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The westernisation of Asian beauty

  • 04 February 2011

While 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