Race to the bottom
Jolene Tan // 17 February 2010
Much has been said about the racism in mainstream Western beauty standards. As Latoya Peterson puts it: the message for white women is “try harder”, but the message for women of colour is “never”. The legacies of colonialism and the global reach of American mass media make these issues relevant even in places where white people are, numerically, a tiny minority. In my hometown of Singapore – and I’m sure it’s true elsewhere – white-dominated Hollywood and MTV are major cultural points of reference. Consumer advertising, plastered everywhere, regularly features models who are white or appear to be of mixed white and Chinese descent. It’s otherwise dominated by (often translucently pale) Chinese people, with individuals of other ethnic heritage rarely getting a look in, although they form nearly a quarter of the population.
If the sole consequence was that some models and actors were marginalised in their respective markets, that would be unfortunate enough, but it goes deeper. F Word readers must be all too familiar with how, in industrialised societies saturated by the mass media, the shifting, arbitrary demands of “beauty” are presented to women and girls as socially obligatory. We’re repeatedly reminded, with every intrusive comment and every act of invisibilisation, that women and girls may only legitimately participate in public spaces if we adopt whatever configuration of body parts and facial features it is that goes into “beauty’s” identikit checklist du jour. And if we can’t, we should have the decency to be apologetic about our inferiority.
The fundamental problem is this knotty link between, on the one hand, the diktat mandating allegiance to some ideal of generic attractiveness (so distant from the organic processes of attraction between individual people); and, on the other hand, the social status, and so all too often self-worth, of women and girls. What can this mean for societies where the exemplars of “beauty” are drawn from ethnic groups that are demographically insignificant in that society? “Beauty”, and thus worth, are shifted even more impossibly out of reach. Women and girls are required to aspire to realms of ever greater unreality, which must surely inspire new heights (or depths) of inadequacy and disconnect.
Against this backdrop, a few disturbing facts. The most popular form of cosmetic surgery in Asia is blepharoplasty, performed to increase the size of the eye and create additional folds in the eyelid – both changes which make East Asian people look more like white people. For those who are squeamish about invasive procedures or who can’t afford to shell out thousands of pounds there is double eyelid tape to the rescue. Also widespread is rhinoplasty to elevate the bridge and sharpen the tip of the nose, again resulting in a closer approximation of whiteness. (Consider this webpage from a Singaporean provider of plastic surgery which refers specifically to those changes and in fact features a picture of a white woman.) Some people wear fake freckles. And a Korean surgeon describes the procedures required to enable the legs of his customers to meet an imported ideal:
Just as Asian faces require unique procedures, their bodies demand innovative operations to achieve the leggy, skinny, busty Western ideal that has become increasingly universal. Dr. Suh In Seock, a surgeon in Seoul, has struggled to find the best way to fix an affliction the Koreans call muu-dari and the Japanese call daikon-ashi: radish-shaped calves. Liposuction, so effective on the legs of plump Westerners, doesn’t work on Asians since muscle, not fat, accounts for the bulk. Suh says earlier attempts to carve the muscle were painful and made walking difficult. “Finally, I discovered that by severing a nerve behind the knee, the muscle would atrophy,” says Suh, “thereby reducing its size up to 40%.” Suh has performed over 600 of the operations since 1996. He disappears for a minute and returns with a bottle of fluid containing what looks like chopped up bits of ramen noodles. He has preserved his patients’ excised nerves in alcohol. “And that’s just since November,” he says proudly.
Then there’s the desire for lighter skin, the Indian variation on which is probably one of the more well-known, but by no means unique. In many places this obsession has a complicated relationship with colonialism and class. Some Chinese people, for example, explain their fetishisation of fair skin in terms of class – because a darker complexion would indicate exposure to the sun through manual work – but given the wider idealisation of whiteness as beauty, it’s hard to imagine a current of race doesn’t also run through this now if not necessarily always in the past.
I know that body alteration is famously fraught territory for feminists, and want to make it clear that this is not a villification of those who undergo these procedures. Society rewards and encourages conformity to beauty standards, but it’s also eager to punish conformity with sneering scorn when women and girls take cultural messages about the importance of “beauty” at face value. It’s the age-old tale: patriarchy shames women and girls into aspiring to femininity, and then shames women and girls for achieving it. Criticism of the “beauty” imperative must be careful to avoid falling into the classic misogynist routine of berating women and girls for choices about our own bodies. It must be, it is, possible to robustly reject the obligation to reshape ourselves according to some notional ideal, without demonising those whose appearances meet that ideal, whether by chance or by design.
That said, I find it impossible to consider the landscape of these cosmetic surgery and “beauty” practices without seeing a manifestation of the adoption of not only deeply misogynist but also heinously racist ideas about what sorts of bodies and faces are desirable. With all the attendant implications of this for the social status and self-worth of women and girls in particular.
Via Sepia Mutiny I leave you with this video from Canadian Kanwer Singh, aka Humble the Poet. The interviews with the children, at the end, are especially worth watching.