by Lindsay Wong
Thin. Fair. Full lips. Defined cheekbones. Big, round, doe-like eyes. These are just some of the characteristics of what makes up East and Southeast Asia’s strict beauty standards. Because of how globalized the world has become, the idea of beauty is collective rather than individual. Beauty is very much based on what society deems beautiful and is influenced by factors like the media, advertisements, beauty pageants,and social media. Even though Asian beauty standards have evolved over the years, they remain restrictive. Beauty standards in Asia are unrealistic and rigid, leading to negative consequences in society.
image source: bangkokpost.com
The history of Asian beauty standards can be traced back to hundreds of years ago and are largely linked to colonialism. During the Age of Exploration (from the 15th century to the 18th century), Europeans travelled around the world with the aim of expanding their power and conquering foreign territories to obtain land and resources. These foreign territories were colonized and exploited. Europeans promoted the image of Asians as primitive and the uncivilized “Other”, while they were seen as the elite. As a result, Asian beauty was aligned to European beauty ideals, including being thin and tall with fair skin. Western expatriate communities living in Asia were wealthy and had an elitism-centered culture, so Asians strove to appear like them and improve their social status. Hence, colorism – prejudice against individuals with a dark skin tone – became more prominent in society.
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Colorism has also historically been linked to social status as skin color was one way to indicate one’s social standing. Lighter skin has been favored for centuries. Having darker skin denotes lower social status because people from that class generally had to work long hours in the sun in order to make a living. On the other hand, people with lighter skin were likely to be wealthy since they did not have to work and spent most of their time indoors. This concept was particularly true in South and Southeast Asia. Even today, it continues to resonate with people from a young age and becomes internalized. When this concept is ingrained into someone’s mind from a young age, it is hard to let go of, especially when it is an age-old concept.
In East Asia, lookism is prevalent in society, with South Korea as a prime example. Lookism refers to prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of physical appearance – it is similar to colorism but is not just limited to skin color. People are pressured to conform to society’s beauty standards so that they do not get judged or ostracized. They could even be at a disadvantage when it comes to employment opportunities. Lookism in Korea has its own history that dates back to the 1970s and 80s, when the country industrialized and became a large economy. According to Haesoon Jung, the director of fashion website Styleintelligence, South Korea “became obsessed with self-improvement and uniformity.” They felt that conforming to societal ideals would help them advance as a nation. Until now, many white-collar firms and government agencies ask for photographs in job applications. This is also the case in China. Maintaining an attractive appearance is important to some countries because their employees represent the company.
The prevalence of lookism has paved the way for a booming skincare and cosmetics industry, as well as a plastic surgery industry. South Korea is famous for its skincare and cosmetics products – K-beauty – that help people achieve the ideal look. For example, certain products erase blemishes and improve their skin complexion. K-beauty has become a global sensation and millions of tourists flock to South Korea every year, with many visiting Myeongdong, a street full of cosmetic shops. Lots of people have adopted K-beauty-inspired skincare routines, many of which have up to 10 steps and involve face masks and layers of different products. Additionally, plastic surgery has become the norm and people undergo the process from a young age. As a graduation present, many parents pay for plastic surgery for their teenage child. There are neighborhoods in South Korea dedicated entirely to plastic surgery clinics. Because of lookism, people have opted for plastic surgery to access better opportunities in life.
In addition to K-beauty and plastic surgery, skin whitening has also emerged as a booming industry in response to Asia’s strict beauty standards. According to the Association for Consumer Research, the media, skincare, cosmetics and fashion industries have “played an important role in reinforcing the yearning for white skin.” Many models and celebrities in the limelight have fair skin, thereby inferring that one must have fair skin to be deemed beautiful. There is a huge skin whitening industry and lots of people will go to great lengths to have fair skin, including harmful methods. A World Health Organization survey concluded that 40% of women in China, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea use skin whitening products regularly. Some of these products are proven to contain toxic chemicals and have harmful effects, but people still take the risk and use them. This industry exacerbates Asian beauty standards by promoting their products to help consumers look more “beautiful” and compel people to purchase it, thereby making a profit. By 2027, the industry is estimated to be valued at $8.9 billion USD. The fact that the skin whitening industry is thriving demonstrates that people will go through extreme measures because of colorism and lookism.
Besides promoting certain industries, strict Asian beauty standards have far-reaching negative consequences and social implications. Social media plays a vital role as people opt for photo-editing to appear more “beautiful” and gain likes and comments on each post. Having more likes on posts boosts one’s self-esteem because it means that people are paying attention to what they post. It influences people by showing us what is currently trending. The use of filters also allows people to strive for a more “beautiful” look. This promotes a toxic culture in which people do not embrace their own individual uniqueness or beauty. It also promotes social comparison and can make someone feel more insecure, which can negatively affect mental health. While social media certainly has its merits, we cannot ignore its flaws.
Adhering to a thin body image is another major negative consequence. Compared to the West, the body positivity movement has not taken off in Asia. The media does not promote body positivity and plus-size people are often ridiculed on Asian-based social media. Even when Asian celebrities put on a little bit of weight, netizens point it out and talk about them online, leading them to receive negative media attention. For example, in the media, plus-size Korean celebrities are rarely portrayed as attractive and are instead made fun of for their size. Therefore, people are pressured to maintain a thin body image. There are very few plus-size models in Asia and Asian modeling agencies tend to avoid people above average weight. In 2018, Marie Claire published a list of the most famous plus-size models in the world at that time, and there was only one Asian woman on the list (Nadia Aboulhosn, who is half Lebanese). However, moving away from mainstream media, Asian plus-size models do exist and are present on social media, such as Bishamber Das. Showcasing more plus-size models in Asian media would show young people that they do not have to be thin to be beautiful and would help dismantle the strict beauty standards currently being promoted.
image source: papermag.com
Historical beauty standards in Asia are still prevalent in today’s society and are exacerbated by the media and consumerist culture, giving rise to new industries that not only make profit but feed into toxic ideals. Such strict and rigid beauty standards can have adverse effects on mental health. Society would benefit from more open-mindedness about beauty and embracing beauty in all its shades, forms and sizes. Fortunately, nowadays, people are making a statement about beauty standards and plus-sized models and people with darker skin are being praised more often. With people being more vocal, we could eventually dismantle these harmful standards of beauty.