We are often told that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Beauty is subjective. Beauty is about self-love. These catechisms are hurled at us with a dual sense of adoration and annoyance by our loved ones, and rightly so. These lofty and abstract appraisals all bear truth. Yet, with the beauty industry constantly bombarding us with health and beauty products and the ‘bare-faced equating bravery’ Instagram trend, it is hard to not let the discourse affect us.
We are exposed to a staggering 2000 advertisements a day! We are sold values, images, love, popularity and normalcy (Centre for Media Literacy, 2017). In effect, the media industry sells us an identity, a clearly defined (and expensive) blueprint of the person we can become.
The issue with the rigid definitions of beauty extend beyond mere social relations and the media, infiltrating into the political arena, and even tying up with one’s economic standing. A beauty standard is a construct, very much engineered and for the capitalistic and commercial gains of multinational conglomerates. And thus to deconstruct such a poisonous standard we need to understand what this existing construct means to different people.
Beauty and I:
Both from the cultural attitudes towards darker-skinned women in Bangladesh to the perception of beauty in the Western media (still predominately Caucasian females) I have grown up believing that beauty corresponds to light skin. While entering my adult years has taught me to challenge this beauty standard, it is clear that many others are still influenced. I used to request ‘Fair and Lovely’ lightening cream from Bangladesh, lathering it onto my face and convincing myself the vastly pale complexion looked pretty. Even now, when I so much as get a little tanned I immediately Google ways to mitigate a tan, how long it lasts and go about ordering reasonably priced lightening soap from Amazon. I’ve seen this disturbing narrative impact my cousins in Bangladesh too, from the darker-skinned girls fearing a chocolate biscuit would alter their face tone to the superiority complex ingrained into my lighter-skinned cousins.
Alarmingly, across South East Asia the link between fair skin and the standard of beauty permeates into cultural attitudes and norms. For instance, in India 233 tonnes of skin-whitening and skin-bleaching products are consumed (Huffington Post, 2015). The glorification of fair skin, within a binary where dark skin equates to attractiveness, is largely due to fair skin being aligned to wealth and social status. While societal views regarding beauty are diversifying, with the rise of people of colour in the advertising and media industry alike, attitudes regarding beauty still need lightening up (pun intended).
It’s funny because I feel like my beauty standard whether in Malaysia or Australia is influenced by the West. Say the idea of masculinity, or due to being biologically male, it affects me. They call us ‘la la’ which translates to fake Westerner. I feel like I still buy into another ideal which is desiring fair skin, influenced by the Korean beauty industry. I grew up where people would look at my legs and say that I’m not a ‘man’ or that I’m not ‘manly’ enough. When I went to Malaysia I was not dark enough. I felt ostracised and felt like rebelling but through this I bought into another form of beauty standard. It is a perpetual cycle. I want to be my beautiful.
My standard of beauty in the physical sense is anyone’s own form of beauty- if that makes sense. Our identity and our perception of ourselves. How we want to look and our attempts to be beautiful. As for mentally, people who are sensitive and compassionate. When I was younger I appreciated those who strove for success, but now I feel like that might lose out to compassion.
Based on my understanding of what has commonly been considered to be beautiful amongst the youth in China, especially for females, I would say that having pale skin, being skinny (around or less than 21% body fat according to my roommate Sookie), wearing decent make-up and dressing up in the latest trendy fashion can be perceived as a common criteria for beauty in China. But I think that is only one approach to understanding what beauty is in China, because middle-aged people would have a different response to myself and China’s youth. Also for me, I think being beautiful is more than one’s physical appearance and I care more about one’s personality. Correspondingly, being unique and interesting in one’s own way is my answer for what constitutes beauty.
I can feel the pressure of the Chinese beauty industry both from media presentations and from my Chinese friends. And at the same time I am personally trying to minimise the effects. I would not say that I want to go against the conventional standard of beauty in China, but certainly I wish I could do something to acknowledge and inform people that there are more than one single definition of what beauty is. Beauty is about being a true you.
I don’t think that European standards of beauty have personally affected who or what I find attractive. I was never really taken in by the media- who would set beauty standards in magazines headlining hottest man/woman of the year etc. But I don’t think I ever felt drawn into it and let that determine who I would find attractive, maybe unlike some of my friends that have celebrity crushes. I’ve also never felt the pressure to wear makeup or change my style by the media.
To echo the words of an unknown but wise public person, Rabindranath Tagore rightly argues ‘beauty is truth’s smile when she beholds her own face in a perfect mirror’.
Let’s set our own standards of beauty.
Thanks for reading!