We need to stop chasing unrealistic beauty standards in Asia and start feeling beautiful
Maybe it's time we think about why we fret over what others have defined as "beautiful" and embrace who we are. CNA Lifestyle takes a look at the beauty rat race in Asia.
As a teen growing up in the 90s, I never missed a single telecast of the Miss Universe and Miss World pageants. My sister and I would make it a point to sit through the show and root for our favourites. While picking out all the minute physical flaws of the contestants.
Of course, we were young and we didn’t know anything about objectification – and we didn't have anyone point out to us that pageants projected super-unrealistic beauty standards of women. It was just a fun thing to do and, thankfully, we grew up realising that most women looked nothing like those impossibly tall and gorgeous ladies we used to admire. And that we didn’t have to try and look like them in order to be happy, successful or confident.
Certainly, we aspire to look the best we can, but what is best for you may not be the same for others. Society has a set idea of what is and isn’t attractive. And while we’ve probably read somewhere that this varies between time periods, and across different social and cultural communities, we often gloss over the fact that perceptions of “beauty” are often influenced and even reinforced by a majority group think.
It’s human nature to want to be liked and thought attractive, and it’s perfectly okay to enjoy a confidence boost when someone says you're beautiful. But are we just chasing ideals that are set by popular opinion? What is running that rat race doing to us? When – to paraphrase the tagline from SK-II's campaign starring Olympic athletes like American gymnast Simone Biles, Chinese swimmer Liu Xiang and Japanese table tennis player Kasumi Ishikawa – did beauty become a competition?
CNA Lifestyle takes a look at some of the most common unrealistic standards of beauty in Asia.
FAIREST OF THEM ALL
The colour of our skin often shapes a big part of our identity. Not only do people often use it as a sign post for one’s race or ethnicity, some have used it to read into the lives people supposedly lead.
Even today, skin colour is seen as a measure of social class and status in places such as India and some Southeast Asian countries. Lighter skin is not just a symbol of beauty but also of perceived power and wealth in these cultures, where prejudice against those with darker skin remains. Fairness has also been a particularly sought-after quality in East Asia – among the Koreans, Japanese and Chinese.
Does Western colonialism and its residual impact in contemporary times have a part to play? On some level, definitely – especially in societies still coping with a colonial hangover, where to be “white” was to be powerful and privileged.
But this particular aesthetic obsession hasn’t stopped and continues as a trend in popular cultural. With porcelain-skinned celebrities dominating screens and fronting ads hawking all manner of things, it’s no wonder whitening skincare has become a key segment for the beauty industry in many Asian countries, reportedly bringing in billions of dollars in revenue annually.
A World Health Organisation study has found that almost 40 per cent of women polled in countries such as China, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea said they used whitening products regularly. This figure is 61 per cent in India, and 77 per cent in Nigeria.
But it doesn’t matter how advanced a beauty formula is – there’s only so much one can do to lighten skin tone. And if a product says it can do more, it could be a sign that it might contain dangerous ingredients.
Let it be said that "whiter skin" is not the same as having a more radiant complexion – which we can all agree is perfectly fine, right? And that is what the message to women should be: Bright, clear and healthy skin is beautiful, no matter the colour.
SOCIAL MEDIA AND FILTER CULTURE
Social media has pervaded many aspects of our lives, not least our perception of beauty. Most of all, it has an increasingly big influence on young women who are constantly on the heels of what’s trending – sometimes regardless of how realistic those popular beauty ideals are.
The Instagram Face – a look that’s characterised by full lips, super-strong brows, lush lashes, heavily contoured cheekbones and poreless skin – is an example of an artificial aesthetic that countless young women are pursuing, sometimes to the extent of getting plastic surgery. This despite the fact that they are well aware that filters have been used generously.
On the other end of the trend spectrum are the #iwokeuplikethis, #nomakeup and #nofilter movements that push for a natural or less-is-more approach to beauty. But it’s the same thing: How much of that is actually real? No one – not the majority of us, at least – wakes up looking bright-eyed and rosy-cheeked, or have naturally perfect-looking skin without some photo-editing. Nor should women feel any pressure to wake up looking camera-ready.
Being judged by how we look is already tough enough. How did it get to the point where we're now made to feel bad about ourselves even before we've had coffee?
Countless news reports and studies have already shown how social media can negatively impact self-esteem, especially among the youth. It promotes social comparison and builds feelings of envy, inferiority and insecurity. According to a study of almost 1,500 teens by the United Kingdom’s Royal Society for Public Health, Instagram was the worst social media network for mental health and well-being.
It may be quite impossible to go social media-free, but one thing we can all do is to apply a more critical eye on the content we see.
THE KINKY, HAIRY TRUTH
As women, we tend to hold a lot of emotional ties to our hair. It is undeniably one of the first things people notice about us and it can significantly affect our self-esteem, confidence and certainly our mood. It’s not just about simply having a bad hair day. Many women with naturally textured hair have grappled with the negative feelings from being “curl-shamed”.
Glam, shiny curls and glossy straight locks are constantly taking turns being the hair trend du jour, but what’s not nearly being celebrated enough is natural hair texture. Coarse, kinky hair never fails to draw a reaction from people – rarely positive – even if the media is already trying to make it more mainstream.
On the other hand, women who choose to straighten out their curls can also face criticism from another direction. The immediate assumption being that they are concealing their natural texture out of shame. Self-hating via hair straightener. The truth is, most of the time, it could simply be a matter of just making it more manageable.
Priyanka Chopra, for example, often flaunts a glossy cascade of Veronica Lake-type waves. That's almost certainly not how her hair naturally looks. But at the end of the day, it’s her hair and she can do what she wants with it – who are we to judge?
The internal conflict women have with natural hair texture can be complicated but it doesn’t have to be. Don’t get hung up about the opinions of others and do what feels and works best for you instead.
GET YOUR DOLL FACE ON – OR NOT
There’s a strange phenomenon that’s been going on in the K-pop and K-drama scene, and it’s got everything to do with excessive homogeneity.
Most of the women look almost identical and it goes beyond their outfits, hair and makeup – if you study their faces, you’ll realise their features are highly similar.
It’s a doll-like “look” that is highly desired by the South Koreans and the Chinese, who aren’t just hit by the Hallyu wave but also influenced by mainland stars with similarly delicate features, such as Fan Bingbing.
To achieve this look, a very specific set of features is required: Very pale skin, big eyes with double eyelids, a tiny nose with a high nose bridge, and rosebud lips, all set on a small face that tapers off into a defined, subtly pointed chin. Not many of these can be achieved with just makeup, which explains the soaring popularity of cosmetic surgery in these countries.
According to a study from Bank of America Merrill Lynch, South Korea is the plastic surgery capital of the world with the highest per capita rate of cosmetic surgery. Gallup Korea found about one in three South Korean women between the ages of 19 and 29 said they have had work done.
That's a troubling sign, surely, that needs to be addressed.
THE WEIGHT OF EXPECTATIONS
“We make assumptions about people based on their size. We decide who they are, we decide what they’re worth,” Billie Eilish said at a concert in Miami earlier this month. “Though you’ve never seen my body, you still judge it and judge me for it.”
The 18-year-old pop sensation, who’s known for her baggy clothes, then shocked everyone by stripping down to her bra onstage. It was a statement against body-shaming.
Eilish is not skinny, nor is she anywhere near obese. She has a regular figure that would be common in the real world, which makes her an anomaly in the music industry where young, white female stars are still expected to look a certain way – thin, tall and leggy.
Being judged by our bodies is very real thing for women everywhere, not just celebrities. And it doesn’t solely affect those who are overweight – one can be criticised for myriad other reasons: Being too thin, too tall, too short, too unshapely, too full-figured, having small breasts or, conversely, having large breasts… you get the drift.
It gets to a point where we realise that you can't please everyone. But who says you have to? Your body is yours and your responsibility is to keep it healthy. Everything else, when you put things into perspective, is really secondary. Body positivity is, first and foremost, about what you feel and think about your body.
The only thing we all need to shed is the weight of judgement. In a way, we all deserve to be beauty queens.
In partnership with SK-II.