successful people. Let's face it. Musical talents of japan like Gackt and Miyavi could not have made it very far with the image frenzied Japanese consumers, with out the help of some dramatic face and skin altering surgeries.
Gabby | 04 February 2011

Interesting angle on feminism, Ellena, and a fine essay. You are speaking of the MAJORITY of 'non-white' women. Which is where a theme nestles. As for me, well, in Asia I'm considered 'a whitey', in Europe,
'a darky'. In Oceania: 'another bloody foreigner.' So I concentrated on the word. Mind, like you, I also like to wear lipstick, while many of my friends do not. Oh dear.
Joyce | 04 February 2011

& that's basically why i only watch SBS.

P.J. Madam = game over.
tim | 04 February 2011

I think you're just reading a bit too much into it... Maybe you should've just relaxed and enjoyed your foot beautification and the different culture instead of judging these strange new people with these ideas. Of course you don't understand in this case - you're white yourself!
Michael | 08 February 2011

This is a perceptive article which covers an important global issue. While in northern Thailand recently I was appalled to see rows of 'skin-whitening' lotions on shop shelves. Northern Thais are, on average, darker skinned than those in the south and there is accompanying prejudice and attempts to alter appearance. This attitude may possibly have predated the European presence, but it is certainly fed by it nowadays.
It is appalling to see that the old prejudices still affect people's sense of themselves. So much angst, money and effort are wasted on trying to look like someone else.

The best present for a newborn female? A rubbish bin for all the 'glamour' magazines.
Gabrielle Bridges | 11 February 2011


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