Are Countries in the East Losing Tradition to a Western Beauty Ideal?

A street market in Ewha Women’s University area in Seoul, South Korea. artzenter / Shutterstock.com

The Miss Korea beauty pageant is in its 59th year. Every year hundreds of women compete to be crowned the most attractive, the most beautiful in the country. They set the standard and go on to represent South Korea in international pageants across the globe. But today, the women who compete in the contest look very different to how they did when the pageant was in its infancy.

In the 1960 Miss Korea show, the women looked stunning, each with drastically different facial features. Some were oval faced, some round, some with big eyes and others small. Compare that to the contestants of the 2013 round and one thing will strike you more than any other. They all look very similar. Even when all the contestants faces are superimposed into one composite photo, the faces seem to perfectly align with very little variety or eccentricity found in the contestants of the 1960 show.

Today the notion of beauty and what a beautiful woman ought to look like is a hotly contested one with few agreeing on what the archetypal beautiful woman is. From Vancouver to Rio, Freetown to Seoul, beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder and varies considerably from place to place, as it has always done.

But as globalization and wealth changes the fortune of nations across the world, it seems that with it, standards of beauty are also shifting, or in fact aligning. Thinkers, writers and academics are becoming increasingly concerned with the export of what it means to be beautiful in the West, to countries and women in Africa and the East.

The media plays a huge role in this: for decades women have turned to magazines, TV and movies to see what these industries decree to be beautiful. In India, for example, the booming Bollywood scene has set this standard for generations. Bollywood is a good litmus test for how the perception of beauty is changing in one of the world’s most populated countries.

Take the backup dancers. The extravagant, rhinestoned-filled sequences in Bollywood movies are a highlight for millions of fans worldwide. Up to the 1990s,  Bollywood cinema was full of backup dancers that were predominantly from India but in the last decade, things have changed, and a majority of movies coming out of India have backup dancers but they are predominantly European looking.

Granted that in the last 20 years, India has opened up to the world and with cheap airfare and a growing audience, comes the movement of people but critics argue this is coming at the cost of local dancers who are losing out over their European counterparts. This became such a problem that a populist anti-immigration party in India, the MNS, protested against foreign dancers getting roles over Indian dancers.

Dr. Kamala Ganesh, Senior Lecturer on Sociology at the University of Mumbai in India has noted a shift in Bollywood. She says that where as the dancers and styles are a “fusion of Indian and Western styles” that there is now a demand for “more slim bodies, flat abdominals” whereas in the past the shape was much more curvaceous. Ganesh goes on to say that “It is not simple unmediated Westernization, but yes, Western influences, copied, adapted, tweaked and sometimes subverted” are there.

Ganesh says that were once this was done by Directors and Producers for their films to stand out and be different, that now it’s everywhere.

It’s not just evidenced in India and South Korea: Western ideals of beauty standards are spreading to many other places in the wider world.

Zed Nelson, a London based photographer and film maker, spent over six years looking at what beauty means around the globe. Traveling to 18 countries and recording some extremely shocking things, Nelson says that the idea of beauty is becoming “homogenized” and the West is winning the tug of war.

“There’s this prescriptive look that I saw in many of the countries I went to,” he says. “Straight, long hair, wafer thin figure and tall” with sharp cheekbones and a straight bridged nose. These, explains Nelson, are common traits found in European women and it’s what most billboards, tv commercial and magazines paste on their covers. “ A lot of companies have locked into a culture of physical intervention.” Nelson’s work documents this in the plastic surgeries of Brazil, the millions of nose jobs done in Iran and use of skin lightening products in Uganda.

“I was born in Uganda” says Nelson “beauty pageants there used to be women that were curvaceous with lots of meat and exuberance and confidence. In 10 years, I’ve seen how women who are accepted have to be thin, pale and young in order to compete.”

“The women I met in Iran, too. They were often proud and open about their nose jobs.” Iranian women are said to prefer smaller, less protruding noses. Iran has the highest number of rhinoplasty in the world.

“it was a status symbol and people keep the bandage on for longer than they needed. It said ‘I’m cosmopolitan, I’m Western, I have money.”

Nelson says this is worrying. This dissemination of the Western Standards into African and Eastern cultures is slow but also “systematic” with “decades of imagery” changing women around the world.

And it’s big business that profits, says Nelson. In the places he visited and women he met, many of them have become “hyper-self aware.” People in India, in China and South Africa are told to be dissatisfied with themselves. The industry capitalizes on this human trait.”

The numbers back up what Nelson is seeing on the ground. The latest figures from the International Society of Aesthetic Surgery shows that year on year the popularity of cosmetic surgery increases. For 10 years the global cosmetics industry has been growing in new and old markets reaching a value of $379 billion in 2013. Wherever a woman might be living in the world, the desire to look better follows.

For the beauty industry, there’s an incentive to set a standard of beauty and sell it as far and wide as possible.

It’s in developing markets like those of the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India,China) where these companies see potential new customers to market to. In China for example the two most popular beauty brands are from France and the US,  L’Oreal and Estee Lauder.

In Brazil the big beauty brands are gearing up to capitalize on the growing disposable income of more wealthy people. British-Dutch owned Unilever and US-owned Procter and Gamble, who collectively sell Clairol hair dye, Olay face cream, Dove and Pond’s skin care, are reported to have invested millions on getting their products to consumers.

Nelson points out that in all of the places he’s visited, the posters and advertisements featuring these products look homogenous. As though one face, one hair type and one look is being pushed as the archetype for the globe.

But it’s not just number and money that matter. For many it’s fear of an erosion of their own culture that is a bigger worry.

Ganesh lives in one of India’s cities of extremes, Mumbai. In her work, focusing on women in society, she’s seen first hand this trickle-through of global influences. But it’s not as simple as that.

“Where it is pure and simple aping” of a look or style, then “it is unhealthy,” she says. “Where it innovates, borrows from various sources, mixes them up in an original way, or plays with tradition (and this does happen), it is refreshing.”

Ganesh doesn’t think that all the  hundreds and millions of Indian women are being brainwashed into aspiring to this very narrow prescribed look. Those that are becoming less culturally ‘Indian’ are “a small section of elite urban youth. For example, if you are in a college in South Mumbai, you may be forgiven for thinking you are in a university in New York but Mumbai is not India.” Ganesh says that much of the non-Western world and the women in it are trying to forge something new and not simply follow what they’re told to do.

“In the rest of India, there is a new sense of style but mostly it’s adaptive, retaining some Indian elements.” Indian woman are picking and choosing between their culture and others. “For a wedding it’s traditional, for a party it is Indo-Western fusion or pure Western.”

On the other side of the world, at Oxford University, Dr. Maria Jaschok agrees. Jaschok heads the International Gender Studies Centre at Lady Margaret Hall and focuses on Chinese culture and society. Having just got back from Beijing, she travels often and has seen the changing tides of the body beautiful first hand. She quickly dismisses the idea that the Western world has colonized African and Eastern notions of a beautiful woman.

We have to “look more closely at what is happening in our fast-changing world, where global economies vie with regional developments, where America’s dominance is challenged by, among other nations, China. For example, she says “young women in the more affluent circles in urban China are as conscious of their membership of a rising nation as they are of Western-led fashion fads and beauty products.” One does not cancel out the other.

She asks; “Is it not interesting to discover that young Chinese women take as much inspiration for preferred looks and appearances from their past influences, historical femme fatales and rich popular cultures, as they do from Western sites of beauty production? Is it not interesting to find out about the emergence of a hugely successful international market for fashion magazines dedicated to a diverse, global readership of dedicated Muslim fashion-followers?”

It may be true that women are fusing their cultures with those that massive multinationals are attempting to push onto them, but it’s a balance. It’s a balance between aspiring to fit into a global, affluent look and maintaining a traditional one, between a need to fit in and embracing international ideals and standards of beauty. Perhaps rather than women falling foul of a battle of West and East, a more globalized world is an opportunity to mix and learn from everywhere.