Race to the bottom

// 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.

Comments From You

Valerie Kelley // Posted 17 February 2010 at 5:23 am


Sorry, but I can’t really muster up too much sympathy for people who can afford plastic surgery. But it’s interesting that men in the west like eastern women and all the eastern women are trying to be more white. That’s a clear case of the market driving the consumers, not the other way around.

Any good snake oil salesman will convince you that you need something when you clearly don’t.

This is one of those cases, as with all beauty products.

There is racism and classism in this but the underlying thing is to get people to buy buy buy something they don’t need.

Women have been cutting their bodies for all sorts of damn reasons for thousands of years.

The real question is, what do we hope to gain from it?

Remember, you can only con someone that wants something.

What is that ‘something’ that women hope to gain? That is the question that should be asked of all girls everywhere. At least they will have to sit a while and think about it and really question if whatever they are doing is worth it.

I don’t find that it is worth doing and I also find that women that grew up with loving parents are less likely to have plastic surgery. I think that says a lot about how girls are raised in general VS boys.


Jolene Tan // Posted 17 February 2010 at 9:15 am


Only the ones who can afford it will actually do it (well, if that’s even true – perhaps some people are going into debt to do it). But that doesn’t mean that whatever drives them psychologically is limited to people with that level of wealth. I’m interested in what this says about how widespread and deep-rooted dissatisfaction with oneself, partly as reflected in one’s non-white ethnicity, must be. As you said, it shows how many people want ‘something’ so badly, and when it expresses itself in this particular form, it seems to me important to explore the wider structural reasons for that, rather than just judge individuals.

I agree with you that with this as in many products, it’s supply that creates demand.

[Edited to complete the last sentence in the first paragraph, which I somehow left hanging earlier!]

gadgetgal // Posted 17 February 2010 at 9:59 am

I agree that there’s definitely an undercurrent of racism in beauty – the latest all-white Vanity Fair cover on up-and-coming Hollywood stars pretty much says it all – but something that has always perplexed me is the tanning industry and racism. I noticed it when I was growing up because I’m so pale and pasty and I absolutely cannot tan, I burn and then peel. I always wondered how some of the most racist people I knew (I lived in a hick town in the US, you did genuinely see Klan people walking to local rallies there!) were the ones who spent most of their time getting darker in the sun – not only did it seem to me to be some kind of contradiction, but then I got made fun of because I looked too pale. So maybe the supply side of beauty products really does play a big part too – there’s just no winning if you want to follow fashion!

This is why I stopped buying fashion magazines – I’ve saved loads of money not buying the products I’m supposed to have to make me look like someone else!!

Rita // Posted 17 February 2010 at 10:29 am

It is the game these plastic surgeons play that really annoys me. They sell a particular physical feature from one culture to another culture. It is really annoying. For so many years the media has sold the slim, small nose, big bust image to people of colour and marginalised them when it came to work that consisted of being in the public eye, and now they are targeting white people, and making them feel like they need the big behind, big lips, big bust and so on. Then they move on to asian women and so on. It annoys me that they target women overall, create racial divisions and hatred in the process. . We have ourselves to blame for falling for it.

George // Posted 17 February 2010 at 10:43 am

Hi Valerie,

I have a few concerns about your comment.

Firstly, the wants and needs of ‘Eastern’ women are not solely driven by the wants and needs of Western men. They aren’t just a market for Westerners, and there is more to beauty and fashion messages than just making yourself attractive to men.

Also, most women “if they were given the chance to think about it” would opt for true love, happiness and world peace, or thereabouts. However, these women are not all silly children that just need to ‘wake up’, and then they’ll immediately have a good body image and inner peace.

The real question is not one of consumerist notions of the body vs a natural happy life – but rather, why women so deeply internalise these racist, misogynist messages that they cannot envisage happiness without white skin, a perfect nose, double eyelids, skinny legs. And it runs across society, from using lemon juice to whiten your skin to getting an operation to sever your legs nerves (ARGH). It’s not just a silly dream of some rich girls, but something that shapes all of our notions of what women and girls should look like.

And yes, you’re right, women have been altering their appearances for centuries, but we need to look at specificities of each case. Is someone who pierces their lip the same as someone who gets a boob job the same as someone who gets a blepharoplasty? If not, why not? etc

Elmo // Posted 17 February 2010 at 11:04 am

Gadgetgirl- I have the same thing, I was constantly being teased for being very pale and “pasty”, people always assumed I was ill, and thought it was gross.

Everyone at school was always trying to get at tan, yet plently of them were still quite racist (though luckily there isnt a KKK in Scotland, that must have been horrible to witness).

When I discovered that over in East Asia people were trying to look whiter, I was baffled. No one seemed to be happy with their skin colour. White people want to be darker, darker people want to be whiter. The beauty industry has made sure that we all want to be something we arnt, so we keep buying their stuff. They cant sell tanning products to darker people, so instead they sell them skin lightning stuff. The result is that everyone wants everyone else’s skintone, and no one is happy except the companies producing this stuff.

But at the end of the day, it seems to me that everyone wants to be white. Just not too white. That would be gross.

Kristel // Posted 17 February 2010 at 11:19 am

In a previous job many of my colleagues were Korean. One guy whose wife had just had a baby came into the office one day looking really gloomy. When I asked him what was wrong he said ‘my baby has no eyelids’. I was horrified, thinking he meant the baby had some kind of birth defect. He went on to explain that she would have to have plastic surgery at some future date, to ‘give her eyelids’.

Still horrified.

carrie // Posted 17 February 2010 at 11:48 am

Thank you for posting that video. It was eye-opening to see that interview at the end. Being white it is hard to imagine what kind of effect that must have on you, growing up seeing the doll like you as the ‘bad’ doll, or the one you least want to play with…It shows how pervasive these messages or biases in media are, and how they entrench themselves in you so young.

‘But at the end of the day, it seems to me that everyone wants to be white. Just not too white. That would be gross.’ – Elmo

This rings true for me, and it illustrates how there’s no ‘just right’ in the beauty industry. You should always be lighter, or if white, more tanned. Buy another product!!!

It’s interesting how these things have changed meaning too. For white people in the UK I believe being pale and later being tanned were originally to show class or wealth. On the other hand I have a friend from China whose mother always tells her off for coming back from England too tanned, not pale enough.

But it seems tans in the West these days are more about “beauty” than showing class. I know people in Norway who use sunbeds regularly despite the obvious health risks, and I believe this is because many of the celebrities we are encouraged to emulate, to ‘make us beautiful’, are tanned…in the same way Eastern Asian people may get eyelid surgery to emulate them. In short (and no doubt stating the obvious to readers of this blog!): we need more diverse images in media.

Jess McCabe // Posted 17 February 2010 at 12:36 pm

Great post! I just wanted to add that this line really gets at the no-win situation that women are in:

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.

Lara // Posted 17 February 2010 at 1:17 pm

I don’t understand why if you have a 300 page fashion magazine there isn’t room to celebrate all different hair types, skin colours and body shapes? I would love to see a fashion shoot with a range of body shapes and within the healthy BMI range. I hate it when a magazine sticks Beth Ditto on the front just to be ‘controversial’ and then has all size 0 anorexics inside. If one magazine did this *surely* others would follow suit?

Elmo // Posted 17 February 2010 at 1:48 pm

Because, Lara, if you had a magazine full of women who were happy to be themselves, you can’t sell them anything. Sad but true :(

Elmo // Posted 17 February 2010 at 1:55 pm


coldharbour // Posted 17 February 2010 at 2:49 pm

“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.”

I know from my friends that have resided in India there is still a huge amount of societal prejudice regarding caste. From what I understand in it is not universally interchangeable with skin tone but the higher castes tend to be descended from lighter skinned North Indian/Indo-European decent. I don’t know if this has transfered to the Indian community in Singapore, I guess Jolene could fill me in.

tiffany // Posted 17 February 2010 at 3:35 pm

I’m always surprised how multi- racial our culture is… look at the TV, it’s white white white, token black people.

I do think it’s depressing that we’re getting a universal idea of beauty for women, that seems to be white. As if our hellish women hating culture couldn’t just stop with the west.

Ro // Posted 17 February 2010 at 5:27 pm

You know I really feel that this thing is getting worse. I’ve experienced it first hand being of Indian ethnicity and growing up in the UK. I may as well have been invisible when I was younger.

I didn’t really have the ‘Indian community’ to fall back on either as an alternative to Western beauty standards but quite frankly in many respects I’m glad. As others have pointed out above there’s an obsession with skin tone and being of the darker persuasion (south Indian background rather than north) I would have been considered pretty far removed from ideals there too.

The comments are insane. A Asian friend who went to India to do some shopping for her wedding got told by her mother that she shouldn’t have gone because her complexion was now ‘black’ and she looked horrid!

I was rather depressed to find that many other Asian countries are the same. A Korean friend at Uni revealed to me that there is a problem with skin whitening creams there, the blepharoplasty, the leg surgery (even leg lengthening!!). It’s just nuts.

have you ever seen any of the skin whitening adverts from India that are made by major Bollywood Stars and the all the other general ones? Typically – girl applies for a job but doesn’t get it because she’s too dark skinned. She uses the skin cream for a week and then her complexion changes and lo and behold she’s suddenly employable! Or boy can’t get girl interested in him until he’s used the skin cream for a few weeks and lightened his skin tone. I mean seriously?!! What kind of message are they sending? Why are they allowed to have these adverts?

Then if you look at any Indian fashion magazine ALL the models will be really, really fair skinned. Many of them aren’t even Indian (often Russian models). It’s just crazy – the majority of Indians don’t look anything like what is represented in the media there – why can’t they show the whole range of skin tones? Urgh.

My relatives think I’m crazy when I visit them over there and start screaming at the adverts on television but then they’ve grown up with it and for the most part buy into all this crap.

Sadly even I fall victim to it with the whole hair straightening thing. I really think this a big area of contention particularly for non-white females – it makes us look more ‘white’ and ever so slightly closer to that ‘ideal’. I remember after I’d been using them for a few months – I stopped for a couple of days and my mother had a go at me saying that I looked so much nicer with straightened hair. I was so angry that in protest I stopped using them for about a year… yes I started using them again eventually.

But it’s depressing as someone who is aware of all these issues, I still feel the need to conform. Why do women’s bodies have to be manipulated so much?

Sorry for the rant but this is a major bugbear for me especially now that I am older and see the effect it has on the younger generation…

Elmo // Posted 17 February 2010 at 7:26 pm

Ro- is it just me or does Frieda Pinto always look really light in magazines, etc? She was in a beauty product advert the other day and i totally failed to recognize her.

The indian skin lightning commercials sound insane!

Davina // Posted 17 February 2010 at 8:45 pm

Ro, I feel you.

I’m of Bangladeshi/Portugese descent and for so long I lived with the idea that people didn’t really see me. It’s hard to articulate but believe me, I know how you feel. I’m not that dark but I am a hell of a lot darker than other people, most members of my family (needless to say that the female ones all straighten their hair too)…

I also didn’t have a ‘brown’ community of friends either (I was part of the ‘freaks and geeks’ gang at school, and the only brown kid), but I became sort-of friends with some at uni, and again, I don’t think they thought much of me – that had to do with class as well as tone of skin colour too.

One of my closest friends is Chinese and I’ve seen these attitudes – that white is best – affect her too. She hates the sun. Actually won’t go outside if it’s sunny.

I was very angry with Sharukh Khan when he did those adverts for Fair and Lovely as well. Shame on him!

A couple of months ago I was out with some women and we ended up at a Radio 1 Extra night so there was a lot of Asian music, and they got quite disgruntled and started saying stuff about how they were the only white, blonde women in the club (like I ever complain, or care, about being the only brown woman in the club, or at the gig!)… they weren’t being appreciated… they were going to vote BNP. Yeah. And when I objected to them they said something along the lines of how I couldn’t take a joke.

I really do think the only person who has ever loved me for being who I am is my mum, and that’s because she knows what it’s like to be the ‘ugly’ clever one. Her dad used to tell her he wished she’d been born a boy (she was the oldest daughter). Whenever visitors came round he also used to show off his youngest daughter (my mum’s very-white-looking sister) and basically tell my mum to hide. Even my dad the other day said something about ‘all men like women with light skin’. I wasn’t there but if I had been, I would have yelled at him…

Sociological Images and Racialicious have loads more info on this – beware though, it will make you angry!

Hannah // Posted 18 February 2010 at 1:49 pm

A really good post and some fascinating comments too. It’s interesting to read people’s experiences with this; Ro, those Indian ads sound insane. I live with a girl from Hong Kong so some of the article really chimed with some of the things she does that I feel quite awkward about. In the past she has talked about how most Chinese people have no eyelids but ‘luckily’ she’s not one of them, although she obsessively curls her eyelashes to make her eyes look more, well, white. One day I saw that she had brown marks around her eyes but then realised that she had drawn on some freckles…I was surprised because I had never heard of this before. When I was in Japan last summer I was constantly getting complimented on my very pale skin and that made me feel really uncomfortable. I find this obsession with whiteness deeply disturbing.

Rita // Posted 18 February 2010 at 3:36 pm

Hannah, the obsession for whiteness should not be surprising. This is the result of the white supremacy quest that happened in the past. All these are just effects. Unfortunately for non white people and countries, the media does not help. The thing is the biggest percentage of the promoted race in movies, adverts, modelling, are white people. So you can imagine what influence and impact that has on people. If only the fashion industry, media would promote all races and show their appreciation of difference, this would not be a problem. But this will not change, and also the fact that some surgeons need to make alot of money is not helping the cause. I think the biggest problem is a lack of appreciation of other races instead we have racial competition promoted. Madness

Cazz Blase // Posted 18 February 2010 at 9:24 pm

Re Carrie’s comment: I believe the reason that, historically, paleness was once a virtue in England (pre-unification, that’s how long it goes back…) was because in feudal times peasants were tanned because they worked the fields. If you were pale it meant you were of the leisured classes and didn’t have to work the fields and get all horribly tanned… this is why in Elizabethan times arsenic was used to whiten the skin, peoples hair fell out, and their skin was horrendous as they slowly poisoned themselves to death… farm girls (later) aspiring to this style, who used flour instead of arsenic, thus had much better complexions. The advent of tanned as desirable reflects the shift towards popular holidays in far off hot climes, so, again, it’s essentially linked to wealth and status… I suspect someone will pull me up on my historical vageries with this, and quite rightly so, but I thought I’d give the general gist as I understand it…

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